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The Catholic Historical Review 90.2 (2004) 213-235

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"Ghostly Fathers" and their "Virtuous Daughters":

The Role of Spiritual Direction in the Lives of Three Early Modern English Women

In late Tudor and early Stuart England, the religious environment provided a contested space for some Catholic women who sought a more committed life of faith under the direction of a spiritual guide while remaining active in the world. On the one hand, such women found their activities increasingly circumscribed by demands of political allegiance and ecclesiastical rivalries; on the other hand, they might enjoy greater personal agency in spiritual matters than their medieval counterparts, albeit at the expense of undermining notions of right order. The multiple tensions and ambiguities fostered by the practice of spiritual direction provide the historical context for examining the lives of three women—Margaret Clitherow, Dorothy Lawson, and Mary Ward—whosespiritual maturation and growth in understanding of their Christian calling brought them into conflict with contemporary gender expectations.

The practice of spiritual direction has varied throughout the Christian era. Sometimes spiritual guidance instilled advanced faith and moral perspectives, especially within a specific population, such as medieval nuns, who had no access to a university education. At other times, the practice was more nondirective. Under the guidance of a wise and mature director, a woman's perception of her growing intimacy with God was examined, allowing the directee greater self-knowledge, more trust in divine love and protection, and a clearer understanding of her life's direction. It was this conscious awareness of "being with God," obtained through a regular practice of meditation and contemplation combined with commitment to regular spiritual conferences with a director, that would often provide the call to a more active or meaningful Christian service.1 Such a process was and remains fundamentally genderless, [End Page 213] but in the fruits it bore in the world, it entered into gendered spaces and the vicissitudes of secular and ecclesiastical politics.

The spiritual direction of all early modern Catholic women confronted a number of limitations because of increased suspicion of women's activities and the post-Tridentine reforms of convents. For English Catholic women, such restrictions were compounded by legal penalties for recusancy (failure to attend the established church), limited access to priests, and conflict between clerical factions active in the English mission. Fines, imprisonment, exile, and even death faced Catholic laity who refused to abide by the Elizabethan settlement and its consequences. Ministering to their faithful in England turned priests into criminals, prisoners, and even traitors, according to the law. The number of seminary priests and Jesuits active in England remained low, and in addition, dissension arose within the Catholic community over mission strategy and leadership.2 It was against the backdrop of a national struggle over confessional identity and personal religious commitment that Margaret Clitherow, Dorothy Lawson, and Mary Ward sought a clearer understanding of God's will for their lives with the assistance of a spiritual director.

These devout women generally had a very different experience from that of their medieval predecessors or even their contemporary continental counterparts. Recent scholarly attention to the relationships between medieval women and their confessors/spiritual directors (who were sometimes also their biographers) has indicated that such directors, often friars, might test the integrity of their virtuous daughters, but they were ultimately persuaded of their directees' path to sanctity and openly attested to the influence that these women's examples exacted [End Page 214] in their own personal and professional lives.3 This intimate association with "holy women" was of mutual benefit, and although there may have been some rivalries among religious orders serving such women, the medieval political and ecclesiastical culture rarely deterred such authentic spiritual relationships.

Despite recently imposed restrictions, early modern Catholic women's religious activism on the continent, such as that found in the life of Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1641), also benefited as a result of spiritual direction.4 Spiritual fathers like Francis de Sales...


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