David Hope remembers the faithful ecumenism of Sister Mary Michael CHC
‘The glory you have given me I have given them,
so that they may be one, as we are one…
so that the world may believe that you have sent me’
John 17. 21–22
If there is one major theme which runs throughout the life of Sister Mary Michael almost from beginning to the very end it must surely be that of Christian unity. Even as she was dying, one of her last conversations was with Fr David Gill, Orthodox priest and long-standing friend of hers and of the Community. He noted that even then in her last hours she was still speaking of ecumenism and unity, the Fathers of the Church and their teachings and the renewal of the priesthood. Without any complaint or reference to her own extreme illness she enquired about his and almost her final words were—‘All in God’s hands.’ He noted that ‘she expressed complete faith and trust in God. I discerned her as a soul ready for departure—and this happened just thirty-nine hours later.’
So today we gather in sadness and sorrow at the departing from this world of a treasured and much-loved member of this Community. She was a member of the family from whence she came, and was a friend and fellow pilgrim on the Christian life and way for so many who came into contact with her. Indeed, she will also be mourned by those many without faith or belief to whom she gave such a welcome, support and hope simply by ‘being there’ for them—ecumenism at its widest and most inclusive, reflecting the wide open arms of the crucified saviour who willed life for all, life in all its fullness.
Yet even in our sadness and sorrow there must surely be thanksgiving and even rejoicing for our sister now delivered from the ‘burden of the flesh’ and whose fullness of life is the eternal joy of God’s kingdom. But then, what a life! From the somewhat restricted early life without her father (who had previously died) and a mother rightly protective of her two daughters, she also had to contend with the war and a religious upbringing dominated, I am told, by a hell-and-brimstone clergyman who encouraged her to consider the possibility of becoming a missionary. In fact, she finally found her real niche at St Stephen’s, Grove Street, Liverpool, where the legendary Fr Milburn was parish priest—a church and priest I well remember from my own time as curate at the similarly ‘high’ church of St John, Tuebrook in Liverpool. And if you thought St John’s was high church or ‘up the candle’ as some would say, then St Stephen’s was a very, very high church and well up the candle—perhaps even over the top! Nevertheless, it was here and with Fr Milburn that her journey to this Community began, having been strongly attracted, following a visit to Haywards Heath (where the Community was then), both by the Benedictine spirituality and the Community’s commitment to working and praying for Christian unity.
Sister entered the Community on 11 April 1961 and was clothed as a novice in November, taking the name Mary Michael. She was professed in temporary vows on 5 June 1964, the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the very day in 1959 (also the Feast day of the Sacred Heart) that Pope John XXIII had given Canon Rea (then Warden Rea) his personal Breviary. Her solemn profession followed three years later on the same date.
And, of course, it was the time when ecumenism and the unity of the Church was still much in the ascendency given the impetus of the Abbé Paul Couturier and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Many churches and religious houses had committed to the Thursday Candle for Unity. Indeed, the Community had already, since the 1950s, been commissioning various articles on Christian unity which were sent all over the world, Thomas Merton being but one distinguished contributor. However, some years after the time Sister had joined the Community, the first flush of enthusiasm for unity had begun to fade somewhat and the leaflets were no longer being published. However, in 1976 the then Reverend Mother decided to revive these articles, but from within the Community. It was to Sister Mary Michael that she turned to write them, and write them she did, across wide-ranging aspects of unity. Her writing embraced Methodists and Baptists, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, and even included Judaism and quite other forms of spirituality, all I suspect as a result of her study of the early Fathers and not least the second century Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus. Her work is reminiscent of his reflections on the theme of anakephalaiosis, recapitulatio, namely the universal extent of the final unity of all things in God through the death and resurrection of Christ.
This commitment and enthusiasm for unity was thoroughly grounded and earthed in the contemplative dimension of her vocation. This was very much reflected in the ready way in which she offered to assist Fr Roland Walls in replying to the overwhelming response he had received after giving a radio talk on the theme of turning loneliness into solitude—reminiscent, of course, of Henri Nouwen turning ‘the desert of loneliness into the garden of solitude.’ Each year and for many years she would write up to 45 letters a year, letters which morphed eventually into articles for the Tufton Press, the Church Observer, and New Directions.
And as if all this was not enough, in 1972 she was appointed Novice Mistress and for a few years had the task of running the kitchen, which given that her mother had never taught her any household skills made for some very interesting meals—maybe the first time that the Community had ever even heard of, let alone eaten, her version of Liverpool Scouse!
Given that for some time Sister had been feeling drawn more and more into a life of greater prayer, solitude and silence, the move to Rempstone in 1979 gave her the opportunity to test her vocation as a hermit at Crawley Down. She was granted leave to do so for a period of three months, but given the needs of the Community at Rempstone at that time she was asked to return at the end of the three-month period. This was one of the most difficult periods of Community life for Sister: on the one hand she had the feeling of being called by God to an ever deeper life of silence and contemplation, but could the very same God be making it impossible for her to fulfil such a vocation? Her troubles were exacerbated by the then Reverend Mother with whom she already had a difficult relationship and whom she felt simply did not understand her. And truth be told, she certainly did not!
In spite of such conflicts and challenges, Sister’s life in the Community continued to bear fruit and to further demonstrate her wider interests. She gave a paper in Westminster Cathedral Hall on the concept of the Invisible Monastery in 2003, the 50th anniversary of the death of the Abbé Paul Couturier, and in the same year a paper on William Blake to the Traherne Society.
Following the legislation allowing the ordination of women as priests in 1992, Sister, with a number of Religious from other Communities, joined RooT (Religious of Orthodox Tradition) a group to give moral support to those who did not or could not accept women as priests. In this context she became a member of the council of Forward in Faith, also extending her contacts with the Nordic Catholic Church. Even in those circumstances where Communion has been impaired, even broken, she would strongly maintain we are each and every one of us baptized into the death and resurrection of the one Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In the words of our second reading this morning, nothing can ever separate us—what ever our ecclesial belonging, or none—from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There is nothing shrill or belligerent here, but steeped in the contemplation of the triune godhead she continued faithfully in her writing, her prayer and her commitment to the faith of the Universal Church.
Bishop David Hope is the former Archbishop of York. He is visitor to the Community of the Holy Cross. This homily was preached at Sister Mary’s Michael’s Requiem on 18 July 2018.