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Since my middle name is Elise (German for Elizabeth), I asked God to help choose from the various Saints Elizabeth an appropriate patroness. As an adult convert, I hadn’t had one chosen for me by my parents, but trusted He would find a way to introduce me to just the right one. I met St. Elizabeth Seton in the pages of a biography and knew that I had discovered a woman who would help fit me for the challenges facing me as wife, mother, friend and disciple of Christ.
Elizabeth Bayley was born in 1774, into a young America. The fiesty and fun-loving daughter of an Episcopalian doctor and his wife, Elizabeth thoroughly enjoyed the fashions and New York social whirl of her day. She caught the eye of William Seton, son of a well-to-do merchant family, and shared with him a love of music, dance and theater. Their marriage was considered by friends and family an excellent match.
By 1802, she and William had five children. They made the wrenching decision to take only Anna Maria, the youngest daughter, with them to Italy where they planned a stay with friends for the good of William’s failing health. The ocean voyage was not the cure they had hoped for, and the Setons were forced from the ship into prison-like quarantine by Italian medical authorities. For six weeks, Elizabeth and Anna tended him with devotion and prayer as he lay dying. When the ordeal was over, his dear friends the Filicchis, opened their hearts and home to his widow and child.
The Filicchis marveled at the strength of Elizabeth’s faith, and willingness to accept the most difficult trial of her life as the will of God. She was deeply impressed by their strong Catholic faith – stirred by its depth and beauty and by a longing to possess their confidence in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. After three months she felt anxious to return to her bereaved children, and departed with every assurance of the Filicchis’ love, prayers and willingness to help her as they would have helped their beloved friend William in any way possible.
Long after her return to New York, she struggled with her doubts, and with the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of a conversion hotly opposed by family and friends. Ultimately, she could not resist the growing certainty of God’s will in the matter, and was received into the Church at St. Peter’s in March 1805. She considered her Catholic faith a great gift from God, and was willing to endure any loss for the sake of following where He led.
Disowned and shunned by many because of her scandalous conversion, the gregarious Elizabeth clung to her faith for strength to face a loneliness she could never have chosen for herself. She had been refined by fire during her husband’s last days, and now she grew in spiritual maturity bearing the loss of goodwill, friendship, social standing and financial help. The young widow patched a living together, gratefully accepting the charity of family and friends and tutoring a few young boarding students.
In 1808, Elizabeth accepted an offer to open a Catholic school for girls in Baltimore. The school’s stress on the integration of religious and spiritual instruction with academic pursuits was unique, giving rise to her reputation as ‘foundress of American parochial schools’. In the midst of the dawn to dusk duties of mother and schoolmistress, Elizabeth kept up a rich correspondence with loved ones. Her letters were full of heartfelt concern for others’ needs, spiritual encouragement, honest reflections on her own weaknesses, and humorous observations on the ups and downs of her busy new life.
During the year she spent in Baltimore, plans were made to start a religious order to teach girls and serve the poor, with Mother Elizabeth as its directress. Thus, the first American religious order, the Sisters of Charity, was born in 1809 in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Special provision was made to accommodate Elizabeth’s primary responsibilities to her children. Taking as their habit her own simple black mourning dress, cape, and white tie-on cap, seven sisters began life in community under a rule patterned on that of St. Vincent de Paul.
Over the next twelve years, Elizabeth endured the deaths of sisters and daughters, desperate concerns for the spiritual welfare of her sons, difficulties in disagreeing with and submitting to her superiors gracefully, recurrent physical problems, and all the trials of overseeing the life and work of the community. Her letters and journals open to view the spiritual wealth gained through these years of struggle to submit entirely to the will of God in all circumstances. During her final days, in 1821, she often repeated a prayer of Pius VII:
May the most just, the most high and the most amiable will of God be in all things fulfilled, praised and exalted above all forever.
The study of her life brings home to me the message that it is real people who become saints! Through earnest intention to receive all that God would give in the form of hardships and suffering, responsibility, spiritual direction, and the authority and sacraments of the Church, Elizabeth Ann Seton moved through doubt, discouragement, stumbling, frustration, failure, heartache, and pain to become the first native-born American saint.
A college student put out the word: doing research on Catholic feminists, looking for women to interview.
I felt I should talk to her, in case she hadn’t heard that Catholics could be very ‘pro-women’. I stopped by a dictionary to make sure I could accurately describe my (orthodox, Catholic, mom, grandmom, pro-life) self as ‘feminist,’ and found it easy to agree to the terms: seeks equal rights for women and men to vote, study, work.
Since her only other respondents had conveyed their sense that the Catholic Church was suppressing (at least) or oppressing women, I was glad to be a counter-point.
She was amazed that I find the constraints of the Church freeing and conducive to my full realization as a woman and as a person. Apparently, she’d not heard about artists who see constraints as the very pre-requisite of beautiful new form – invitation to creativity and powerful forward movement. We talked for two hours about how much I love being a Catholic woman!
I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but just wanted you all who are living in this glorious freedom to be glad with me that at least one young ‘feminist’ woman has had an eye-opening experience.
On this topic, I’ve enjoyed Genevieve Kineke’s The Authentic Catholic Woman and Pat Gohn’s Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious.
Sarcasm is the last resort of one who despairs of being heard.
I learned this the hard way – God convicted me of the sin of despair. What I thought was a way of giving humorous vent to ‘communication frustration’ was really the snarky voice of despair, which always leads to more sin. In this case, to the sin of voicing truth caustically, instead of ‘in love,’ as the Scriptures recommend.
Oh, and about that ‘truth’ I was telling so cleverly. True as it may be, ‘truth’ colored by despair is very likely to be a narrative skewed toward hopelessness. My sarcastic words became an anti-sacrament, conveying my own despair to the one at whom I aimed (yes, like a weapon, those witty, biting, snarled remarks of mine).
Memo to self:
If there is someone who cannot seem to hear me, I must turn to God for help finding new, loving, positive ways to communicated, or – at least – be quiet, without resentment. If their ‘cannot’ is really a ‘will not,’ that does not give me free rein to hit at them with sarcasm. And even if they do not seem to be bothered by my remarks, sarcasm is hurting our (already weak?) relationship. It is beneath my dignity, and hope is the way to prevent it.
Sometimes my interest catches something that isn’t in a book. I thumbed through junk mail before tossing it and a hot-pink-painted, topless female in black short shorts and loooooong black boots caught my eye. Her black hair was teased out in an un-halo that seemed fitting to the overall repulsive vibe.
If only the caption hadn’t quoted her as saying she was “trying to add some beauty to the world,” I’d have chucked her unceremoniously in beside the sweepstakes letter guaranteeing I’d won a million dollars and the latest offer to join AARP.
But they did quote her, and she did say it, and it broke my heart! To think, that the impulse to paint and exhibit her bony body had sprung from the same source as my own desire to dress with dignity, write a poem, or put a few flowers in a vase! I have since tried to wrap my mind around the concept that much of what I experience as jarring to the senses, at best, and as diabolical negation of beauty, at the worst, is born of this as-yet-uncrushed yearning to “add a little beauty”. The fact that it also contributes to the ugliness of the world notwithstanding, this stuff reflects the humanity of those who offer it.
I hope if I see pink-girl on the street, I’ll be able to hug her and say, “Thanks for wanting to add some beauty and sparkle to the world! That’s just what Mother Teresa wanted to do. I love you, and God loves you for that. Keep it up!!”
Why, you might ask, do I have my friend Jenny’s Iron Man Triathalon photo-finish hung over my desk? She’s young…doesn’t that make me feel old? Oh yeah. She’s physically fit and strong…doesn’t that remind me painfully of my bum knee and my overweight? Uh huh. She’s wearing a triumphal smile…doesn’t that rub my nose in all my failures? You bet. She’s been focused, disciplined, and well-trained. Yes, that makes me feel a bit ashamed of my shotgun, sometimes lazy, and amateur approach to reaching my own goals. She’s victorious – and boy, did she ever earn that victory! – and my big win has yet to happen.
Not what you’d call an uplifting image, right?
Wrong! When I look at that photo I see a gal the photographer couldn’t catch. Her youth has made my ‘old age’ a mentorship that has made a difference. Her teachable spirit has soaked in everything I’ve wanted to give, in a world where most young people don’t have time to listen. She’s physically strong, but that’s nothing compared to the emotional and spiritual strength I’ve watched her grow into. Her sufferings have made my better-body longings seem trivial. She’s joyous in triumph, but I’ve seen her joyous in defeat. That smile of victory speaks to me of victories no race course but the eternal one could test.
She’s relished the opportunity for focused discipline, and recognized in it a luxury and a privilege. I’ve had the privilege of more leisure and thanked God for the different race He’s letting me run. She’s got spunk and talent, an eye for beauty and poetic depth, resilience and faith and passion and honesty and goodness. Together, we have a friendship that doesn’t need the other to look exactly like the self – a friendship that leads us together to the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Jenny’s beauty breaks my heart, but not with jealousy. The picture of her crossing the triathalon finish line after fifteen hours, thirty-nine minutes and twenty-five seconds reminds me of the power of one minute of life to make a difference, of one more hour of work, struggle, or discipline to make a difference, and of one Christ-filled, free, beautiful woman to make a difference.
An inspiring image? You bet!