A World Away in Time and Place?

For many people, sport is a predominantly male activity. Men play football, cricket, swim, shoot, cycle, etc, etc, and women watch. This past week has seen a reversal of that common perception, especially in Britain, where the performance of female members of Team GB has been amazing. It seems a world away in time and place from the Curé of Ars, St John Vianney, but is it?

Saints reflect the culture of their times. There are many aspects of St John Vianney’s life which place him firmly in the rural France of the years after the Revolution. He had grown up attending Mass illegally so that priests were, in some sense, heroes to him. His parents were reluctant to let him leave the family farm, but eventually he did so. As a student he struggled with Latin and other subjects and only just managed to scrape a pass to enable him to proceed to ordination. Most of his life was spent in one small village. He could easily have been like many another parish priest of his time: dutiful, a bit unimaginative perhaps, not someone who would attract notice.

St John Vianny, of course, did attract notice — not all at once, and not necessarily for the right reasons, but by the end of his life 20,000 people a year were making their way to his confessional. He saw very clearly that ignorance of the teaching of the Church had led to what we would now call a break-down of society. In his day, drinking and dancing were the prevalent evils and he preached fiercely against them. In his ministry of the confessional he addressed not just personal sin but the spiritual malaise of his time. He also had a particular care for the needs of poor women. The orphanage he founded for destitute girls did not last beyond 1847, but it signified awareness of a need that few had the courage or generosity to try to meet.

Today, we could argue that there is an even greater ignorance of the teachings of the Church, an even greater lack of respect for Christian values, which is having a detrimental effect on society. The Church has a part to play in remedying this, but sometimes it seems as though it is approaching the problems of the present with the solutions of the past. For instance, in the past much of the Church’s attention has been directed towards men, with a rather masculine spirituality being taken as normative (monks and nuns, for example, usually have very different understandings of chastity and how it works out in our lives). I am convinced that we need to rethink some of our attitudes. The success of women in the Olympics should remind us, as the life of St John Vianney himself reminds us, that the spiritual gifts of women also need nurturing, for the good of the Church and of society as a whole. That is a huge task for our pastors as well as for those of us in the pews. May the prayers of St John Vianney help us.


11 thoughts on “A World Away in Time and Place?”

  1. Thank you Sister for more information about the Curé of Ars.
    My one encounter with him previously was when I was a finalist in a preaching award, and a friend who was a bishop wrote and urged me not to get too big-headed – and quoted the example of St Jean Vianney who was said to lick the floorboards daily to remind himself to be humble.

    I’ve never been able to find out if that anecdote is true! (and I didn’t follow his method of keeping humble, I’m afraid!)

  2. Sister, I’d be interested in learning more of what you think are the different understandings of men and women monastics about chastity? Perhaps in another post.
    Thanks! Abbie

  3. Is the perception in difference between the spirituality of a man and a woman not based purely on culture and history, rather than the facts.

    I’ve heard biblical literalist’s saying that because Eve was created from Adam’s rib, that men must be superior.

    Many of the women I’ve met in life and within the Church have a much more heightened and developed spirituality than many men (some of whom are Clergy) that I know.

    The Church, in my case, Anglican, is still struggling with the ministry of women – which hopefully, God willing and some prayerful reflection will be resolved soon. The arguments by both sides have been painful and difficult, but when I read the testimony of Women Clergy who say that they struggle daily against prejudice, much of it done without any thought, it seems to highlight the difference between genders.

    We make much of the post-modern, secularisation and liberalisation of our society – but some of it has been good. That women have been able to express themselves openly and on an equal platform with men, it’s only taken 2000 years to achieve a nominal parity. If women in the church are also released from bondage and allowed to flourish as a consequence, than some changes have been worthwhile.

  4. As women, we seem to have a capacity to ‘nurture’ those around us in a different way to men, who naturally appear to ‘protect’, ‘support’ and ‘provide for’. Our spirituality seems to be naturally deep and ponderous, often reflecting on the internal thoughts and feelings of others.

    Men often seem to try and ‘control’ us by using rules and systems, and not understanding how we think and feel. As a result, we tend to retreat into their shadows and quietly work around them. It takes particularly strong women who are capable of handling the male temperament head on.

    I agree very strongly that we still need to nurture, and find a place for, women’s particularly characteristic spiritual gifts within the Church. The organisation has much to learn from them and really ought not to be afraid of being shown up or intimidated. We have much to offer.

    • I’m very wary of any generalisations about “male” and “female” approaches to things. In my experience (of religious life), women can be just as controlling as men. I think it’s much more about individuals than about gender.

    • Yes. One, magnificent, example of the strong woman who knew how to handle men is St Teresa, who *knew* that Jesus (‘His Majesty’) was her true superior, and on her side. The Books of her Life and of her Foundations are inspiring texts, from this point of view as well. How, also, not to admire the fortitude of Mary Ward ? Or the resoluteness, resourcefulness, & faithfulness of English nuns in exile during penal times.

  5. Sr Catherine, this is the way I see it…

    Not to be facetious, but…Eve did eat of the fruit first before giving it to Adam. This motif is behind all women’s (and men’s) experience in the world and the psychological ramifications present in many different forms.

    Our Lady’s glorious ‘Yes!’ reconciles us to Eden before the Fall and to God, our Father, but that can only be experienced through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus emphasises the equality of men and women in the gospels. His teaching is apolitical and we are left to sort it out through prayer and faith.

    Unfortunately, the Church, as Institution on earth, is never quite ‘in true’ with the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, and what God really wants for us. Our attempt to refine the process is the work of millennia. Jesus says, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within you’. That’s where lasting change is effected in the inner and outer worlds.

    This is challenging, to say the least, when we do not live to ourselves and must interact with repressive and fearsome forces, but we are actually bidden to live *as if* the Gospel message is true right now. The power of the Risen Christ rests in living *as if*… forever on the cusp of expectation of his return. This is the fastest method of ordering priorities and if chaos ensues before peace is realised, it is not because we have drawn the sword. Eventually, the old order cannot but give way under its silent-as-leaven pressure.

  6. Well, to speak of woman’s place in the Church seems to mean that women have been put in their place : out of the way, under the control of men, relegated to a sub-order, that is to say dis-empowered.

    And, I wonder, are there not different kinds of power. Is the male model of hierarchical (ecclesial) power of divine origin or man made? Is it a sin? Should women seek it, to be part of its offices? (Or men, anyone?) And, is there a feminine model of power yet to be revealed, an inclusive one? Perhaps the problem is that we think in terms of these accidents of gender while we miss what matters essentially: God.

    I like to think in terms of gender neutrality, but is it realistic. Gender is an important aspect of each our identities. If we are honest, the differences are significant. Is it an accident that the incarnation was masculine? Was this in some way a necessity? I think feminist thinking leans toward the accidental while Church teaching toward the necessary.

    The fire of my feminist youth has calmed… I see both interpretations and am left to wonder, perplexed.

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