Homily for Mary Ward Day 2012 – Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of St Mary’s

Most, if not all of you, probably know by now, even though you may have forgotten, that Mary Ward, the foundress of the order to which I belong, which in its turn founded this school, was a Yorkshirewoman who lived over 400 years ago; she herself was an educated woman with a passionate belief, at a time when it was not only unfashionable but downright foolhardy to do so, way back in the 17th century, that girls were every bit as entitled to an education as boys.  She also had a passionate conviction that God was calling her to something which at first she could not identify and which took her down some dead ends and wrong turnings, but which eventually led to the founding of her order and the opening of schools for girls literally all over Europe.  She was brave, she was feisty, she was attractive, she was warm, she was human – and she was utterly committed to God.  It is possible to be all those things!

But for the moment I’d like to bring to your attention a very different woman from a very different background – a Liverpool woman, a real Scouser, born in the 20th century, uneducated, working-class, from a dysfunctional marriage and family and totally uninterested in anything as high-faluting as education for girls, especially posh ones.  And this woman’s name was Shirley Valentine.  To be absolutely truthful she does not actually exist with that name but she certainly exists in the reality of many women’s lives.  Shirley is a very ordinary woman who’s losing it – she knows she’s losing it because she’s started talking to the wall.  But she becomes a heroine – the heroine of first a play and then a film.  And though I met her many years ago she came to my attention again recently when I read an extract from the play where Shirley is talking about her own life and saying that when she realised that she was losing it she decided not to be a victim but to do something about it – and what she did was go on holiday to Greece – a holiday that ended up literally changing her life.  And when she’s talking about why she did it this is what she says:

“What I kept thinking was about how I’d lived such a little life.  And one way and another even that would be over pretty soon.  I thought to meself, my life has been a crime really – a crime against God because…I didn’t live it fully. I’d allowed myself to live this little life when inside me there was so much more that I could have lived a bigger life with – but it had all gone unused and now it would never be”.

I don’t know whether Mary Ward spoke with a Yorkshire accent or spoke like me.  I don’t know what she looked like other than very generally but I do know that though her background could not have been more different to Shirley’s they are, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, at least as far as I am concerned, kindred spirits – because both of them took up the invitation to live the bigger life, albeit in quite spectacularly different ways.   Life was not easy for either of them – Mary Ward was brought up in an age when to be a Catholic, as she and her family were, was to invite crippling fines and imprisonment at best, death at worst.  It meant that in order to avoid the fines the family had to travel round a lot and the children very often got parked with relations to ensure some continuity and stability, thus very often not seeing their parents for literally years at a time.   She was blessed with a large and loving extended family who gave her love and also her deep and passionate commitment to God and her faith, the bedrock of her life.  They gave her a very good education and an absolute conviction that all girls and women were entitled to such an education because in the sight of God they were equal to men and to all that went with that equality.  She grew up convinced that God wanted her to give her life to Him.  Like Shirley Valentine she took some wrong turns but always was searching for what God wanted from her.  And when she found that no religious order existed that allowed her to do what she knew He was asking of her – she founded her own, the Congregation of Jesus, to which I belong – an order that has been engaged in the education of girls in this country and across the world since she founded it in 1609.

Like Shirley Valentine she was intrepid – and I do mean intrepid.  She literally walked all across Europe founding schools and every single one, then and now, was based on her total conviction that, as she put it to her sisters:

“There is no such difference between men and women, yet women, may they not do great matters as we have seen by example of many saints who have done great things?  And I hope in God it will be seen that women in time will do much”.

No glass ceilings for Mary Ward.

But the really important thing is why she wanted women to be educated: she wanted them to have every opportunity in order to enable them to become the people that God had it in mind for them to be – that they, you, could live that bigger life that Shirley Valentine talked about.  I will never forget the first time I heard the phrase “Life isn’t a dress rehearsal” – and it wasn’t all that long ago.  I had never consciously gone round thinking it was a dress rehearsal but I suddenly realised that we have only one life – this one – and we owe it to the God who gave it to us to make the most of it – as, in their very different ways Mary Ward and Shirley Valentine did.  That doesn’t necessarily mean climbing Everest or being a brain surgeon, though it could, but it means living this life to the full – every bit of it – our work, our relationships, our willingness to take advantage of opportunities we are presented with, our willingness to stand up and be counted, our willingness not to be afraid to take risks and not to be afraid to fail – very important that one – and yet not one that we talk about all that much.  Not being afraid to be generous, to be forgiving, to be patient, to be kind, to be gentle, to be loving…and not just not being afraid to be those things but actually putting effort into being them – because those are the things that make us really human and give value and meaning to our lives – not what we wear, where we shop, what we get in our exams, how cool we are.  I’m not saying that those things don’t play their part –they do but you will find that in the end it’s those other things that matter more.

And they are not always easy to achieve – most things worth achieving aren’t.  And sometimes you will fail because we all do – and Mary Ward did – in one sense spectacularly.  Having tried all her life to live the bigger life, to be generous to God in all she did, she ended up with most of it gone.  She had spent over 30 years founding her order, attracting other young women to be generous with their lives as members of it and teachers, setting up schools all over Europe –  St.Omer, Liege, Cologne, Munich, Rome, Naples, Prague, Bratislava.  These schools had been welcomed and seen as models of what could be done for girls.  Bit by the time she died, exhausted and from gallstones at the age of 60, in 1645, back in her native Yorkshire, it was all gone.  She herself had been imprisoned by the Church which saw her as a threat because she broke all the rules about how women and especially nuns were supposed to behave.  All her schools had been closed, most of those who had joined her had decided to pack it all in and go home.  She who had said to her sisters “Do your best and God will help” saw little evidence at the end of her life that that was in fact the case but she never for a moment doubted it and it was out of that conviction that she lived her life – that bigger life that, costly as it was, she knew God was asking her to live.  That’s why she is, and will always be, someone who is a role model and a shining example for me as one of her spiritual daughters and for you as young women educated in her tradition and with her values.  You don’t have to know all that much about her – but if you live your life to the full, with generosity, taking risks, learning that failure – and we all face it at some point – has something to teach us and that almost always it is through it that we do most of our growing, then Mary Ward will have made her mark on you just as much as if every person who taught you was a nun and wore a long, black habit and you will, in my view, be the richer for it – and so will everyone else in your life.  So if you ever wonder what difference it has made going to St Mary’s – and what it is about it that is different from other schools (and it is different, make no mistake about it) – remember Mary Ward, Shirley Valentine and living the bigger life – then you will be being true to God and to yourself – and that is Mary Ward’s gift to you through this school and the values it leaves you with as and when you eventually move on – whether it be this summer or a few years hence – into the next chapters of your life.

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