Saint Rita of Cascia, patroness of lost causes

This is the most personal post I will have written for this blog, but, as my publication date draws ever closer (tomorrow, in fact) I find it impossible not to mention Saint Rita.

A few years ago, while I was writing Mistress of the Revolution, things were not going well in my life. At that time my friend Christiane, who knew of my troubles, told me that she was praying to Saint Rita on my behalf. Truth be told, I had only vaguely heard of Saint Rita. She is not an “intellectual” saint, like Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint Therese de Lisieux, writers and Doctors of the Church. Neither is she a military heroine like Saint Joan of Arc.

So who was Saint Rita? She was born in the late Middle Ages into a well-to-do family. As a teenager, she wanted to become a nun, but her parents had other plans: they had chosen a suitor for her. She obeyed out of filial duty, though her future husband was notorious for his brutality. She bore him two sons.

Through her patience, she managed to bring her husband’s temper under some control over the eighteen years of their marriage. He nevertheless remained violently involved in the civil wars that were tearing Italy apart. He was ambushed and stabbed to death. Rita’s sons, true to the mores of the times, wanted to avenge their father’s death, but she convinced them not to become murderers themselves. Soon afterwards, both met untimely deaths.

Agabiti Saint Rita Virgin Child

Rita’s faith helped her survive the loss of all of her loved ones. She had never forgotten her vocation and applied to the nearby Augustinian convent of Cascia. At first her request was rejected on the grounds that she was a widow, and possibly because some of the nuns were related to her husband’s murderers. Yet she was not discouraged and displayed her usual gentle persistence. She was finally allowed to take the veil. Having reached middle-age and experienced utter bereavement, she could at last follow the path for which she was destined.

She spent the remaining forty years of her life in the convent, where she was noted for her humility, patience and piety. Shortly before her death, she asked one of her female relatives to bring her back a rose from the garden of her former home. It was midwinter, not a season when roses bloom in central Italy. Yet the cousin found a single rose in the garden and brought it back to Rita, who kissed it and offered it to the Mother Superior. A simple but particularly moving miracle: Rita, from her deathbed, remembered the beauty of life and all living things. To this day roses are associated with her.

Rita has been revered as a saint since her death, though she was not officially canonized until 1900. John Paul II spoke of “the crowds of those who devotedly call upon her with affectionate familiarity
and confidently bring to her the problems and anxieties that weigh upon their
hearts.” Indeed for centuries she has been invoked as the patroness of lost causes, the saint of the impossible.

So my friend’s choice of Saint Rita for her prayers for me could not have been more apt. Apart from the struggles of my personal life, I was a novice author with a half-completed manuscript, written on my scant spare time, in my second language. I had no connections in publishing, no knowledge of the book business. Publication was at best a faint hope, or more likely a pipe dream, as some would remind me. It was not quite impossible, but it came very close.

Yet everything I hoped for happened. I found my way through a time of loss and sorrow. I completed my novel. I found an agent, a publisher. As my Mom often says, I have been blessed in many ways.

Now is the time for yet another prayer to Saint Rita.

And to illustrate this post, this work by Pier Paolo Agabiti, representing her, in her nun’s wimple, with the Blessed Virgin and Child. It was painted around 1500, only fifty
years after Rita’s death, and is still kept in her beloved convent of
Cascia. It may be the closest we have to a portrait of the saint.

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