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The council’s teaching on professed religious life wished to preserve the distinctive role of professed religious men and women in the church while moving beyond a pre-conciliar emphasis on the “states of evangelical perfection.” This chapter will consider in particular the council’s treatment of this topic in Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis.
Mary Ward was born in Yorkshire in 1585 and died during the English Civil War in 1645, but her life's trajectory so clearly bridges the world of medieval and early modern women that she needs no apology for appearing in this collection of essays. Connecting Mary Ward and the medieval spiritual and intellectual heritage is a matter of circumstantial evidence, since she makes little or no reference to books or writers other than the Scriptures, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat. Nevertheless Thomas a Kempis and the Devotio Moderna underlie Mary's spiritual perspective as they do that of Ignatius of Loyola. James Walsh, one of Julian of Norwich's foremost twentieth-century editors, also edited Mary Ward and detects within her writing, as in Julian’s, the language and rhythms of the Latin Vulgate as well as a rhetoric expressive of the theology and spirituality of the monasticism of the Late Middle Ages. He underlines Mary's conviction that a love of learning is as indispensable as holiness for candidates to the new religious congregation she founded, but maintains that her own “Third Instruction” to her sisters is more reminiscent of Thomas a Kempis’ views on learning. Like Thomas she claims that women can achieve a “true knowledge and right understanding,” without the learning that is the privilege of men, through the infused gift of a love of truth for the sake of God, who is Truth itself. Here and elsewhere she acknowledges the intellectual capacity of women while pointing to an aptitude for spiritual leadership greater than the learning of those men who “practis not what they know nor perform what they preach”.
Additionally, we know that Julian's Revelations were printed and propagated in seventeenth-century England within a recusant network with which Mary was closely connected. Her access to a copied manuscript must remain a matter of conjecture, but the dramatis personae behind Serenus Cressy's 1670 edition of Julian reads like a roll call of Mary's family and close collaborators.
Attempts by women to live religious life on the Jesuit model have been fraught with difficulty since the time of Ignatius himself. The reform of female communities was a major project proceeding from the Council of Trent, involving Ignatius and his early companions in a Herculean task. The question arose of taking some of these convents under Jesuit jurisdiction. While the nuns and several of their Jesuit confessors were enthusiastic, Ignatius resisted. Of supreme importance to him was the principle of universal mission and mobility for his fledgling Society of Jesus. To tie his men down to the service of monastic houses was to act in contradiction to this identifying principle. The freedom and flexibility in Ignatius' new concept of religious life for men had already given rise to substantial controversy. Given prevailing views on the place of women in society, and scandals, real or imagined, involving breaches of nuns' enclosure, he was strongly averse to violating social and moral codes with a branch of women Jesuits. While the Jesuits were not exempt from the social prejudices and misogynistic assumptions of their time, Ignatius himself had a wide spiritual correspondence with prominent women and never hesitated to enlist their support in promoting the welfare and apostolic ministries of his nascent order. The establishment of an order of “Jesuitesses” was, however, an entirely different matter. The early generation of Jesuits offered the Spiritual Exercises to women and trained them in turn to be spiritual guides to other women, and there are many instances of fruitful apostolic collaboration between Jesuits and female friends and companions.
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