I’ve heard it said often enough that one has to be able to “afford” to be open to life, that only those people in the most fortunate and stable of circumstances (at least by human appearances), can welcome and successfully raise a productive member of society.
I don’t want to get into a game of “I’ll show you my (grocery bill) if you’ll show me yours,” but I’ve always found that to be an incredible claim.
And not just from a financial perspective, either.
We think our marriages must be perfect, our family lives stable and free from stress, our professional paths paved with certainty and security.
But I think it’s is a modern-day fairytale, this myth of the planned and neatly executed life.
When I think about great men and women who’ve charted new territory and changed history, more often than not, it seems, a little dirt digging produces interpersonal strife and suffering, in spades.
I’m thinking of Mozart. Of St. Catherine of Siena. Of Abraham Lincoln. Of Martin Luther King Jr.
And most recently, this week, I’m thinking of Mother Angelica, foundress of EWTN and known to the masses as the feisty pirate nun with a zinging wit and a deadpan delivery most stand up comics can only dream of nailing.
Born Rita Antoinette Rizo to a suicidally depressed and soon-to-be single mother in Canton, Ohio, the young would-be nun grew up in a toxic family environment in a home that swarmed, at times, with literal rats. Her father, an unemployed tailor who would eventually leave her mother, never wanted children.
The religious sisters who taught at her parochial school offered her little in the way of support or comfort, and when her parents divorced when she was 6 years old, her position as a pariah seemed set in stone. She recalled of her childhood years that she was often cold, hungry, and more interested survival than in schoolwork.
Sounds like a great beginning, right?
And yet, this isn’t her Story. It was merely the first few scenes in what became a biopic spanning almost a century.
The television network she founded in the garage of her Poor Clare’s monastery grew into the largest Catholic network in the world, streaming 24 hour content to 144 countries and 230 million households. Numbers that make cable news networks salivate.
And the Church who’d failed her as a child, whose leaders sometimes found themselves at odds with the feisty nun with a penchant for orthodoxy and truth? It remained her greatest love.
From all appearances, her life ought to have ended in ignominy and miserable poverty. She struggled academically. Her mother was neglectful and ill. She had few adults rooting for her or invested in her success. She was only tangentially exposed to religion via her education, and she and her mother actually left the Church for the better part of a decade after a cruel experience in the confessional soured her to the Faith. Divorce was, back then, a damning sentence for the innocent child victims, who were not spared the scorn and cultural condemnation heaped upon their parents.
And yet, despite being saddled with these seemingly insurmountable handicaps, she created for herself a beautiful, productive, and wildly innovative life, and as a Catholic nun.
Or rather, she allowed Him to create with her and through her.
I wonder sometimes when I read about the great saints and scholars, masterful musicians and heroic physicians, how much of their greatness came not in spite of their humble and even horrific beginnings, but precisely because of them.
“For my power is made perfect in weakness,” Christ tells us through the Apostle Paul. And claw and clamber as we might to assert ourselves into position of strength and security, how often it is the weakest and least-likely ones He uses for His greatest work. Over and over again.
I’m not advocating for a life of poverty or abusive childhoods here. Just challenging the prevailing cultural notion of comfort and prosperity as the essential ingredients to a life worth living, a life worthy of being allowed to live.
We don’t know the value of a single human life, nor can we proclaim at the outset how or whether someone will turn out to be any good at all.
Because sometimes the universe throws a curveball, and a little Rita Rizzo, slumming it in dirty apartments with a mentally ill mother and a deadbeat dad nowhere to be found, grows up to be among the most influential women of the 20th century. And she does it without a trace of lipstick.
God has a great sense of comedic timing, too.
Mother Mary Angelica, pray for us. And rest in peace. I bet you’re having the best Easter ever.