May 22 is the feast of St. Rita of Cascia, a saint with whom I became acquainted because she was my mother’s patron. My mother’s devotion to her, however, had more depth than that they shared a name. Through her, I came to discover what an incredible woman St. Rita was: she was heroic in her faith, and in the circumstances of her life she endured much suffering with graciousness and humility. Though she is often referred to as a patron saint of the impossible, I like to think that she is more of a patron saint of patience and trust in God. Like all saints, Rita should never be reduced to a caricature in our minds and hearts. That is, our remembrance of her should not be limited to only one virtue that she possessed or one facet of life which is then overly emphasized and exaggerated. Indeed saints should be recognized because of how they respond to the events of their entire lives, for their love of God, and for their imitation of Christ. St. Rita’s life was complex, as are ours, and for this reason she is someone to whom we can relate, and from whom we can learn much. She contended with the events of her time, but she understood the value of trust in God and had faith in His timing, setting the entire course of her life upon her love for Him.
St. Rita was born near Cascia, Italy, in 1381. Referred to as Rita, her birth name was actually Margharita, which in the local dialect meant ‘pearl.’ As a young girl she was attracted to the Augustinian nuns who lived nearby, but her parents arranged a marriage for her to a local man named Paolo Mancini. Thus, at the age of 18 she got married, something she did not want, but to which she agreed out of obedience to her parents. Paolo was a cruel man and therefore her marriage was not an easy one by any means. They had twin sons who apparently took after their father in temperament. Paolo was involved in the complex political situation of the day and was murdered by a rival faction. The sons vowed revenge, which seems to have been a perceived expectation at that time. Although Rita tried hard to convince them that they should forgive the killers as she had, and that this was not the way of Jesus, they persisted in their intention. Ironically, both sons died of an illness shortly after they came of age to carry out the aforementioned vengeance, a source of even greater grief for her.
Soon Rita experienced anew the call to enter the Augustinians but had trouble being accepted due to the complex political situation which had resulted in the death of her husband. She also had the added stigma of not being a virgin, something which was usually required for nuns at that time. It took great courage and humility to deal with these things, but with patient trust in God’s call she persisted until they finally agreed that she could enter their convent. Rita’s holiness continued to grow as she devoted her life to prayer and contemplation. However, she was holy not because she endured the drama of an arranged marriage, an abusive husband, or vengeance-seeking sons. Rather, it was her response to these events which made her holy. Actually, she had been unsuccessful in acting as a peacemaker between the political factions, between her extended family members, and with her own sons. But it was her prayer, filled with incredible love, patience, and acceptance of the role God had placed upon her during that time, which bore the most fruit.
An important lesson St. Rita teaches us is that she accepted her situation even if it was not her preference. She trusted in God so greatly that she worked through the suffering, regarding it as something which she could offer Jesus, as to join in His suffering rather than to spend her life angry at what seemed to be her fate. She recognized the suffering as an opportunity for growth. While the suffering was acute, she knew that Jesus was with her and that there was purpose to it even if she did not understand what that purpose was. She had no intimate knowledge or confirmation from God that she would ever enter the Augustinians, but by trusting that God had her best interests in mind, she accepted the circumstances of her life as she lived them. She teaches us that God is with us in everything we experience and that with humility, patience, and faith, every moment of our lives is an opportunity for greater intimacy and growth; whether we are on the road to Calvary or the road to Emmaus, all roads are filled with the presence of Christ and can lead us to Heaven if we let Him guide us on the journey.
At the age of 60, Rita had a mystical experience in which she entered willingly into the suffering of Christ. This may seem odd to us, but moved with love and profound gratitude for all Jesus had done in order to obtain our salvation, she offered her life as one of redemptive suffering; that is, her suffering was offered as prayer for others. During the experience, she received a type of stigmata which manifested as a wound on her forehead such as one Jesus received from the crown of thorns. It caused great pain until her death in 1457. (An excellent explanation of this is found below.*) As for being designated as the saint of impossible causes, this ‘title’ originated with a request she made upon her deathbed: she asked a visiting relative to bring a rose from her family garden even though it was January and hardly the time for roses. Evidently, the relative found one rose in bloom in the snowy garden and brought it to her as requested. Hence, she was dubbed the patroness of the impossible.
In learning that the name Rita means ‘pearl,’ it seemed to me that a connection can be made between St. Rita and the passage about the pearl of great price taught by Jesus. (Matthew 13:44-46) In this short parable, Jesus taught that sometimes we have to be willing to give all that we have, to give our all, in order to attain the holiness we seek through growth in knowing, serving, and loving the Lord. The pearl has incalculable value because it is the treasure of faith which God gives us: it is the gift of our salvation and of the foundation of our relationship with God. We were given this pearl at Baptism and therefore we have to work at preserving it. This work consists of prayer, reading and reflecting upon Scripture, and growing in virtue as we serve God in our brothers and sisters. We must ‘bury’ that pearl of faith deep within the soil of our souls, because in doing so we will safeguard and nurture that which is beyond measure. This is how saints attain holiness; it is definitely how St. Rita grew to fall more deeply in love with Jesus, and it is also how we will, too. We do not have to endure the same things as Rita, but to grow in holiness we have to respond with similar grace and humility, as well as similar patience and trust in God. Those virtues come from the fruit of our prayer, which is to say, they come from God.
It is in valuing the pearl of great price that we find the motivation, the love with which to respond to God in the circumstances in which we live. Like Rita, we are called to be peacemakers in the midst of conflicts; to live justly and to give humble service; to give whatever alms we can to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves; to teach Christian virtues and morality through our behavior; to be politically involved by being informed about important issues and then acting accordingly, especially through our ability to vote. Like Rita, we are called to reflect upon the life of Jesus and to develop an ever deepening relationship with Him so we might come to a greater understanding of His immense love for us and to make a return in gratitude.
St. Rita was heroically patient because she allowed her life to unfold even when the future seemed murky at best. Her faith and trust in God teaches us that it is not about what we want, but about humbly working within that which does transpire. She teaches us, once again, that life is not about ‘me,’ but that it is about ‘us.’ That is to say, it is about living within the community of our family, our church, our neighborhood, our workplace or school, and our world: Christian life is about living the gospel in whatever way we can so that we might treasure the pearl of great price and by doing so, share it with others.
May we value the pearl of great price we have been given, taking St. Rita as our inspiration and role model for patience, humility, and trust in God! May we pray for the intercession of St. Rita that we might be patient with the events of our lives, especially when we feel frustrated and confused! May we take the time for prayer, Scripture reading, and reflection, that we might grow in the way of the gospel as taught by Jesus! And may we be courageous in living the Christian life in a world that is often hostile to the way of peace and justice, turning to Jesus often and always! Let us continue to meet in the heart of the Risen Jesus! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Here is a link to an excellent article that briefly tells of the life of St. Rita, but also has a good explanation of her suffering 'with' Jesus. http://www.saintritashrine.org/life-of-saint-rita/
Note: Next post will be June 5.
1. This icon is called St. Rita of Cascia Patroness of the Impossible, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I love this icon for its simplicity, but especially because the crown of thorns forms her halo. The entire gold circle around her is the glow of her holiness and it is not contained only within the context of the crown. Though she has the wound, there is a joy about St. Rita in this icon. Perhaps she is content in knowing that her love for Jesus is enough for her. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this icon, it can be found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-rita-of-cascia-patroness-of-the-impossible-206-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
2. This painting is called Bouquet of Sunflowers, (1881) a still life by Claude Monet. I chose it because it reminded me of the fields of sunflowers found in Umbria in the summer. A number of years ago I was on a pilgrimage that went through Umbria. The sight of acres upon acres of sunflowers was absolutely stunning. Unfortunately the bus never stopped while we were in the area, so I have no photos. I thought that it was likely that St. Rita would have seen such beauty in her little town of Roccaporena, (near Cascia), where she grew up, or in Cascia where she lived most of her adult life. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437112
3. This is a painting by Vincent van Gogh called Wheat Field with Cypresses, (1889). I am a big van Gogh 'fan,' I admit, so this painting came to mind readily because parts of Umbria look like this. However, I chose it because I felt it would not be a stretch to think that as St. Rita contemplated the life of Jesus she might have envisioned times in the gospels when Jesus was teaching His disciples using parables that involved wheat fields, particularly the pearl of great price in which a man bought the field to ensure that he would have the pearl secured. You can find this painting at http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436535 and also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_Field_with_Cypresses#
4. I took this photo in a rose garden in Ireland. At the time I was captivated by the color of the flower. I chose to use it here because it reminded me of St. Rita’s miraculous rose, though this one was in bloom in the proper season.
5. I chose this icon, called The Pearl of Great Price, (20th century) after stumbling upon it quite 'by accident.’ As soon as I saw it, I was taken in by its beauty. Jesus is pointing to the open Scriptures, revealing the text of the parable of the pearl of great price. One can also see the pearls that are fixed to the icon, comprising the halo of Jesus. But what I love is that the iconographer connected Jesus to the lesson of the parable: He is the pearl of great price to which we give all just as He gave all for us. You can find this icon at http://www.uncutmountainsupply.com/icons/of-christ/pearl-of-great-price-20th-c-st-anthonys-monastery-11r08/. Another page I found while researching this icon contains a wonderful hymn of St. Ephraim the Syrian (4th century) called The Pearl in which he describes Jesus as the pearl of great price. It can be found at http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2011/01/pearl-by-st-ephraim-syrian.html.
6. This is a photo I took in Big Bend National Park, TX, which captures the remarkable sight of a bird's nest securely ensconced upon a prickly cactus plant. The spines on the cactus are pronounced and certainly nothing I would want to brush up against, and yet perched between two ‘branches’ is the nesting place of a bird! I chose this photo because it contains a paradox: the dangerous thorns are actually upholding life, since nests are homes for birds and are often the place where baby birds are hatched. It reminded me of how the thorns that pierced the head of Jesus were part of what it took for us to have eternal life since they were part of the process of His death and resurrection. Out of suffering and death comes new life.
7. This is also one of my own photos. This sunset was over the Pacific Ocean as seen from Gold Beach, Oregon. I chose this photo because it speaks to me of being one with the world since everyone will see the same sunset, even if at different times, at the end of any given day. We are one people and one Body of Christ.
Heart Speaks to Heart