There are many people, men and women, whom I admire immensely and several with whom I have been privileged to work. There are the heroes of struggles for freedom, those are often unknown and those who are well-known, such as East Timor's Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta, the Maldives' Mohamed Nasheed, South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, whom I've had the joy of meeting and in some instances working with. There are some particularly courageous women who have inspired me in life - notably Baroness Cox, and a remarkable nun in East Timor called Sister Lourdes. I am often in awe of my own mother and sister, and what they do for others.
But last Thursday, on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I began to reflect on three particularly remarkable women who have helped shape history. Each of these three women is known as 'Lady'. They are Our Lady, The Lady and The Iron Lady. Of course all three are very different, and only one of them is entirely without blemish. Two of them have their fair share of critics, the third most of all. But all three possess several characteristics in common. Firstly, remarkable courage, fortitude, endurance in the midst of huge challenges. Secondly, the ability to articulate a great vision. Thirdly, all three gave birth to great movements of change and liberation. Fourthly, all three delivered famous, inspirational and oft-quoted speeches setting out their vision. And fifthly, all three were supported by strong, but quiet, husbands in the background.
In March this year, I was received into the Catholic Church, having previously been an Anglican, and until shortly before I became a Catholic, I had not fully appreciated Mary. For most Protestants, she rarely features, other than in the Nativity scene at Christmas. Since I embarked on my journey into the Catholic Church, I have grown in my appreciation and veneration of her. It's important to remind non-Catholics than Mary is not worshipped - only God can be worshipped - but she is 'venerated': in other words, we give her profound respect. And so we should. When I think of the respect I accord my own mother, or the mother of friends of mine, I realise how right it is to respect the mother of Jesus Christ, the founder of the faith I follow. But then when I read her story, as told in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke, my respect - my veneration - increases even more. How she, a humble young woman minding her own business, engaged to be married to Joseph, is confronted with an angel who informs her that she has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God. How she, chosen as a virgin, has to carry the social stigma of being pregnant before she's married Joseph. How she gives birth in a stable, amidst the cattle, because there was no room at the inn. How she stands at the cross and watches the son she has raised die an excruciating, agonising death. How he looks at her, and his disciple, and urges them to continue his mission together, as mother and son. How she sets out a simple philosophy of life in the 'Magnificat', which even the greatest philosophers have found hard to match and some of the greatest composers have set to music. And how Joseph quietly stood by her, with a strength and dignity, a quiet fortitude that is inspiring.
Then there's Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, known throughout her country as 'The Lady'. How she gave Burma's struggle for democracy the leadership it needed. How she endured years of house arrest, separated from her husband and sons, for the sake of her country. How she risked her life on many occasions, notably on one occasion staring down a line of soldiers with their guns pointed at her, and walking through them. How she responded to her captors with grace and forgiveness, a willingness to work together to chart a better future for the country, instead of seeking revenge. How she set out a philosophy encapsulated in her famous expression 'Freedom from Fear', and articulated it so beautifully in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture 21 years after she was awarded the honour. Interestingly, in her BBC Reith Lecture two years ago, Suu Kyi made a reference to the Nativity scene when she noted, describing the simple run-down building in which her party has its headquarters, that "more than once it has been described as the NLD 'cowshed'. Since this remark is usually made with a sympathetic and often admiring smile, we do not take offence. After all, didn't one of the most influential movements in the world begin in a cowshed?" How she now endures tough criticisms for the perceived compromises she is making as she tries to navigate the difficult course of transition in Burma. And how her husband, Michael Aris, was a steadfast support, travelling the world to speak for her and even as he lay dying of cancer, told her not to come because he knew if she left Burma she would never be allowed back in.
Thirdly, the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. Of the three, she's the most controversial. Many hated her, and yet in the end even her political opponents admitted a profound respect for her. Whatever your politics, it is hard to ignore the fact that she made a major contribution to the defeat of socialism and economic ruin at home, communist tyranny across Eastern Europe and the cause of freedom worldwide. She gave birth to a philosophy known as 'Thatcherism' which changed the dynamics of British politics forever. She displayed a determination to stick to her beliefs and a refusal to 'u-turn' that commands respect even if it sometimes provoked exasperation. Her famous 1980 speech is well worth listening to. Once again, in the shadows stood a loyal, strong, wise, supportive husband, Denis.
What can we learn from Our Lady, The Lady and The Iron Lady? First, it would be bordering on the sacrilegious to equate the three. While all three are human and not divine, Our Lady has a purity and a place of significance that neither of the other two, and no other woman in history, will ever have. She is the Mother of God. Nevertheless, the characteristics that the three share, which have been outlined here, are characteristics that, whatever our religious or political persuasion, ought to inform our approach to life. Courage and fortitude, strength in adversity, sacrifice for the common good, the willingness to surrender our lives to a greater cause, and the need for wise, strong, loyal companionship through the storms of life. The Magnificat, the principle of 'freedom from fear' and the idea that we should not u-turn without very good reason provide some good compasses for us in a turbulent and fickle world.