Living the Marist Spirit by Sister Jenny Clarke

Sr Jenny Clarke was born in Brisbane Queensland.After graduating as a doctor in 1969, she worked in various places.Jenny met the Marist Missionary Sisters while working in Jamaica. She returned to Australia for novitiate and she was professed in 1979. In December1980, she went to Bangladesh where she worked in a ruralhealth centre run by the SMSM until 1994. After a time of renewal, Jennyreturned to Bangladesh in 1997 and worked in Dhaka where she wasinvolved in efforts to improve the care of women and children, as well asin the SMSM work with the disabled. Sr. Jenny left Bangladesh in February 2004 to respond to the call to lead the Missionary Sisters of theSociety of Mary (SMSM) in the Australian Province.

Introduction   |    Her name was Mary   |    Who is this Mary?
The virtues   |    Humility   |    Obedience
Forgetfulness of self   |    Love of Neighbour   |    One and the same call
'Hidden and unknown'   |    Family   |    Conclusion

The rough translation of the Bengali words 'Jesur pronam' is 'Greetings in the name of Jesus'. The invitation to speak to a group of Lay Marists has caused me to stop and consider what the Marist spirit means in my life. I will not tell you much about myself now, but as we go along, I will share bits and pieces of my life. Enough to say that presently, I get a bit of a shock as I introduce myself as the Provincial leader of the smsm, even though one year of my term is nearly finished.

Her name was Mary
I first met the smsm in Jamaica, where I was working as a doctor doing medical research. After a wonderful journey of discovery of myself and the smsm, I began my postulancy in Jamaica. However, it was not until I returned to Australia that I had any formal class on the Marist spirit. I had not learnt much about obedience either, and so, when Sr. Gail told me to read 'The Marist Ideal', I told her that I was not prepared to read anything until I could call 'Our Lady' by her name 'Mary' as the other sisters did. My experience of smsm in both Jamaica and Australia was that they had a familiarity with Mary which I had never previously encountered and it was for me the essence of the Marist spirit. Even at that stage, I understood that the Marist spirit is not taught but caught.

Who is this Mary?
As I was growing up, 'Our Lady' was the paragon of all virtues, impossible to imitate, sweet and meek and so wholly 'other' that there was no chance of a personal relationship. The Mary I have come to discover is a woman who took risks, proclaimed a radical new order and was faithful to her inner truth, working quietly in the background.

My experience in Bangladesh after profession supported what I had read about the dangers of becoming pregnant out of wedlock - early in life girls are taught to protect the family honour. It gave me a whole new appreciation of what a huge leap in faith, and what a tremendous risk, Mary took in saying her 'Yes' to God.

Trudging miles on foot is what many people in Bangladesh need to do. However, mercifully, it is flat. Mary set off with haste to the hill country, yet another risk, a journey to what? Was Mary setting off to help or to share her news with someone else in an amazing situation? Was this a dramatic representation of how far she was moving out of her comfort zone for the sake of us all? Her song of praise really points to her hope that God's coming would lead to a new world order - a situation of justice for the poor - and that her own situation would be as a willing servant of God.

One of the Gospel stories I particularly love is the marriage feast at Cana. Mary's last recorded words in the Gospel are 'Do whatever he tells you'. What a tremendous risk she took! This indicates to me a level of communication between Jesus and Mary which surely grew during those years in Nazareth. Jesus is the one who told us that by their fruits you will know if a tree is good or bad - Jesus, the fruit of Mary's womb. As we know from the loss of Jesus in the Temple, Mary knew that Jesus had his own ideas. Even so, she risked being embarrassed by Jesus, when he decided his 'hour had not yet come', at the marriage feast at Cana. She was surely speaking from her own truth, a deep connection with the Spirit within.

The Mary I am coming to know is the older woman who prayed with the disciples as they struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, ascension and the promise of the Spirit. What would happen next? Mary was simply there as they struggled, attuned to her God and waiting, yet again, for God's will to become clear.

The virtues
When I finally did study the Marist spirit more formally, I came up against a cluster of virtues to be acquired, practiced and lived. In our Constitutions these virtues are listed as humility, obedience, forgetfulness of self, love of neighbour and love of God. Was Mary back on her pedestal? Actually, I found Mary there with me in my efforts to live in her way, yet at the same time, showing me a new understanding of these same virtues.

As I reflect on 'All generations will call me blessed', I realize more and more that all is gift! Being in Jamaica and Bangladesh has taught me that the talents I received were all given as gift. The chances to develop these talents came from being born in Australia (a circumstance beyond my control). Many people have received less, but made better use of their talents in very trying circumstances. Humility is another face of gratitude: the more I realize the truth of my being blessed, the stronger my conviction that I can only respond with thankfulness.

One of our vows is obedience - so what is Marist obedience? The Cana story is the one that speaks to me. It is about listening, speaking my truth and letting go of the outcome, sure of God's good purpose. In our Constitutions, we say that we learn from Mary that obedience demands:

Openness and readiness to respond to the calls of God
Actively seeking God's plan for us
And carrying it out humbly and joyfully when known. (C.#83).

This introduces another element of the Marist spirit - joy. In our Constitutions, there are numerous mentions of joy and doing things joyfully. Our favourite description of ourselves is:

Women of faith,
Joyfully given to God
For the Kingdom
In the spirit of Mary.

We try to echo Mary's prayer 'My soul rejoices in my God'. It is, of course, closely connected to humility, leading to gratitude. During my novitiate, I was often very intense and mad keen about everything - this was a bit of a challenge to my companions. So, novitiate being that time when you examine yourself minutely, I began to doubt my own response. Fortunately, during a retreat, I had an overwhelming conviction that joy and enthusiasm are an appropriate response to God's love. I look back on that now, and see Mary tutoring me in her way.

Forgetfulness of self
It does not take much reflection on Mary to recognize her forgetfulness of self. From her response to the angel to the trip to the hill country to that other hill, Calvary, and to the Cenacle - Mary is seen as going beyond herself for love. Every story in the Gospels testifies to Mary's forgetfulness of self. 'Blessed is the one who hears the word of God and puts it into practice.' This kind of listening is more blessed than the physical union of pregnancy - it demands that our life is centered outside our ego, buried deep in the mystery of God. It is where living the Marist spirit becomes demanding and real. Living in Australia seems to make forgetfulness of self much harder as I do not experience the same constancy of demands on myself that I knew in Bangladesh. It is tough in a culture that idolizes self and self-fulfillment to live forgetful of self. Yet, it is also the witness that our present day most surely needs.

Love of neighbour
It is in our relationships with each other, and the wider community, that we are called to live humbly, obediently, joyfully and forgetful of self. As it was once said, 'I love humanity, it is the people I can't stand'. Our love for neighbour gets stretched when we are confronted with our suspicions and our prejudices. One night, a little girl of about ten years of age rang our doorbell in Dhaka. She said people had told her we were Sisters and she needed shelter. She said that she was working for a Christian couple who beat her. So, when they left the door and the gate unlocked that night, she took her chance and ran away. While my sympathy was roused by her story, all the stories about children being introduced into houses to rob them came flooding into my consciousness. I could only think of making her a bed in the stairwell with the doors to our house locked, but the gate to the outside also locked. Later, we found that her story was true. I felt that I had also abused her, perhaps not as much as the couple, but I found that my love lacked trust - a vital ingredient to real love.

Some years ago, when I was living in a village in Bangladesh with two other Sisters in a tin shed without electricity, we were asked to respond to the question 'How are we living our option for the poor?' This caused a lot of heartache and soul-searching. Other Sisters thought it would be easy for us to respond. However, we saw the tremendous insecurity of the poor compared with our own security. We saw how much we seemed to need and how little gave them joy. We knew that love of neighbour was calling us to a forgetfulness of self that we would rather forget.

Mary's manifesto in her Magnificat points to her concern for the poor as she prayed 'God raises up the poor.' As smsm, we are called to become witnesses to God's love and instruments of divine mercy. I continue to be challenged by a man from that village. He had worked abroad as a chef in hotels and earned good money. However, he gave up his job and came back to serve his village because he said he had enough for his needs and he wanted to serve his people. His idea of enough was a tin shed for a house with a verandah and one big room, no electricity, no TV run on a battery and a few simply clothes. When he died, we discovered how many elderly poor people bought their medicine with his money and how many children had their school fees and books paid by him. I left Bangladesh in February last year with 20kg and have been acquiring things ever since. I ask myself, how much will be enough?

Love of God
Mary's love for God underpins all else. We too are called to open our hearts to receive God's love for us so that we may bring forth the Word of God's love in our world. The desire for intimacy with God is a response to God's call and leads us to prayer which both nourishes us and challenges us.

This prayerfulness is both in extended times of prayer and also in those moments of awareness of God's presence. Surrendering to God's love means looking at all people and everything around us with the eyes of love. One of my own graced moments occurred at a busy intersection in Dhaka city when I experienced God's love for us all in the chaos and grime, far from any mountain top quiet.

In all that I have already said, it is obvious that, for us, living the Marist spirit is a call to conversion. We are asked to absorb the Spirit of the One who so graciously chose us. Father Colin told us that the spirit of Mary is something very delicate and profound, which can only be grasped by sustained meditation and prayer. This is what I discovered when I tried to learn about the Marist spirit. It is not a spirit of devotions, keeping Mary on her pedestal. Rather, it is the journey of relationship, of coming to know more about Mary from meditating on the Gospels. The relationship is sustained as I try to get to know how she thinks and acts, by turning to her for guidance and by letting her take care of our work.

While I may have turned to Mary for guidance in the past, this year as Provincial has seen me increase my calling to Mary by a hundredfold. With Mary as our 'first and perpetual superior', I am called to look to her for the direction she wants for us as a Province. This has been part of my conversion experience as I am being led into places I do not know. I do not mean just geographically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Giving today's talk is an example, as it has forced me to examine what it means for me to be an smsm living in the spirit of Mary.

One and the same call
The Marist spirit is something we all share, but it finds particular expression in the different branches of the Society of Mary. This brings us to our pioneers who lived the Marist spirit in great uncertainty and with no clear idea of what Mary was asking of them. Francoise Perroton never set out to begin a congregation of Sisters. She was delighted to have launched the movement, but little did she know the shape it would become. The smsm have grown out of a group of Lay women who gradually came to understand their call as embracing the three elements - Marist, missionary and religious. Each of these three elements influences how we live out the other two. Hence, our living of the Marist spirit is as Religious women called to be missionary.

'Hidden and unknown'
For any Marist there is the struggle with that infamous phrase 'hidden and unknown'. This poses a special challenge for us as missionaries. Here in Australia, the cry is that no one knows about Religious as they look the same as everyone else. So you could say that the Religious of Australia are hidden and unknown. As a foreigner in a small village in Bangladesh, I was quite obvious to all and sundry as well as being well known because of the health centre. So, for a long time, years in fact, I could not identify with hidden and unknown. Even when I went to Dhaka, I was still well known within a certain section of the vast population. At the same time, I became aware of other people who truly live hidden and unknown lives. The servants in people's houses get no recognition for all they do. The garment workers get no acknowledgement of how their slave labour has improved the standard of living in the country, while cricket stars are feted.

So, what does it mean for us in such countries? For any of us? To me it is still about choices, and the reasons for our choices. It is still about wanting others to develop to their full potential, to being midwife of the development of others, rather than building monuments to our own importance. It is related to sitting on the floor and eating with our hands rather than demanding special treatment. Another way it is expressed in our Constitutions is being open to stay or to leave according to the needs of evangelization (C.#21). It is about making choices that are guided by the desire that Christ be revealed. The purpose of our being hidden and unknown is so as not to impede God's action in those we serve (C.#20).

In modern parlance, we are more comfortable with the term simplicity. Simplicity is an expression of living hidden and unknown. However, there are many other dimensions to living simply. One of my great smsm mentors would frequently say to herself, 'Be simple', which translated would be to avoid pretension, to say what was really happening. In other words, be humble. There is a temptation for all of us to pretend that we are more together, more in control than we really are. Be simple means to own the truth that we need help from each other.

There is another way in which we are called to be simple and that is in our use of this earth's goods. It is the challenge to resist our consumerist society and to use only what we need rather than compete with the Joneses to have the latest and greatest. In Religious life, we take a vow of poverty which surely calls us to this kind of simplicity. However, for all Marists there is a call to live hidden and unknown, to choose to be simple in what we do and what we acquire.

Another of the key concepts of the Marist spirit is that of belonging to the Marist family. It begins with recognizing Mary as the first disciple. It flows into our concept of those in leadership being sisters among sisters. We look to Mary as our mother. When I was in Jamaica, one of the older Sisters constantly spoke about our 'Blessed Mother'. Her use of this name seemed to emphasis our bond as Sisters, the accent seemed to be on 'our'.

Nowadays in novitiate, we take much more notice of each novice's family. Living in the Marist family brings with it our experience of our baggage from our own family. Learning to be in Mary's family also calls us to a new way of understanding family and how we relate. It is a chance to let go of hurts and grow into more loving and gentle ways of relating.

Nevertheless, as a group of strong women, we may be happy to accept the Marist Sisters as sisters and the Marist Brothers as brothers, but we do not see in this family that the Marist Fathers are fathers. We see them also as our brothers. So as a group of Lay women and men, you are to us our sisters and brothers. It is as members of the Society of Mary that we gather, learning as siblings do, from each other, how to live as members of this family.

I would like to thank you again for this invitation to reflect on my own lived experience of the Marist spirit as an smsm. I hope that this sharing will contribute to your invitation from Mary to learn to think, to speak and to act like her and to live, as it were, in her way.

Presented to Marist Laity Melbourne.

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19 June 2022

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