Three Types of Valour

Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer, originally known as the Women’s World Day of Prayer because of its beginnings in 1887 with Mary Ellen Fairchild James’s call for a day of prayer by women for the home missions. It soon grew beyond its U.S. and Free Church base and now embraces more than 170 countries and Christians of all traditions (and sexes) with its emphasis on ecumenism and reconciliation. At its heart, however, remains prayer inspired by, and led by, women. On Sunday secular society celebrates International Women’s Day. It, too, began in the U.S.A. when the Socialist Party of America organized a Women’s Day in New York in 1909. In 1910, at the International Socialist Woman’s Conference, Clara Zetkin, a German, proposed that 8 March be honoured as a day in memory of working women, their aspirations and rights.

Over the years both events have attracted derision from some, support from others, but only those most deeply committed will know what it has cost to stand up to the mainstream and proclaim that women and girls are not mere adjuncts to society but intrinsic parts of it. For a Benedictine, the two days have a resonance with the monastic emphasis on work and prayer. To pray and work for justice and peace is not an additional extra but an essential element in what it means to be Christian. One does not have to look very far to see how unwelcome that can be. It upsets the cosy order of things. Whether the wrong to be addressed is a patronising attitude towards women in the Church, the failure to allow girls equal access to education in some countries or disregard for the inhuman working conditions imposed upon women in others, it takes courage to identify and challenge the situation.

I mentioned three types of valour, though, didn’t I? Today is also the memoria of SS Perpetua and Felicitas whose passion (account of their martyrdom) is one of the most thrilling documents to have come down to us from the early days of the Church. You can read it online here. Perpetua was just twenty-two, well-educated, with a young child; Felicitas was her servant, several months’ pregnant. Together they faced hideous cruelty but refused to give up their faith. The text that has come down to us is complex, with many layers of reference and meaning, but I think it demonstrates that women’s roles cannot be confined to those dictated by others. To put it another way, the Holy Spirit guides women as well as men, and women are loved by God as much as men are.

I hope readers will think about that last sentence a little because one of the things I realised recently in corresponding with a Catholic priest was that he had a difficulty. On the one hand, he truly loves Our Lady and sees in her a holiness that is unique; on the other, he is extremely uncomfortable with women generally, seeing them as intellectually and morally inferior. I wondered about that, but I think it may be because, deep down, he thinks that only men count, and if only men count, it is because God loves them more than He does women. I may be wrong, but that thought has enabled me not to bristle at some of the things Fr X has said which otherwise might have set my wimple into a spin.

Where I think Fr X and I would agree is that Our Lady is the bravest of all the women I have mentioned in this post. To accept the role of Mother of God, to be theotokos, goes beyond our human comprehension and takes us into the realm of the Spirit. None of us knows how much the faithful fulfilment of her role cost her, but I suspect most parents will have an inkling. That is why yesterday, today and tomorrow we ask her intercession, not just for the Church, not just for women and girls, but for the whole world, for everyone in need — but it may take a fourth kind of valour to do that, the kind given by humility and the knowledge that we, like her, are the anawim, the poor of God.


Martyrs of Indifference: a Thought for International Women’s Day

Pope Francis used an arresting phrase when he referred to the four Missionaries of Charity killed in last Friday’s attack on a nursing home in Yemen as ‘martyrs of indifference’. Neither the Missionaries themselves nor the twelve people killed with them, mostly volunteers at the home, merited much news coverage. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any outside the Catholic media. Have we really become so indifferent to murder? Or is it that the people who died were linked with the service of the poor and elderly and so of no interest to a world which is much more concerned with youth, money and power? Either way, I think it throws a useful light on International Women’s Day.

While it is undeniably true that women are still at a disadvantage in many areas of life in many parts of the world, including our own, concentrating on that disadvantage can have a dehumanising effect. When we cease to see people as people and crudely categorise them as oppressors and oppressed, for example, we actually destroy the hope of working together to improve conditions for everyone. Surely International Women’s Day, in its celebration of women’s achievements, should not overlook the fact that it is the common good we seek, the good of every man, woman and child on earth?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Secular Saintdom and the Real Thing

The death of Hugo Chavez at the early age of 58 is presumably a tragedy for his family who, in the ordinary way of things, would have expected him to live many years longer. It may also be a tragedy for the people of Venezuela, although I have some reservations on that score. What cannot be in any doubt is the way in which his death has shown us, yet again, that the appetite for saints is not diminished. Even the BBC, which is not known for its enthusiasm for religion, seems to have decided that Chavez should be treated with the reverence accorded the unassailably good. It is all rather rum.

When you drive religion out, you end up with superstition and perhaps worse. The deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, or, in a South American context, of Eva Perón, show something similar at work. Could it be that our need for heroes and heroines can never be extinguished? If so, on this International Women’s Day, I’d like to suggest that, after Christ, the most perfect — in every sense — being who has ever lived is Mary of Nazareth, Our Blessed Lady. She is indeed an inspiration, and the real thing.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail