“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light…. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” – Gaudium et Spes (1965), Second Vatican Council
Saint John Paul II included this quote in every major document of his pontificate. A revolutionary teaching, it asserts that by taking on our human nature, Jesus revealed himself as the true answer to every human longing. Our thirst for meaning and our desires for ultimate fulfillment—all of these can be answered finally only by Christ.
I don’t know about you, but I for my part struggle to know this—that the Jesus who has claimed me in baptism is the true desire of my heart, that for which I thirst, the answer to my every search.
Yet it is evident to me that the saints get it. In their lives I can see that holiness is born at the precise moment one freely professes: “Jesus, all my human longings find their answer in you.” And it is through their witness that I find myself provoked, challenged to bring Jesus everything that is inside me—not only the good stuff, my fervent prayers and pious works, but everything. My secret sins. My hidden obsessions. The things I hope no one will ever discover about me. The things I don’t even want to discover about myself.
The truth is, he can take it all, precisely because he did take it all. The one whom the world judged to be a mad-man, a renegade, a criminal—that man took our very human wounds—our mental illnesses, our petty manipulations, and our outright crimes—and bore them to the end. Because of this, he knows us from the inside out.
And he wants us like this. He wants to love us in a way that no one on earth will ever love us, starting from the very deepest point of the fissure—the secret center of our deepest wound.
Our wounds, we might even say, draw him. He too was wounded all the way to the center of his heart. He knows this pain—and he longs to heal it. He longs to draw each of us to himself.
The saint we celebrate today, the sixteenth-century Italian foundress of the Ursulines, Angela Merici, knew all of this—and lived it all with such candor that we cannot but be moved by her story.
From a young age, Angela suffered wounds, many and deep. By fifteen she had lost almost everyone that was dear to her—her parents and three of her five siblings. Then, her elder sister died without receiving the Last Rites. Angela, already brought low by grief, was cut to the core. Her sorrow for her sister was intense, a great gash in the center of her being.
But Angela had consolations—beautiful ones. She heard the daily ringing of the bell calling her to prayer, and she hastened to the church to lose herself in the Mass. Her faith offered her a way to live this suffering, even if she did not understand it. In prayer, she begged Christ for a way forward.
And it was through this process of seeking healing that Angela encountered an unexpected grace. She was kneeling one day by a wayside chapel when suddenly a great light appeared in front of her. In the light she saw a throng of young women, among whom was her sister. Then she heard a voice announce that she was to found a “company of virgins.” Angela was deeply consoled.
This moment, when God mercifully touched the deepest part of her wound, was the birth of Angela’s great work. It took many years, much prayer, and a great deal of inner healing. She grew up and became a Third Order Franciscan. She prayed, fasted often, and devoted herself to teaching catechism to children. And all the while, Jesus was slowly bringing her insides together, little-by-little preparing her for the work she was to do.
It was a long, slow process—because healing great wounds takes a long time. But healing did come, as Angela’s vision was fulfilled. She was almost sixty years old when she organized some young women to pursue holiness in a way that had not been tried since the Church’s early days: they would be “virgins in the world,” wholly Christ’s and yet living in their own homes, devoted to the humble work of educating young girls. The Company of St. Ursula was a revolutionary work that answered the needs of so many young women who would otherwise have been led astray through ignorance. And it was a grace that God drew straight from Angela’s wound.
In her years of healing, Angela had come to know Christ, the one who had restored her humanity, in an entirely intimate way. She invited her young women to freely choose this same intimacy, and boldly urged them in the Rule she wrote to consider their lot as the best in the world:
“No matter how great persons they may be, whether Empresses, Queens or Duchesses or the like—they will want to have been the least of your maidservants, considering your condition to have been so much more worthy and better than their own—since you have chosen to be true and entire brides of the Son of God. . . .”
Drawing from her own encounter with Christ, Angela taught her spiritual sisters to become faithful friends to each other: “I beseech you, bear each one of your sisters individually in your hearts, not merely their names, but the conditions in which they live at the time, their character and disposition, in short, their whole lives.”
And she exhorted them in her dying moments to realize this friendship as her heritage: “I address you as a prayer in my last words, which I repeat, and I would gladly write them in my blood—preserve unity and harmony, so that you have but one heart and one will.”
It is no coincidence that Angela’s final words match up so well with the dying words of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: “Be children of the Church!” To be the “Church’s children” is nothing other than to live our unity with each other as Christians.
Like Angela, Elizabeth suffered deeply. She was three when she lost her mother and endured many childhood separations from her father—a source of much anguish. Later, tuberculosis ripped most of those whom she held dear from her side. But, like Angela, Elizabeth lived it all in relation to Christ, letting him work on her and within her, gently, slowly healing her, until he brought forth from her a great work: the founding of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.
In both St. Angela Merici and Mother Seton, losses and pain became for them and for us almost unthinkable graces. What was their secret?
They gave Jesus everything. They let him into the deepest, darkest places of their hearts—that he might heal them in his own time, from the inside out.
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.
This reflection was previously published. Click here to view all Seton Reflections.
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