1. In the first place then, my daughters and sisters most dear in the Blood of Jesus Christ,
The language of “in the blood of Jesus Christ” may seem to some “out-moded”, but the intent behind the language is no more outmoded than Phil.2:1-11 in which St Paul says to the Philippians: "make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind …. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death …" Phil.2:2-5, 8
Unity is to be found in Christ Jesus, having the same mind, the same love, a love that is stopped by nothing, not even death. In the out-pouring of life, life is given. This is the mind set, the love, the humble service, the ground of unity, that St Angela puts before the members of her Company – her daughters, her sisters in Christ. There is to be no limit to the outpouring of love in their service to others and to each other. “The blood of Jesus Christ” is the traditional hallmark of such love, and such love can never be out-moded. What language do we use today when soldiers lose their lives in service of their country, and the spirit of a nation is rallied by the loss of such life?
2. I remind you to strive, with the help of God, to take hold of and plant within you this right conviction and humble sentiment: do not consider yourselves worthy to be superiors and leaders. St Angela was a 16th century Italian renaissance woman, not a 19th or early 20th century woman for whom humility has become synonymous with self-deprecation, a false humility. For St Angela, humility is not about self-abasement. But it is about truth, it is about recognizing the seduction of the ego, and the suppression of the true self. Angela is not drawing on a 19th or 20th century spirituality here. Rather, once again her words merely echo those to be found in scripture: "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" Rom. 12:3. And again: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself…"Phil.2:5-8a
3. Rather, regard yourselves as ministers and servants reflecting that you have more need to serve them than they have to be served by you, or governed. One of the surest ways to keep one’s ego in check is to honestly esteem the gifts of others. We do not lift ourselves up by putting others down. Rather a true appreciation of the gifts of all, helps us to put ourselves in perspective. Further, St Angela is reminding us here, that we are in fact “gifted”. And a gift is simply that – a gift. It can be given or not given. We may just as easily have not been gifted. The grace of God is given freely and without merit. We are reminded again of Romans 12:4-8 - "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophesy in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate in cheerfulness." And in Luke's Gospel we read: "So you also, when you have done all that your were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” Lk.17:10
Every person is gifted, and for those whose service is the ministry of leadership, it may be said that they do no more than their duty in carrying out their ministry. The service of leadership is not an occasion for eliciting from others any special deference. Rather, they should have the mindset of Christ. Angela continues:
4. and that God could very well provide for them by other means even better than you. Should one be gifted to exercise the service of leadership, one should remember precisely that – it is gift, not merited. It does not reflect on the recipient but on the giver. The world can well survive without us. None of us are irreplaceable or indispensable! Someone else can always be found to carry out whatever service we have to give. St Angela is exhorting us here to take a “reality check”!
5. But in his mercy he has wanted to use you as his means for your greater good, so that you could merit more from his infinite goodness, and that he would have reason for rewarding you. We are to be grateful for the opportunity to do whatever good comes our way. Once again the language here threatens to impede our understanding of the intent behind these words. Perhaps it is not so common these days to think in terms of “meriting reward from God”. However, who has not known the “rewarding feeling” of having done some good, and the more altruistic or selflessly carried out that service has been, the more “inwardly rewarding”! And yet we do not seek reward from others. However, is it not possible that “that rewarding feeling” is an inner affirmation that we have been true to our most authentic self, our true “human” self, and somewhere within us, we know that. It is quite distinct from any reputation we may earn amongst others. It is private, inner, and its fruits are love, joy, peace ... (Gal.5:22-23). It is when we are most authentically human that we are also being divinized, brought into that unity that is the invitation of God to all humanity.
Are we reading too much scripture into St Angela’s words? I don’t believe so. For having spelt out the task of humble leadership in vv.1-5, Angela turns her attention to some essential resources for the task. She begins explicitly with Christ Jesus and Phil.2:8:
6 -7. Learn from Our Lord who, while he was in this world, was a servant, obeying the Eternal Father even unto death. And this is why he says: “Ego fui in vobis non tamquam qui recumbit, sed ut qui ministrant”; that is, I have been among you not as the one who is served, but as the one who serves. St Angela has moved on now from Philippians 2:1-11 to John 13:12-17: "After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them 'do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not great than their master, nor are the messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."
8 -9. And St Gregory, even though he was Pope, still called himself servant of the servants of God. Thus he fulfilled the office of superior and Pope, but in his heart he regarded himself as less than the others, and servant of the servants of God, mindful of the evangelical saying: “Qui maior est inter vos, fiat sicut minor”. We may wonder is St Gregory merely just one more example that we should note to be sure of the kind of humble service that St Angela is putting to the leaders of the Company of St Ursula. However, it may also be remembered that St Angela is writing at a time when the papacy is anything but an example of the leadership she is promoting. These Counsels are being written just a few years before the Council of Trent is to commence. It is not only a time when the leaders of the Church are in disrepute, it is also a time when reformers are advocating that our authority should be Scripture only, while the Church in the Council of Trent affirmed the authority of both Scripture and Tradition. Here St Angela is drawing on tradition, and pointing the attention of the Company members to a time when that tradition was in fact authentically lived, a leader whose leadership was in sync with that of Jesus. St Angela is well aware of the situation of the Church in her time and the confusion this posed for many people. We will see this more specifically in her Seventh Counsel, vv.23-24, where she says: “As for the other opinions that are arising now, and will arise, leave them aside as not concerning you. But pray, and get others to pray, that God not abandon his Church, but reform it as he pleases…” Though not the intent here, we get a glimpse or insight as to how St Angela weaved her way through the politically religious turmoil of her time, pursuing a clarity of focus and single-mindedness that was firmly grounded in both scripture and tradition.
10 -14.In like manner, you also be superiors in the same way, that is, know and consider yourselves less than they. Because if you do this, then God himself will exalt you as much as you have humbled yourselves. For not in vain, and not without reason, a true and prudent servant of God humbles himself in his heart, and annihilates in himself his own feelings, and delight in his own reputation, because he hopes and expects from God another delight and truer glory and honour. For he firmly believes what the Gospel says: “Qui se humliat exaltabitur”; that is, he who humbles himself shall be exalted. Once again the scripture is explicit - Mt 23:12 and similarly Lk.14:11; Lk.18:14, James 4:6 and 1 Pet.5:6.. The language of "annihilating one's feelings" seems at first glance quite harsh, but it is to be clarified by "delight in one's reputation". Angela is constantly alert to the potential of ego trips, and the subtle unconscious development of self-serving interests. Hence, her repetitive stress on keeping the other "first" and the example of Jesus Christ. Leadership is about service of the "other", not service of one's reputation. In her Rule for the first Members of the Company on Prayer, Angela prays: "My Lord, light up the darkness of my heart ... and strengthen my affections and senses so that they do not stray, neither to right nor to left..."