When I was first raising my babies, twenty-something years ago, I was drawn to the practice of “attachment parenting.” The basic assumption of this parenting approach is that a baby is happiest when he is close to his mom. One of the tenets of attachment parenting is “wearing” your baby swaddled in a baby sling or carrier — and I totally embraced it. Over the course of many years of raising my kids, I wore out numerous baby slings of all colors and styles carrying my children around. Family photos show me wearing our babies in all sorts of circumstances: washing the dishes, going on a hike, riding in a boat, weeding the garden.
And I have to be honest. I don’t know if this practice made my babies happier than any other babies. but I can tell you one thing: it made me happy. It made me incredibly happy to have my little ones so close. And that was the kind of happiness that invariably rubs off on others. My happiness made my babies happy. My joy became their joy.
These days, I have no more babies. And I have no desire right now to carry anyone around. But I must admit it: I want to be carried. This long, desperate slog that has been 2020 makes me feel like a helpless child. “Someone come quick,” I want to cry, “sweep me up and hold me close to your heart!” I want a mother’s consolation, a tenderness I can feel, that warmth that radiates out from her happy center. I want Mary.
In this, I am in good company. Both of the saints we consider today, Peter Canisius and Elizabeth Ann Seton, relied on the Mother of God to carry them through their difficulties. They drew strength from her tenderness and were buoyed by her closeness. And in this way, they mark a path forward for all of us in these dark winter days of 2020.
At first blush, the two seem so different. Elizabeth was an eighteenth-century, American woman, a convert, mother, widow, and religious sister. She founded a teaching order, the Sisters of Charity, in rural Maryland. Peter was a fifteenth-century, Dutch-born Jesuit priest. He is credited with almost single-handedly saving the Catholic faith in southern Germany after the Protestant Reformation through his preaching, teaching, and work of founding educational institutions. A gifted writer, Peter created three catechisms that formed the backbone of post-Reformation education in Germany — one of the reasons he is lauded as a Doctor of the Church.
But as different as they seem, Peter and Elizabeth shared a similar loss and a similar love: both had experienced the early death of a beloved earthly mother. And both were caught up afterwards in the arms of the Mother of God. She bore them close to her heart, wrapped, as it were, in the mantle of her love (her version of the baby sling). In the most challenging moments, when life became desperate and difficult, both Peter and Elizabeth instinctively turned to Mary, throwing their arms up to her in prayer. They asked to be carried.
One such moment for Peter was his first visit to Vienna: his second assignment in the German-speaking lands and perhaps the most challenging. The de facto capitol of the Holy Roman Empire, the spiritual and cultural center of Europe, Vienna was reeling from the confusion that resulted from Martin Luther’s break with the Church. Religious battles had torn families and communities apart. Some people became Lutherans; others clung to the Catholic faith. But many more, disillusioned, fell from the practice of religion entirely or reverted to pagan practices. Monasteries were deserted and universities shuttered. Many churches had no pastor, and those that remained were utterly disheartened. When Peter arrived in Vienna, there had not been a priestly ordination in the city in 20 years.
And Peter thought he knew what to do: He would teach! He would preach! He would turn the tide from heresy to faith! And so, he went to the churches and began to evangelize. But no one came. No one was there to listen. The Viennese were done with church.
So, Peter fell back, re-grouped, and prayed. And then he completely changed his tactics. Instead of announcing the Gospel, he became the Gospel. He sought out the poor and the destitute. He ministered in the hospitals. And he frequented the prisons, where he found the men who were condemned to death, stayed with them, and prayed with them to the bitter end.
Peter Canisius drew the people of Vienna close to his heart and they began to feel its warmth. They conceived affection for this man who embraced the lost and the abandoned. They wanted to hear his preaching; they hearkened to his words. And this was the beginning of the re-evangelization of Vienna. Peter won these people back to the faith not with doctrine, but with tenderness. He won them through attachment.
Where did such tenderness come from? What was the secret of Peter’s strength? The simple answer is that Peter was drawing strength from the heart of his Mother. He was radiating to others that same love he felt from Mary. He was sharing her joy.
In all his labors, Peter relied utterly on the Mother of the Lord. He founded sodalities to Mary everywhere he went — and he told them that prayer to Mary, more than anything else, would ground the re-emergence of the faith in their land. The more they entrusted themselves to her, the more she would help them.
Peter spoke from his own experience. He had been loved. He had been carried. Late in life, as a witness to it, he wrote a book for Mary, his “poor testimony” to his “most August Queen, most true and faithful Mother Mary.” It ran to 800 pages.
Elizabeth Ann Seton knew this same love. And like Peter, she came to it by relying on Mary in the most difficult moments. Elizabeth was an Episcopalian when she met the Catholic faith in Italy. And despite all that she had been taught about avoiding the “worship” of Mary, she was drawn by the mother of God whom she saw honored in the art and the architecture and in the simple pious faith of her Catholic friends. Elizabeth was so moved by this that she herself began to turn instinctively to Mary. When she faced the most important decision of her life, whether or not to convert to the Catholic faith, she threw her arms open to the Mother of God.
For months, Elizabeth had been wavering between the Episcopal faith of her upbringing, which had brought her much joy, and the strange and wondrous new Catholic faith that she had found in Italy. She felt the burden of the choice for herself and her children. What if she made the wrong decision? Would she be damned, and her children with her, for remaining outside the true Church? Even as Elizabeth remained on the razor’s edge, unable to come down on the side of either, she wrote to her Catholic friend Amabilia of how she found herself repeatedly turning to Mary:
“I beg her with the tenderness and confidence of her child to pity us, to guide us to the true faith, if we are not in it, and if we are, to obtain peace for my poor soul, that I might be a good mother to my poor darlings…So I kiss her picture you gave me, and beg her to be a Mother to us.”
Elizabeth the Protestant asked Mary to soothe her soul! Mary became the face of God’s mercy for Elizabeth and gave her the strength to continue to care for her own children. In this moment, Elizabeth threw out her arms and was lifted up. She longed for love and was carried into the arms of the Church.
And she never forgot this mother’s love. During her years in Emmitsburg as the head of the Sisters of Charity, Mother Seton slept at night with a crucifix under her pillow and a picture of Mary pressed to her heart. She relied on her Mother to the end.
As can we! How simple it is to throw open our arms, how beautiful to shed the cynicism of our hearts in favor of this love! In the end, don’t we all want to be carried? Don’t we all want to be held close? Let us, in these final days of Advent, at the end of this crazy year, ask Peter Canisius and Elizabeth Ann Seton to grant us the same affection they knew, to create in us the same intense attachment they had to the Mother of God.
May their prayers to Mary be our own: Lift us up into your arms! Carry us close to your heart! Give us your joy!
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.