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.

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St David and the Women’s World Day of Prayer

The last words attributed to St David were ‘Be joyful. Keep the Faith. Do the little things.’ They are singularly appropriate for the theme of this year’s Women’s World Day of Prayer, when we are asked to think about welcoming the stranger. We Benedictines are in the middle of reading the so-called penal code of St Benedict and today’s chapter, RB 24, brings home the desolation of excommunication, of being excluded from the group.

What makes us strangers? It can be almost anything from the colour of our skin to an inability to speak the local language. We may stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, or our difference may be hidden, something only we know, but our separation from others is real enough and is like ice at the heart. To be welcomed, to become not a stranger but a friend, is a magical moment in anyone’s life. It is to experience joy and warmth quite independent of our circumstances, and so often the welcoming consists in someone’s doing ‘the little things’ of which St David spoke.

I have mentioned before how my sister and I were affected by our parents’ habit of welcoming immigrant workers to their house every Sunday for a family day. We were resentful and difficult as only children can be (‘nasty little blighters’ was, I think, the phrase our father used of us) but something rubbed off on us eventually. Today, as we unite in prayer with women the world over, I can think of nothing better than to try to extend a welcome to others. It may be just a smile we give, but it may be the only smile that person receives today; and if the person in question is one of those who are not-quite-clean-and-respectable or in some other way a person we are tempted to avoid, so much the better. We may discover that in welcoming others we are ourselves made welcome in a way we did not expect.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail