Lift Up My Soul: 15 Days of Prayer with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Pope Saint John Paul II, reflecting upon the Holy Trinity, said, “God in his deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since he has in himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love.” This is how God intended for us to live. We are made in his image, so we too are made to be part of a family, a family that both shapes who we are and constitutes the first mission field to which God calls us.
Of course, this can also be one of the hardest places to bring prayer into our lives.
From her childhood on, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton recognized those truths. Her greatest wounds and greatest strengths reflected the family into which she was born. The early loss of her own mother, the breakup of her father’s second marriage, and her step-mother’s abandonment of her, all affected her deeply.
As a young girl, she struggled with feelings of loneliness, referring to herself once as “poor, poor Betsy Bailey,” who “had no Mother nor even principles to keep her from her folly.” She also struggled to enjoy happiness when it came. “I prefer the sadness,” she wrote, describing her tendency to melancholy, “because I know it may be removed; it may change to cheerfulness. The gaiety, I am sure, will change to sadness before the day ends.”
Our greatest wounds often come from family. But it also can be the source of our greatest strengths.
In later years, though, those very struggles made her an understanding mother, teacher, and religious superior, who could relate to the sadness and struggles of others. They also taught her the power of forgiveness.
When Elizabeth returned to the United States, after her husband’s death in Italy, her step-mother reached out to her. It had been years since the two had seen each other. But Elizabeth went just the same. Not only did she forgive the woman who once turned her back on her, but she became like a daughter to her once more, caring for her step-mother during her dying days. The experience, Elizabeth said, was one of “indescribable satisfaction.”
Serve God Wherever You Are
Elizabeth knew that to love and serve her parents, despite all their faults, was to love and serve God. She believed the same about her husband and children, seeing their troubles as her own and longing to help them in all their endeavors. In a letter to her husband, she wrote of her worries about “the inconveniences you may be suffering, while these arms, heart, and bed are all forlorn without you.” Later, when his business failed and the family lost their home and possessions, she didn’t blame him or resent him. Rather, she sought to support him in the midst of what she called their “worldly shipwreck.”
Serving our families becomes a prayer when we make it a gift to God.
Like Elizabeth, our families have shaped both who we are and how we are to love and serve God in this life. They give us our primary opportunities to forgive and ask for forgiveness. Moreover, in feeding them, counseling them, encouraging them, working to provide for them, playing with them, and teaching them, we are serving our God who is love. We are growing in holiness through the duties of our state in life, and we are helping our family grow in holiness by being a constant witness of God’s merciful love, a love so great, that, as Elizabeth said, “the very thoughts sets the very soul dancing.”
Family in Your Life
We are all in different stages of life. Married, single, perhaps widowed like Mother Seton. You may have small children or grown children. Your primary familial bonds may be with elderly parents. Whatever the case, you have the opportunity to love and serve your family. Your actions can both be guided by prayer and become a prayer. Offer everything you do for your family to God, and He will give you His grace.
Sadly, as St. Elizabeth experienced, family often incur our deepest wounds. Loving our family can be very difficult. And, sometimes, we too have to learn that sometimes that means waiting for time and grace to heal wounds and mend relationships in God’s time.
Make serving your family a prayer:
- First and foremost, pray with and for your family. If you have family members in your immediate household, choose times to pray together. This could mean saying grace before meals, reciting the Rosary together, beginning the day with a morning offering, talking about the ways God has blessed your day, or praying for each other’s struggles. If your primary familial relationships are outside your home, pray for them often. You also can try attending Mass together, asking them how you can pray for them, praying before meals when you are together, or even attending a Holy Hour together.
- Make your work for your family a prayer. Whether it’s washing the dishes or helping with homework, offer the time first to God. The monotony of everyday activities can bring frustration and impatience. But you can do daily activities with love. Thank God for your family, pray for them individually as you work, and approach the chores as a gift to your family.
- Never stop praying. This is so important, it is worth emphasizing again, especially for estranged family members. Prayer is the most powerful tool you have for repairing broken relationships. Never stop praying for your family. Surrender them to God, and trust Him to bring them back.
In the Words of Mother Seton
“You said a word to me about dancing—I don’t know much of the style of the present day, but when I was young I never found any effect from it but the most innocent cheerfulness both in public and private. I remember remorse of conscience about so much time lost in it, and my trouble at being so unable to say my prayers seeing always my partners instead of my God … also my vexation at the time it took to prepare dresses for balls, but cannot remember the least indecency or pride in dress, or the smallest familiarity or impropriety in dancing which, in truth, if you will consider it as a good exercise and if you must be in company, preferable to private chitchat.”
– Mother’s Advices to Her Daughter, Catherine Josephine Seton (n.d.), 19
Question for Reflection
Do I struggle with fulfilling the duties of my state in life? Why or why not?
These reflections are based on 15 Days of Prayer with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton by Betty Ann McNeil, D.C.