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I saw him go into my heart and hide himself there

The possibility of preparing oneself to experience discernment as the centre of one’s spiritual life has not always been a prospect accessible to women. Proof of this is the complex and anguishing sequence of events in the life of Mary Ward, born in Yorkshire in 1585, in a period when Catholics were persecuted. These were thus difficult times for a young woman who since her adolescence had always felt a desire to defend, testify and spread the Catholic faith and who intended to do so in the ways dictated to her by the Spirit, shunning the idea that women were weak and flighty creatures to be destined for either marriage or convent life. Tenacious yet docile, independent yet obedient to the point of spiritual martyrdom, Mary courageously continued to listen to a call which was only revealed to her bit by bit amidst uncertainties, agonizing second thoughts and powerful, strong signs.

“Take the same as the Society [of Jesus]” she had heard echoing in her mind in 1611, after a long period of meditation seeking God’s will. Thus she conceived of founding a congregation modelled on the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, directly dependent on the Pope, exempt from the obligation of enclosure, dedicated to the apostolate in mission lands and in particular to the education of girls. So it was that in various European cities institutes sprang up which she wanted to be governed by a superior general. But her programme and her repeated attempts to obtain the Holy See’s approval failed; consequently in 1631 Pope Urban viii decided on the suppression of her congregation. Accused of heresy and imprisoned for several months in the Poor Clare’s Monastery in Munich, Mary refused to sign the declaration of guilt drafted by the inquisitors. When she was permitted to return to England, she continued to work with a few companions, first in London and then in the village of Heworth, where she died in 1645.

Her educational mission for women and her proposal of a female apostolate exempt from enclosure were the fruit of a spirituality hinged on discernment. All her writings, as also her prayers, testify that her practice of discernment increased and matured over time, becoming a true and proper spiritual pilgrimage in search of what God wanted of her and for her, and on this journey prayer and meditation in accordance with the manner of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola were decisive. Mary’s prayer, initially “paralyzed by the sense of duty and full of scruples”, turned conversational to the point of becoming extraordinarily free and trusting in the effective truth of God who was working within her. “I pray all those who read this story”, she wrote at the beginning of her autobiography, “not to judge me for my weakness and frequent falls from grace, to recognize instead God’s truth which is working within me, and to thank him for his goodness”. Nor did she fear to declare: “God was very close to me and within me [...] I saw him immediately and very clearly go into my heart and little by little hide himself in it”.

details from the “Painted Life of Mary Ward”

From the precious notes taken during spiritual retreats, under the guidance of the Jesuits Roger Lee and John Gerard, emerge the extraordinary freshness, authenticity and generosity of spirit with which Ward lived the reality of the Incarnation, inviting her companions too to find God in small as well as in great things. These pages evoke the need of every human soul to free itself from what binds it excessively to earthly things, including the structures of power and dominion, in order subsequently to see and love those very things with Ignatian “indifference”; that is, with the inner freedom which refers all things to God” and by virtue of which “we may be who we seem to be and seem what we are”. Love for this inner freedom, a constant subject of her prayers, helped her first to grasp and later to tell, in a letter to Roger Lee, of the revelation that she had had of the state which she defined “the just soul”, a state of integrated nature, the beginning and ultimate end of every human creature. This was a holiness of ordinary life which Mary Ward invoked for her own institute and for all, and which she summed up wonderfully in one of her prayers:

O Parent of Parents and Friend of all friends,

without entreaty

you took me into your care

and by degrees led me

from all else that

at length I might see and settle my love in you.

[…]

O happy begun freedom,

the beginning of all my good.…

Discerning means not only being attentive to the graces that are received in everyday life and interpreting them, but above all being able to distinguish the movements that come from the good spirit from those whose origin is the contrary. Mary, who was familiar with the Ignatian rules of the discernment of spirits and with the meditation of the “Two Standards”, knew this well. “What disturbs me inwardly and makes me troubled does not come from God, for the spirit of God always brings with it freedom and great peace”. When in 1611 she heard the words “Take the same as the Society”, she understood their divine origin, for these words, she wrote, gave her “so great a measure of light on that particular Institute, comfort and strength, and changed so my whole soul that it was impossible for me to doubt but that they came from him, whose words are works”.

details from the “Painted Life of Mary Ward”

When under the guidance of her spiritual directors too she received confirmation of the goodness of her moments of interior illumination, she had no fear in abandoning herself, trusting in the will of God, ready even for what was unknown to her, ready even in conformity with Jesus to embrace the cross of evil and the limitations of the world. “O God, my heart is ready! Put me where you want me to be…”. And also: “Neither life nor death my God, but your holy will be ever done in me. What pleases you best, that do; only this, let me no more offend you, nor leave undone what you would have me do”.

Her defence of the role of women was nothing if not a corollary of her profound spirituality hinged on the practice of discernment in the name of a veritas Dominus lived, the truth of God which is not determined by concepts of differences in gender or category imposed by society or by tradition. When Thomas Sackville said of her and her companions that all would be well “until the enthusiasm fades, and fade it will, because, on balance, these are only women”, Mary, turning to her companions said: “What do you think of these words, ‘these are only women?’. Wherein are we so inferior to other creatures that they should term us but women […] as if we were in all things inferior to some other creature which I suppose to be man […]. There is no such difference between men and women that women may not do great things. I hope in God it will be seen that women in time will do much”. On another occasion she heard a priest say that he wouldn’t have liked to be a woman for anything in the world, since a woman was incapable of contemplating God. “I didn’t answer him”, Mary recounts, “I only smiled even though I could have answered because I had had exactly the contrary experience. I could have had compassion for his lack of judgement but no, he had judgement, what he lacked was experience” .

Today Mary Ward invites us to discernment so that, like her, we may practise it for our salvation, thereafter putting it at the service of souls. John Wilson, in his own time, had realized this. It is far from well known that he dedicated his book on Vincenzo Bruno’s meditations (1614) to Mary Ward and her companions who, he wrote, “were working for the spiritual good of others” and above all for the poor, and – I would add – for whatever kind of poverty may have been involved: intellectual poverty, poverty of spirit or poverty of heart.

details from the “Painted Life of Mary Ward”

It was only in 1703 that Mary Ward’s followers were recognized as a congregation. For the definitive approval of their Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy See they had to wait until 1877, a concession made on condition that Mary Ward’s name did not appear. However, after a few decades the atmosphere changed. In 1909 Ward was officially recognized as the Institute’s foundress and in 1921 Cardinal Bourne had words of admiration for this “pioneer” of female instruction, approving her “supernatural farsightedness” and “heroic perseverance”. At the World Congress of the Lay Apostolate in 1951 Pius xii described Mary Ward as an “incomparable woman”, and in 1985 Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul ii both praised her obedience. The times were ripe. In 2003 the Congregation adopted the Ignatian Constitutions and, with the exception of the Loreto branch, took the name Congregatio Iesus. Four hundred years after she heard them, the words “take the same as the Society” had acquired concrete form. In 2009 the title “Venerable” for the practice of the heroic virtues which she had exercised in her life was at last attributed to Mary Ward. 

Francesca Bugliani Knox

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