As it happens, I had been thinking of it recently when I was asked to be part of a panel of inspirational women which is a project of the Religions for Peace UK Women of Faith Network. Joining me on the panel – virtually of course – were two remarkable young women. Zara Mohammed, a young Scottish who has recently been appointed as the youngest, first Scottish and first female Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, whose appointment caused a lot of media interest and Umetesi Stewart, a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide who now lives in Scotland with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Umetesi’s story was particularly difficult to listen to – how she hid in the fields under banana trees during the rains to escape the killers who went from house to house, killing everyone. She lost 40 members of her family, including her mother and brother. Yet now she is grateful for the gift of life, saying it was not her time to die, and is determined to be an ambassador for peace, telling her story in the hope that one day our world might be rid of such atrocities.
Each of us was asked to speak about how our faith had supported us through the barriers and challenges we had overcome. Just as human beings, all of us must face barriers and challenges but mine seem nothing compared to that of Umetesi. Working as a woman in a religiously conservative institution like the Catholic Church, however, there have been challenges and criticism as women changed their understanding of religious life and a lack of understanding about the importance of the work of interreligious dialogue – at least at the local level though Catholics including Bishops and clergy must give notional assent to it as it’s now an important part of Church teaching.
Reflecting on this question I was aware what strength there was in belonging to a community of women committed to service and the growth and development of people and the planet. Although situated within a patriarchal, hierarchical, religious society, women religious have a certain independence to determine their own way of life and to pull resources, both material and spiritual. They have been given opportunities for education and self-development and the possibility for engaging in social action. This has given them a vision and sense of belonging to something greater than themselves and the support and confidence to challenge unjust structures and weave a meaningful life for themselves even in the face of male, clerical disapproval. Perhaps you remember ‘Nuns on the Bus’ during Donald Trumps campaign?
Within the Catholic Church, religious life has always offered women an alternative to marriage and like all institutions it has gone through changes according to the time in which it lives. My own community was founded during the French Revolution to educate poor women and girls at a time when education had suffered, and women needed an education to be self-supportive. The first schools opened by the sisters were in the new industrial towns and taught skills that would be able to give women an income if they needed it. The way of life became institutionalised over time and the sisters lived a regular life of prayer in the convent, going out during the day to schools but living quite apart from the rest of society in convents. That changed with the Second Vatican Council when sisters were asked to go back to the origins of their communities and renew their way of life so that it was more relevant to the modern age. We realised that much of our work in formal education was behind us and we extended our vision of education to include works such as interreligious dialogue, spiritual direction, psychotherapy and counselling, special needs education, parenting and leadership skills.
Seeing this being carried out in the film was impressive. It was obvious that each of us belonged to a network of supportive and committed women. What we did, we did not do in isolation so that each of us then had a network of colleagues and friends with whom we engaged and worked – a vast web of relationships. And we are only one small group of women here in Scotland. Thinking of our global community, of those contacts who then have their own networks, the web of goodness is vast. This world wide web of commitment and service is all around us but often invisible. But for those of us who have the eyes to see it is a sign of hope and encouragement that in the end “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.