1. Sister Angela, unworthy servant of Jesus Christ,
This initial greeting echoes the greetings of Paul to the early Christian communities, e.g. “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ… grace and peace….” (Rom.1:1). Like Paul, St Angela first identifies herself as a servant of Jesus Christ. Nor are we to dismiss the word “unworthy” as symptomatic of a piety belonging to another era. Rather, we will find in her writings a constant appreciation of the giftedness of all in life, a giftedness that is totally gratuitous on the part of God. Paul, too, was well aware of the utter gratuitousness of God’s love when he wrote: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom.5:8). As servant, she is like Paul: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth...For we are God’s servants working together: you are God’s field, God’s building." (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Later in her Counsels she will remind the leaders of the Company, that God could just as easily have “gifted” someone else with the task they have been given. The call to be leaders is gift, not merited, the task itself is gift. They, too, are unworthy servants, sowing and watering the seed, but knowing it is God who calls and God who gives the growth.
2. to her beloved daughters and sisters, the leaders of the Company of St Ursula.
St Angela continues in the Pauline formulaic greeting. Of note here is that she addresses the leaders as both daughters and sisters. In life, St Angela was known as Suor Madre, although notably she introduces herself simply as 'Sister' - sister, therefore , being the primary relationship. Suor Madre, or 'daughters and sisters', captures that double relationship of both equality and responsibility for nurturing life, for watering the seed. It further underpins the servant emphasis - there is no place in Angela's teaching for "Lording it over" others. One is not simply 'mother', one is also sister. Just as Paul addressed the members of his communities as "brother and sister", so too, the leaders of the Company must always remember their equality as sisters within the Company. Nor should we forget that St Angela was also a Franciscan tertiary and therefore possibly well acquainted with St Francis' Canticle of Creation. As 'sister', Angela places herself amongst the members of the Company as an equal. Yet for the responsibility for nurturing the life of each one in the Company, Angela uses the mother~daughter relationship. Within the double relationship of both sister and mother, there is no place for the mother~daughter relationship being one that fosters a childlike submission and dependence. Rather, it must profoundly respect the dignity and conscience of each one, remembering they are also 'sister'. Thus the relationship of the leaders of the Company with the members of the Company will be the same as that of St Angela with the leaders. It will not be dictatorial, highly directive, bureaucratic, administrative, managerial, nor necessarily setting strategic goals and plans. It is no more nor less than the Pauline image of 'watering the seed' - doing all that it takes to encourage and nurture growth. Nurturing growth will be seen as key to Angela's understanding of leadership.
3. May the strength and true consolation of the Holy Spirit be in you all,
Again, the Pauline formula continues. Whereas Paul’s prayer was frequently for the grace and peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, St Angela’s prayer is for strength, consolation and the Holy Spirit. Why? It is:
4-6. so that you can sustain and carry out vigorously and faithfully the charge laid upon you, and at the same time look forward to the great reward which God has prepared for you if you strive, each one for her part, to be faithful and full of concern for his spouses who have been entrusted to you, to guard them and watch over them as most vigilant shepherds and good servants.
We note here that there is no place for passivity in this charge, nor for anyone not doing their part. Nor is it perceived to be an easy task. It demands the same commitment that Paul commands in Rom.12:9-13 – “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, …” Angela returns frequently to the image of the shepherd in fulfilling this task, and thus we are reminded of Jn 10:15, the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. These images help to ground the mother image. The sense of zeal to which St Angela is appealing here, is the same zeal that a mother has for the protection and well-being of her child, a shepherd that lays down his life for his sheep. This sense of zeal flows from a sense of responsibility, that innate protective responsibility one has for those "carved on the palm of my hand" (Is. 49:16) - one's own.
It is a task of immense responsibility, not by virtue of the merit of the leaders themselves, rather, by virtue of the dignity of those for whom they are concerned. We find the same teaching in the words from 1 Tim 1:14 – “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us”. Likewise, Paul in 2 Thes.2:13-17 recognises that those he serves are chosen by God and it is this reality that makes the leader a servant, a servant of God entrusted with the care of those precious to God, called by God. Angela is encouraging the same attitude in the leaders of the Company as Paul, Timothy and other New Testament leaders had towards their communities.
Wherein lies the dignity of those entrusted to the care of these leaders? It is grounded in their spousal relationship to Christ.Therefore, since the members of the Company have been called and chosen by God, and the leaders are as God’s servants in the care of them, then Angela rightly exhorts the leaders:
7-8. How much, therefore, must you pray God to enlighten you, and direct you, and teach you what you have to do for love of him in this task - and there cannot be another more worthy than to be guardians of the spouses of the Most High.
And perhaps, with these words, we step back in discomfort feeling a sentiment not characteristic of our 21st century expression. However, we cannot fully appreciate Angela’s teaching on leadership without an appreciation of the theological import behind the term “spouse”. It is a Biblical term and used often in the scriptures to image the relationship of God with Israel, of Jesus with the Church. It is not a romantic or sentimental concept. Rather it pertains to that unique bond in which humanity and divinity are one in the Incarnation, in Jesus, a dynamic towards the unity of God. The “spouse of the Most High” is called to allow this reality to be transparent in her life. It is a reality to which all humanity is called to participate and to live fully in the eschatological fullness of time. The spouse of the Most High enters into this reality now. Often Angela will return to this imagery for it grounds the very dignity of the members of the Company and thereby the enormity of the charge entrusted to the leaders. The relationship of the members of the Company with Christ is one in which Christ is their one and only treasure and in Him is their love (Counsels 5:43). Thus often St Angela will refer to Christ as “Amator” – “my Lover, or rather ours, the Lover of us all”. The members of the Company of St Ursula are called to know deeply the love of Christ. Knowing deeply the love of Christ, and living that love in every moment and arena of their lives, is their vocation. Their lives are to be shot through with love, being loved by God, being the beloved of God, living that love in the world around them, having that same love for all they encounter and with whom they engage. In her Rule, St Angela exhorted her daughters to never cease to have the love of God burning in their hearts (Rule 9:22). They are to be the heart of God in the world. They are God’s treasure just as God is their one and only treasure – and we might recall Paul’s cry of (Phil.3:8-9a) that he regarded “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” The leaders of the Company are entrusted with the care of the heart of God. This is what is at stake. This is the foundation of their leadership – knowing the treasure they are to watch over and nurture.
Angela is concerned in this Prologue to ground the locus and nature of leadership within the Company. Only then can she proceed to offer guidelines as to how this may be carried out, what might be its human face, what might characterize such leadership in operation. So we find in the First Counsel a theme of humility and service as qualities the leaders must have, just to ensure this primary foundation of leadership is understood. For now she continues to ground this leadership by focusing on the dignity of those whom they are called to serve in leadership. She continues:
9-11. So also you must consider in what manner you must esteem them, for the more you esteem them, the more you will love them; the more you love them, the more you will care for and watch over them. And it will be impossible for you not to cherish them day and night, and to have them all engraved in your heart, one by one, for this is how real love acts and works.
This is a somewhat daunting task. It is not only the way true love works, it is also the way of true motherhood and fatherhood. We are reminded of Mt.10:29-30 - ”Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted”; Is.43:1 - “I have called you by name, you are mine”; and Is.49:15-16a - “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”
St Angela typically contemplates nothing less than one hundred percent commitment. I recall a teacher in an Ursuline school once saying that, every lesson, she endeavoured to call each student by name at least once. As scripture again reminds us - “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk.12:34). Angela acknowledges that we love what we treasure, in other words, human esteem precedes love, not just follows. We do not love what we do not treasure, or in other words, esteem. And we treasure that which we love. And so St Angela says that the leaders must consider in what manner they esteem the members of the Company. So they must contemplate the gift entrusted to their care. Daunting as all this may seem, Angela counsels:
12. And this charge must not be a burden for you; on the contrary, you have to thank God most greatly that he has deigned to see to it that you are among those he wants to spend themselves in governing and safe-guarding such a treasure, his own.
This is reminiscent of the spirit of Phil.1:3-4 when Paul prays: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.”
13. Grace certainly great and destiny inestimable, if you are willing to recognize it. Perhaps we need to continue in the spirit of Philippians to make sense of this for Paul refers to the Philippians as "my joy and my crown" (Phil.4:1). We may also recall 2 Cor.4:7 - "But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us." The task of the leader is a participation in the work of God. It is not one's own work. It is God's work. This becomes increasingly explicit:
14-15. Do not be afraid of not knowing and not being able to do what is rightly required in such a singular government. Have hope and firm faith in God, for he will help you in everything. It is the Gospel of John that comes to mind again: "the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you." (Jn.14:26-27). Also we are reminded of 1 Cor.1:8-9: "He will also strengthen you to the end so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." Angela is fully immersed in the faith and confidence that both Jesus and St Paul assured us that we should have. The reiteration of this encouragement by Angela serves to remind us that the work of leadership in the Company is a participation in God's work. And so the leaders are to:
16. Pray to him, humble yourselves under his great power, because, without doubt, as he has given you this charge, so he will give you also the strength to be able to carry it out, provided you do not fail for your part.
The resonance with 1 Peter 5: 5-11 is clear here: "And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another... Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God...Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you..."Humility is one of Angela's strong themes. Perhaps for recent generations, the practice of humility has too often had the face of diffidence, self-deprecation, an incipient demeanor, a falsity with respect to one's own gifts. By contrast, children in contemporary society grow up with much more self-confidence at an earlier age than did their parents and grandparents. Children are taught to "apply" for positions of leadership within their school and are expected to be able to name what they would bring to a leadership position, to be able to articulate why they, and not the next person, should be given the role of leadership. Job interviews require people to be able to "sell themselves". In fact, "self-sell" is the norm and there is no place for the kind of humility characterised by diffidence and false modesty. Neither of these extremes sits comfortably with Angela's understanding of humility.
A superficial reading of the Counsels may see Angela lining up with a perception of humility seen to characterize earlier generations. However, a closer reading suggests that Angela does not advocate self-deprecation, nor false modesty, for its own sake. Rather, her whole focus is on truthfulness and the "other". Both approaches above are essentially "self"-referenced. Angela's starting point is always the "other". In this respect, with eyes firmly fixed on those whom one is called to lead, and on the One in whose work this leadership participates, then any humbling is by way of acknowledgement of the greatness/giftedness/dignity of the other. The humbling that Angela is encouraging here taps into that sense of "privilege" one might feel in having been supportive or mentoring of another in their achievement. When one participates in something far greater than oneself, the humbling is more an acknowledgment of the other, rather than a "putting-down" of oneself.
In this Prologue, Angela is trying to point to the dignity of the other and the greatness of the task at hand. It is a humility that does not excuse one from the task because of any lack on the part of the one called to leadership. One must still try, one must do one's best. However, one does so with the confidence that, any lack on the part of the leader is of no consequence, because the work is God's. One only needs to do their best, and then leave the rest to God. And so Angela exhorts her daughters to:
17-18. Act, move, believe, strive, hope, cry out to him with all your heart, for without doubt you will see marvellous things, if you direct everything to the praise and glory of his Majesty and the good of souls.
We find similar assurances in Hebrews 10:19-25: "Therefore my friends, since we have confidence ... let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith... Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without waivering, for he who has promised is faithful..." The confidence that Angela gives testimony to here, is a long way from any self-deprecating kind of humility. Neither is Angela on about self-promotion here. This is nothing other than absolute confidence in what God will do. However, there is an "if", the language of which might not appeal. It is not so customary these days to speak in terms of the "good of souls". However, moving behind the language here, Angela is simply reminding us of the fundamental essence of our task, that same task of Jesus - to announce the Reign of God, to make known a God who is Love, the Gospel message that invites us to turn towards God, to take on in our living the values of the "Reign of God" here and now in our world. We, and those in leadership of the Company, have one main task - to participate in bringing to fulfillment the Reign of God. Nothing is to be done for ourselves. All is to be done for the sake of others, for their good and well-being that will lead them to building up the Reign of God in the world. So if the language does not appeal, we can "contemporise" the language, but the underlying intent is the same - the intent of the Gospel message, of the Good News.
19-22. And among the other things which, with the grace of God, you have to do, I ask you all, or rather I beg you for love of the Passion of Jesus Christ and of our Lady, that you strive to put into practice these few counsels which I am leaving you now to carry out after my death; they will be for you a reminder of at least a part of my will and desire. And by this I shall know whether you are really eager to please me.
We cannot miss the resonance here with Jesus' parting words to his disciples in John's last supper discourse. Angela is clearly steeped in the scriptures.
23-25. For understand that now I am more alive than I was when I lived on earth, and I see better and hold more dear and pleasing the good things which I see you constantly doing, and now, even more, I want and am able to help you and do you good in every way.
Angela was also keenly aware of the Communion of Saints.