The saints are fascinating people. Each has his or her unique gifts to offer and lessons to teach, but to come to know them we have to get beyond the surface and see them as people not unlike ourselves, with similar problems, sufferings, joys, and triumphs. One of these, St. Rita of Cascia, is especially interesting because of how she responded to the difficult circumstances she had to endure. On first glance it appears that she was holy because of her long suffering since everything she prayed for seemingly went unanswered as she bore one dreadful blow after the next. But upon a closer look one can see that it was love which fueled her holiness and therefore, her response to her circumstances. Through her love for Jesus Christ she developed an incredible intimacy with Him, and so powerful is her prayerful intercession that since her death she has come to be known as the “Saint of Impossible Causes.” Her life was heroic, but it was based on deep love of God, both given and received. And as such, by her example St. Rita is also a powerful teacher.
St. Rita, whose feast day is May 22, was born near Cascia, Italy, in 1381 and died there in 1457.* She rose above some harrowing circumstances, bearing it all with grace. But because she is a saint let us not be fooled into thinking that somehow she was impervious to pain; rather, how she dealt with the pain is what made her holy. Each of the disappointments in her life was an immense challenge to overcome. First, she had to marry even though she was deeply attracted to religious life, and as if that was not enough, her husband turned out to be a cruel, dangerous man. She came to truly love him, though her love was often tested. They had two sons who became much like her husband, and though she always offered forgiveness she never stopped trying to help them see the error of their ways. When her husband and both sons died within a short period of time, her heartbreak was real, total, and intensely painful.
After these losses, Rita unsuccessfully tried to enter the convent where she originally had desired entrance as a young woman. Her attempt was not an effort to hide away, nor was she feeling like she was ‘finally free’ as if experiencing some kind of relief; she carried the pain of loss with her for the rest of her life. However, Rita’s pain fueled a deeper sense of mercy and understanding for all those who suffered, and therefore her desire to enter religious life was to immerse herself in prayer and service. She spent hours in contemplation before a crucifix, so that she could continue to grow in love for the God she knew had never left her side through every disappointment and setback.
Reflection upon the life of St. Rita brings up the issue of ‘unanswered’ prayer. When prayers are not answered the way we had hoped it is easy for us to feel let down, or even abandoned, by God. We may have prayed our hearts out, called upon living friends as well as our heavenly ones asking for their aid through intercession, and we know what we are asking for is good or is just, yet our pleas seem to go unanswered. This can be so painful it feels soul-crushing, and it can rock our sense of faith and hope to the core. In honesty, the reasons why this happens are too complex to be explained, (something we can come to learn about in the Book of Job),** but we can look to the inspiration of holy people like St. Rita to learn how to cope with this reality and to recognize that we are never alone. Her example points us to Jesus who underwent suffering in order to free us from the awful power of sin and death. Being God, He could have chosen to simply speak a word and it would have been accomplished, but instead He chose the most difficult path so that we might see the depth of His love. St. Rita knew something of this love because she spent hours contemplating His suffering, and she also chose to enter into it by accepting a form of the stigmata offered as prayer to alleviate the suffering of others. In so doing she cultivated an ever deepening relationship with Jesus, but she also grew in her own capacity for mercy and compassion by entering into her own suffering rather than trying to avoid it. Granted, hers was a unique ‘calling’ and we should not imitate it as if suffering is a good thing. Rather, what we learn is that if suffering should come our way, and it will at some point, we can ask God to help us walk the road with grace, offering our burden as prayer for others as well as for ourselves.
God has a wisdom which we do not possess. He sees clearly from above; we only see obscurely from below. It is important to remember that God does not cause the misery and losses we endure. On the contrary, He allows people and things to have freedom which is built into the way things are, a reality too complex for understanding. In other words, we will never be able to understand why sometimes our prayers for a particular intention do not seem to be heard, why some people seem to get away with evil, and others who are good, end up suffering. But what does help is to know that without a doubt, all of our prayers are always heard: God never turns a deaf ear to any of His children and He always responds. Sometimes the response is not what we had wanted and sometimes the answer is simply “no.” But we must not let the disappointments cancel out the times when He gave us many gifts which we never asked for yet enjoy, such as friends, health, family and even protections we will not know about until after we see Him face to face. And we must acknowledge the gifts we do ask for and ‘visibly’ receive. Gratitude for these gifts is our gift to God, but it can help us remember God’s generous love at another time when we experience a trial or disappointment.
It seems ironic that St. Rita would become such an incredibly powerful intercessor that she is now given the title of “Saint of Impossible Causes.” We have in her an ally who understands our struggles and thus, brings our requests faithfully to the Lord. The testimony of many people about her effectiveness when they have requested her intercession throughout the years is great; it has also been my experience. But when it does not go as we hope, we can trust that perhaps persevering through a difficult situation or personal suffering is our own road to holiness, as it was St. Rita’s, and that without the suffering, we might not grow, we might never come to understand more deeply the mercy and love of Christ, nor would we be a witness to someone else who might be needing our inspiration to get them through their own difficulty. Let us trust in God’s mercy, as did St. Rita, that we might persevere in this life until we are ready for the joy of the next.
May we come to appreciate God’s gifts and the times of joy in our life more deeply, and may we be moved to gratitude for them! May we turn to the intercession of St. Rita when praying for the alleviation of our own suffering or for that of another! May reflection upon the life of St. Rita move us to deeper imitation of Christ in the unique way we have been called! May we come to trust in the love and mercy of Jesus, knowing that even when prayer does not seem to be answered, He is with us! May we come to greater insight into the suffering of Jesus and the great love for us that empowered Him to accept it, so that we might be filled with joy and gratitude for such a gift! And may we never lose hope in the promise of the life to come in Heaven! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I have written about St. Rita before. Last year at this time she was the topic of a post in which there is more about her life. Therefore I will not repeat what was said there, but rather refer readers back to that post if more information is desired. It can be found in the Archives on the right side of this page: click on May, 2017 and then on May 22, or click here.
** You can find more on Job by also going to my Archives. I wrote about Job on August 22, 2013. My style has evolved since those early days, but the information on Job midway through the entry might be helpful. You can click here to find it.
Note: Next entry will be June 4.
1. This is one of my photos, taken in Big Bend National Park, TX. I chose it for the beginning of the post because the location of the bird nest in the cactus seems like an impossible situation. It seemed to me that it was a good example of how we persevere and even can thrive in the midst of a tenuous situation.
2. This icon is called St. Rita of Cascia Patroness of the Impossible by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I especially like this icon because it depicts her suffering by the wound on her forehead as well as the crown of thorns behind her. But while it is clear she has suffered, her posture shows her receptivity. Her gratitude is observed in her hand which is raised in praise and prayer. You can find this icon at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/st-rita-of-cascia-patroness-of-the-impossible-206-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
3. This is another of the works of Fr. William Hart McNichols: Holy Prophet Job. It presents Job as stripped of everything, yet in a prayerful, reflective pose. He is trying to understand, and though he cannot, he has learned to accept with gratitude everything God sends. One can almost hear him saying: "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!" (Job 1:21) You can find this icon at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/holy-prophet-job-264-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
4. I took this photo on the beach at Port Aransas, TX. It is one 'lonely' little shell persevering in the rushing tide. It reminded me of how some things seem insurmountable, but that we can 'hang in' with the help of God's grace, even if we think we are being battered by the tides of life.
5. This is a painting by Frank Johnston (1951) called The Fire Ranger. I chose it for this place in the entry because it reminded me that God sees the big picture, just as the plane is seeing if there is any fire in the immensity of the wooded area. He can see from above what we might not see readily from below. Johnston was a Canadian artist, a member of the famous Group of Seven. You can find this work at https://www.wikiart.org/en/frank-johnston/the-fire-ranger-1920.
6. Finally, this is one of my photos of a lily pond taken at a public garden, a hidden gem in the middle of Washington DC. It seemed appropriate to have something beautiful at the end of this post. It shows a few flowers in the midst of all the lily pads, which could be seen as symbolic of beauty in the midst of all the water. We have brothers and sisters nearby, and thus we are not alone. And we can find Christ in them, just as we can in the saints.
Every year when I was teaching I would spring the same joke upon one section of freshmen as part of an extra credit question on the test over The Acts of the Apostles. The trick question was this: when the apostles began to spread the word as Jesus had instructed, how did they get from place to place? No one ever got it, even though I would let them get out their Bibles to look it up. The answer is found in Acts 1:14: “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer….” Thus, in an Accord was the sought after response. They would groan and I would explain that it was another example of ‘evil teacher humor’ which consisted of a number of trick questions, puns, and the like, throughout the year. As corny as it is, I suspect they never forgot the point of the story which is that the apostles, “…together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers” were united as one community. Unity is what Jesus prayed for on the night of the Last Supper, praying that His followers would be as much one as He and the Father are one! (John 17:20-23) That is an amazing prayer, but it highlights how important unity is to Jesus. Therefore, it seems the early Christian community, led by the apostles, put the words of Jesus into practice and prayed to be of one mind and one heart, knowing that it is only through God that we can “devote ourselves with one accord.”
At the beginning of Acts, Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would descend upon them, reminding them to continue to pray in the Upper Room in preparation for this event. Then Jesus blessed them, and lifted up on a cloud, ascended into Heaven. Two “men dressed in white,” (angels), were suddenly present, asking them why they were standing there staring at the sky: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen Him going into Heaven.” (AA 1:9-11) The angels’ comments reminded the apostles that there was work to be done. Immediately they returned to the Upper Room in Jerusalem having transitioned from men in hiding to leaders in preparation for action. They “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer” and therefore their first action was to replace Judas, the apostle who had betrayed Jesus and had then taken his own life. Peter reminded them that they needed to be Twelve again, symbolizing the importance of the unity that Jesus desires for His people. Thus they prayed, chose lots, and ultimately trusted that the Spirit led them to Matthias. The most important part of this first chapter in Acts is the emphasis on prayer and unity. It is also a lesson about hope.
Jesus had worked to conquer sin and death giving us the hope that we will one day be released from all the ‘ties that bind’ here; that which weighs us down will no longer have power and thus we will be set free. This means that all the material goods we care for, all our worries, all the obligations we are burdened with, and that to which we have been entrusted here on earth, will be over. Even our brokenness will be gone as we are released from our imperfections into the glory of God in Heaven. The urging of the angels that the apostles stop looking at the sky and ‘get a move on’ seems to indicate that for the Eleven, the time for standing by was over and the time for praying and discerning as a community had begun. It was time to place their hope in the future of the community which would soon be empowered by the Holy Spirit so that they could go about the business of spreading the Good News of salvation.
Thus, this first Christian community became the Church on the day of Pentecost, under the leadership of the apostles, and all went forth with a renewed sense of hope in the promise of Jesus who had told them to share the message of love, mercy, and hope with the entire world. This small group of people was unified in the communal life, in the breaking of the bread, in working to help the poor in their city, and mostly, in sharing the message of salvation in Jesus. (Acts 2:42-47) That message remains: all who believe and are baptized will indeed be saved. Sin cannot keep us from God, nor can death, now that Jesus has risen. We share the hope of the first Christian community in the wonder and beauty of being with God in Heaven forever, of every tear being dried, of no more suffering, and only joy. This hope is for everyone who commits themselves to Christ: no matter how badly we suffer in this life, we will not be alone and we will be given the joy of Heaven if we ‘persevere to the end in running the race,’ as St. Paul says. (Paraphrase of 2 Tim 4:7)
When I was in religious life, a very wise Sister once gave me an important piece of advice which has become central to my view of discipleship. I was stressed over the work I had been assigned, working as if it all depended on me. She took me aside and said that no one is here to accomplish, but rather to contribute. That is exactly what being in one accord is about: we are to work together as a community to bring about the Kingdom. The work is too large for any one of us, but together we can move mountains. What she said was also about humility, because to contribute means we must acknowledge our own littleness and recognize that we need others, and especially the Lord, in order to do anything at all. And we must remember that the Kingdom of Heaven is a community: Heaven is not a place we go alone, nor would it be Paradise if we were by ourselves. God created a people and intends for us to spend eternity together with Him.
As one Body we can do these things: where we might struggle in forgiving someone, God offers us mercy so that we understand the power of forgiveness. Where we might not be able to do the loving thing in a situation, we can look to a saint for inspiration and recognition that love does not mean ‘like,’ but it means acting in kindness and compassion. Where we might be tempted to hold on to material goods rather than share with the less fortunate, there are organizations within the community that inspire us to be generous. Where we might become self-absorbed or too lazy to reach out and help another, there are Scriptures and inspirational writings which teach us to stretch outside our comfort zone. And when we are not feeling peaceful or do not believe in our own ability to make a difference in the world, there are brothers and sisters in the faith who love us into seeing our own beauty and worth. Therefore, praying and working as one Christian community encourages the hope needed that together we will make a difference in the world, just as Jesus taught His first disciples. And if we are tempted to think this is all some kind of naïve notion that sounds too good to be true, it is not. Along the way we will suffer for the sake of the gospel, which is evident in the lives of the apostles after Pentecost and in the lives of many great saints. But no matter how small our personal efforts may seem, when we are accompanied by others who share in the faith, when we assist a co-worker in Christ when they falter, and when we accept the assistance offered when we flag, we are in fact, one Church just as Jesus prayed we would be, devoted to the gospel with one accord.
We are called to be united in prayer and in action. This is a work of hope, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and should bring us great joy that we have been chosen by God as a son or daughter, which makes us also a brother or sister. We are an Easter people because we have hope in salvation and in everlasting life to come, not in what is passing. But while we are in this life, we are called to work as one people in unity, assisting the lost, feeding and clothing the poor, working for justice in our communities, through our word and deed educating our children and those who do not know Jesus, and praying for the Holy Spirit to come down upon our world anew. If we devote ourselves with one accord, we will be gathered as one people when Christ returns, ready individually and collectively. That is the gift of Easter, the gift of the Ascension, and the gift of those first Christians who did as Jesus instructed so that we might join them on the last day.
May we work as a Christian community to be in one accord in prayer and deed! May we ask the intercession of those who went before us that we may act as One Body of Christ! May we work toward justice and peace so that we might achieve healing of that which divides us so that we may have unity! May we be courageous in living the gospel in a world which is often hostile to our values and faith! May we reach out to a neighbor who is struggling and also accept their help when we might need it! And may we embrace our discipleship, contributing to the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Let us meet at the table of the Risen Lord! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be May 21.
1. This is a painting called The Ascension of Christ by Giotto. (1305) It appears in Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. I chose this because I am particularly taken by the presence of Mary in the midst of the apostles and the two "men in white." I also love that Jesus is reaching toward Heaven and is being greeted by the angels and the holy ones. I also love the usage of lapis lazuli in the background, an element that was extremely expensive when this was painted, but which was the only way to make blue paint. Thus, this is not only a great work of art, but one in which the artist wanted to depict the richness of Christ.
2. This is one of my photos taken in Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado. I chose this because the lone, prominent cloud spoke to me of the Ascension as if it was rising to Heaven.
3. This is #6 (Violet, Green, & Red) by Mark Rothko. (1959) I chose to use it here because it, too, spoke to me of the Ascension of Jesus. The violet is very full: that is, there is a lot going on within the violet space if one looks intently at the texture and shading. The green, which is seemingly infused with gold seems to speak of the glory of God in creation; the red of the vibrancy of the community of believers who will go forth and share what they have witnessed. These are my reflections; you may have your own insights when spending time with this painting. https://www.kingandmcgaw.com/prints/mark-rothko/no-6-violet-green-red-1951-180661#180661::media:0
4. These are two photos I took at the Gemstone Beach in far southern New Zealand, not far from Invercargill. I chose to contrast the single stone with the group of stones to symbolize the beauty of the one, but the strength of the many. As a community, the many sizes and shapes become a community where all our varied gifts work together.
5. This is also one of my photos: it is the path leading to (and in this case away from) Franz Josef Glazier in New Zealand. As I looked through my photos the people walking on the path reminded me of the apostles on the journey to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth.
6. This is a wonderful painting called Oarsmen by French artist, Gustave Caillebotte. (1848-1894) Oarsmen have to work together or they will go in circles, and these two are clearly in sync as they proceed on their seaside journey. Members of the Christian community have to work together to make progress, of course, which is the point of this entry. You can obtain a copy of this at
https://www.gustavcaillebotte.org/Oarsmen.html and if you are interested, there is a short bio of Caillebotte found at https://www.gustavcaillebotte.org/biography.html.
7. This is a new icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. Martha of Bethany. Martha's gift of service is legendary, in the best Christian sense. She is best known for laboring to serve while her sister Mary sat at the feet of Christ. Sometimes she gets criticized for her good intention, and while it is true we need balance between reflective prayer and action, one does lead to the other (in both directions!) You can find this icon, and if desired, can purchase the image in one of many different mediums, at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/st-martha-of-bethany-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Heart Speaks to Heart