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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Has God Failed to Keep His Promise in Syria?

How different today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 54. 1–10, seems when read in shortened form at the Easter Vigil, yet the promise it contains is one and the same. The Lord does not forget; he has joined himself to us in an everlasting covenant. If that is true, then it is true in the streets of Aleppo and the dark corners of Yemen as well as in the peaceful, well-nourished households of the west. Our problem is that we do not see it like that; we feel that God has failed in some way to keep his promise, and we are angry and disconsolate. We blame God for the tragedy, for all the misery inflicted on those he claims to love.

One of the uncomfortable truths with which Advent confronts us is this: God relies on us to fuflfil his promises — most spectacularly, when he relied upon the consent of Mary to be the Mother of God, but also, less spectacularly, when he relies upon us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and do good to them that hate us. We may think that we can do nothing to help the people of Syria or the starving children of Yemen, but in fact we can do a great deal. By living as we ought to live, with integrity and generosity, by being peace-makers in our own circle, by cultivating an unshowy sense of mutual support and kindness, we contribute to the store of good in the world and undo much that human malice and evil attempts. It is easy to dismiss this as pie-in-the-sky-idealism, but as G.K. Chesterton remarked long ago, it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that Christianity has never been tried. We cannot silence the guns, perhaps, but we can create a climate of opinion in which the guns cannot be fired.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

New Year’s Day 2014

It is New Year’s Day, the Octave Day of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. All three remind us of an important truth: we are part of a sequence. One year passes into another; the Incarnation marks the passage of the Creator into his creation, the intersection of eternity and time; and Mary stands as a hinge between the Old and New Covenants, making possible the fulfilment of the one and ushering in the promise of the other in the person of her Son, Jesus Christ. We look back, and we look forward, like the old pagan god Janus, after whom this month is named, but we are never alone, never complete in and of ourselves. As we pray for a blessing on the year that is to come, it’s good to remember that we are just one more link in the chain of humanity — but it is a chain which, since the Word became flesh, links heaven and earth for all eternity.

May you have a blessed 2014.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail