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SPRING 2004
Vol 38 No 3


Editorial
SPIRITUALITY FOR EARTHLINGS

Frank Andersen MSC
THE LONG JOURNEY HOME: SEARCHING FOR EUCHARIST TODAY


Kerrie Hide
THE LONG JOURNEY HOME: SEARCHING FOR EUCHARIST TODAY

Tony Kelly CSsR
REFLECTIONS ON SPIRITUALITY AND THE CHURCH

Michael Trainor
ON THE RISE AGAIN: NEO-FUNDAMENTALISM IN AUSTRALIAN CATHOLICISM (PART TWO)

Andrew and Liz Chatelier
MARRIAGE: GROWING IN LOVE

Denis Uhr MSC
KEEPING ALIVE THE MSC TRADITION

REVIEWS

Kevin Mark
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS




 

My soul magnifies God:
Women’s Ways of Prayer

KERRIE HIDE

THE MAGNIFICAT sung by Mary, and Hanna before her,1 envisages the soul as a mirror or glass that magnifies the Lord, the holy one, the mystery beyond all mysteries, the ‘I am who I am’, the one who is Present. The Magnificat is a glorious song of praise that acclaims how absolute love shares love with us and comes to make a home with us. The canticle extols how we are the recipients of an extraordinary love. Although this indwelling presence is a gift bestowed on all human beings, uniting us in the love of the Godhead, in this paper we will focus our gaze on women. Through the lens of a contemplative gaze we will see how women become aware of and present to this Presence of Love and magnify God. We will reflect on how women pray. First, we will begin by engaging in the art of re-membering, grounding our vision in the scriptures and focusing our gaze on Mary and Elizabeth. We will then shift our attention to the middle ages of the Christian story, to Clare of Assisi’s letters to Agnes of Prague, and explore Clare’s wise nurturing of the prayer life of Agnes. Finally we will reflect on the prayer of two contemporary women and draw conclusions for how we might describe women’s prayer.

Prayer

Before we focus on the prayer of these women from the tradition, we need to identify what we mean by prayer. Prayer, simply defined, is the desiring of relationship with God. Prayer is our way of expressing our commitment to relationship with the one who calls us to intimacy. When practiced over a period of time, prayer evokes a maturing, loving awareness of the divine presence, who invites us into transforming union. Prayer, as Julian of Norwich says, ‘ones the soul to God’.2 In the context of this paper, our focus will be on contemplative prayer where we centre in the ground of our being in God and in stillness and silence rest in God.

Mary and Elizabeth

Mary and Elizabeth are archetypal models of women’s prayer. Although Luke only provides us with glimpses of the fullness of life of these women, each word that he scribes is pregnant in the silence that infuses these women’s experiences of God. Luke draws us to a place of wonder and awe, a place where spiritual insight permeates the gaps and unites with our vision. Elizabeth, the first woman named by Luke, is the wise woman getting on in years (Lk 1:7). Elizabeth is a woman who has experienced shame and has felt abandoned by God. Yet her experience of barrenness and rejection did not become the informing principle for her life. She conceives in her old age and gives birth to one who would prepare the way for the word made flesh. Let us focus on the prayer of Elizabeth that unfolds as Mary enters her home in the hill country of Judah:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed in a loud cry, ‘Blessed art you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb lept for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Lk 1:41-45)

It is important to note that this encounter with Mary occurs after Elizabeth has been in seclusion for five months (Lk1:24). After her conception, Elizabeth desires physical solitude, which nurtures her inner mindfulness of the presence of the loving God working in her life. Her experience of physical solitude creates silence and stillness, enabling her to embrace the transforming power of God who creates life in what seemed barren. Her experience of shame becomes an experience of grace. Righteous before God (Lk 1:6), Elizabeth has not succumbed to a limited self-definition, imposed by the constricting expectations of the role of older women in her society. Rather, standing in the hope of generations of women before her, she trusts her experience of God. If we gaze at her portrait and enter her experience as an icon, a fivefold movement of the disposition and dynamic of her prayer evolves.

First, Elizabeth’s prayer comes out of the experience of being in relationship with Mary. Each woman magnifies the love of God to the other. Elizabeth’s love of Mary enables her to see the divine presence within Mary. Mary helps Elizabeth grasp more fully that God is also present in her own life. Elizabeth identifies this presence as the Holy Spirit, whose touch is intimate and tender.

Second, Elizabeth has a rich and imaginative inner world that she has nurtured in silence and stillness. She is sensitive to the movements of her heart, to her inner ways of knowing the touch of the Holy Spirit. Feelings help give expression to her experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Third, Elizabeth experiences the presence of the Holy Spirit in bodily ways. Her womb is a sacred place of encounter with God. When she attends to her womb she comes to a contemplative awareness of the presence of the living Spirit. The child leaps in her womb. Critically, the barrenness of her womb does not create a barren self-centeredness or bitterness, but rather creates a receptive emptiness that becomes fertile fullness. Elizabeth has a deep sensitivity to the life in her womb.

Fourth, Elizabeth experiences self doubt. Why has this happened to me? she responds. Her past experiences of shame and abandonment threaten to engulf her. But Elizabeth does not allow this counter movement to draw her away from the mystery before her. She continues to focus on the movement of the Spirit in her being and in the life of Mary.

Fifth, Elizabeth’s words: ‘and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,’ apply to her own experience as much as to Mary’s. Elizabeth believes. She trusts her woman’s experience of God.

Elizabeth’s cousin Mary reveals a unique maturity in her ability to respond to God’s desire for her. Like Elizabeth, Mary has spent time in silence and solitude. In the intimacy of transforming union the Holy Spirit comes upon her and the power of the most high overshadows her. She surrenders and opens her virginal being completely to conceive and nurture the word of God en-fleshed. For Mary God’s invitation is absolute. She is prepared to risk all, to face shame and disgrace, to wait in unknowing to enter the full meaning of the mystery unfolding in her. She responds to the incarnating presence: ‘let it be done to me according to your word’ (Lk 1:38). Her yes enables the eternity of God’s loving to become en-fleshed in Jesus and to make known the deep mystery of divine presence in the human. After her experience of the Holy Spirit immersing her in the shadow of love, Mary’s response to Elizabeth, evokes a contemplative stillness and sensitizes her awareness of how God is present in the depths of our humanity. Mary said:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my saviour,
For he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the mighty one has done great things for me
And holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and filled up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy
according to the promise he made to our ancestors
to Abraham and his descendents forever.
(Lk 1:46-55)

Mary’s canticle identifies her as a woman who is totally human and yet is invited to play a key role in uniting divinity and humanity. The canticle tells us much about her way of prayer. After experiencing the divine presence as the Holy Spirit immersing her in love in the conception of Jesus, Mary lives in wonder, deeply in love. Now she knows in the deepest intimacy of her soul that God is almighty, holy, transcendent and totally merciful. Her experience of God is of a saving presence that bestows fullness of life. Notice a foundational glimpse of trinitarian union and communion in this image of God. Mary experiences God as absolutely transcendent and at the same time utterly imminent. The holiness of God draws her beyond the limits of her imagining to awe, while at the same time the intimacy of love shared reveals divine mercy. In the midst of her vulnerability as a young woman, in the depths of her lowliness, in the poverty of her humanity, her womb becomes blessed. In the kiss of divine mercy all that casts a shadow of doubt over God’s presence in the human is transformed. Divine Mercy gazes at the lowly with favour, scatters the proud, brings down those who abuse power, fills the lowly, empties the rich and becomes a servant to the servants. Mary’s submissive receptivity, far from being an expression of feminine weakness, passivity or inferiority, becomes the way of transforming union. As Mary experiences a growing awareness of the presence of Jesus within her womb, she realizes that her soul magnifies the presence of God and her spirit exalts, not only in her life, but in the life of all human beings. This realization evokes joy and a sense of living in the eternal now.

When we compare Mary’s prayer to Elizabeth’s prayer, some key insights emerge. First, in the footsteps of those like Elizabeth who have experienced divine mercy from generation to generation, Mary’s prayer is intrinsically relational. Her prayer links the experience of the foremother’s of Israel with the experience of Elizabeth and her own experience. Elizabeth confirms Mary’s experience and rejoices with her. Mary’s prayer is a profound expression of relationship with God that is so intimate that Mary realizes that through this union she magnifies God. The length and the breadth, the height and the depth of the divine presence reflected from her being enlightens all creation.

Second, like Elizabeth, Mary embodies a profound silence and stillness that enables her to be at home in her inner world and to be aware of the deepest movements of her heart. She is responsive to her inner ways of knowing the touch of the Holy Spirit. She feels the presence of divine mercy filling her emptiness.
Third, like Elizabeth, Mary experiences the presence of the Holy Spirit in bodily ways, particularly in her womb. She is concerned with enabling her womb to become a nurturing container that can give birth to the Son of God. Mary’s role in the birthing of Jesus invites a continual giving birth. The sharing of divine life in and through Mary then over-shadows all human lives enabling all humanity to be responsive to the divine initiative and to participate in the one great act of giving birth to divine love.

Fourth, Mary also experiences self-doubt: ‘How can this be?’ (Lk1:34). Can she trust this presence of God within her? Critically for the future of all humankind, she has the wisdom to risk all that she is and not to allow this counter movement to draw her away from the mystery before her. She continues to focus on the invitation to be the mother of God and to allow the full meaning of this mystery to unfold within her. Her surrender to the mystery enables her soul to become the receptive centre that magnifies God, making this presence in humanity clearer and more pronounced.
Fifth, Mary experiences the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God’s promise. She trusts her woman’s experience of God.

Clare and Agnes

Centuries later Agnes of Prague (1205-1282) asks Clare of Assisi (1193-1253) to assist her in prayer. Unfortunately there are only four short letters to Agnes preserved to guide us. The letters, composed in 1234—1235—1238 and 1252 reveal an increasingly intense desire for God and a maturing capacity to surrender to and participate in the love of the Trinity. We will now focus on Clare’s eloquent language and exquisite imagery that tells us much about how women pray.

Like the portraits of Elizabeth and Mary, Clare’s words are pregnant in the silence of her lost letters. We can imagine Agnes describing her desire for God and asking Clare for guidance as she creates her own personal way of relating to God. In the second letter Clare invites Agnes to gaze contemplatively so that she might respond to her longing to love God with the total desire of her being. Reflecting the desire of generations of women from the days of Mary, Clare invites Agnes to allow Christ to become the centre and informing principle of her life. She encourages Agnes to embrace the Poor Christ. Literally, to embrace is to wind around. It involves touching and drawing the Beloved to one’s self, holding the Beloved, hugging, encircling, surrounding, enclosing.3 The enfolding movement leads to both an external and an internal embrace. Clare continues: ‘Look upon him, gaze upon, consider, contemplate as you desire to imitate the poor Christ.’4 Look accentuates the visual aspect of the prayer.5 The stress is on coming to an awareness of all the physical details, the flesh and bones, the body of Jesus of Nazareth, seeking, searching, examining, watching the colours, shapes, facial expressions and visual emotions. This way of looking at the visual details unites us to Christ and invites us to stay with, to linger, to hang about Christ. Seeing interiorly magnifies, and leads to a gaze. Gazing evokes deeper interior seeing. To gaze is to wonder, to be-hold, to gently stay with and come to deeper intuitive seeing, seeing with the eye of the heart, seeing with a felt understanding of love. It is looking with every particle of our being, sharing ourselves in the gaze and reverencing what we receive. This long loving gaze unites the beloved and the lover in boundless love with a deepening sense of mutual recognition. Subsequently, as the surrender to the gaze intensifies, Clare invites Agnes to consider. This is not an analytical considering of the facts of Jesus life, but meditating, remembering, pondering, dwelling on, until the gaze unites Agnes with Christ and the tranquility peace and rest of contemplation becomes her only sense. In the third letter, Clare quotes John 14:21 to describe the experience of contemplation: ‘we shall come to him and make our dwelling place with him.’

Significantly, she adds:

Always carry him spiritually in your chaste and virginal body. And you will hold him by whom you and all things are held together.6

The emphasis here is not so much on the physical virginity of Agnes, but her spiritual virginity where she holds Christ within the deepest most virginal part of her soul. This means the total giving of herself, so she may hold Christ and be held by Christ, who holds all things together. This way of prayer draws Agnes to become more and more aware of her mutual indwelling in Jesus in God, not just in specific prayer periods, but in the whole of her life in a spiritually embodied way. She always carries Christ spiritually in her body. The increasing intensity of the prayer of gazing draws her into the being of Christ, to rest in Christ as Christ rests in her. Contemplation in turn evokes a desire to imitate Christ,7 to live in a Christ like way. Each time Agnes enters this embrace union intensifies.

The prayer of gazing draws Agnes from an outside bodily awareness, into a deeper and deeper experience of mutual indwelling in contemplative prayer. In her third letter to Agnes, Clare expands on her understanding of contemplation. Clare advises Agnes:

Place your mind in the mirror of eternity
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory
Place your heart in the figure of divine substance
Transform your total being
into the image of the Godhead itself
through contemplation.8


Let us ‘gaze’ and allow this imagery to touch our hearts. Notice the integrated threefold movement of ‘our mind in the mirror of eternity, our soul in the brilliance of glory and our heart in the divine substance’. The imagery describes a transcending progressive uniting with the mirror of eternity. In her fourth letter, written not long before her death, the mature Clare explains that the mirror reflects the whole of Christ’s life death and resurrection, with the crucifixion playing a central role. Clare is reminding Agnes that the way of resurrection is the way of crucifixion. She must embrace the crucifying pain of risking the loss of her self-image that is not a true reflection of the mirror of eternity. Agnes must be prepared to trust her deeper truth that she does reflect the mirror of eternity and abandon the stereotypes that limit women’s capacity for intimacy and place her whole being in the mirror of eternity. Clare advises:

Gaze into that mirror each day…and continually reflect your face in it, so that you may adorn yourself within and without with beautiful robes, and cover yourself with flowers and garments of all virtues…9

The gaze naturally draws Agnes into the mirror, to linger, to stay with and participate in the presence of Christ, more and more deeply and completely.

Clare’s suggestion to ‘continually reflect your face in it’ is critical, for Clare is telling Agnes that her loving gaze can lead her into a continual uniting awareness of her love reflected in the love of the Beloved. She is inviting Agnes to reflect Christ and to see herself reflected in Christ. The union engendered by this mutual reflection leads to deeper self knowledge and realization of her true nature made in the image and likeness of God. As Agnes sees Christ in the mirror, and considers her face reflected in the face of Christ, she grows in loving awareness of Christ who is always present. She also discovers what makes her a true reflection of Christ, and what tarnishes the image. Clare does not focus on humanity’s tarnished image. She simply encourages Agnes to gaze daily at the resemblance, to see her beauty and adorn herself within and without with garments of love. Continual gazing creates deeper and deeper resemblance and participation in the mirror and draws Agnes into the transforming love of the Trinity.

Without the psychological theory that we possess today to inform her, Clare guides Agnes to enter the mirror of eternity where all opposites dissipate and masculine and feminine, human and divine become one.

Clare encourages Agnes to an ever deepening of her contemplative experience: ‘Let yourself be inflamed more strongly with the fervour of charity’.10 The journey of being enflamed in love is infinite. We never tire of seeking such love. Clare continues:

As you contemplate further His ineffable delights, eternal riches and honours, and sigh for them with great desire and love of your heart may you cry out: Draw me after you and we will run in the fragrance of your perfume O heavenly spouse I will run and not tire until you bring me into the wine cellar, until your left hand is under my head and your right hand embrace me happily and you will kiss me with the happiest kisses of your mouth.11

Each experience of Agnes placing her mind in the mirror of eternity, her soul in the brilliance of glory and her heart in the divine substance makes her yearn more deeply for total transformation in Christ. The fragrance of the perfume is so sweet that Agnes will be able to do nothing but follow Christ, to cry out, begging to be drawn beyond all limitations, to enter the wine cellar12 and fall into the arms of the Beloved in the mystical marriage. Clare describes to Agnes how in experiencing the divine embrace and kiss, we know, at the deepest level of our being that we are irrevocably one with Christ and share in his relationship with the Trinity. Our whole being is transformed into the Godhead. Clare reassures Agnes that the weariness of longing to follow in the footsteps of the Beloved gives way to the deep joy of being always in the presence of the Beloved, always in the wine cellar, the place of ever renewing and recreating life in Christ the mirror of eternity. Silence seems the only response to such ineffable love.

When we compare the prayer of Agnes and Clare to the prayer of Elizabeth and Mary some interesting patterns emerge that give us a deeper insights into how women pray.

First, like Elizabeth and Mary, the prayer of Agnes and Clare is intrinsically relational. The relationship between the Agnes and Clare becomes a safe container that encourages a deepening of their prayer. Clare encourages Agnes to enter into relationship with the poor Christ to become the spouse of Christ in the mystical marriage, which ultimately draws her into transforming union in the Godhead.

Second, Clare affirms in Agnes a deepening capacity for silence and stillness. She advocates a natural organic way of prayer that leads to experiencing irrevocably the eternity of God’s loving. Her concentrated emphasis on looking that evolves into gazing, considering, contemplating and imitating, begins in visual imagery, unfolds into spiritual vision and draws Agnes into union with her beloved.

Third, Clare stresses bodily ways of knowing. She invites Agnes to hold Christ in her body who holds all things together in a spiritually embodied way. Clare’s teaching about prayer honours the spiritually embodied nature of all women’s prayer.

Fourth, we can only imagine the darkness Clare has lived through in order to come to such a profound place of trust. Clare does not dwell on self- doubt or self-reprisal, but rather engenders in Agnes an awareness of being able to see herself as a woman reflected in and reflecting the mirror of eternity in her mind, her soul and her heart. Clare’s invitation to place her mind in the mirror of eternity, her heart in the brilliance of glory, and her soul in the divine substance describes a profound union and communion in the eternal love of the Trinity. Clare’s way of prayer takes us beyond the confines of male and female to union in the mirror of eternity whose gracious vision is the happiness of all in the All.

Fifth, Clare’s way of prayer is of total self-surrender, total trust in the eternal love of the beloved. It is important to note however that women are only ready for this way of surrender when they realize that they are a self loved unconditionally by God and have a maturing sense of the trustworthiness and faithfulness of God.

Anne and Margaret

Today there are as many ways in which women pray as there are women. For those who have accepted the invitation to become women of prayer, the critical movement in all women’s prayer is to come to a place where we know irrevocably that God is the ground of our being, the centre of our lives and we as women are made in the image and likeness of the Trinity, we indwell the Trinity as the Trinity indwells us. We as women can trust our women’s experience of God. The image that captures the intimacy of this union and communion today is the Rublev icon with the invitational hospitality of the gender inclusive figures. For many women, like Mary, Agnes and Clare this way of coming home will be through Jesus, through a maturing relationship of becoming one with the beloved. For others, like Elizabeth, it will be through the Holy Spirit, the ruah, Sophia, the feminine principle. What is critical is that all women’s prayer draws us to participate in the uniting and transforming love of the Trinity. From my eighteen years experience as a spiritual director, I have noticed a general pattern that is congruent with Mary and Elizabeth, Clare and Agnes. Let us listen to the experience of two contemporary women, who have experienced an invitation to magnify God in their middle years. Anne shares the wisdom of her experience:

There is a sculpture (I think located in the Anglican Cathedral in Newcastle) that expresses the essence of my praying. It shows a person, a woman I think, simultaneously pulling and pushing on the rim of a circle that surrounds her. For much of the time I keep God at a distance, and yet there is also a deep part of me that remembers the warmth of God’s love. There are two competing histories at work here. One that stems from betrayal and therefore mistrust, indeed fears, closeness: ‘ Better to keep a fearful distance than be hurt’. But challenging this story is the experience of grace, that says that patterns can be broken, that God is to be trusted, and most significantly, you are loveable and are loved. All my prayer struggles with these issues: fear and betrayal (and their companion pride), trust and love. To pray requires trust. There is a sense in which to truly pray you need to let go, to jump off the cliff, confident that the wings will work. Learning to pray is, I am realizing, a life long journey and commitment.13

Margaret ponders:

At present when I come to prayer I meet Jesus in the wine cellar. This recurring image arose out of a retreat I did on the Song of Songs). I feel so enfolded in love. When I stay present to this love, Jesus’ love draws me into the love of the Trinity where I feel held in the enfolding softness of the womb before the dawn. I first experienced this way in which God loves me, on the feast of Corpus Christi four years ago as I gazed at the pink hues of the sun rising over dew soaked paddocks. As I gazed I came to know then irrevocably that God is the ground of who I am, the ultimate love who holds me in infinite compassion. My desire to respond is growing more and more urgent. I long to respond with all I am to the wonder of such love. Yet at times my womb feels so dry and barren, such a faint reflection of the womb before the dawn. I wonder if it is possible to love me. Specks of mistrust, like dust, cloud my vision. I have a recurring image of shifting my gaze to Jesus, who encourages me to stay present, to lay bare my fear of intimacy, to enter the womb of God, just as I am. In this tender embrace, deep peace permeates every particle of my being. I feel a boundless-ness, a oneing that is transforming each of us into the other. Surrounded by such tender love, the dust becomes stars in the night sky. I know this is where I belong. This is my home.

Each of these women’s prayer is grounded in a deep desire for God and an irrevocable memory, even if at times faint, of the warmth of God’s love desiring them into life. There is a never ending yearning and aching to be transfigured in the love and goodness of the divine, to be in harmony with their deepest truth that God dwells within them and they dwell within God. They as women are made in the image and likeness of God. Each description of prayer reveals the experience of a profound invitation to embody a real change in selfhood moving out of the bounds of limiting and constricting images of self and ways of responding to intimacy. The invitation is for these women to allow themselves to feel the love in which they are already immersed.

Trust verses mistrust and self-surrender are the critical issues. Both women have a history of betrayal that has left wounds that are sensitive, a vulnerability that is fertile but can become fearful. For both women the risk of loss of self is real. The fear of falling apart irrevocably is taunting. And yet there is a deeper knowing, a trust that is beyond all trust, that holds each lovingly as they seek love. In each story there is a sense of awareness of the divine presence gently creating and re-creating, touching, renewing, bringing life out of death, holding them, respectfully taking care with their human capacity to embody the progressive development of their healing, and to respond in unreserved intimacy. If we gaze, we can see reflections of the same five-fold movement in the prayer of Anne and Margaret.

First, like Elizabeth and Mary, Agnes and Clare, these contemporary women’s prayer is intrinsically relational. God is a personal God who shares God’s self and desires them into being. These two women are friends who recognize the presence of God in the other and who encourage the other to be fully responsive to that presence. The deepest desire of each woman’s heart is to be in intimacy with her God

Second, Anne and Margaret have a history of seeking silence and stillness. They listen to and watch God’s movement in their hearts. They are learning to trust their inner ways of knowing. They have a natural organic way of prayer that leads to experiencing irrevocably the eternity of God’s loving. Both women use imagery to express insights into their experience of God. They attend to the feeling of felt presence and perceived absence of God in their being and nurture a contemplative awareness.

Third, both women are sensitive to their bodily ways of knowing. The images of labour and birth and of the womb are central to all their prayer experiences. They honour the spiritually embodied nature of all women’s prayer.

Fourth, both Anne and Margaret have experienced shame, betrayal and darkness in their lives. They are ever aware of the illusive destructiveness of self-doubt and self-blame. Critically, they have not succumbed to allowing the limited self-definition imposed by their culture to be the informing principle of their lives. Each, through her own sacred story, is becoming more and more receptive to seeing herself as God sees her, as a woman made in the image and likeness of God, reflecting the love of the Trinity. Their ways of prayer are leading them beyond the confines of male and female, to union in the absolute love of the Trinity, in the all in
All.

Fifth, trust is a key issue in both women’s ways of prayer. The desire to trust engenders a maturing trust, that enables total self-surrender of the false self so that the true self grounded in the love of the Trinity may be the centre and informing principle. They show a desire for total trust in the eternal love of the beloved. They are trusting their women’s experience of God.

Conclusion

Elizabeth and Mary, Agnes and Clare, Anne and Margaret are icons of hope for all human life. Each woman shows how women’s souls are the dwelling place of God. They magnify God. While the stories of Elizabeth and Mary describe physical birthing, what is essential is the way they model for us a spiritual birthing and conception of God in their lives. All six women embody a posture of pure uninterrupted openness and receptivity to divine love. They inspire all those who desire to conceive and give birth to God in their lives. For many of us our lives are now like Elizabeth’s. We are preparing a way in the Church for the role of women that we will not see fulfilled in our life-time. All of us, however, are being invited to allow a sword to pierce our souls (Lk 2:35) to embrace the suffering of the paschal mystery in a way that will enable new life to emerge. These women remind us that the only authentic response we can make is to wait in open receptivity and trust that the abiding mystery will become flesh in our lives. These glimpses of six women’s responses of unconditional love, reveal that what looks impossible is possible, ‘for nothing is impossible with God’ (Lk 1:3).

Dr Kerrie Hide is Head of the School of Theology at the Canberra Campus (Signadou) of the Australian Catholic University, and author of Gifted Origins to Graced Fulfilment—The Soteriology of Julian of Norwich (Liturgical Press, 2001).

NOTES
1 My heart exults in the Lord; and my strength is exalted in my God (Samuel 2:1). All translations are from Metzger, Bruce M. and Murphy, Roland E., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
2 A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, 2 vols. eds. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1978, 14.43:2.
3 The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Vol. 1 and 2, ed. Lesley Brown. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, 814.
4 Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. Translated by Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.2LAg20.
5 The emphasis on contemplative seeing is consistent with many descriptions of women’s prayer. See Elizabeth Petroff. Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
6 3LAg26.
7 LD 890.
8 3LAg12-13.
9 4LAg14-17. My translation
10 4LAg17.
11 4LAg30-32.
12 This classic image for mystical union comes from the final verses of the Song of Songs. It seems apt that Clare’s last preserved letter would end in this way.
13 Both women’s descriptions of prayer are shared with their generous permission.