A feminine way of praying- The silence, listening and contemplation of the theologian Lucinda Vardey

2017-06-01 L’Osservatore Romano

What is striking about the writer and theologian Lucinda M. Vardey is the low tone of her voice, the sober elegance in her way of dressing and above all her gentle and acute gaze, suspended between earth and heaven. Her life was and continues to be under the banner of change and inner renewal ever since, as a successful businesswoman in charge of an international company, she decided to change her life: “There was a side of me that yearned for stillness, for solitude and for silence”, she explains quite naturally. “So it was that I decided to sell my company and to go and study in the East. I needed to do something with my body. It was as if until that moment everything had been in my head; we women think that in order to obtain something we must use our heads but in fact as women we not onlylive the experience of motherhood in our bodies, but it is through them too that our perceptions and knowledge come. If something is right or mistaken, a woman feels it first of all in her viscera. My body urged me to take seriously the messages it was sending me: messages or ways in which God was trying to speak to me”.

Sano di Pietro, “St Catherine of Siena” (c. 1442)

In the East, Lucinda met people of different religions but who were united by the fact of having dedicated their lives to God although they called him by many different names: “I spent three or four years in an ashram, understanding how deeply the spirit was incarnated in the body. After that I began to direct retreats practising yoga. In theWest yoga is considered more than anything else tobe a way of exercising in order to relax, but this is not at all that it is: instead it is a systematic practice of unity with the divine”. The body with its language manifested itself once again as a means for knowledge and for the perception of God, making itself the protagonist of a new turning point in Lucinda’s life: “At a certain point my body did not want to make any more movements and I immediately realized that this was the so-called illness of mysticism, whose symptoms I found described in many lives of saints. I perceived an internal transformation, directed by Jesus Christ. I found myself spending a year and a half in bed without being able to do much, as if I had been given the opportunity to do nothing other than pray. I thus learned to pray more deeply, to practise a prayer of listening, of silence and of recapitulation”. Once again God took in hand the reins of the theologians’ life and directed her at first in unclear and surprising ways; Lucinda put up no resistance to the call and sought as far as possible to harmonize herself with the wavelength of transcendence in order to discern the signs and to identify the way to take: “I had many heart problems”, she continued, “but when I went to see the cardiologist, no disease was found; I then realized intuitively that my heart was made for something and I only had to believe in this, even though it was very difficult. Looking back, I could say that this illness was a great adventure, a great opportunity, because it seemed to me that I had been sent to school, to the school of the Lord who wanted me for himself without distractions. My husband, a theologian, also understood that a profound transformation was under way and helped me and gave me great support. As a married woman I was very privileged both from the material point of view and for being able to share what was happening to me with my husband”.

The choir of the Church of the Basilian Fathers in Toronto

A long period of silence, listening and contemplation began: in Tuscany, in the places dear to St Francis, Lucinda began to direct prayer retreats: “In these retreats we would revisit the lives of saints such as Catherine of Siena, Clare of Assisi, On the very day of the feast of St Veronica, 9 July, when the grilles were opened and the cloistered sisters came out to go to Mass, something happened which reshaped the course of Lucinda’s life: On that day, in fact, I too had to go to Mass, but it was hot and I did not want to; but I knew that God always gives us freedom of choice and that it is up to us to understand his call”. Entrusting herself once again to her intuition, which told herthat something crucial awaited her, Lucinda went to Mass, where a very small sister, who popped out from who knows where, went to sit beside her and started to speak to her: “I asked her what the situation of her community was like, and as though she had not heard my question she answered that there was great suffering in the world. Then the bishop arrived, the Mass was very beautiful and at the end the little sister embraced me and kissed me as though she knew me and told me that she would pray for me as I stood in great need of prayers. And then she disappeared, she literally vanished. I felt that something was happening within me; I can describe it as a miracle because miracles are signs that something is happening: they are signs which manifest themselves in our ordinary life, not the strange events that they are usually considered to be”. Two days after that meeting, Lucinda experienced a clear perception within herself that she must give life to a community of women affiliated to the cloistered convent of Città di Castello. After a series of talks, meetings, trips and prayers, her project at last became clarified and took shape: not in Tuscany, where the call had occurred, but in Toronto, where the community of Contemplative Women of St Anne came into being. “We are 18 women in all who come from various neighbourhoods of the city. We are affiliated to the Archdiocese of Toronto and we chose the Fathers of St Basil as our spiritual directors and counsellors. We meet, pray and study the lives and writings of women saints, in particular the holy doctors of the Church. We examine their lives, their family backgrounds and their theology and search for points of similarity or difference between their lives or their writings. We recite the Divine Office when we gather in the afternoon. We are like a monastery without walls”. In a metropolis like Toronto the community represents an oasis in which it is possible to grasp moments of contemplation and closeness to the divine in a society established on pragmatic values, far from spiritual experience. “Prayer”, Lucinda continues, “is focused above all on the ‘feminine’. This means that we women are aware of being in a Church built on male values and, although we have nothing against this, we consider that there is a need for greater complementarity. Women are very much alone in the Church: they are alone, as Dorothy Day explained so well, even if they are married and have children, because they have no community in which to receive understanding and guidance. Now, after four or five years, the women of the Community of St Anne have started to know themselves and to express themselves: they are completely different people, they are more aware and vital”.

A panorama of the Canadian metropolis

The “feminine way” is a central point of the spiritual experience of Lucinda Vardey, according to whom “in every man and woman two forms of energy coexist; the feminine energy of contemplation and the masculine energy of action, called by Taoism respectively yin and yang. In women the female yin side is preeminent, but the male side is also present; the same thing applies to men, where the yang side prevails but is not exclusive. The growth of human beings occurs in our awareness of the other part which lives within us”. God too, according to the theologian, presents a feminine aspect: “The female side of God is exemplified by Jesus Christ on the Cross, completely unable to move, crucified, naked, but who takes on the burdens of others to the very end. With this I do not want to separate God into two parts but rather not to masculinize him too much. I perceive God the Creator as a mother who gives life to a continuous, active process of birth”. And it is to this Creator God that is addressed the prayer of a woman whose depth and naturalness, defined by an obvious closeness with the divine, are striking: “for me prayer is the awareness that God is in all things. I pray in a disciplined manner for at least three or four hours a day in silence. I offer my work for the greatest glory of God, I pray while I am writing or before I pay the bills; I pray first and foremost urged by gratitude and to ask for advice, for guidance. I live a life which for the most part is contemplative, I only go out to visit the community or to Mass. I have a little chapel at home with an icon before which I kneel in the evening or whenever I need to ask God for guidance. However, what I always tell the members of my community is that there are no official positions or places for prayer, what is important is to be ready for revelation”. Lucinda’s life is the testimony of someone who has known how “to be ready” and she continues to stake her ownself, docile as she lets herself be modelled by a transcendent desire which she lives in constant listening and harmony. 

Elena Buia Rutt

Lucinda M. Vardey

Born in London in 1949, Lucinda M. Vardey is the author of numerous books including The Flowering of the Soul: A Book of Prayers by Women (1999). The leader of a lay women’s association recently established in Toronto, Canada, called The Contemplative Women of St Anne, which is dedicated to prayer and to the study of women saints and mystics of the Church, today Vardey divides her life between Canada and Italy. In response to Pope Francis’ invitation to work out “A profound theology of women” she organized an international seminar at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, structured over three years – the first, Heart, was held in 2016, the second, Tears, this year – which always takes place to coincide with 29 April, the feast of St Catherine of Siena.