Day Three | Family Bonds: “My Turn at Dancing”

15 Days of Prayer with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton | by Betty Ann McNeil, D.C.

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.” Made in God’s image, 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.

15 Days of Prayer with Saint Elizabeth Ann SetonFrom her childhood on, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton recognized both 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 gaity, I am sure, will change to sadness before the day ends.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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)

Reflection Questions 

  • Are family bonds and relationships important to me?
  • How has my family background, both the good and the bad, enabled me to better love and serve others?
  • What wounds do I still carry from my family? How can I better invite God into these wounds to heal them and use them?
  • Do I struggle with fulfilling the duties of my state in life? Why or why not?