Of Mountains, Deserts and Angels – Mother Angelica on Suffering, Burnout and Faith

An image comes to mind.

It is of a car wreck aflame on the side of the road in a desert landscape.

Beneath the burning sky, forlorn, desolate, the wreck stands alone.

As terrifying as this image is, and, perhaps, as mysterious, it may be surprising to learn that it was one conjured into my mind whilst reading a book by Mother Angelica.

Mother Angelica is known to the world by the media empire she created, namely, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). From its start in 1981, she became its main ‘star’; she proved a natural.  When it came to modern media her television presence was as strong, if decidedly different, from that of an earlier Catholic luminary in the television era, Fulton Sheen. In front of a live audience, she was more akin to an adept stand-up comedian than a preacher at a revival meeting. With both dynamism and wit, she would lull all viewing into a false sense of security before the real purpose of her talk was revealed. This 58 year-old nun, and one who looked very much like a nun, dressed as she was in full habit, would proceed to challenge her audience. On a deep level, while making the audience laugh, she would also make them think, reflect even on making resolutions for a better life.

Mother Angelica was not to everyone’s taste. Some complained that she was ‘preaching to the choir’; others dismissed her as ‘folksy’ – whatever that meant. Both criticisms missed the point. I suspect her critics had never really sat and watched her closely on screen. Perhaps, they saw the habit and her wide smile and simply imagined the rest for here was no bumbling amateur who had stumbled onto network television by accident. Instead, this was a talented and shrewd media operator who was consciously starting a revolution.

EWTN Publishing has just made available Mother Angelica on Suffering and Burnout. Like the television personality, there is more to this volume than one might expect.

Perhaps the title should have given the reader a clue. This was never going to be a book of soothing words or of some superficial spiritual reassurance. Instead, it is a book that charts the adventure, and the pain, of the interior life. In this text Mother Angelica employs images of mountains and ascent throughout.  These are classic tropes for progress in the spiritual life: leading one to the conclusion that she writes not for beginners, nor for those who have come only ‘to look at the view’, but for those who are serious climbers and who want to get to the top of this difficult mountain they have started to ascend.

Mother Angelic Suffering Burnout

This book is in fact a compendium. It contains 6 mini-books: His Silent Presence, Jesus Needs Me, Dawn on the Mountain, The Gift of Dryness in Prayer, His Pain – like Mine, Spiritual Hangovers and The Healing Power of Suffering. All six were written in the early 1970s. At that time Mother Angelica was unknown to the world, living a cloistered life at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. The series of books had a specific and small audience – her fellow Poor Clare contemplatives.

Reading these works today, decades later, it is interesting to note the times in which they were written as much as the audience for whom they were first intended. By the early 1970s, there was much confusion in the Church:  the reforms of Vatican II had not yet come to maturity. They had seemingly been hi-jacked by a spurious ‘Spirit of Vatican2’ – a spirit more poltergeist than holy. This was felt as much in the religious life as in the wider Church, indeed, maybe more so. In these series of books, Mother Angelica cuts through this confusion and reminds her readers that the spiritual life is as dynamic, as beautiful, as demanding and as tough as it has always been, and always shall be.  She writes as if she is a skilled mountaineer urging her weak-limbed charges on to the summit, with by the end, but only then, promising a view they could not have hoped for or even imagined.

Inevitably, there is a bracing toughness to her tone. Nevertheless, there is also a deep understanding communicated throughout these pages, namely that weak human beings should never be surprised by weakness – either that of others or of themselves. Mother Angelica takes the interior life seriously, and, therefore, also expects the reader to engage with the most important facet of all human existence:  a relationship with the Triune God.

There is also an unexpected beauty to her words. Anticipating a workman-like prose, I was surprised at the poise with which she marshals expansive and, at times, complicated concepts and imagery. Not only is her writing eminently readable, it is, in fact, a pleasure to read. It is also penetrating in its directness. I defy anyone to pick this book up, read it through, and then walk away without it having had an impact.

In a world where so much speaks to us of ‘pleasure’ and ‘fun’, all merely attempts at escaping from the reality we face every day, here is someone talking of the truths of our existence with its pain and suffering, discouragement and loss, limitation and fragmentation. This is the writing of a woman who has shared these pains. More importantly, though, they are also the words of one who through Grace has begun the process of transcending them, and now offers that experience to all.

A decade after writing her books, Mother Angelica was on a different divinely inspired mission.  That a media empire began with a cloistered nun in rural Alabama sounds a joke of sorts. No one is laughing now, however. EWTN is the largest religious broadcaster in the world. Some estimates put its global reach at 250 million souls – it is probably more than that given the network on line presence. Thoroughly orthodox and unashamedly faithful to the Magisterium, it is no Catholic media ‘ghetto’ but, rather, an apostolic force with the world as its mission territory. Without doubt, it changes peoples’ lives; and, now, those same people are appearing on the network. People who one night changed television channels, perhaps accidently, and, subsequently, found their lives changed too. If ever the power of the contemplative vocation can be seen in the wider world then it is in EWTN. And, it is here displayed on each page of Mother Angelica on Suffering and Burnout that we see the fire that burned in the breast of the woman to whom was first given that vision.

Two stories, one well-known, one less so.

Her ambition was as wide as her faith was deep when Mother Angelica started her first transmission, therefore, she needed not one but two satellite dishes. She ordered them; and, finally, they were delivered to her monastery. When the deliveryman asked for the payment, the nun in front of him was silent. She didn’t have the thousands of dollars needed to pay for this essential, if expensive, equipment.  Before she could explain, the monastery phone sounded. Down the line there came the voice of a man who wanted to donate the exact amount that the satellite dishes cost. Soon after, the deliveryman was paid in full; and the transmissions started.

Another less well-known story is of how on a real mountain the EWTN short-wave antenna was placed. Normally, such equipment is set up in open flat land so as to maximize transmission. Instead, EWTN’s network’s transmitters were placed on top of a mountain. Yet the signal proved perfect for radio transmission. In fact, it would not have been possible to find a better site. Such an unusual set up, and one that defied any known professional advice, baffled the experts. So much so, that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) sent a team of technicians to work out why the short-wave signal was so good. Their efforts proved fruitless, however, and the team returned to London more baffled than before. But Mother Angelica knew exactly why it was so good. Later, she would tell how, having been informed that this was where the radio antenna should be, she had been led to that exact spot. When asked how she knew? She replied simply that St. Michael the Archangel had led her there.

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KV Turley writes from London

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