Mother Angelica’s Practical Wisdom

In the wake of her Easter Sunday death, it has been popular to point out, with a mix of sincere appreciation and gentle condescension, that Mother Angelica was no intellectual. Her obituaries accentuate her working class upbringing in Canton, Ohio, and are sprinkled with descriptors like “folksy” that portray the abbess and media maven as an opinionated down-home grandmother in a habit—an old-timey purveyor of common sense to a too-sophisticated world.

The problem with this sketch isn’t so much that it’s incorrect, but that it’s radically incomplete.

As the editor for the newly-created EWTN Publishing, Inc., I’m in the unusual position of being more familiar with Mother Angelica’s work as a writer than with her work as a television presenter.  Mother’s printing venture in fact predates EWTN by several years; her popular pamphlets and mini-books were the beginning of her journey in media. At one point in the 70s, the sisters were printing as many as 25,000 copies of their abbess’s works per day.

While Mother’s signature humor and plain-spokenness certainly come through in her booklets, so do an incredible treasury of spiritual wisdom and an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture. One gets the feeling reading through her work that, while it is true that Spiritual Hangovers or Rambling Thoughts may not be taught in graduate theology courses, her insights will be cherished for generations as having clearly emerged from one of the great examples of holiness in our times.

There’s nothing new about the observation that formal schooling is not required to grow in holiness and to develop spiritual wisdom. Saints John Vianney, Thérèse of Lisieux, and André Bessette come immediately to mind. But we should stress that Mother Angelica, whether on the page or the screen, was far from unsophisticated. What distinguished her from so many others was her combination of deep knowledge and effective communication. In this regard she is second only, in the American Church, to Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

Mother Angelica’s early books are, in a sense, the primordial soup of her later media success. Sifting through, we find everything from basic reflections on Matrimony in The Living Sacrament to a strange and wonderful mystical experience of the void of pre-Creation in Before Time Began. Taken together, though, we see that relentlessly attractive mix of confidence and vulnerability—confidence in the truth of the Faith and the doctrines of the Church, vulnerability to the reader as she exposes the depths of her conversations with the Lord—that brought so many viewers to her programs.

Mother writes with the confidence of an expert. There is neither rhetorical nor stylistic hesitation as she brings the reader into the drama of the Scriptures with just as much self-assurance and more verve than that conferred by degrees from pontifical universities. In reading through her spiritual biography of the Blessed Mother, The Promised Woman, one cannot help but feel one is being given privileged access to the inner life of Mary. There’s no complex linguistic analysis or historical exegesis, and yet her command of Scripture is so clearly comprehensive one hardly notices—or cares.

But she also writes, in the tradition of other great first-person spiritual writers, with an irresistible, though often uncomfortable, vulnerability. The reader squirms a bit as he wonders: “If this woman feels she must address such fervent and desperate pleas to God for her sanctification, what hope can I, who can’t even keep track of my own faults on a day-to-day basis, have to become half as holy?”

But once he’s asked that question, she’s got him. If we were to pick one theme that runs through Mother Angelica’s written works—and that of course extended into her television career—it would be a practical, no-nonsense approach to the universal call to holiness. This is demonstrated in the titles of her mini-books—Holiness in a Nutshell, Holiness is for Everyone, Holiness in Action—but can be seen in just about everything she wrote, especially the soon-to-be-republished Answers, Not Promises.

In our modern subjectivism, we assume that moral or psychological wisdom can only be derived from personal experience. And so it is popular, even in some circles within the Church, sneeringly to doubt priests’ ability to counsel, or even to hold opinions, on sensitive issues of marriage and family. Of course that complaint applies with even greater force, though it might be gauche to say so, against a cloistered nun.

And yet Mother Angelica’s practical wisdom—and her confidence in dispensing it—is undeniable. In her writing on, for instance, the Beatitudes or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we see that seamless arrangement of Scripture, theology, and practical reasoning that marks the best of what the Church has to offer our time—or any time.

Put simply, as I work with Mother Angelica’s published material, I cannot shake off (nor do I want to shake off) the suspicion that I am privileged to be studying the words of a woman who will someday, not far in the future, be recognized by the Church as a great saint. Neither old-fashioned nor trendy, neither hectoring nor lukewarm, neither intellectually stodgy nor artificially casual—Mother Angelica’s writing exhibits precisely the otherworldly timelessness that made her not just a Catholic media icon, but a unique cultural figure whose earthly legacy will only grow in the coming years and decades.

Editor’s note: Sophia Institute Press and EWTN Publishing have republished Praying With Mother Angelica and will Answer’s Not Promises in June. Both are available through Sophia Institute Press

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Brandon McGinley writes from Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife and two young children. His writing has appeared in print in National Review and Fare Forward, and online at The Federalist and First Things, among other venues.

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