The ancients tell a story of the spiritual life that seems fitting as we try to describe Ursuline Spirituality.
A young monastic came upon an elder one day sitting among a group of praying, working, meditating people.
“I have the capacity to walk on water,” the young disciple said. “So, let’s you and I go onto that small lake over there and sit down and carry on a spiritual discussion.”
But the Teacher answered, “If what you are trying to do is to get away from these people, why do you not come with me and fly into the air and drift along in the quiet, open sky and talk there.”
And the young seeker replied, “I can’t do that because the power you mention is not one that I possess.”
And the teacher explained, “Just so. Your power of remaining still on top of the water is one that is possessed by fish. And my capacity of floating through the air can be done by any fly. These abilities have nothing to do with real truth and, in fact, may simply become the basis of arrogance and competition, not spirituality. If we are going to talk about spiritual things, we should really be talking here.”
The point of the story is true: daily life is the stuff of the spiritual life. The question is, do we really think it is easily possible?
Spirituality is more than churchgoing. It is possible to go to church and never develop a spirituality at all! Spirituality is the way in which we express a living faith in a real world. Spirituality is being anchored in God. Spirituality is a solid relationship between you and God. Spirituality is generosity of heart. It is that which draws us beyond ourselves to find significance and meaning in life. The spirituality we develop is the filter through which we view our world.
Ursuline Spirituality, which emerges from the writings of Angela Merici, is one of hospitality. Angela’s spirituality is not dichotomized into work or activity and prayer. For Angela, and for us, hospitality has to do with openness to the guest and a willingness to focus on the guest. There is a wonderful phrase in Italian that says it, Siate piazzevole. Be kind, be gracious, be like a piazza.
Brescia, the city where Angela lived for many years, has more fountains than any other city in Italy. Every fountain has a piazza. Piazzas crop up everywhere in Brescia. Yet everywhere in Brescia, the piazzas are the same. They are open. One can come and go. One can rest. One can just be who one is.
When Angela told her daughters to be like a piazza, she left us a legacy of how to live. She told us to be open and gracious and hospitable. Being like a piazza is the secret of Angela’s spirituality. There is no dichotomy only integrity and unity.
Angela’s contemplative spirit did not take her to the cloister, but kept her in the midst of her world where she gave life to others as the piazzas still do.
As daughters of Angela, our Ursuline spirituality is marked by a spirit of contemplation, of openness to others and a deep trust in God. Our basic understanding of Angela’s spirituality is this: Angela was convinced that it was possible to combine in our lives a deep life of prayer and consecration with service for the realm of God.
Ursulines the world over seem to converge on this central insight of Angela’s spirituality as the common heritage of our religious life: a contemplative love of God, a resulting openness and eagerness to serve the needs of others.
Because Angela had the gift of contemplative love, her relationship with God was central in her life. It was her core. Out of that came her freedom to love daringly. Her love of God was her wisdom.
Ursulines witness by their lives in prayer, in community, in service to the world, the tangible evidence that the gift of Angela is alive in our world.
As Ursulines our life in communion with others, our life in mission is always in terms of a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Our spirituality finds its source in the Gospel. This is the living water that we draw upon. It was the Gospel that Angela contemplated as well; as the source of her own following of Christ. Angela has called us, her daughters, to be listeners and doers of the Word.
Anyone can do what we do. There are other teachers besides us, there are other nurses besides us, or whatever it is we do. Our activities are not where our significance comes from. Our significance comes from the fact that God has laid hold of us and we know it. We know experientially how God has moved into our lives. As a result, our lives have a meaning, a unity and an integrity hardly containable by our world.
As we reflect on our spiritual journey, three revelatory questions for our reflection:
Out of our lived experience, how do we name God?
Out of our lived experience, how do we name ourselves?
This third question pinpoints where our prayer begins.
What is our heart’s desire?
Angela knew God as both transcendent and imminent. God had broken into her life. Angela had experienced a profound grace of God to know herself a loved sinner which resulted in her freedom and her joy and her being a woman of hope. Angela knew that her work and her presence in the world took root in God’s fidelity, not in her own goodness, but in God’s goodness.
Angela had an extraordinary gift of being able to relate to other people, to the wealthy and to the poor, to the young and to the old, to people of all walks of life. This gift is part of the freedom she had.
Angela consistently urged us to Siate piazzevole, be gracious, be gentle, be tenderhearted in our relationships with the other. As Angela stood before the other, she also recognized how the other was in relationship with God. If she knew herself as loved and chosen by God, so did she recognize this in the other. They too were known and beloved and precious in the eyes of the Lord. If Angela was God’s dream come true, so too the other.
One of the amazing things about Angela’s gift to the Church was that her women took a vow to live virginity in the world. They did not retreat from the world. Angela lived in an ugly, sinful, painful world just as we do. Yet she was the woman who could say the other was lovable, capable and trustworthy even though she saw the reality of the world around her. This vow of virginity allowed her women to love with a pure love, a selfless love in the world which needed to be loved.
Angela told us to have Jesus as our one and only treasure. When one’s treasure is Jesus, then all the rest of one’s treasures are going to be insignificant. Angela invites us to strip our hearts of all attachments to all created and passing goods and ultimately of ourselves. Then we will seek all good in God alone.
We are called to be rich, to have all, to possess all yet never be possessed by them! This insight from a woman who knew from her own experience what it meant. Simplicity of life has to do with how we relate with one another. All we really need is to set our hearts on simple and honest relationships.
Finally, we live in the Company and bring hope to one another. The greatest gift any Company can be in the world today is to be a sign of hope, not because of what we do, not because of what we wear or don’t wear, not because of how we pray but rather that we pray, that we believe, that we love one another.