In memory of Mabel

Today it's 100 years since the death of Mabel Digby, 5th Superior General of the Society of the Sacred Heart, the first of two Englishwomen to hold that post - and yes, the Digby in Digby Stuart. I have just finished re-reading her biography.

Mabel was undoubtedly an extraordinarily capable and God-centred woman. However, she was preceded by four equally or more extraordinary women, who were also transparently loving, kind and gentle, whereas Mabel's deep kindness and consideration were hidden beneath thick layers of British reserve and an austere manner. Her successor, Janet Stuart, was far more charismatic, as well as far more gifted and broad-minded. In contrast, Mabel's biography is filled with words like dogged, tenacious, determined, faithful, brave, hard-working, heroic and efficient - austere words to describe an austere woman.

She also had the misfortune of being superior general at a time when the anti-clerical French government expelled all religious congregations - which meant several hundred French RSCJ were controversially expelled from the Society's birthplace. There were other crises too, and battles, just as there had been when she was reponsible for RSCJ in England and Ireland. She clashed several times with Cardinal Manning, who was a worthy opponent; if the two had ever got on, they would have made a formidable team!

Mabel was the product of a narrow-minded, stiff-upper lipped Victorian upbringing. A childhood accident left her suffering painful headaches; instead of extra hugs, her mother told her not to complain but to bear them with even greater cheerfulness. So as an adult she grinned and bore various illnesses and injuries, insomnia, respiratory and digestive problems, a heart attack and more. As far as possible she refused to allow her ailments to get in the way of her many responsibilities; however, they must surely have affected her judgement, performance and levels of patience. She was consistently hard on herself, expecting the highest standards - and equally hard on others.

Reading the biography I was reminded of my aunt Liliana. She too had a tough life; as she got older she shed her cheerful spontaneity and hid a heart of gold beneath a gruff "difficult character". Her will, read out after her death, was effectively a love letter to her sisters, nieces and nephews, in which she told us how much she had loved us - something she could never say to our faces. There are many Mabels and Lilianas out there: workhorses, battleaxes, people with difficult characters and gruff exteriors whom we find it hard to love and appreciate. There's probably a bit of Mabel in each of us as well. Perhaps all we can do today is pray for the ones we know - and pray for and be gentle with the Mabel within ourselves.

I've illustrated this post with a photo of a rock, worn and hollowed out after years of being buffeted by waves. It's probably how Mabel felt, especially in her final years, as she became sicker and just keeping going on became harder. So I was especially moved to read that the final word anyone heard her say, a day or two before her death was... Alleluia...