Nano Nagle’s spirituality had a transformative effect on the Catholic community in Cork, in Ireland and eventually in many places throughout the world.
What was Nano attentive to?
Nano was attuned to the edges of things. She was in touch with the experiences of people who were poor and pushed to the margins. She was in touch with their experiences of hopelessness and despair. She was attentive to their needs – for education, for faith development, for a soothing word or a soothing hand. She was attentive to the political and social realities that created extreme poverty and dispossession. She was attuned to where political power was exercised. She was attuned to the Church and its evolving role in Irish society towards the end of the Penal Laws. She was attentive to the practical everyday necessities of keeping her schools functioning and establishing two religious congregations in Cork to ensure the ongoing effectiveness of these schools. She was attentive to the call of God’s spirit in the ordinary everyday realities of her life. She did not look for extraordinary signs and wonders to make her way to God. She was attentive to God in the daily relationships, commitments and activities of daily life and discerned God’s presence there. Her letters are a testament to this.
How did Nano cultivate this attentiveness?
We know from the few books of Nano that have survived that she read the Bible and spiritual reading books such as Lettres Spirituelles by Nicolas Barre and Instructions by Father John Gother. We know that Nano spent long hours each day in prayer and practices of penance. Nano’s practice of fasting and of other austere practices were reminders to her of her total dependence on God. In a letter from Eleanor Fitzsimmons to Teresa Mulally we read:
She added to her usual austerities that of fasting every Wednesday and Friday on bread and water since she left our convent and lived in her own house. She enjoined secrecy of this matter during her life to all her religious sisters. She took the discipline four times each week during the “Miserere”, she made instructions three hours each day during Lent, fasting, and passed eleven hours last Holy Thursday night before the Blessed Sacrament, kneeling all that time, as she was never seen to sit whenever it was exposed. (Walsh p 368)
We can assume from her background and from the name that she gave her new Society of Sisters that Nano had a devotion to the Sacred Heart. We are told by M Bernard Stewart OSB in a letter to Sr Camillus in 1969 (Raphael Consedine pbvm, Listening Journey pp 12,13):
In 1730 she [Nano] was sent to school at Ypres, being twelve and remained four years till she was 16… There is also a tradition that Nano entered [there] but remained only a short time as a Jesuit Confessor advised her to return to Ireland and give herself to work for the poor of that nation. In 1704 the devotion to the Sacred Heart was officially established and the pupils were enrolled. Nano established the devotion in Cork.
Nano’s devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was the source of her fidelity to her mission. Sister Teresa Austin Carroll rsm wrote in 1867:
No doubt it was only in firm reliance on the Heart of Jesus that our young apostle could face the physical labour of her mission, to say nothing of its more repulsive features… The great devotion to the Sacred Heart that prevails in the Presentation Houses may be traced back to the days of the Foundress… This much we know for certain, that of fifty houses of the Presentation order there is not one without its confraternity of the Sacred Heart… Such are a few items in the life of her who, perhaps, did more than any other person to spread devotion to the Sacred Heart in Ireland.
In a time when Catholics did not highly value the reading of Scripture, Sister Angela Fitzsimons writes to Miss Mulally 21 May 1784 (Walsh p 368) that in the Easter Week just before her death Nano ‘had read the Passion of our Lord three times at different schools’. Perhaps Nano’s greatest devotion to the Passion of Christ was, as Dr Coppinger (Walsh p 393) points out, her struggle against ill health as ‘a constant crucifixion of bodily indulgence’. Her devotion to the Passion of Christ was also lived out through her struggle against the social injustices that caused such suffering in the Body of Christ, the poor and needy people of Cork. And finally, her devotion to the Passion of Christ was lived out in her fidelity to the daily commitments she had made – whatever that involved; physical discomfort, begging in the streets, the tiresome negotiations to get the Ursulines to Cork, the disappointment in the Ursuline project, the constant frustration of seeing growing need and dwindling resources.
Like Jesus, the icon of God’s compassionate love, she came to embody God’s compassionate presence for those pushed to the edges of Cork’s society. Nano’s zeal and sheer hard work over so many years in such difficult circumstances arose from her closeness to the Heart of Jesus and her fidelity to the Gospel message to spread the Good News of God’s Love to those who are poor. We know from several references in her letters that Nano had a devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. In her schools she promoted devotion to Mary:
Every Saturday they all say the beads, the grown girls every evening. (Letter to Miss Fitzsimmons, 17 July 1769)
In her letter to Miss Mulally in 1780, she describes her move from her cabin to the new convent in the midst of political disturbances in the city. She organised the move before three in the morning to avoid detection but also so that “we were there on the Festival of our Blessed Lady, under whose protection we are. I hope she will preserve us from our visible and invisible enemies and make this house prosper and others of the same Charitable Institution in time.” In the beginning of 1783, in a letter to Teresa Mulally, Nano describes how they received a novice on the Feast of the Presentation of our Blessed Lady. We can assume that this feast was special to Nano when we read in the Annals that the new title for the congregation of ‘Sisters of the Presentation of Our Lady’ was so happily adopted by the early Presentation community.
How was Nano intentional in her life?
How was she intentional about what she attended to in her life? Nano made choices about how she spent her time, her money, her energy, her interest, her passion. She had options in her life. She chose to be attentive to where the Spirit of God was leading her and responded with all her intelligence, her strength and her resources. She responded even when this meant having to cope with apparent failures – to be faithful to her vocation in the convent in France; to succeed in her plan for the Ursuline Sisters; to have her society of sisters on a firm footing before her death. She intentionally followed the call of the Spirit of God even when it meant giving up her comfortable lifestyle, giving up her reputation and giving up her personal safety. Nano was intentional about the attitude she brought to her life and to the lives of others.
Nano’s letters reveal a woman of energy and positive outlook even when beset by challenges and difficulties. Her orientation to life, her standpoint, her approach to life was deliberately that of absolute trust in Divine Providence. Nano intentionally chose to keep going, to change her plans, to trust that God was guiding her through every step of the way. Her passion for those made poor and for changing the structures that made and kept people poor was the compass that kept her open to each step that God invited her to take.
Nano’s spirituality was transformative.
There is no doubt that Nano’s spirituality transformed her own heart and life. Her life was turned upside down. The woman enjoying the frivolous entertainments in France is very different from the woman scandalised because of her throng of beggar’s brats. There is no doubt that she transformed the lives of her early companions. Their fidelity and courage in the founding period of the Congregation is a testament to the spiritual heritage Nano left them and the lessons they learned from watching her spirituality in action. In spite of the fact that their early years as a Society were marked by illness, death, dire poverty and embezzlement, Mary Ann Collins could write to Teresa Mulally on the 31st March 1786 (Walsh p 370):
“… we have the comfort to hear from the best divines in this city that there never was so much good done since Saint Patrick’s time as has been promoted by our Holy Foundress’ Establishments as they say it’s the only counterpoise to the Charter Schools and the only means to prevent the growth of Heresy…”
There is no doubt of the transformative effect that Nano had on the Catholic community and on Catholic education in Cork, in Ireland and eventually in many places throughout the world. There are many testaments to the transformative power of her own commitments, passion and attentiveness to God’s action in her life.
What will become of the innocent orphans, hundreds of whom she drew from vice and ignorance? What will become of the sick, naked and afflicted, whom she so often relieved and comforted with her unbounded charities? The object of greatest distress was that of her greatest compassion. (Sister Ursula Kavanagh, one of the first Irish Ursulines)
And of course, we know from the history of the Presentation Congregations as they spread around the world that the Spirit of Nano has continued to be transformational in the lives of sisters, students, parishioners and many others over the past 225 years. The work of Presentation people in a variety of contexts has challenged unjust structures, welcomed each person and respected their dignity, and inspired people to work for an alternative society where all are included as part of the kingdom of God.
The lantern has become the symbol of the transformative nature of the Spirit at work in the life of Nano Nagle and her followers. It symbolises light in the darkness of fear, ignorance and despair; hope in the face of overpowering injustice and oppression; and the power of even small acts of human kindness against the tide of poverty and neglect.
Author: s. Marlette Black pbvm
Text is an excerpt from the booklet Presentation Charism and Spirituality, which can be downloaded here.
To read more about Nano Nagle inspired transformative initiatives today, click here.