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The Beginning

  • MOTHER ANGELICA & CHRISTINE ALLISON

I wrote this book because I feel very strongly that God wants you to be a saint.

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You may be a bit surprised to be reading a book by a nun.  Actually, that makes two of us.  Because a nun is the one thing I never wanted to be.

As a child, I remember sitting in church in Canton, Ohio, watching the Sisters pray.  The headpieces of their habits were so enormous that they blocked my view of the priest celebrating Mass.  And their facial expressions were so sour that I was convinced they were the most unhappy people I'd ever seen.  I even remember praying, "Lord, I'll never be one of those."

But the Lord works in mysterious ways.  Because now I am a nun, and I've been one for forty-three years.

I am a cloistered nun.  That means that instead of teaching or nursing or engaging in other professions, my life is devoted to prayer.  Prayer takes many forms, and the center of my prayer is Adoration of the Holy Eucharist.  The strength that I receive from Jesus in the Eucharist enables me to carry out the mission God has entrusted to me.  That mission includes being faithful to my monastic life.  It also includes being involved in a work that's a little unusual for a nun, a work that takes me a few hundred steps from our little monastery to a television studio in our back yard — the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).  After the usual preparations, I sit before the cameras to host a live program that is beamed by satellite to millions of homes across America.

That program led to this book.  Each night when I'm on the air we open up the phone lines to receive calls from viewers.  The calls come from every section of the country, from as many men as women, from people of every conceivable faith and every walk of life.  After five years of fielding these calls I've gotten to know, in a general way, the people who make them.  I call them my EWTN family.  They do not call to make grand statements or to get into arguments or to show off.  They call to ask questions.

I don't think they call to ask me questions because I'm a nun.  In fact, as many Protestants call as Catholics.  It may be because I'm a woman, and people find it easier to ask questions of a woman.

The questions are rarely easy.  A little boy may want to know why his father died.  A wife may want to know how to forgive a husband who abused their child.  A lot of questions have to do with the burden of loneliness.

People who call with those kinds of questions, I learned quickly, won't settle for replies that are trite or out of a manual.  Our catechism answers a lot of questions but it doesn't answer these.  And the television equivalent of a pat on the back and promise that everything will turn out for the best won't cut it with my television family.

They've heard too many promises.  Like more and more Americans, these callers have learned — often the hard way — that the promises of this world are empty promises.  All the money in the world can't help when a loved one dies.  All the fame in the world counts for nothing when a child becomes addicted to drugs.  You can have friends as numerous as the stars and be as alone as the most desperate creature who ever lived.

I don't believe in the promises of this world.

I believe in answers.

I believe there are answers.

All I do every night I'm on the air is tell my family where to find them.

That's why I wrote this book, to share what my television family and I have discovered together.


Why I do what I do?

Through unexpected people at unexpected moments, He showed us that when we leaned on Him we could not fall.

To people in the media, a nun with her own television network makes a good story.  So journalists from all over the world make the trip to Birmingham to confirm with their own eyes that, yes, we are real nuns, and yes, we have a real television studio, a real satellite dish, and all the components of real-world broadcasting.

If that's what they're looking for, they find it.  But I want them to find something more.

In many circles television evangelists have gotten a bad name.  Maybe in some cases it's deserved.  But in most cases the critics don't understand the terrible hunger these evangelists are trying to feed.  In any case the controversy has produced one notable side effect:  it has made journalists skeptical of anyone who mixes television and religion.

Last year we had the pleasure of a visit from Morley Safer and a crew from CBS's 60 Minutes.  Perhaps you saw the segment they did when it aired.  After many minutes of casual conversation, including a tour of our facilities, Morley Safer and I sat down for an interview.  His first few questions were softballs.  But then he decided to get down to hard cases.  He wanted to know about money.

I am a Franciscan, which means I follow Jesus according to the example of the great Saint Francis of Assisi.  He founded our Order, and when he did he required that all of his followers take a vow of poverty.  Morley and I had just taken a walk through room after room jammed with the latest electronic equipment, millions of dollars' worth of up-to-date technology.  "How," he asked, "can you square that with your vow of poverty?"

I think that's a fair question to ask of anyone who uses the means of this world to talk to people about the next world.  The answer is that I do not own any of the equipment at the network, nor do I receive a salary.  Our benefactors have been most generous in donating the money that has paid for EWTN.  But all of the network, every nut, bolt, and videotape, belongs to God.  Of course, we have a staff of paid professionals who operate the network, but EWTN is a nonprofit organization.  The vow of poverty that the nuns and I make enables us to utilize the technology God makes available to us, knowing all the while that everything is His.

Happily, just as Morley Safer was asking his question, we were broke.  I say "happily" because being broke is the secret of our success.  Being broke, we need help.  Needing help, we turn to God.  Being constantly broke, we are constantly turning to God.  Our message, the message we send out nightly across America, is about a loving God on Whom we can totally rely.

For if God decided to stop using us, we'd be off the air in two seconds.

When I told all this to Morley, at first he gave me a lifted eyebrow in response.  But soon after, his look of skepticism dissolved into a smile.  He was seeing firsthand God's Providence at work.


How I came to be here

A lot of people wonder how I ended up founding a monastery in the South and starting a Catholic cable network.  As hard as it is for people to imagine, I never planned to do either of these things.  I have always been very grateful for my vocation as a nun, and I've never desired any life but the one God gave me.  In fact, I consider it one of God's greatest miracles in my life that He has allowed EWTN to prosper while preserving the fullness of my life as a nun.  It may be hard to understand, but I've never had great dreams of ministry that I set out to pursue.  I never started anything knowing what the whole game plan would be, or even how a project would be accomplished.

Instead, I've delighted in watching God evolve great things out of nothing.  I believe firmly in allowing God to open doors and in stepping out in faith when He does so.  Often those steps don't make any senseânot to me, and certainly not to a logical or reasonable observer.  But I wouldn't want to live my life any other way.  It excites me to watch what God is going to do next, and to see how He uses the small, seemingly insignificant occurrences in life to build the foundation for great things.

An example of His Providence is how I came to Birmingham.  It began on a peaceful morning in our Order's monastery in Canton, Ohio.  My assignment for the day was to clean and polish floors.  For this job we used a power machine with hand controls and a rotary brush.  By a freak accident the machine hit a slick spot, and before I could release the control bar, it spun out of control.  It threw me against the wall, and I hit exactly at the one place in my spine that had been weakened by a birth defect.

The accident left me in great pain.  After two years, my back had deteriorated to the point where surgery was required.  According to the doctor, the odds were only fifty-fifty that I'd ever walk again.

I'll tell you exactly what my reaction was when he told me.  I was petrified.

I remember lying in my hospital bed after the doctor explained the details of the intense operation and the risks associated with it.  I stared at the gray-white wall.  "Lord," I said, "if you'll let me walk again, I'll build you a monastery in the South."

Why the South? Your guess is as good as mine.  All I know is that the operation was a success, and after therapy I began to walk again with the help of a back brace and a leg brace, which are my companions to this day.

The problem with making a bargain with God is that you have to hold up your end of it.  I explained this to my mother superior and that great woman told me to go ahead.  I gathered together five nuns and began making plans to build a monastery in the South — in Birmingham, Alabama, to be precise — the same Birmingham, Alabama, that at the time boasted a Catholic population of exactly 2 percent.

This taught me something I've never forgotten.  You've got to be very specific when you ask the Lord for something — you never know when He's going to pass by and say "Amen!"

I don't think anyone could have prepared those lovely Alabamians for our habits, homemade sandals, and the grille that we erected to separate our cloister from visitors.  I look back on those days with wonderment; we weren't afraid to ask for anything and we weren't afraid to get "no" for an answer.  But somehow we were always getting "yeses" from the people of Birmingham, especially from the Italian community.

One man donated all the cement block for the monastery.  Another did the excavating and blasting of all the rock surrounding the property.  A woman and her daughter donated all the brick.  Near the end, when the building frame was up but only half finished and we had run out of money, the workmen lent us their time until we could repay them.  And from the start, one very special man, Joe Bruno, has provided us with all our food and groceries.

As more people heard about us and our new building, more began to drop by, some out of curiosity, others to see if they could help.  Before long we were receiving extraordinary support from both the Catholic community and the other Christian and Jewish congregations of Birmingham.

Having made a bargain with God, the nuns and I relied on Him to enable us to fulfill our end of it.  Through unexpected people at unexpected moments, He showed us that when we leaned on Him we could not fall.

When the building was up and the roof was on, we did everything we could think of to raise money to sustain the monastery.  We even tried roasting peanuts to sell at local sporting events and fairs.  We were roasting peanuts by the bushel and beginning to meet our expenses when the local distributor came over to visit one day.  He said we were going to have to "grease a few palms" if we wanted to make it in the roasting business.  Imagine somebody saying that to a nun! I told him that if I were going to hell, it surely wouldn't be over peanuts.

It was several years later that the Lord showed us that He had something else in mind for the monastery.  By the early 1970s, our community had grown to twelve nuns.  We bought sonic printing presses and began a book ministry.  Our goal was to send the message of God's Goodness everywhere we could, and soon we were distributing over 500,000 books and booklets a month all over the world.

The little books were popular right from the beginning, and they led to requests for broadcast interviews, mostly on small, independent television stations.  One such request came from Channel 38 in Chicago, and I obliged.  And that's how I got into television.

Channel 38 was a small Christian station perched atop a tall building.  There are hundreds of stations in the United States just like it.  But for some reason, the moment I set foot inside that studio I said to myself, "Lord, I've got to have one of these!"  This taught me something I've never forgotten.  You've got to be very specific when you ask the Lord for something — you never know when He's going to pass by and say "Amen!"

But getting back to my story ...for a few minutes I debated the obvious question:  What on earth would twelve cloistered nuns do with a television station? It was a ridiculous idea.  But so were our printing presses and the half-million books a month.  By now I had learned to accept inspirations, even the crazy-sounding ones.

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Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises
by Mother Angelica & Christine Allison

On the ride home from Chicago, I couldn't get the thought out of my mind.  "Lord," I murmured to myself, "I've just got to have one of those."

A friend was driving the car.  "What, Mother?" he asked.  "One of what?"

"A television station or a studio or something," I said vaguely.

Just then, my companion Sister Joseph, who was sitting in the back seat praying, spoke up.  "Mother, the Lord just said to me, 'Tell Mother the media is Mine and I give it to her.'"

"Are you joking?"  I asked incredulously.

"I don't think He was," she answered.

That was the beginning of the Eternal Word Television Network.  Through a series of modern-day miracles we received a charter from the FCC, support from wonderful and sometimes anonymous donors, backing from the local community and, most importantly, guidance and courage from Our Lord.  We went on the air in August 1981.

Those of you who receive our programming through your cable system know that ours has not been a fairy-tale ending, but it isn't supposed to be.  And that's how God wants it.  The struggles He has given us help us to trust Him more, to rely on Him more, and to remember what it is we're doing and why.

From monastery to publishing operation to the first Catholic satellite television network:  it's a string that leads directly to the book you're holding.  And it's my hope that, in reading this book, you will understand why I believe so strongly in the many things I want to tell you.


What this book is about

Our television audience keeps growing dramatically.  Every time we add viewers to our EWTN family, we receive even more requests for tapes of particular shows.  Our viewers write to us with their problems and tell us how much our tapes and shows help them in their daily lives.  The questions and comments that come to us through the mail and on the Live show made us realize the need to provide answers, not promises.

Finally this year the nuns convinced me that we should put some of these answers down on paper.  We tried to be as systematic as possible in coming up with the most frequently asked questions, and as we did so, we saw a sort of "trinity" emerge.  There were questions that had to do with searching for God, getting to know Him, and finding out what He wills for us, which we grouped into a section called "First Things."  Then there were those questions that had to do with the trials and rigors of faith in the real world, and those we grouped into a second section called "Life and Love."  Finally, there were questions that centered on the next world, the world that people are sometimes afraid even to ask about.  We called that section "Last Things."

In all probability you are wrestling with at least one of these questions right now, and if you are, I suggest you turn to that question first, read through the chapter, and then go back and start at the beginning to read the rest of the book at your leisure.  I hope that it isn't a "real page-turner".  I'd rather that you take your time.

This book is a primer.  The truths of Christianity have been around for two thousand years, and yet how little do we apply them to the world we live in, to the pains we suffer, and to the joys we let pass by.  They are not easy truths.  Christianity is not a "feel good" religion, nor is it a prescription for instant happiness.  This is a book for all Christians, because it is based on the truths all Christians share.


What God wants you to be

I wrote this book because I feel very strongly that God wants you to be a saint.

Don't be surprised.

And don't dismiss it.

Any one of us can be overwhelmed by the Presence of God in a beautiful cathedral while a choir is chanting.  Any one of us can feel the special warmth of God that flows from an eloquent sermon or an evening prayer service.

But it takes holiness — a special grace — to resist choking your spouse when he or she humiliates you in public or lies to you or cheats on you.

A woman once said to me, "The problem with life is that it is so ...daily."

Day in and day out, even as we are beset with the problems and questions of life, we are called to ask for that special grace of holiness.  We are called to reject the empty promises of the world.  We are called to embrace the answers that even now lie within our grasp.

If you can for a moment put aside the things that trouble you, put aside the specific questions of your own life, then I'd like to ask you the deepest question of all.  That question is, "Why do we search?"

The answer is:  Because we are called to holiness, you and I, and we are not there.  Not yet.

Come seek with me.

It isn't an easy road.  It wasn't meant to be.

But it is our road, and we are called to travel it.

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Acknowledgement

Mother Angelica & Christine Allison. "The Beginning." from Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1996): 13-22.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press.

The Author

Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, PCPA (born Rita Antoinette Rizzo on April 20, 1923) is an American Franciscan nun best known as a television personality and the founder of the Eternal Word Television Network.  In 1944, she entered the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, a Franciscan religious order for women, as a postulant, and a year later she was admitted to the order as a novice.  She went on to find a new house for the order in 1962 in Irondale, Alabama, where the EWTN is headquartered, and in 1996 she initiated the building of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Hanceville, Alabama. Mother Angelica hosted shows on EWTN until she suffered a stroke in 2001.  She is a recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Award granted by Pope Benedict XVI and lives in the cloistered monastery in Hanceville.

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Christine Allison has worked in advertising and in magazine publishing. With her husband, Wick Allison, she publishes Art & Antiques. Ms. Allison's first book was I'll Tell You a Story, I'll Sing You a Song. She is also the author of Teach Your Children Well, and 365 Bedtime Stories. Allisons live in New York City with their two children.

Copyright © 1996 Mother Angelica & Christine Allison
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