By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor
Ursuline Sister of Louisville Martha Buser, a spiritual director, believes that the life of a woman who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries holds spiritual treasures for people today.
“What the world needs now is hope, for heaven’s sake, for the church and the world in general,” said Sister Buser during an interview on the Ursuline campus June 8. “All over the world, people are living in poverty and desperation. People are looking for hope.”
St. Angela Merici, foundress of the Ursuline Sisters, can offer just such hope, said Sister Buser, who has spent decades speaking and writing about the 16th century saint. She recently published her second book on the saint called Lover of Us All.
The title refers to St. Angela Merici’s teaching that God loves unconditionally, something that the saint believed to her core, said Sister Buser.
St. Angela’s firm faith that God was “lover of all” sprang from a mystical religious experience, Sister Buser said. The details of the experience are unknown, though many stories about it have circulated.
“What she got from it was that God loved her unconditionally” and she felt compelled “to do something about it,” Sister Buser said.
The saint lived in the midst of war and poverty, and the church at the time “was in shambles,” said Sister Buser, noting that the Protestant Reformation occurred in Angela Merici’s lifetime.
But “her joy and her hope attracted people,” Sister Buser said. “She refused to be defined by the bleak realities of her time.”
St. Angela Merici had few choices as a woman. She was expected to marry or join a convent, said Sister Buser.
“Women who didn’t (choose one of these) were women of the streets,” she added.
St. Angela Merici “said there was another way.”
“She decided there could be virgins in the world who did not need men or a (convent) wall,” Sister Buser said.
In general, women of her day were not treated well, Sister Buser noted. “But towns and areas had a great devotion to holy women. You see this in parishes” today, she said, adding, “Older ladies are often seen as wisdom figures. In her day, you had people looking for ‘sancta viva’ — living holy ones. So she was the recognized one in her area. She wasn’t the only one. Some of her friends were seen the same way.”
“She became known as a spiritual director,” Sister Buser noted. “She went where people were needed.”
The saint’s life’s work unfolded gradually, but the most historically significant period began when she was likely in her 40s, Sister Buser noted. She went to live in Brescia, Italy, at the behest of a Franciscan community near Lake Garda in northern Italy with which she was involved as a Third Order Franciscan. That was in the year 1516.
There, having attracted a group of women and men who wanted to share in her life of holiness, “she gathered women who were close to her … and she wrote the rule for their little company,” said Sister Buser.
The rule includes promises of poverty, virginity and obedience, among other practices, such as fasting and prayer. The members of the Company of St. Ursula made a firm promise to follow the rule. Yet they continued to live their own lives. Servants continued to serve. Daughters of wealthier families continued to live with their families.
The first Company of St. Ursula looked rather different from today’s religious communities.
“They did not wear a habit. They did not live together. They did not make vows,” Sister Buser explained. “They made a firm promise” to follow the rule. They were all virgins.
“They didn’t have a ‘work,’ ”she noted. “The myth that she (Angela Merici) was a teacher and started schools is false. Being holy and doing what people asked of them,” was their work. “Their mission was to be holy.”
Sister Buser said St. Angela Merici’s writings can be helpful to people looking for spiritual direction today.
“In her rule, she never tells them what to do,” Sister Buser said. “She gives them a way of life. That’s what people are looking for today.”
“The chapter on virginity is very interesting,” she noted. “When she talked about virginity, she was talking about ways of loving. That’s kind of the heart of it — how to love. Poverty is the same way — it’s to free oneself to be loving.”
The first followers of St. Angela “lived their own lives, but they were formed in this spirituality,” she added. “They were formed by love.”
The Ursuline Sisters of today base their charism on these teachings of St. Angela Merici. They tend to use a translation of the rule based on the earliest text known to exist — the Trivulzian Codex. It dates to five years after St. Angela Merici’s death in 1540.
She said she takes St. Angela’s core teachings to heart in her work as a spiritual director.
“I try to be loving unconditionally,” she said. “That’s the goal of the Christian life.”
Her books on St. Angela Merici, Also in Your Midst and Lover of Us All are available through the Ursuline Sisters’ Mailroom at a cost of $5 each plus a shipping charge. To request a book, call 897-1811, send an email to email@example.com or write to the Ursuline Sisters, 3105 Lexington Road, Louisville, Ky., 40206.