A year living cheerfully
'In our calling a cheerful mind, a good understanding and a great desire after virtue are necessary, but of all these a cheerful mind is the most so.' Mary Ward
These seem strange words at a time when so many have suffered so much, but Mary Ward knew a thing or two in an age of war without borders and viruses without vaccines. It may seem glib to characterise this past year as part time Lay Chaplain as 'cheerful'. But it has been.
By Mary Ward’s time, ‘cheer’ had developed from a description of your general demeanor to mean actively encouraging others by words and deed. Cheerfulness was active ‘shout of encouragement’. Cheers!
Far from putting on a ‘good front’ cheerfulness was a sign of the deeper joy that founded, grounded and moulded Mary Ward and set her forth amongst others spreading a pandemic of hope, practical action, faith, friendship and fun.
So, what does Mary’s cheer look like? I remember walking through the school with Kay Dodsworth, then Head of RS and my predecessor as Lay Chaplain, back in 1992 as a young teacher lighter in both kilos and wisdom ... and simply hearing the ‘voice’ of work or laughter emanating from classrooms. That, for me clinched it. I wanted to be part of this place!
A new Chaplaincy Room
Back in January, we had the grand opening of the new Chaplaincy Room, now fittingly near the Chapel. Accordingly, the Mary Ward Scholars dutifully hung bunting for Mary Ward’s 436th birthday, placed the carefully selected ‘Now that’s what I call Boogie Nights’ CD in the player, bedecked the room with fairy lights, and laid out ‘holey’ doughnuts and ‘bubbles’ in the form of fizzy drink and the soapy variety.
Expecting a couple of dozen students at most, we were inundated by an ebullient mass of students which resembled a crowd scene in the Minions film.
A grand return indeed to the cheerfulness of Mary Ward as we gleefully and robustly sang her a happy birthday, ’lit‘ vibrant floating electric candles in a bowl, and set about demolishing mountains of doughnuts and pain au chocolat with gusto.
Tirzah dressed rather impressively as Mary Ward and ‘hosted’ the event with suitable gravitas and good humour!
Nurturing positivity and resilience
The virtues and skillset of those developing ‘positivity’ and ‘resilience’ are great bulwarks against the vagaries of uncertain times, but the role of Chaplain is to nurture the sense of self and openness to both the specific and eternal.
Our loss of identity as individuals, communities, cultures, and societies can disturb and perturb us and leave us restless and disorientated. Despite the many positive changes and opportunities the ‘new’ world offers, we can struggle with the challenge of simply being ‘well’ in ourselves.
The principle of ‘cura personalis’, so central to Jesuit education, means discerning, discovering, nurturing and celebrating the needs of each and every person, and a Chaplain is a small part in helping that come about.
As a faith school, we journey side by side and arm in arm and seek to recognise the mystery and beauty and majesty and ’magic’ of each other and ourselves.
C.S.Lewis reminded us that ‘Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the Dawn of Time’.
Being humble, hilarious and wholly ourselves
I love that well-known anecdote about Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. A businessman was talking to her at a Garden Party when his mobile rang. She drily and wittily said, ‘You’d better get that, it might be someone important’.
I suspect our witty and wonderful Mary Ward would want us to dearly desire to learn to become humble, hilarious and always wholly and holy ourselves.
We are already, to borrow another cliché of our time, the best ‘version’ of ourselves in God’s eyes...we just need to know it.
For Christians, Christ is seen as the model of human life - the ‘ikon’ of God who shows us what ‘the human person fully alive’ can be. But, the goodness of God is seen in the good of all things. So, the musical medicinal work of Hildegaard of Bingen, the meditative and literary experiences of Julian of Norwich, and the leadership skills of Isnat Barzini, the first Jewish Rabbi in Iran, have all been shared as examples of women’s spirituality this year.
Celebrating our broadcasting talents
Our students involved in Radio Maria Youth are a great witness to the cheerfulness of youth, comradeship, shared faith and open-hearted fun.
To win a secular BBC Youth Audio competition for innovation as an unashamedly faith-based group is extraordinary in today’s world. Maryam G. well deserves the Bishop’s Diocesan medal for her character ’Babs’ in the soap opera ‘Drago’s Café' as much as for her very clear, studiously researched and heartfelt expression of her faith.
Cheerfulness in school life
Cheerfulness abounds here, whether Sixth Formers raising hundreds of pounds by vociferously and gleefully selling Doughnuts for Ukraine, Mary Ward Scholars running our Fairtrade stall, supporting peers fasting at Ramadan, a student choosing the Confirmation name of Hildegard after an assembly, hugging a dog or sponging a teacher at the Lourdes Fundraising, or filling Food Bank boxes, attending our newly restored Wednesday weekday Mass before school, and singing 'Though the Mountains May Fall’ with heartfelt aplomb at the Sixth Form Leavers’ Mass.
Of course, there are times when life is extremely hard; chaplaincy means simply listening and being with those in difficulty or need - there can be the deeper sense of joy in simply knowing we are cared for and have a voice - and at St Mary’s there are many ears open to those in need.
One tearful Year 10 student (who doesn’t mind me sharing this) said she wanted to make a sign for the door saying Centre 33AD (hopefully a nod to the effective ministry of the early church, not my advanced years), She was heartbroken by the death of a very much-loved family pet and burdened by her own desire not to make her parents feel worse by sharing her grief.
Even in such conversations there can be ‘cheerfulness’ - the knowledge shared of both happy and sad memories and the encouragement of others simply being present and acknowledging the pain that love itself can bring.
So great thanks not only to our CJ sisters in Brookside and beyond, always holding us in prayer, the nurses and the rest of my colleagues, both teaching and support staff, but also to every single member of our community for the cheerfulness that is the St Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ - for ‘unnumbered blessings that have given our spirit voice’.
Mel Ward, Lay Chaplain
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