One with the Heart of the Earth

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Her Writings by Joan Stafford, osu

Angela Merici is described by Mazzonis as a rather complex figure: both contemplative and active, mystical and practical, learned and aware of the maters of everyday life. Her personality was human, independent and determined – in contract with people from every social background. In addition I would say that Angela lived with great intensity, invested her love and affection in warm and generous ways with those who came into her life. The strength of her convictions was married to her persistent call to be kind and tender. “Be gentle and compassionate toward your dear daughters, use kindness and gentleness, please I beg you lead them with a mild and kindly hand; use all possible gentleness.”

My task is to look with you at the Writings of Angela: The Rule, The Counsels, The Testament (sometimes called The Legacy).

Angela did not write so she entrusted her words to her friend and scribe, Gabariele Cozzano.

“But it was to someone else that Angela had reserved her most delicate confidences, informing him about her plan to found a spiritual family and entrusted to him with putting together under her direction her most intimate message: The Rule for the Virgins of the Company, The Counsels for the leaders and The Testament for the lady-governors (widows) of the Company itself.”

The writings of Angela are three small distinct documents yet they are of a piece. Her spirit interlaces, interweaves, interconnects among her writing that they defy separation. To help me organize the historical significance as well as the appeal of Angela’s writings, I have selected four themes around which to make a few comments.

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1. The Mission

The historical significance of these three small documents is profound and far reaching. They embody the spirit, life and legacy which Angela dared to transmit to her Company and to us as she prepared for death. These documents have the power of her last will and need to be heard as spoken from her heart with intense passion and gentle compassion. The vision in the fields of Brudazzo was a mission aching to be fulfilled. The mission was to found a company whose members would be the Spouses of Christ and would be available for every kind of service. Her writings were intended to be guidelines to direct the fledgling Company and her words were coupled with the tremendous surety that this is God’s work in which she, the members, the leaders, the widows and the men would together choose “to lead a new life.”

These words illustrate the overriding influence of the Mission and its historical significance in the Rule, The Counsels and The Testament:

You must be certain of this: What I say is true. This Company will remain to the end of time. I know what I am talking about

Since God has set up this Company, then He will never abandon it. (4th Counsel)

They must also accept as absolutely certain that they will never be abandoned in their needs (5th Counsel)

And moreover I guarantee that every grace you ask of God will be granted and I will always be in your midst offering your prayers to God. Therefore, encourage your daughters to continue resolutely with the task they have begun, and be happy together for what I have told you will come about without fail. There is over and above all this, the immense and inestimable grace of God (who loves me or rather loves us all) which will be granted to you at death’s last moment, for a true friend is seen at the time of greatest need. You will recognize me as your faithful friend.” (Last Counsel)

Hold it for certain that this Rule has been planted directly by God’s holy hand and that he will never abandon this company till the end of time. If it was he who planted it in the first place who is there who can uproot it? Believe this: do not doubt but have firm faith that this will be so. Blessed are they who continually take up this work.” (Last Legacy)

2. The Holy Spirit

Her writings reflect her ability to be ever the mystic and always the sensible and wise guardian. She expressed her profound love for God as well as for her daughters. At the same time it was her deepest desire to provide and establish a firm foundation upon which this new way of life could take root and flourish. For an old woman to be able to articulate in clear, simple and appealing language words of love which would be the touchstones for the Company and would resonate through the ages is in itself a gift to history. She drew on her amazing confidence and inner authority to speak her conviction.

These three small documents, each is distinctive in form, content and expression, yet they are held together by the appeal to our hearts. Angela knew her audience. It was in her heart and in her intention to capture the heart of the other so that the bonds of charity would be forged now and would be sustained beyond the grave. The Communion of the Saints is imaged in a new, fresh and dynamic way in Angela’s writings.

She is living in the time of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. Angela is very aware of the time in which she lived. Amid the chaos of war, violence, economic disaster, frequent outbreaks of plagues, pestilence, the collapse of social systems, corruption of leadership in the Church, monastic life and political enterprise, Angela chose to “lead a new life.” She looked for signs of hope, renewal and goodness. She senses a hunger for peace, justice, reconciliation and compassion. Her Franciscan spirit and the work of Divino Amore were sources of encouragement in her beloved city of Brescia. Against this historical backdrop Angela’s writings take on special significance. The founding of the Company of women inspired, directed and governed by women, rooted in the love of Jesus, supported in unity and harmony and nourished by being available for every kind of service was “doing a new thing.” The founding of the company would create a space where “a new way of life” could emerge. A life lived in the heart of the beloved, in freedom, a space where each one is honored, equality, dignity, respect are given, dowries are not required, judgments are withheld, each one’s needs are provided for as the resources of the Company allow, no monastic walls, no public vows or identifying dress. This indeed was a most startling endeavor. It was a new thing!

Angela knew that her proposed way of life was radical. She knew that there would be serious criticism from Church and Society. She may have been considered irresponsible by some…

What was she doing anyway?

  • expecting those young, mostly uneducated women to govern themselves and manage their affairs

  • no institutional support with respect to housing, finances, old age, sickness

  • no men to look after them and protect them

  • no dowry and no habit

  • who would make the decisions and do the business? People talk you know!

Actually Angela had worked things out very well so that everything would be well taken care of.

  1. Decision making included the following

  • praying at the feet of Jesus

  • talking together

  • being influenced by the Holy Spirit

  • respecting the freedom and dignity of each one because God had plans for her

  1. Finances

Initially there were none but Angela was sure there would be so she made provision in the Rule “if by God’s will and disposition there should be any money or other possessions held in common, it must be carefully kept and wisely spent, especially in helping the sisters according to the needs of the moment.(Rule 4 – Government)

  1. Government

  • provision was made for the election by the Company of four leaders, colonneli, local leaders with their areas of responsibility defined.

  • four widows and four men were also to be elected by the Company

This way of thinking, acting, believing was certainly risky business.

What was especially new and evident in the writings of Angela was her conviction that her whole life’s work, her Company and her Rule were inspired by the Holy Spirit. She turns instinctively to the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit as she begins and finishes her writings. The companionship of the Holy Spirit was always a risk for Angela. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing and the Protestants were invoking the Holy Ghost! For Catholics that couldn’t be good. Some samples from her writings:

May the strength and support of the Holy Spirit be with you all that you may persevere and carry out steadfastly and faithfully the charge you have undertaken” (P. Counsel)

Keep to the ancient way and custom of the Church, established and confirmed by so many Saints under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And lead a new life.” (Counsel)

Provide for everything as the Holy Spirit inspires you.” (7th Legacy)

Above all, you must obey the counsels and inspirations constantly to be heard in your hearts by the action of the Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit, according to the word of Jesus, is he who teaches us all truth.” (Rule 9)

“But if they wish to pray at greater length they should go to their own rooms and there in seclusion, let them pray in the way and for as long as the Holy Spirit and their conscience dictate.(Rule Chapter 7)

3. Personal Freedom

Another new thread woven through Angela’s writings and consistent with her belief in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is her sense of personal freedom. Her personal relationship with her Beloved gave her an experience of freedom which she prized above all else. Her writings are peppered with calls for freedom of thought, desire and action. Angela knew that freedom was chancy and when she found it necessary she supported and reinforced her claim with reference to the Scriptures. In Angela’s view freedom was the determinant factor in the success or failure of one’s spiritual life as well as the life of the Company.

Here are some of her words about freedom:

to want, to wish, to desire, to make efforts, to strive, to counsel, to urge strongly and earnestly

Angela’s greatest desire was to avoid any form of coercion.

She must enter gladly and of her own free will (Rule 1)

And then, who can judge the heart and the innermost secret thoughts of any person? Hold them all in your love and bear with them equally for it is not up to you to judge the handmaids of God, He well knows what He wants to make of them.” (8th Counsel)

And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given fee will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels.” (3rd Legacy)

4. Spirituality

Ultimately the purpose of “this new way of life” was to strive for a full and loving relationship with God and all of creation and to be available for every kind of service. She trusted herself and her companions to be drawn into the life of the Divine Mystery in freedom and charity. There is an undercurrent in all of Angela’s writings, a profound desire for unity and harmony which courses through all her words and comes to the surface in the form of cries, pleadings, laments, worries about what could happen if discord and disunity were to poison the Company. She must have known that the potential for disunity was not far away.

The significance that the Rule would play in ensuring the future of the Company was not lost on Angela. At first glance the language and format of the Rule is formal. Angela knew it was a key document upon which would hang the destiny of the Company. She was wise enough to know that, in submitting the Rule to Rome for approval, it would be a unifying force engaging the members, the leaders, the widows and the men. The operation of the governance model turned the social order on its head. The members, often poor, uneducated servants were by God’s grace called to form the heart of the Company. They were the ones who elected the four area leaders, the four widows and the four men. The leaders were charged to inspire, counsel, protect and supervise.

The widows had status, had families, children, ran households and businesses. They were charged to place themselves at the service of the members and regard no service to them as demeaning. Angela was well aware that this form of governance would be turned upside down if men were given a prominent role.

Angela’s pleading for unity and harmony was able to create a sense of community flowing from equality, mutuality and respect. She also created that same unity outside the Company as she engaged with the poor, the sick, the nobility, the children, the men and was able to listen, be present and be an instrument of peace and reconciliation.

We lost the treasure of Angela and her writings until Vatican II and her appeal and the appeal of her writings have much to do with the warmth of her person, the strength of her convictions and her ability to attract us to a new way of life which resonates with our common spirit.

Angela was very aware that this new way of life would be challenged so her invitation is warm, loving and at the same time fierce and strong. In answer to the universal call to holiness Angela provided a space within which all could gather in freedom. The Rule, its spirituality may be described as the spark of the Divine born out of what lives at the core of our being – sometimes burning, sometimes smoldering, always able to find its expression in the way we choose to live our lives.

Angela, ever the mystic, ever the practical guide, be our mentor and wise counsel!

You are more than I had hoped for!

We are more than we hoped for.

We are a company of women: widows, wives, grandmothers, virgins, sisters, friends, mothers- gathered here at this Brescia in 2014, choosing to lead a new life, engaging with the Divine and being available to every kind of service.