|17 Jun 2022|
There is a song written by Noel Coward and first performed in The Third Little Show in New York in June 1931 by Beatrice Lillie. The song is especially known for the line, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” with which most verses begin and end. Well, as it happens, not only mad dogs and Englishmen! There was a woman long ago who went out in the midday sun and her story is told in John’s Gospel (John 4: 1-30). In the relentless heat of the Middle Eastern midday that was indeed crazy! Why did she do that?
This woman, whose name we do not know, used to go out in the middle of the day to fetch water from a well just outside the city. The well was known as Jacob’s Well which at that time was near the city of Sychar in Samaria. Today it lies within the West Bank. In those days it was a woman’s job to fetch water for her family each day. The women used to go out early in the morning while it was still cool. No one went out at midday, it was far too hot. The women used to make a social occasion of this daily chore. They would catch up and talk at the well and we can imagine them chatting about the everyday things that formed part of their lives, sharing their frustrations, complaints, perhaps passing on the latest gossip, reminiscing, dreaming and laughing together. But the woman in our story used to go at midday because she knew that none of the other women would be at the well then. She went then so that she wouldn’t be seen. What drove her to this? Why this desire to avoid the others? Well, she was divorced and had had five husbands. Because of this she was a social outcast and was looked down upon. She was considered to be a sinner and her sin was known to everyone. She would be humiliated and uncomfortable as the other women would surely fall silent at her approach. It was a lonely life. A life of shame. And she shrank.
We all have our ‘midday sun’, the places, both real and emotional, we go to avoid contact and intimacy, where we hide in fear or shame, in our poor self-image or our failure. I am sure each of us can think of a time we have felt really miserable - lonely, left out, judged. And that can lead us to close up. We lose our freedom. We are controlled by the feeling, the fear, the anticipation, the imagining.
This is our Loreto Year of Freedom. Freedom in the Mary Ward tradition invites us into an inner spaciousness that enables us to choose our response, to be free from all that binds us, hurts us, controls and limits us, and be free for something that is life-giving. This inner spaciousness recognises that there is a deeper voice calling to us and that rather than shrinking from life we are called to be open to life.
The Samaritan woman at the well found spaciousness there as Jesus spoke to her, listened to her and restored her sense of self and her dignity. As Jesus listened to her, he softened her hardened, fearful heart and broke through the wall she had so effectively built around herself. We know that this woman was changed because she ran back to the village to tell everyone what had happened! This woman who had been silent, a loner, defensive and ashamed of herself, was able to tell her story. The despised woman was now the bringer of life, the messenger of ‘good news’. And the villagers all went out to find Jesus too!
There is a wonderful account of this spaciousness in the story of Mother Teresa Ball. Teresa Ball was the Loreto sister who founded the Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and from there she sent sisters out to establish convents and schools in places such as Gibraltar, Mauritius and Canada. In May 1841 she was visited at the convent in Rathfarnham by two priests who came to request that she send sisters to India to staff a school there. In the few years preceding this visit several of the very young sisters in Ireland had died from tuberculosis and Mother Teresa, deeply saddened by the loss of these sisters, was very concerned to protect the health of the community. This is what took place:
“Mother Teresa showed little enthusiasm for the project. A mission in India seemed completely outside the scope of her work. The Irish branch of the Institute had been founded to bring the benefits of Catholic education to the diocese of Dublin. She had even hesitated about extending the work to other dioceses in Ireland. India, half-way around the world with a climate deadly to Europeans, was simply out of the question. With courtesy and regret, but also with firmness, she explained to her visitors why she could not agree to their proposal.
Disappointed, the two priests rose to take their leave. Father Backhaus decided to make one last appeal. ‘Mrs Ball’, he said, ‘are you willing to answer for the souls of all those poor heathens whom you thus deprive of the instruction they so much require?’ At first, she made no answer. Then she said, ‘Give me one half-hour, Father, alone with God and I will then give you my answer’. He told her he was willing to wait as many hours as were necessary. After an absence of half an hour, she came back and told them that they could address the community and ask for volunteers for India. The response from the sisters was overwhelming. There were far more volunteers than they could possibly cope with” (The First Loreto Sister by Desmond Forristal).
Well, we might find Father Backhaus’ particular challenge to Mother Teresa inappropriate today, but the key point in the story is the half hour alone with God. Despite her resolve not to be part of the foundation in India, Mother Teresa was able to let go of her iron-clad grip on it and let God in! She made room for the Spirit to work in her and upon her and therein lay her spaciousness.
God calls. We respond. This is the fundamental dynamic of the spiritual life. God is active in each of us personally. Our role is to ‘tune in’ we might say and become aware of that movement of God’s grace within us. It’s about cultivating an inner spaciousness of heart and mind where we can be free from our own iron-clad grip on things and listen – listen for and listen to the stirrings of the Sprit within us. On that day in 1841, filled with sadness and fear and a real resolve not to put any of the sisters in danger, Mother Teresa may well have asked, ‘What more does God want now?’ But that half hour of spaciousness gave her the answer. ‘Let God be God’ in our lives, as Meister Eckhart said.