WE HAVE SEEN that St. Rita began her ascent on the ladder of religious perfection by the strict observance of the vow of obedience. Desirous of ascending higher, she next placed her feet, so to speak, on the second step of the ladder, which step is evangelical poverty. Poverty is so eminent a virtue that Jesus Christ Himself professed it when He was born poor in a cold and wretched stable and died naked on the Cross; His only belongings were three nails and a crown of thorns. Moreover, in His Sermon on the Mount, Christ gave poverty the first place among the Beatitudes when He said: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."
As regards St. Rita, who knew well that the excellence of holy poverty consists, not so much in despising riches, as in renouncing the desire of possessing them, she made such rapid progress in the practice of this virtue that after she had made her vows, she never had the least affection for riches. We have already learned that before St. Rita began her novitiate in the convent of the Maddalena, she sold all she possessed in the world and distributed the proceeds among God's poor. Thus, in order to be poor, she renounced everything in the world and of the world so that she might follow her Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ. So filled, indeed, was St. Rita with the desire of belonging entirely to God, and of seeking nothing but the things of God, that when she made her solemn profession she consecrated herself without reserve to God. Her heart thus stripped of every affection to temporal things, and so free was her soul from every inclination to worldly interests, that she considered them the enemies of her eternal salvation.
Because St. Rita loved holy poverty so much, she never wore but one habit, the very one she received the day of her entrance into religion. This habit she never laid aside during all the long years she lived in the convent, and when she died she was buried with the same habit. And even to this day, though centuries have passed since her pure soul ascended to Heaven, it serves as her shroud, a splendid monument of her heroic poverty. Many and many a time was she asked by the nuns why she continued to wear such an old and patched habit. St. Rita always answered with humility: "Sisters, I wear this old habit to imitate the poverty of my Spouse, Jesus Christ." She meditated every day on the poverty of Jesus, and many times while at meditation in the chapel she was heard to cry out: "O my good Jesus, to clothe me, You stripped Yourself. To make me rich, You lived and died in extreme poverty."
So penetrated was St. Rita's soul with the spirit of poverty that she was content to occupy a small room or cell, whose only furniture consisted of a prie-dieu, a hard bench that served as a bed-----a stone was her pillow-----and the walls of her cell were decorated with a few pictures representing different scenes of Our Lord's Passion. There in that little cell St. Rita was supremely happy. And when not engaged in convent labor or community exercises, she was accustomed to spend hours before the Crucifix, saying to her Divine Lord and Master: "O my sweet Jesus! why should I, a vile creature, a miserable sinner, seek a better cell than the one I have? Why should I desire comforts or pleasure in food, clothing, or recreation, when I know that You had no place to lay Your head, and that You suffered so much for me, naked, wounded and nailed to a Cross?"
One particular incident in the life of St. Rita will give you an idea how detached she was from earthly things. On the occasion of her journey to Rome, in company with the other nuns, St. Rita happened to find on the way a gold coin, which she threw into the swift waters of a river they had to cross. The nuns were surprised at her act, which they considered at least imprudent, and some of them reproved her, saying: "We may stand in need of money before we return to Cascia."
St. Rita, sorry that she had displeased her sisters, responded to their complaint with these words: "Sister, I threw that piece of money into the river because, though the coin was small and of little weight, to me it seemed very heavy, so heavy, indeed, that I did not have the strength to carry it any longer:' Not only did St. Rita practice evangelical poverty, but she also tried to induce others to practice it by her urgent words. Many times did she say to the nuns:
"My dear sisters: if you wish to have the esteem and confidence of the good and virtuous, have little or no love for temporal riches. Observe strictly your vow of poverty. A nun who wishes to belong entirely to God must be totally detached from all earthly things."
St. Rita believed as St. Paul did, that all things outside of Jesus which do not help to gain Jesus are as filth and uncleanness. She was a perfect model of poverty. She was a true religious and truly poor, and the example of her life in the convent was a sublime hymn, so to speak, in praise and honor of holy poverty. During her long years in the Maddalena Convent, St. Rita was never heard to say: "This is mine;" or "that is yours;" for, having once put her feet on the step of poverty, the second step of the ladder of religious perfection, she only heard the sweet voice of her beloved Jesus saying to her: "Come, Rita, I am poor, come and follow Me."
AS WE HAVE already said that St. Rita was a perfect model of obedience and poverty. We will now say that St. Rita, by a miracle of God's grace, was a perfect model of chastity, for this beautiful virtue as professed and practiced in the religious state is really a miracle of grace. Nature cannot give it, it is truly a gift of God. True, we cannot place St. Rita in the number of those virgins who form an assemblage apart in Heaven; still, because she preserved always the virginity of her soul, she was like to the Angels in purity.
We know that from her earliest childhood, it was St. Rita's ardent desire to consecrate herself wholly and entirely to God, and that she had the greatest horror of anything which might, in the least, mar the untarnished whiteness of virginal purity. Having embraced the marriage state, not because she wished it, but rather in obedience to the will of God and that of her parents, St. Rita, while living in that state, observed the most perfect conjugal chastity. Even when St. Rita was wife and mother, the desire of embracing the more perfect state of life was ever uppermost in her mind. And when death had bereft her of husband and children, we know how promptly she hastened, and how she succeeded in a miraculous manner, to bury herself, so to speak, in the cloister, to become first a domestic of God and then a bride of the Son of God. Once within the walls of the cloister, St. Rita became an angelic woman, for she acquired, aided by the grace of God and the strict observance of the vow of chastity, that purity which is characteristic of the Angels.
So jealous, indeed, was St. Rita of the vow of chastity that she kept a vigilant guard over her senses, curbing them and keeping them away from whatever might be the occasion of offense against her vow. She guarded her eyes, by keeping them always fixed on Jesus; her ears, by listening only to whatever spoke of God; her tongue, by speaking only the language of Heaven; and her thoughts and her heart by renewing every day the oblation of herself to God.
The angelic life that St. Rita led in the convent did not escape the notice of the arch-enemy of souls, and God, Who wished that the Saint should enhance her fidelity as spouse of His Son, permitted Lucifer to tempt and assail her, sometimes by flattery or pleasing suggestions. But St. Rita was too well schooled in virtue to prove a victim to the wiles of the crafty Lucifer, and just as often as he tried to tempt her to offend against her vow, just as often was he defeated. Indeed, St. Rita seemed to know that her chastity was to be the chief object of Lucifer's attacks; hence to triumph over so powerful an enemy, she directed all her efforts to make her body subject to the spirit.
The means St. Rita used to subjugate her body might be called by those who have no faith, or by those who love the pandering luxury of the world, the extravagance of folly. But to St. Rita it was a sweet folly, the folly of her Spouse, Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross. To subjugate her body she punished it with fasting and abstinence. She observed three Lents in the year, fasted the vigils of the feasts of the Blessed Virgin and all the vigils of the feasts of her particular patrons, St. John the Baptist, St. Augustine and St. Nicholas of Tolentine. She ate but one meal a day, and this meal consisted, for the most part, of bread and water. By weakening her body St. Rita became spiritually stronger and better able to defend herself against the Evil One, hence she was accustomed to say: "We must not have any pity for our bodies; the more we pander and fondle them, the more rebellious they will become against the spirit."
Guided by this rule, St. Rita punished her body without pity, and whenever she felt the least symptom of rebellion in her body, occasioned by some diabolical temptation against her vow, if it happened to be winter, she would cast herself on the snow-covered ground of the convent garden, and remain there until the temptation ceased; or she would put a finger or foot into the fire, and burn away, so to speak, the temptation. Then lifting her soul to God, St. Rita would meditate on the rigors and eternity of the punishments of Hell, and say to herself: "Rita, you cannot suffer, for even a little while, the snow or fire which God has sent from Heaven. How then would you be able to suffer the eternal pains of Hell? Do you wish to go to live forever with the condemned souls? Certainly not. Then fulfill faithfully the promises you have made to God. Observe your vow, and you will never offend your Divine Spouse."
Acting in this manner, and reckoning that the sufferings of this world are not to be compared with the glory to come, St. Rita kept her rebellious flesh in subjection and was able to overcome every attack of Lucifer against her vow. And aided also by the Sign of the Cross, and with the sweet names of Jesus and Mary ever on her lips, and fortified by the continual exercise of penance-----St. Rita preserved the flower of her purity, defended as it was by the thorns of mortification, as the rose preserves its beauty, defended by the thorns which nature gives it for its protection.
For a greater security of her chastity, of which the common enemy of souls was continually trying to rob her, St. Rita, like the holy man Job, made a covenant with her eyes, never to look at, or even think of, anything that might be the occasion of fault against her purity.
Never happier than when she was in the chapel, or in the silence and solitude of her little cell, St. Rita actually disliked to go to the convent parlor to converse with seculars, unless it was to give spiritual advice, or console some afflicted soul. And when she was obliged by necessity or obedience to go outside the convent, she wore a heavy veil over her face, and if by chance she met a friend or acquaintance on the street who recognized her, she never stopped to speak, it being a common saying with her, "In ordinary conversation with seculars, a nun loses much, and gains little or nothing."
More than once while conversing with the
did she say to them: "Sisters, be careful where you look, where you go,
and with whom you convene. There is always danger in what we see
the occasion of offense against God and our vow." Hence St. Rita, by
her flesh, by curbing her senses, and by the grace of God through Jesus
Christ, became a model of religious chastity.