Personal patrons: three lives that shaped mine.
If you travel in Europe or Mexico or South America, you will probably come across little, colorful shrines at busy street corners, beside country roads, and in homes. The brightly painted statues are often adorned with photos of children, rosaries, and flowers. Many statues are of Our Lady, but there are other favorites - Saint James, Saint Jude, Saint Rose of Lima, Saint Anthony, or a saint with local associations, perhaps one who preached in that area hundreds of years ago.
In these traditional cultures saints are a part of everyday life. They are familiar friends to talk to, and people often take a few minutes out of the busy day to kneel, light a candle, or set down a bouquet and say a prayer for a sick child or help in a troubled marriage, because there is just too much work or the landlord is threatening.
It is not uncommon for well-educated Catholics to feel uncomfortable or even condescending about such apparently unsophisticated piety and its gaudy statement. But it is not simpleminded or primitive; it is a confident expression in traditional symbols that those who lived their human lives as friends of God continue to be part of human life, on earth as in heaven. Talking to them, walking with them, is a way to be in touch with the God whose love filled them and overflowed into others.
I would like to build shrines in imagination for three saints who are my friends. This is not just a manner of speaking because if we believe that the dead are with God and that God is with us, then these people are part of our lives, even if we never think about them, and we may claim their friendship as our baptismal gift. My shrines are for three women who are important to me as a Christian woman trying to make sense of what that title means and what it calls me to do.
There are many other saints - men and women, who lived long ago and recently - about whom I could write, including my own grandmother, but these three are part of our special Catholic heritage, so they are not just "mine," and to share some thoughts about them is to build little shrines so that any passerby may kneel, reflect, and be inspired and comforted.
Queen Margaret of Scotland Never surrender
In the days when warring clans were commonplace, the kings of Scotland built Edinburgh Castle, walled all around and on a rock so steep that it could only be approached from one side. Today, looking across the valley from the noise and endless stores of Edinburgh's busy Prince's Street, one can see the castle walls still crowning the huge rock, and at the very peak of the rock one can see the outline of a chapel. Small and severely plain, it stands out against the sky, a symbol of peace and prayer at the summit of this symbol of power and violence. This is Saint Margaret's chapel, and the story of it still moves me.
Those who made their way reluctantly through Shakespeare's "Macbeth" in high school (as well as those who have been thrilled by it) will remember that the young Malcolm who finally killed Macbeth became the next king, and he was a brave and kind man - as kind as such a lifestyle allowed. When he took over the bleak stronghold of Edinburgh, he did not suspect that the next invader would not be hordes of armed clansmen but a teenage girl.
Margaret had been educated at the 11th-century court of King Edward of England, who was known as the Confessor because of his renowned piety. Margaret and her sisters grew up in an atmosphere of respect for intellectual, artistic, and religious pursuits. She decided that rather than agree to an arranged marriage to some prince or duke, she would choose a religious life in France at a monastery where some women of her family already lived and where she would find similar values to those of Edward's court.
The boat that was to carry her and her sister to France was blown off course and driven hundreds of miles north by wild gales until, after a terrifying journey, it came ashore in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh. So, instead of the peaceful haven of a monastery, Margaret arrived at the court of King Malcolm at Edinburgh, and Malcolm fell in love with her.
We don't know what Margaret went through in the weeks after her unexpected arrival, or how she reached the decision to marry Malcolm, which was the opposite of everything she had thought she wanted. Perhaps she was touched by his love; perhaps she was appalled at the dirt and irreligion of the people, in a place so utterly different from the English court that had been her home, and felt a stirring of missionary zeal. In any case, she married Malcolm and, with typical teenage single-mindedness and hope, set out to convert her husband and his surroundings.
It was a lifelong battle, fraught with tragedy, but she never gave up. She started by insisting on courtesy and cleanliness in the castle. She taught her women embroidery to cover the cold stone walls with hangings for beauty as well as warmth, and she tried to reduce the drunkenness and boisterous behavior in the court.
Malcolm adored her and strove to make her happy. Illiterate and possessing only the crudest notions of Christianity, he learned from her and admired her piety. There is a story that he secretly took away her precious prayer book that had survived the shipwreck. Books were handwritten, illustrated, and very rare, and she was distraught that it was missing. He returned it newly bound to her relief and delight.
Margaret's campaign of change was far-reaching. When she discovered the gross misery of the town huddled at the foot of the rock, Margaret persuaded the king to help her distribute food and tend to the sick. She insisted on education for the clergy, who were mostly as illiterate and ignorant as their flock, and she taught children about the faith. She struggled to persuade these feuding people that violence was not the only way to resolve conflict.
In her long life Margaret never ceased her lonely struggle for the values of peace, compassion, and beauty. The people loved her and so did her husband, but she had many enemies, for she was an obvious threat to those who profited from a violent society, and many tried to turn Malcolm against her. Two of her sons and Malcolm died in battle, and when she died, worn out from grief and the long fight that could not be won, she left behind as her monument that little, plain chapel no bigger than a modest sitting room. Perched on the rock, it was her refuge, the place where she went to seek the strength to go on, her place of peace in the surrounding war.
In a time even more ruthlessly violent than Margaret's - whether it's the violence of guns and bombs or economic exploitation-the fight seems as futile and lonely as hers. To me, Margaret and her chapel are a moving witness to the courage of women who struggle for what is good, knowing that however little they seem to achieve, they cannot give in. We need a little space, whatever form it takes, where we can be renewed. We pray that our own struggle may not be so lonely or so sad, but we thank her and feel her companionship.
Bernadette Soubirous Seeing is believing
Margaret was a queen. Bernadette Soubirous, 800 years later, was a child of poverty. She was the asthmatic eldest daughter of a failed miller, living in a dank, former jail cell in Lourdes with a cesspool outside the barred window. Millions now know the story of how she encountered the "Beautiful Lady," who claimed her heart and soul and to whom she gave her passionate love and an allegiance that never faltered.
In the weeks and months that followed, as she labored to convey the message and carry out the orders of the Lady, she had to deal with disbelief, mockery, bullying by clergy and bureaucrats, hours of merciless interrogation, and even imprisonment. Perhaps even harder to endure was her family's anxiety and reproach as public notoriety descended upon them. She was threatened, offered bribes, and tearfully begged by family, clergy, and police to say that she had been mistaken or had "imagined" her visions or had been coached by priests and an ambitious family to tell such a tale. Frightened, sick, feeling guilty at her family's distress, she refused to change a word of her testimony. The Lady's wishes were her only guide.
She might have seemed meek, leading church and government authorities to believe she could be easily bullied. But she had an inner toughness and her own kind of wit and humor. When upper-class visitors expressed surprise that "the Lady" should express herself in the local dialect instead of "proper French," Bernadette suggested that this was because of the Lady's great courtesy, so that she would be sure to understand. "It must be hard for her," she added, with the obvious implication that the supercilious questioners could do with a little of that painstaking courtesy.
The news spread that a spring flowed from the spot that Bernadette had painfully scratched at the Lady's command. Crowds thronged to Lourdes in spite of all that the clergy and local officials tried to do. But she encountered another kind of persecution, for the devotees wanted to see her, touch her, question her. They wanted her to bless their rosaries. "I'm not a priest," she responded tartly. When people reached to touch her skirt and hailed her as "saint" and "blessed," she lost her temper, "How stupid you are!" She had done as the Lady asked; the Lady had left her, and she wanted to be left alone with her memories. Her asthma grew worse, and she was taken to the hospital of the Sisters of Nevers, alone at last in a little white room, where the crowds could not reach her.
Later, she was admitted to the mother house of those same sisters as a postulant and eventually a professed nursing sister. Sadly, the persecution didn't stop there because the superiors were convinced they had to deal with a girl puffed up with her own importance. She was treated with suspicion, her friendships forbidden, even her profession delayed. But at least the crowds could not get at her, and no sister was allowed to question her about her visions.
When a priest was allowed to visit her and asked her if she ever saw the Lady anymore, her reply was typically pithy: "When you've used the broom, you put it away in the corner. The Lady used me, this is my corner." But the interrogations continued until the church finally concluded that Bernadette had been truthful and that the Lady was, indeed, the Mother of God, though Bernadette never gave her any name but "the Lady."
She became ill with a cancerous tumor. By then a church was being built over the grotto, the pilgrims organized, the water of the spring disciplined into pipes and faucets, the cures publicized, the souvenir trade booming. When it became known that the visionary was dying, questioners came yet again. There had been rumors that, on her deathbed, she had admitted to fraud, but to the renewed clerical inquisition, her replies were just the same. Dying, all she could say was, "I saw her. I saw her."
Bernadette is, for me, a witness to the amazing endurance and tenacity of women who love. We owe to Bernadette's stubborn refusal to be browbeaten the flowering of a truly grassroots religious movement, an upsurge of faith that neither church nor state could control or suppress, though both in the end concluded they were on to a good thing!
Bernadette is proof that among poor and "ignorant" people (whose company Jesus preferred) is the seedbed of heroism and the possibility of change. I can imagine her, for instance, as a "Union Maid" in the women's struggle to be equal in the union movement. I can imagine her as a leader in a base Christian community - down-to-earth, tough, visionary, truthful, and faithful even to death.
But most easily I can imagine her in the life that might have been hers if the Lady had not called her - the never-acclaimed work of raising a family without enough money. I can imagine her struggling to keep alive the vision of justice and compassion and peace for her friends and children, enduring and witty through all disappointment, never giving in to bullying men or government. Bernadette was, by her own admission, merely a mouthpiece but that is what a prophet is. She is a prophet for women of our time.
Forty-seven years ago I bought a postcard photo of Bernadette's incorrupt body in her religious habit, lying in a glass coffin at Nevers. I still have it in my favorite prayer book. It is a symbol of a spirit that will not die. I need her.
Cornelia Peacock Connelly Labor of love
The last of my three saints is not yet canonized - perhaps she never will be since she was a controversial figure. Born in 1809, Cornelia Peacock was an American, a wife and mother, and a founder of a religious order. She was a profoundly religious young woman, who was brought up as a Presbyterian in Philadelphia and became an Episcopalian after the death of her parents. She married a young Episcopalian minister, Pierce Connelly, a passionate and enthusiastic young man who was deeply convinced of his own rightness and the depravity of anyone who opposed him. Cornelia, much in love, longing for holiness, and deeply imbued with the values of the time that women were to totally submit to their husbands, saw things his way.
They moved to ministry in Natchez, Mississippi and had two children. But then Pierce had a crisis of conscience and discovered that he could no longer adhere to the Protestant religion. He withdrew from ministry and studied the Catholic faith and, after much turmoil, applied to be accepted into the Roman Catholic Church. Cornelia, not only submissive but herself strongly attracted to Catholicism, went with him.
They traveled to Rome, where they met bishops and cardinals and even had a papal audience, which delighted Pierce who had a huge need for people to confirm his importance. Both of them were received into the church in 1836. Even before that, Pierce was beginning to wonder whether he could be ordained a priest - the humdrum life of a pious layman could not satisfy his need for prominence. Cornelia, appalled, was comforted by the realization that he would not even be considered for some years. All she wanted, she said, was Pierce's happiness. They returned to Natchez and to family life.
Tragedy struck Cornelia's life with the horrible death of her 2-year-old child, John Henry, who tumbled into a vat of boiling sugar juice. Cornelia held him in her arms until he died 43 hours later, as she struggled to make sense of this sacrifice.
This terrible grief was only the beginning. Pierce, as she had dreaded, decided to seek ordination, which meant separation from Cornelia and required that she take vows of chastity, also. Back in Rome, she stayed in a convent and tried to create a life that would include religious vows and allow her to be with her children.
Seeing herself simply as obedient to Pierce and to God, she did not realize that she herself had attracted the attention of bishops and influential laymen in England. These men saw qualities of leadership, holiness, and learning in her that they felt suited her to respond to the great need for Catholic education for girls in England.
This was a time when Catholics in England were newly allowed to practice their religion without penalty and to open their own schools. Before that, Catholic families who could afford it sent their children abroad for education. Cornelia was asked to establish a congregation to educate girls in England.
Still grieving, bewildered at the breakup of the family that had seemed to be her calling and happiness, Cornelia obeyed. Her struggle to establish the Society of the Holy Child with its convents and schools and, at the same time, provide for her children, was heroic (and sometimes funny). This was a drama with a cast of both patronizing and supportive bishops, of interfering aristocrats, of both faithful and treacherous sisters, and the numerous girls who came to the schools and their parents.
Cornelia tried to be a faithful religious and a conscientious parent, while demanding, unpredictable Pierce came in and out of her life, wanting to control her, until she had to refuse to see him. Her life was a lonely struggle with bishops and clergy, who first demanded her help and then distrusted her because she was so successful. But the sisters she trained and the children in her care knew only her wise guidance, adventurous spirit, fun-loving companionship, personal concern, and flair for organization - her vision that turned into reality.
Pierce became more and more jealous. When he had chosen priesthood, he had assumed that Cornelia would retire into a meek and obscure quasi-widowhood, but here she was, acclaimed and successful in important work, attracting the glory that should have been his alone! First he claimed the right to control the new society, and when this didn't work, he took the children away (he had that right as their father) and tried to use them to break down Cornelia's resolve to not see him. When he failed to get control of the Society - the bishops would not support his claim - he decided that the Roman Catholic Church was the source of all his troubles, abjured "Romanism," returned to the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, and sued Cornelia in a high ecclesiastical court for restitution of conjugal rights.
Perhaps, at first, he thought that his loving Cornelia would fall into his arms, but though she had made her choice at his demand, it was now her choice and, she believed, God's choice. She would not turn back. The case was a national sensation and fanned the old fires of anti-Catholic bigotry with the tale of a wife shut up in a convent by evil priests. Pierce became quite paranoid as the case dragged on. At one time Cornelia learned that he planned to kidnap her, and she had to keep a suitcase always packed in case she needed to make a quick getaway. In the end, Pierce lost his case, but Cornelia never saw her children again.
It is hard to imagine a more tragic life, but out of her terrible pain she created a system of education far ahead of its time, giving girls real intellectual, artistic, and physical nurturance in an atmosphere of care and security, freedom and trust.
When I was 17 and a new Catholic, I visited the Holy Child Convent in the village of Mayfield in southern England, where my younger sister was at school. The peace of the place, with its chapel made from a converted medieval banquet hall and its lovely woods and gardens, made a deep impression on me, as did the story of Cornelia. Her tomb is in the chapel at Mayfield. Her heroic spirit lives on there. Later, I sent my eldest daughter to school at Mayfield because I wanted her to absorb something of Cornelia's mixture of the visionary and the practical, respect for intellect and a sense of the sacred.
In these brief pages I have tried to build shrines to three extraordinary women. They each responsed to challenges they did not choose. There are many people who have a vision and pursue it with courage and deliberation-Dorothy Day and Saints Joan of Arc and Teresa of Avila, for example. For most of us, however, life is not what we envisioned, if we had a vision at all. It is just what happened to our vision, as events unfolded and our lives changed. It is simply the unfolding of the expected into the unexpected.
I married with a rosy picture of a good Catholic family - but "good" can have different interpretations. Mine extended to ten children and two foster children (and a few "extra" members), through dire poverty, a back-to-the-land community experience that included people with mental illness, writing books at the kitchen table with a baby on one arm, and lectures in Europe and the U.S. Later, it shifted to another community that shelters homeless families - then 26 grandchildren, if you include the children of foster children, one great-granddaughter, and another grandchild expected.
I have needed what are now called "role models," and none of the usual ones seemed to fit my circumstances. But that's the point. They do not offer, as I once expected, a role to copy; rather they give reassurance that whatever the circumstances, there is a spirit in myself that is God's gift. I can see it in these three lives. Queen, peasant, middle-class mother and nun - they all had courage, endurance, trust, fidelity, and hope. These are the gifts I pray for as I build my shrines in their honor.
Rosemary Haughton, author and one of the founders of Wellspring House, a shelter for homeless families in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 1995|
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