Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Last week I had the privilege of visiting the EWTN headquarters in Alabama for a taping of Life on the Rock (you can watch the episode here). It was the week of Mother Angelica's birthday, and as I walked around the campus of the international network, I thought a lot about its indefatigable founder. A few months before, I had read Raymond Arroyo's masterpiece biography, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles; the stories from the book floated to mind over and over again during my trip. I would look around at the sprawling campus, which was dotted with satellite dishes that transmit EWTN programming to over 100 million households in 127 countries, and it was almost impossible to believe that this was all started by one nun with no money and no media experience.
Inspired by Mother Angelica's example of radical faith, I recalled the lessons from her biography, and came up with the top eight things that the rest of us can learn from her example:
1. Beware of false humility
One of the things that jumps out at me most clearly about Mother Angelica's story is that she never fell into the trap of false humility. When God first called her to start a TV station, she could have blown it off, assuming that she must have misunderstood the call since a simple nun such as herself could never do something that big. That mentality looks like humility, but is really rooted in a sort of pride, since it assumes that God needs our personal wisdom and strength in order to accomplish his will. Mother Angelica's example shows that real humility is to forget ourselves altogether, and be completely open to any promptings of the Holy Spirit, trusting that God will give us whatever we need to do what he wants us to do.
2. Just start
All throughout Arroyo's biography, you see the message of: "Just start." When Mother Angelica would sense that God was calling her to do something, she didn't wait until she had all the answers about how it would work out. She would simply take that first step forward, and trust that she would get the resources and information she needed to take the next step when that time came. When she first felt the call to build a TV studio, here is how she responded:
She instructed the builder to expand the slab to accommodate a "television studio." The man looked bewildered, as if the nun had just spoken to him in Aramaic. "I don't know anything about a TV studio," he said.
"I don't know anything about it either, but that's not the point. We're going to build one," Mother declared. With no dedicated funds, no business plan, and no hesitation, Angelica faithfully leapt into independent television production.
"Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous," Mother said of her sudden decision. "When you have God, you don't have to know everything about it; you just do it."
3. Don't listen to people who tell you you're crazy
Another thing that jumped out at my about Mother Angelica's story was how much resistance she got from other people along the way. Though she had many supporters, there were also plenty of voices out there telling her that she needed to abandon this ridiculous television station idea. Outside of trusted confidants and spiritual directors, we should not listen to discouraging voices when we're trying to live out a call from God. As Mother Angelica's life shows us, having people tell you your project is crazy, stupid, silly, or impossible could very well be a sign that you're on exactly the right track.
4. Stay dumb
Then again, sometimes the voices that tell us that this undertaking is impossible come from within our own heads. While being interviewed on a Protestant TV show, Arroyo recounts that Mother Angelica said: "I am convinced God is looking for dodoes. He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can't be done, so they don't do it. But a dodo doesn't know it can't be done. God uses dodoes: people who are willing to look ridiculous so God can do the miraculous." I think that one of the most common ways we avoid doing what God wants us to do is that we analyze our way out of it. God couldn't really want me to do that, we say. It's too hard. There's no way one person could do that -- certainly not me. Yet God's ways often look dumb to the eyes of the world, and in order to be truly open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we also must be willing to look like "dodoes" sometimes.
5. Don't confuse trust with passivity
All throughout the biography, you see Mother Angelica working hard. Hardly a page went by where she wasn't asking someone for money, overseeing the construction of some new facility, taping a new show, ordering equipment, or some other work toward living out this call from God. While there may be times that we're called to do nothing and let the Holy Spirit work things out, very often living out a call from God involves a lot of hard work. Mother Angelica understood that God often answers prayers once we've begun to take action.
6. Stick to your principles
In the beginning, Mother Angelica and her sisters were taping a television show at a local TV station. Then she found out that that station planned to air a blasphemous miniseries that questioned the divinity of Jesus. She confronted an executive at the station about it, and the following scene ensued:
"Are you trying to tell me how to run my program?" [vice president Hugh Smith] demanded.
"No. I think you have crummy programs, but I've never told you how to run your station. But this is blasphemy!" Angelica crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing. "Are you a Christian?"
"Yes," Smith said. "But do you think God cares what we do down here?"
"Yes, He cares, and I care." Angelica's voice was rising. "I will not put my programs on this station, nor make any other programs here if you run that movie."
The vice president tried to reason his way out of the conflict, reminding Mother of the few TV studios in town. "You leave here, and you're off television. You need us."
"No, I don't. I only need God!" Mother was on her feet now, yelling. "I'll buy my own cameras and build my own studio."
"You can't do that."
"Just watch me," she said, staring Smith down.
Some of us might have been tempted to look the other way about what the station was doing, rationalizing that we had to let our principles slide in order to live out God's call to evangelize through television. Mother Angelica showed over and over again that God will always work things out so that we can do his work with integrity.
7. Accept your imperfections
One of my favorite aspects of the book is that you see that Mother Angelica wasn't perfect, and even faced serious spiritual struggles. At one point she wrote in a journal, "My soul is in such turmoil. My imperfections and weaknesses seem to be bursting within me...I fight for the least good thought. I struggle to pray -- ever prayer is separated by tons of aggravating thoughts, turmoil and distress. It is like picking roses amidst a garbage heap." Yet she didn't let this stop her from energetically doing whatever she felt God wanted her to do. She understood that you don't have to be perfect in order for God to work through you.
8. Embrace your fears
Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about Mother Angelica's story was that it wasn't always easy for her to do what she did. I assumed that she was a sort of adrenaline junkie who enjoyed all the crazy risks she took, and was inspired to see that that was not the case. In fact, it was just as scary for her to live a life of radical faith as it would be for most of us. But she explained her philosophy to Arroyo like this: "You want to do something for the Lord...do it. Whatever you feel needs to be done, even though you're shaking in your boots, you're scared to death -- take the first step forward. The grace comes with that one step and you get the grace as you step. Being afraid is not a problem; it's doing nothing when you feel afraid."
The last day I was at EWTN was the day of Mother Angelica's 89th birthday. Before I left for the airport, I took one last walk around the impressive campus. I went by the chapel, in which there is Mass twice a day. I saw the gift shop, and the kitchen where guests of the network are treated to home-cooked meals. Outside, the parking lot was filled with the cars of visitors, folks who had come to Mass, and all the people employed by this media powerhouse. When I reached the campus exit, the last thing I passed was those satellite transmitters. I stood and looked at these mammoth structures for a moment, in awe of what they represented.
It was staggering to consider that all of this originated with one nun who had no money and no media experience. In the biography, Mother Angelica told Arroyo, "Some people say I am a woman of great faith. I'm really a coward who keeps moving forward." I thought of those words as I stood at the EWTN gates, and prayed that the rest of us might dare to embrace this kind of imperfect faith. None of us have a perfect spiritual life, not even Mother Angelica. But to see all those satellite dishes, pointed to the heavens, beaming the Gospel message all throughout the world, was to behold what God can do through one coward who keeps moving forward.