There is simply no avoiding the truth of the matter: if you are going to be a public figure with strong opinions and a quick tongue, you are going to be controversial. So no one should be surprised that Mother Angelica, the foundress of the Eternal Word Television Network, is controversial: the is a major public figure, she has strong opinions, and a quick tongue -- or at least, she used to, until struck by a major stroke a few years ago. Mother Angelica's absence from public life, however, does not mean that her influence doesn't continue to echo the world over. Now that she is out of the spotlight, it is the perfect time for a comprehensive biography to be written about her, something Raymond Arroyo attempts to bring to us in Mother Angelica, The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. But does he succeed?
When I started reading this book, I must admit I was not a huge fan of Mother Angelica. Don't misunderstand me, I had nothing against her; I just have a deep aversion to hero-worship (they don't call them "idols" for nothing), and I found that Mother Angelica had her fair share of "fans" (the root word, I might add, for "fanatic"). Now writing biography is a very tricky business, it is too easy to write a simple, 2-dimensional piece that does not really communicate the life of the person. A lot of traditional hagiography falls short in this way, I'm afraid. It is ok for devotional reading, but poor for real serious study. And so my trepidation was: would Raymond Arroyo really serve the full dish? Or would he limit himself to the sweeter-tasting parts of Mother Angelica's story, so as to present his "idol" in a best-possible (but ultimately unreal) light?
As biographies go, I will say that this is one of the better ones I've read. The research is thorough, and the subject is presented in a thorough way. While Arroyo definitely adores Mother Angelica, I didn't get the impression he sensationalized her life, and the fact that he is himself a man of faith clearly helped him present certain aspects of her life in a way that respects the religious dimension (something a purely secular biographer might not have been able to do). And Mother Angelica has had an interesting life: a troubled family life, a no-nonsense approach to her vocation, a great many accomplishments to her credit (including founding 2 new religious orders, as well as the largest religious satellite network in the world). To be sure, she is a personality worth studying. But is she worth emulating? Is she a saint?
In the end, the dramatic tension of the book turns around this question. Yes, founding a satellite network is impressive -- but if it was done on her own initiative, rather than in obedience to the Lord, it won't help her get to heaven. Grace is funny that way -- we can't earn it, we can only accept it as a gift. And while this is a dramatic tension in Mother Angelica's life, it is (curiously) a dramatic tension in Arroyo's presentation of that life. As I mentioned before, it is clear that Arroyo adores Mother Angelica, and often enough one gets the impression, even as he is trying to be objective, that he can't help but present things in such a say that he is saying "Look what she did! Isn't she amazing?" Except that, some of those things I didn't find amazing at all. For example, Mother Angelica went ahead and did a lot of things without proper ecclesiastical permission, and when asked about it her response reveals that she didn't actually trust the church to agree with her. She went head-to-head with a Cardinal Archbishop over an element of doctrine, and in the end you don't get the impression that either of them really "won". Yeah, she's hard-headed and hard-working, but so what? In themselves, those are not signs of sanctity. I consider these and other elements to be "crooked lines" in her life. Now it is true that God can "draw straight with crooked lines", and for Mother Angelica it appears he has (the results speak for themselves) -- but that doesn't make those lines any less crooked in their origin. What I find interesting about this biography is that Arroyo shows both the "straight" results and the "crooked" origins of Mother Angelica's life, choices and endeavours. At times he doesn't seem to recognize just how crooked those origins were in some cases -- all he can see is the straight results, and therefore he concludes she was right all along -- but curiously, even that helps guarantee the authenticity of the text. After all, it means that even if Arroyo was trying to write hagiography, in the end up he wound up writing biography -- something that he said was his original intention, anyway!
So what should we make of this book? As I mentioned, before reading this book I was not a big fan of Mother Angelica. After reading it, I am still not a fan -- she is no more an idol for me than she was before. I must admit, though, that I do feel I've gotten to know her a lot better, such that she has become more than an idol to me -- she has become a *person*. After reading what I've read, I do not believe Mother Angelica will ever be canonized by the Church, such that I will likely never pray *to* her. But, as I have come to know her better, and particularly come to know her hard knocks and sufferings, and am more than willing to pray *for* her, as a sister in Christ whom I can truly say I love as such. And I have a feeling that, while others might not understand this distinction, Mother Angelica would.