The day after Rita’s baptism, at 5 days old, her parents wrapped her up in a basinet and carried her out to the field where they worked. While she lay there sleeping, her father noticed a swarm of white bees nearby and glanced over to check on little Rita. To his amazement, the bees weren’t stinging his beloved child, but swarming around her plump baby lips, batting their wings in and outside of her mouth as if they were feeding on a sweet flower’s nectar.
At the ripe age of 12 (common during the Middle Ages), Rita was promised to Paulo, a charming but subsequently violent man whose family was part of the “vendetta.” Rita prayed every day for her husband to find God and recognize the error of his ways. She bore twin sons with Paulo and he started to calm his soul in order to raise his family in a more kind and thoughtful way. Eventually Paulo came to his senses and had an overwhelming moment of regret and forgiveness through the Holy Spirit and together with Rita and their sons, they lived happily ever after…
But no, happily ever after they did not. Because Saints don’t become Saints as a result of perfect and wonderful lives free of death, despair, and anguish. Quite the contrary in fact.
Just as Rita and Paulo were settling into their newfound closeness with each other and with God, Paulo was murdered as a result of the violent vendetta that plagued his family name. Their now teenage sons were led to a heart of revenge as taught by their angry uncle, Paulo’s brother. Rita prayed for their souls - she knew that if her sons went on a rampage avenging their father’s death, then there was only one place for them to go, and it wasn’t heaven. A year later, the boys both died of illness, relieving them from physical and spiritual danger.
Rita experienced such tragic loss in her life; a husband who ridiculed, beat, and cheated on her, came to know God, and just as they were finding each other was murdered, two sons sworn to avenge his death and succumbed to illness, and the pain that was left within her as a result. But all the while she turned to God and found comfort in prayer. Rita sought to live out the rest of her life at the monastery with the Augustinian nuns and was repeatedly denied due to the drama surrounding her family and the fact that she was not “pure.” But one day Rita was praying to her three favorite Saints: Augustine of Hippo, John the Baptist, and Nicholas of Tolentino, when they physically appeared before her and led her directly into a room of the monastery that was only accessible from the inside. So, the next morning when the sisters surprisingly found her praying there, they realized that Rita was a truly holy and devout woman who was not going to go quietly away from her call. Eventually she was granted entrance and she lived out another 40 years as an Augustinian nun; helping others who were going through similar and severe pain and loss in their lives.
One day as she was praying in front of the crucifix, Rita begged Jesus to let her suffer his wounds of the cross so she could feel his pain. But rather than full stigmata, she was given one thorn from his crown of thorns. The single thorn pierced her forehead with such force it embedded into the bone and she bore this delivered wound for the rest of her life. It is said that her fellow sisters were so disgusted by the sight and smell of the septic wound, they couldn’t bare to be close to poor Rita, so she locked herself in her cell at the monastery for quite some time because of it. There’s even a story that says there were tiny maggots in Rita’s infection that she called her “little angels” as they appeared to try and clean the blood from her forehead. The stigmata wound caused her much pain and suffering throughout the rest of her life and only healed once; in order for her to go to Rome with her fellow sisters and appear in front of the Pope. While in Rome, many strangers came to her and pointed her out as a “living angel.” Her deep lesion returned upon coming home.
On her death bed, Rita’s cousin visited. She asked her cousin to go to the home where she lived with Paulo and her sons and pick a single Rose from her treasured rose bushes, as well as two figs from the fig tree and bring them to her. Her cousin was astonished at this request because it was the middle of winter and the ground was frozen and covered with pearly-white snow. Rita insisted that a single red rose and two ripe figs would be there waiting for her, so she went and returned with this surprising request that was nothing short of a miracle from God.
The belfry came alive the moment that Rita passed away from tuberculosis. This wouldn’t be considered a miracle except for the fact that the bells were decommissioned and hadn’t worked in a number of years and no one was there to ring them. The whole town knew that their beloved sister was gone from this earth and passed through the veil into heaven.
The sisters of the Augustinian monastery sought out an elaborate casket for their fellow kin. But the only master carpenter available to them was gravely ill. He said that if Rita could heal him, then he would gladly build her casket. He was immediately healed and crafted a beautiful and final resting place for Rita’s body, where she still resides to this day.
You can visit Rita in Cascia, Italy and the remnants of her stigmata wound on her forehead. And if you visit around her feast day, May 22nd, you can not only witness a crown of red roses placed on her head, but also the swarm of white bees that visit the monastery and nest in its walls.
Rita of Cascia is the patron saint of impossible causes and difficult marriages. I feel her presence is important right now in all of our lives and I hope you find comfort in her story and her mission.
A Prayer to St. Rita
O powerful St. Rita, rightly called Saint of the Impossible, I come to you with confidence in my great need. You know well my trials, for you yourself were many times burdened in this life. Come to my help, speak for me, pray with me, intercede on my behalf before God. I know that God has a most generous heart and is most loving. Join your prayers to mine and obtain for me the grace I desire. You who were so very pleasing to God on earth and are so much so now in heaven, I promise to use this favor, when granted to better my life, to proclaim God’s mercy, and to make you more widely known and loved. Amen.