Introduction and Context
Today many activities and initiatives in Catholic schools in the Edmund Rice Tradition have strong Edmund Rice charism connections and motivations. With the new emphasis on Edmund Rice and his story the relationship that ultimately inspired Edmund, his deep love of Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, could be put into the background. The purpose of this reflection is to break open a little the beautiful relationship that nurtured Edmund and his dream: his deep and personal faith in God and Jesus Christ – the upside down Messiah!
To understand Edmund’s deep love for God, for Jesus, for the spiritual life and for “God present in all things” one has to place Edmund within his Celtic milieu. Edmund was born in Callan in Ireland in 1762. Edmund’s family were farmers and knew the land intimately. For Edmund the flow of the seasons and their intimate dance with the spiritual life and especially the Church’s sacramental life and liturgical year was as natural as breathing. Core to celtic spirituality is the oneness of all things; for the Celt there is no dualistic divide between the natural and the spiritual worlds – all is one. How can you talk about the ‘secular’ with someone who sees all things as sacred?
Being so close to the natural world meant that Edmund was at home with the natural rhythm of birth and death. Through this rhythm Edmund was constantly invited into a constant awareness of just what in each present moment was speaking to his heart. Where was God in this or that event, person or question of the heart? It is no surprise then that Edmund instructed the Brothers in the early schools to stop lessons on the hour and to bring to mind the presence of God. This presence was part of Edmund. For Edmund, God was the author of life, the creator God, the all present mystery that we call love. Edmund lived long before we spoke of Creation Spirituality – long before modern science came to the realisation that people of the land, like Edmund, knew instinctively. Today we are coming to know the interconnectedness and interdependence of all of life. Edmund would have grown up with that awareness deep in his bones.
The Classroom of the home
To understand Edmund’s spirituality one also has to go back to his family. Edmund grew up in a deeply Catholic family where daily life and the life of the faith community went hand in glove. In his family home Edmund also learnt that faith was expressed in compassion for all around you, especially the poor. Edmund’s Ireland knew the effects of the potato famines and hence for Margaret and Robert Rice care for those trapped in poverty was as integral to their Catholic faith as was the Eucharist, indeed in Celtic spirituality the link was intimate. No wandering pauper would have been sent away empty after knocking on the door of the family home, ‘Westcourt’!
Husband and father!
Between his childhood at Westcourt and his coming of age as a successful businessman in Waterford many people influenced Edmund and his values: Brother Paddy Grace OSA, his Kilkenny teacher Mr White and his uncle Michael being among them. All three shared an approach towards spirituality that saw and celebrated the oneness of faith and life. His deep faith was expressed in who he was and how he did business. Away from business the picture painted of Edmund during this period is of a young Irishman deeply in love with his Gaelic culture and fully engaging with the world. His courtship and marriage [probably to a Mary Elliott] at age 23 in 1785 were undoubtedly of profound significance.
One of the great gifts of the Edmund Rice Movement over recent years has been the insights offered into the heart of Edmund by married people as they articulate the aspects of the face of God present in the profound intimacy of marriage. Scripture offers us many images of the ‘lover’ and the betrothed and they mirror the love of God for us. Edmund’s marriage would have led him to even greater depths of insight around vulnerability, honest communication, a sense of the ‘gift’ of the feminine, the ecstasy of sexual union especially when coupled with total commitment and that place of knowing that you are as unconditionally known and loved by this other as is humanly possible. This knowledge can only help one sense in a most sacred way the glance of the divine; the God who calls us by name and who “knits us together in our mother’s womb” [Psalm 139].
No marriage, no relationship is perfect nor without its pain. Edmund’s relationship with his wife and his fatherhood of young Mary Rice would have been impacted significantly on his spirituality. On one hand the closeness of these human relationships would have helped him glimpse and encounter even more closely the relational in the divine. On the other hand the loss associated with these relationships and the day to day difficulties of any intimate relationship would have stretched Edmund, leading to his growth in compassion. The death of his beloved wife in January 1789 after only four years of marriage would have touched Edmund’s heart deeply. Prior to the death of his wife Edmund had also lost his father in November 1787.
Nurturing the heart
The Jesus that Edmund made so central to his life led him to ‘risk all’ for the Kingdom of God. What nurtured Edmund’s spirituality? We know that Edmund was a daily mass goer. What motivates a man to begin his day with the Eucharist? Did Edmund attend Mass each day simply out of duty? This would not ring true with the independent and free thinking Edmund who envisioned new ways of being in solidarity with the poor. There was something in the daily spiritual rhythm of reflecting on God’s Word and breaking the bread of Eucharist that helped Edmund reverence God present in all.
As a eighteenth century Irish Catholic it is not surprising that Edmund prayed the Rosary. It would be too easy to dismiss this as some pious practice with little to say to us today. But the rhythm of the rosary, its invitation to reflect on the mysteries of Christ’s life and the nurturing of the feminine in his spirituality were all gift for the young Edmund. Our oral tradition tells us that Edmund would often invite his companions on business trips to pray the rosary with him. Celtic spiritualty has a beautiful balance between the masculine and the feminine and the rosary would have been for Edmund what many meditation techniques may be for us today.
Edmund’s devotion to Mary the mother of Jesus was also very dear to him. There were several significant women in Edmund’s life. The influence of his mother Margaret and the depth of his love for his wife were strong shapers of his approach towards both education and the relationship with the poor. Edmund’s daughter Mary engaged with his heart as only a son or daughter can and it was his half-sister Joan Murphy who after the death of his wife challenged Edmund to “look outside your window” to the poor on the quays close by.
In the midst of the pain, confusion and discernment following the death of his wife and Edmund’s first school at New Street in 1802 it is clear that Edmund was very deliberate about the development of his spiritual life. The cornerstones of this life were his total trust in an ever present and unconditionally loving God, and a God present to him and around him in a unique way through the poor.
Edmund was closely associated with the Jesuit priests who ran St. Patrick’s parish close by Edmund’s family home at Arundel Place. Edmund chose a Jesuit as his spiritual director [bringing him into close contact with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola]. He engaged in spiritual reading [he had a particular love of the writings of St Teresa of Avila] and in 1791 subscribed to and purchased his own Bible, actively engaging with the texts, especially those that refer to the Biblical imperative to act with justice for / to the poor. Edmund had a deep love for the Blessed Sacrament and was to be frequently found in prayer before it – writing his important letters there. What was this all about? It is clear that Edmund was deeply ‘aware’ of the presence of God in his life and that that presence was nurtured and fed through the Eucharist. What is prophetic about Edmund Rice is that his spirituality naturally linked this Eucharistic faith with the ‘eucharistic’ Christ dwelling within the poor of the slums.
Christ present and appealing to him in the poor!
One of the biggest challenges when looking at Edmund’s spirituality with our twenty-first century eyes is to grapple with our understanding of his incarnational spirituality. The Incarnation is our Christian belief that God in the person of Jesus became human; a person like us in all things except sin. In 1982 when attempting to put into words what they believed the essence of Edmund’s charism was, a group of Brothers gathered in the USA said,
“Deeply aware of the Father’s providential presence in his life, Edmund Rice was moved by the Holy Spirit to open his whole heart to Christ present and appealing to him in the poor!”
Some struggle with this sentiment, this way of looking at the incarnation for it can appear that one is NOT concerned for the other but rather with “the Christ in Seamus and Liam!” Edmund – from his profound growth into the mystery we call God – from his intimate relationship with the God of life found his heart moved with compassion for all of life. When we come as a ‘guest’ to the people and events of our life and choose to be deeply present – our hearts open in compassion, our eyes see dignity we probably had not seen before and we experience a peace and freedom that “this world cannot give!” John 14: 27
The upside down Messiah
So who was this Jesus that Edmund loved? He was undoubtedly the ‘upside down Messiah’, the one who, against every protocol of his day, stretched out and touched the leper, allowed the sinful woman to wash his feet, engaged with the outcast Samaritan woman at the well and looked with compassion into the eyes of the woman caught in adultery! It was the same Jesus to whom the poor, the powerless and the oppressed flocked to have their hunger satisfied. It was the same Jesus who dared to call God – “Abba” – Father – and invited us into a lifelong relationship with love, with God and from this relationship to grow in presence, in compassion and thus be liberated!
Edmund’s own words give up a beautiful insight into what motivated him and sustained him;
Were we to know the merit and value of only going from one street to another to serve a neighbour for the love of God we should prize it more than Gold or Silver.
The will of God be done in this and in everything we undertake.
It was this extraordinary relationship with his God that led Edmund to “give to the poor in handfuls!”
Brother Damien Price cfc PhD