How Mother Angelica overcame her childhood suffering

Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network, is pictured in a 1992 photo (CNS)

An item in the Telegraph today had the headline, Mental illness caused by life crises, not biology, and went on to state that “mental illness is largely caused by crises such as unemployment or childhood abuse and too much money is spent researching genetic and biological factors, psychologists have said.” Although psychologists accept there are genes “that make people more susceptible to various disorders”, current wisdom believes that “the true causes of depression and anxiety are from life events and environment…”

I mention this as I have just been reading Not in your Genes by psychologist Oliver James, published by Vermilion. James would certainly agree with the item in today’s Telegraph. His book argues that nurture trumps nature every time and that “it is patterns of nurture that make us like our parents”, not what we supposedly “inherit” from them.

Drawing on case studies from his own practice and looking at the lives of celebrity casualties such as Paula Yates and Tiger Woods, he makes a strong case for arguing that statistically most adult mental illness is triggered by childhood trauma and abuse.

James writes as a psychologist and from a secular viewpoint, yet there is much in his book that one would agree with. When he writes that “in almost all families there are toxic patterns” a Christian would accept that as we are all sinners, our weaknesses and failings will necessarily show up in the way we parent ourselves and in the way our parents treated us. Where I would disagree is his assumption, quoting Freud, that, “the cost of repressing our true desires is that they express themselves in other ways that may seem irrational or inexplicable.”

For a Christian our “true desire” is to come to know and love God, who created us; we are spiritual beings who, although we are affected by suffering in childhood, are not defined or conditioned by this. Examining unhappy childhood experiences under the guidance of a skilled psychotherapist can help to heal the wounds to some extent. However, to be forgiven for our sins by the God who loves us enough to have died for us is the deepest kind of healing we can experience.

James lists six components to mental and emotional well-being: living in the present; authenticity; insightfulness; fluid and open relationships with others; playfulness and vivacity. Interestingly, these components are generally present in the lives of holy people.

I have just read the tribute Fr Frank Pavone has paid to Mother Angelica, the extraordinary nun who founded the Eternal World Television Network, who died, aged 92, on Easter Sunday.

He once asked her: “How does one do great things for the Lord?” She told him that “the secret is to walk through the doors of opportunity that you have today, with courage, while you do not know how the plan will unfold tomorrow or the next day….we have to trust in the Lord and do good today while we have the opportunity. Once we go through an open door, then God will show us what the next door is.”

What would Oliver James have made of Mother Angelica? She lived completely in the present, had integrity and wisdom, she was genuinely open to other people, joyful, energetic and with a great sense of humour. Yet she endured the kind of childhood he would describe as “traumatic.” Her father abandoned his family when she was very young; her parents divorced; her mother struggled with chronic depression and poverty and Rita (Mother Angelica’s name before she became a nun) suffered severe ill-health in her teens.

She would say that God healed her physical ailments by a miracle and that her religious vocation was her deepest desire. She certainly overcame her childhood suffering without benefit of psychotherapy. This is not to dismiss the work of people like James – but to say that his kind of therapeutic intervention has its limits; it cannot address the infinite longings of the human heart or heal the spirit. Only God can do that – as Mother Angelica’s life testifies.