Highlights of Mary Ward's Spiritual Journey
One morning in 1609 when Mary Ward was in London, she had just made her meditation with, as she thought little fervour. While dressing she resolved to make amends for this by giving a large sum of money to a person who fervently desired to enter religious life but lacked the necessary dowry. According to Mary she was doing her hair before a mirror when she had a profound spiritual experience. She perceived clearly that it was not God’s will that she should enter an austere order, something that she was considering at the time, but rather that she was called to a more excellent state which would do far more to promote the glory of God.
In 1611, Mary Ward was recovering from serious illness. While she was alone and in her bed she experienced an extraordinary state of mind, described as a state of repose and profound peace. She was given the grace to perceive plainly the manner of religious life she was to follow and the way in which she should organize her Institute. This brought a great light, consolation and strength, such that it was impossible for her to doubt that this knowledge came from God.
Mary heard an inward voice directing her to adopt a similar way of life, in matter and manner, to that of the Society of Jesus.
In the England of that time, Catholics were not allowed to practice their faith freely or openly and if they did so, they risked suffering the gravest consequences, including imprisonment and even death.
Mary Ward and her companions had taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and were living a communal life together. They were ministering to the spiritual needs of their fellow Catholics under the most dangerous of conditions. They ministered to prisoners, the poor, the sick and the dying. This necessitated a certain mobility that earned them the name of “the galloping girls”.
The idea of religious women being allowed to move about freely and go into places such as poor neighbourhoods and prisons was considered preposterous at the time. Women religious were strictly bound by rules of enclosure, rules which did not allow them to leave their convents or monasteries and move freely. The day was strictly ordered around communal recitation of the prayer of the church, the divine office. While Mary Ward and companions recited the divine office daily, they did so individually, enabling them to move about and minister freely.
The inspiration to “adopt the same manner of life as the Society of Jesus” was a novel idea for women at the time. The desire to live this way as mobile apostolic women religious would meet significant resistance from church authorities and others. It would mean very great personal suffering for Mary herself and a lifelong struggle to gain canonical recognition for her Institute and its way of life.
Just Soul Experience
While on retreat, and towards the end of completing the full Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in 1615, Mary Ward received the last of the three significant illuminations that shaped her spirituality and her Institute.
The first, in London in 1609, revealed that the ultimate purpose of her still unknown work was the glory of God.
The second, in 1611, pointed the road or the path to that goal: “Take the same as the Society”, (the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits).
The third illumination was received while on retreat in 1615. While Mary was at prayer, she received an illumination or vision of “a just soul of indescribable beauty”, a soul free from hampering earthly attachments, utterly committed to truth (“verity”), disposed and ready for every good work that served God and neighbour. Through this experience, Mary gained a great clarity about the qualities necessary for those with a vocation to her Institute. Mary Ward wanted those who were to serve in her Institute to strive for this state of openness to God that had been revealed to her, a state characterized by sincerity (truthfulness or integrity), justice and freedom.