Some years ago, I read a book called Never tell me Never. It is the story of Janine Shepherd. She was training for the winter Olympics when she had a devastating motor accident. She wasn’t expected to live, but she did survive. She wasn’t expected to walk, but she did learn to walk again. She learnt to fly a plane. She married. She was told she would not be able to have children. She did have children. She didn’t ski again; but her determination and her belief in herself brought her a full and rich life.
I read that book at a time in my life when I was struggling with my own illness. At any time, Janine Shepherd would have impressed me enormously. At that particular time, she inspired me. I realized that what stirred me so deeply about Janine Shepherd was, in fact, possible within myself. I didn’t need to learn to walk again and I didn’t learn to fly a plane. But I did reclaim my own life. From her courage to persevere, I found my own courage to persevere. From her belief in herself, I found my own belief in myself. From her strength of will, I found the inner strength that I needed. We both succeeded in achieving new, rich and rewarding lives. She inspired that in me.
A lot of people impress me. Some of them are women:
- Family violence campaigner, Rosie Batty
- German Chancellor, Angela Merkle
- Burns doctor, Fiona Wood
- Pilot, Amelia Earhart
- Author, JK Rowling
- Civil Rights Pioneer, Rosa Parks
These women we can admire for what they have achieved. But those who actually inspire do more than impress. They motivate us to change ourselves in some way. They ignite in us the courage to do something more; to do something differently, to do something better. They stir something deep within us. They allow us to see new possibilities.
Those who inspire fill others with boldness; with strength of purpose; with insight. They evoke response. They illuminate the giftedness of others.
Sports women have provided the mojo for lots of young girls to reach out and achieve their personal sporting potential. Professional women, like Dr Katherine Hamlin, inspired several of my own students to become fund raisers for her fistula hospitals in Africa. Others became doctors or aid workers themselves.
I’m told there was a stage in Australian politics where every female politician was the product of a Catholic girls’ school; If that is true, those nuns certainly did something to inspire women into action.
Today’s first reading refers to a time when the apostles were inspired to action. It is the story of Pentecost. It is set in the time after the death of Jesus. His followers are fearful of their own fate. Jesus was executed, so you can’t blame them for wondering what will be done to them. The gospel reading today tells us that Jesus said to the apostles: As the Father has sent me, so I send you. So, the apostles clearly have a mission. They know that Jesus has taught them a new way of living, with love and justice and equality. But after his death, they balk; they don’t know what to do next. In the Pentecost story, they gather in an upper room, scared and confused. They lack clarity and direction.
The climax of the story occurs when they find their courage and their inspiration. The story teller uses symbols to illustrate the climax. The symbols are a powerful wind and tongues of fire. They are symbols of the spirit of God; the spirit that transforms the group. They change from a band of frightened and confused people to zealous apostles. They find the clarity to know that they must go out and tell the world about a man named Jesus and about a better way of living. They find within themselves the courage to continue Jesus’ transformational work.
We don’t really know what happened to transform the apostles. The story teller chooses a setting and some symbols to convey an important message. And the message is that the apostles found their courage and direction. Something inspired them to embrace their mission. Something inspired them to find their sense of purpose their inner strength. The story teller calls that something the spirit of God.
So, the obvious questions to ask ourselves are:
- Where do we find the spirit of God?
- Where do we find the energy to embrace our mission?
- Where do we find the inspiration that provokes us to transform ourselves and our world?
Of course, we find the transforming spirit of God in many places and many people, including inspiring women. I have mentioned a few already, mostly high profile and well known. But, I believe, that we can just as easily find inspiration from ordinary folk who live ordinary lives and live them well.
So, the next inspiring woman I want to tell you about was not high profile. She was known by only a few and lived an ordinary life.
Grace was born in 1900. She was the eldest of 13 children. Her parents were railway station masters. She left school at the age of 8 to help raise her younger siblings. She married at nineteen and, at twenty, gave birth to her son.
Grace was never in the paid workforce. She spent her days keeping house and caring for her family. She was a wonderful dressmaker and produced the most beautiful craft work – knitting, crocheting, tatting. She never drove a car. She never used a smart phone or a computer; not even a calculator. She didn’t finish primary school, let alone high school. And she certainly never set foot on a university campus.
But Grace was bright. As a young wife and mother, she managed to take on some study, signing up for the equivalent of TAFE courses. Amongst other things she learnt to speak a couple of foreign languages. Her mental arithmetic skills were outstanding; her spelling excellent. I grieve for what she could have experienced had she been born a century later.
When her son was nineteen, Grace gave birth to a second child. So, after devoting two decades to raising her first child, she began again the task of raising her daughter.
While she was doing so, her adult son met a young woman he wanted to marry: a Catholic woman. Grace’s Presbyterian husband was not impressed. But despite the sectarian culture in which she lived, Grace embraced her daughter in law. In the decade that followed, Grace applied her wonderful dressmaking skills to baptism gowns, first communion outfits and confirmation dresses. She attended all her grandchildren’s religious ceremonies in the Catholic Church.
Grace’s daughter grew up and became the private secretary to an Australian Senator. This led Grace to leave Queensland for the first time to make visits to her daughter in Canberra. Her daughter’s choice of spouse was a divorced man, still of a source of scandal in the early 1960s. True to form, Grace respected the young man and embraced him as her son in law.
When she was 75, Grace found a small article in the newspaper advertising a tour of Europe for Seniors. Her husband was not interested so she went by herself and, of course, made new friends. She was enthralled by her experiences and amazed herself and her friends by remembering the foreign languages she had learned half a century earlier.
Grace died when she was 90. Her mental faculties were as sharp as ever. Physically, she was blind and her organs wore out and shut down. She died of old age. She died as she had lived – graciously and with much love in her heart.
Grace is a woman who inspires me. My life has been very different to hers. I am highly educated and in the work force. I couldn’t count the number of foreign countries I have visited in my much-travelled life. Since I was twenty I have had financial independence. I live in a world where some women, like myself, have a lot of choices.
And yet, I look at the way Grace lived her life and that inspires me. It stirs something within me. It makes me see new possibilities, to find my own gifts and use them in my own world. It makes me want to live my very ordinary life with her values and insights. Grace was a good woman and she lived a good life. She showed love; she treated people justly; she forgave.
- I want to find within myself, Grace’s wisdom. She embraced what she had and did not pine for things she didn’t have.
- I want to find within myself Grace’s commitment to justice. I want to look at the social outsiders of my era and to embrace them and to love them.
- I want to find within myself Grace’s courage for adventure. To take an overseas trip by herself for the first and only time at 75 took a lot of pluck.
- I want to find within myself Grace’s sense of perseverance to keep doing the routine and ordinary things of life, while striving always for what is good.
- And most of all, I want to find within myself Grace’s ability to love. Grace did not practice any religion, yet she lived exactly the way Jesus taught people to live.
I believe the way in which an ordinary woman like Grace live their lives can be that powerful wind, the spirit of God that inspires, that transforms us, that stirs something deep within us and allows us to see new possibilities.
It was Saint Teresa of Calcutta who said:
Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
Most of us will live ordinary lives. We need to recognize the spirit in one another that enables us all to live our ordinary lives well.
10/11 December, 2016 – Liz Little