When I was a little girl, I had a book of saints that I adored. I spent hours reading the fantastic stories and gazing at colorful illustrations of men and women from faraway places like Italy and France. Many of them wore habits and other kinds of old-fashioned clothing. Some of them were depicted in the dramatic moments of their martyrdom, pierced with arrows, bloodied with stones, or burned at the stake.
As much as I loved their stories and admired their devotion to God, it was the other-worldliness of the saints—their commitment to something not of this world—that stayed with me long after I grew up and developed an adult faith of my own. As I struggled with the temptations and hardships of life—living out my own imperfect vocation to marriage and motherhood—I found it harder and harder to relate to these stories of the lives of the saints. It was tempting to think that the saints were people born with glowing halos who spent their lives in a perpetual state of unchanging perfection, immune to the temptations, sorrows and sufferings of the world. These plaster saints were people I could admire from afar but never fully relate to.
So it was refreshing when I read the story of St. Angela of Foligno whose feast day we celebrate on January 7.
St. Angela was born into a wealthy family in Umbria in 1248. Beautiful, intelligent, and talented, she enjoyed a life that few others of her time could hope for. She married young and had several children, fully enjoying the world and all of its pleasures.
In 1279 there was a terrible earthquake which, in the blink of an eye, destroyed countless lives and homes. Faced with this sudden catastrophe, Angela began to question her blithe way of life; she began to wonder what awaited her after death if she continued to live in such a worldly way. She felt a great desire to receive the sacrament of confession, but shame kept her away. In prayer, she saw a vision of St. Francis of Assisi who assured her that God would show her mercy.
This vision emboldened her to receive the sacrament and amend her way of life. At around the age of 40, she went to confession, renounced her former life and, despite her family’s objections, began to live a more devout life given over to prayer and good works. When her mother, husband, and children died soon after, Angela renewed her commitment to devout living and took on a new life of penance. She gave away her possessions and became known as a great mystic, writing about her mystical visions. Pope Francis declared her a saint in October 2013.
While the second half of St. Angela’s life has that other-wordly flavor that I was already familiar with, the fact that she began by living a life that was completely devoid of faith, and yet she still found God and sainthood in the end, is an encouragement to regular folks like me. Saints are not born extraordinary. They are ordinary people whom God calls to extraordinary things. If they answer His call, they are transformed in ways that even they could never have imagined.
As St. Catherine of Siena said in a letter: “If you are what you should be, you will set all of Italy ablaze!”
Like St. Angela, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton lived an affluent life in her early years. She was born into a wealthy family and enjoyed living in a fine home and attending dances and balls.
Like St. Angela, Elizabeth experienced the trauma of sudden death when her husband died of tuberculosis, and this opened her up to God calling her to a different way of life. She responded to that call and converted to the Catholic Church. She went on to embrace a life of poverty and struggle, founding a religious order and providing care and education for poor and orphaned children.
I live an ordinary life too. In these two great women saints I find inspiration to take on the ordinary things that God calls me to do today. In my few quiet moments of morning prayer, I might not see a vision of St. Francis of Assisi. I might never found a religious order or write mystical poetry, but I can seek to know and do God’s will every moment of every day. I can allow God to work in my life. That is how ordinary people living ordinary lives can become great saints.
Sainthood is not an exclusive club for the lucky few; it is a calling for each one of us and, as St. Teresa of Avila said, requires nothing but a deep friendship with God and a burning desire to do His will.
As the French novelist Léon Bloy wrote: “The only tragedy is not to become a saint.”
Angela and Elizabeth were real women living in the real world who endeavored every day to embrace the will of God.
DANIELLE BEAN is a writer and popular speaker on Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. She is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest, and the author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
This reflection was previously published. Click here to view all the Seton Reflections.
Photo: Angela of Foligno/Public Domain