Elizabeth Ann Seton teaches us that “Jesus is as a fire in the very center of our souls ever burning. Yet, we are cold because we do not stay by it.”
But how are we to find Jesus there in the center of our souls? And how will we keep ourselves close to that unending fire?
Elizabeth would say without hesitation that the secret to staying close to Jesus is prayer. And prayer is nothing more than a “look of love”: “Our look of love at Him draws back a look of love on us, and His divine love enkindles that fire of love in us which makes us remember him continually.”
Among Elizabeth’s sisters in sanctity, the woman saints of our Catholic tradition, few have been drawn into the fire of divine prayer as was Venerable Mary Ward.
Mary was born in 1585 into a family of English “recusants,” Catholics who had refused to embrace the new church that was created in 1534 when King Henry VIII separated England from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. In the years that followed, Henry’s government dismantled the shrines of the saints, dissolved the monasteries, and punished all who refused to participate in the worship services of the Church of England with fines and imprisonment. Shortly before Mary was born, a law was passed that made it a crime punishable by death to be a Catholic priest in England. And it was an equally serious crime to help or harbor one.
Amazingly, the persecutions that sought to wipe out the remaining English Catholics served to intensify and deepen their faith. The persecuted Catholics lived a blessed co-dependence: priests ministered to the laity who sacrificed to feed and shelter them, and laymen ministered to priests who taught them and brought them the sacraments. And at the very center of this communion in suffering were lay women, of great houses and small, who hosted the priests and facilitated the secret Masses in their homes.
In the very year Mary was born, a Yorkshire woman, Margaret Clitherow, was arrested for hiding priests in her home. Unwilling to put her three children in the position of testifying against her (or face torture), Margaret refused to enter a plea, thus forestalling a trial. The authorities responded by sentencing her to death: she was pressed to death beneath a huge wooden door on which a ton of rocks were heaped. At the time, Margaret was pregnant with her fourth child. Yet she went bravely to her death, galvanizing the courage of those who came after her.
Mary Ward was one of those who drew strength from Margaret’s witness, and it meant she clung ever more to Jesus. When the young Jesuit mission priests introduced her to contemplative prayer, that became a source of undeniable strength.
Mary learned that prayer of which Elizabeth Ann Seton spoke, the “affective prayer” that seeks intimacy with Christ. She entered imaginatively and personally into the scenes of Christ’s earthly life, seeking in her meditations to sit at his feet, or huddle next to him in the bottom of the boat, or stand with Mary at the foot of His cross. In prayer, she was drawing close to Jesus, listening to him, and talking familiarly with him. And in this way, Mary began to know with certainty that she was wanted and loved. She became alive to the Lord’s work in her life, and she wanted to give herself freely to that work.
At the tender age of fifteen, Mary discerned a religious vocation, and she convinced her father to let her go to the Poor Clares in the Netherlands. She was not there long, though, before she realized through prayer that she was in the wrong place. She returned home to England and began to serve the persecuted Catholics by catechizing children and visiting the imprisoned.
Mary was in the midst of this work when one day she had an extraordinary experience in prayer that she called her “glory vision.” In this overwhelming experience of the Lord’s presence she sensed that she was called to something “more to his Glory.” Soon she returned to the Netherlands to discern the path.
Two years later Mary received another definitive illumination in prayer: “take the same of the Society.” This time, Mary knew exactly what was being asked of her: she was to found a new order for women based on the same Constitutions that Ignatius of Loyola had written for the Society of Jesus.
Mary was called to gather women together in a community that was both active and contemplative, both centered in prayer and ordered to worldly action. She envisioned women serving as she had served at home in England: catechizing children, visiting the imprisoned, and evangelizing others in everyday conversation. They would be rooted in prayer, but free for the mission: and the mission would be to support souls in difficult circumstances. She felt called to respond to the very needs she had seen in her persecuted countrymen.
And this call was something entirely new. At this time in the Church’s history no religious women were permitted to pursue apostolic works. Women were to remain “in enclosure” in convents. But, certain of what she had received in prayer, Mary went to Rome to seek papal approval. At first, she was given leave to open a few houses and schools in Rome and elsewhere in Italy. But within only a few years resistance began to mount against her and the women who had joined her. Eventually, Mary’s case was brought to the Inquisition, and because Mary refused to accept enclosure for her nuns and continued to insist on a woman superior (another innovation), she was declared a heretic.
Mary calmly accepted all that came with this charge: the suppression of her houses, the scattering of her first followers, and her own imprisonment in a cramped cell. In 1632, she was summoned to Rome to answer the charges. In a meeting with the pope, she declared, “Holy Father, I neither am, nor ever have been a heretic.” “I believe you,” the pope told her. Nevertheless, she was told to remain in Rome and refrain from living in community. Eventually, her health deteriorated, and she was permitted to return to England where she died in 1645.
At Mary’s death, nothing remained of the Institute she had founded—except for her vision for serving the Church in the way that the Lord had revealed to her in prayer, and the few followers to whom she had confided this wish. These women continued where Mary had been forced to leave off, and two separate congregations slowly took shape, working without official recognition until 1877, when they were approved by the Church.
Still, they were not allowed to acknowledge Mary until 1909, when she was recognized as the foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin and the Congregatio Jesu. And only in 2002 were these women at last permitted to take the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus as their own.
For over three hundred and fifty years Mary’s foundations persevered, their foundress all but forgotten. Such was the power of Mary’s prayer. Such, we must admit, is the power of prayer.
Elizabeth Ann Seton speaks for all the saints when she professes: Jesus is the burning center. Draw close to him. Mary witnesses to the same: Jesus is the burning center. Go to him.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
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