This reflection was originally published in 2019.
It’s as much of a plea as it is a command: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,” Christ says, “For the Father is pleased to give you the kingdom of heaven!” (Luke 12:32) Since the incarnation, there’s no good reason to be afraid. We are beloved, and we can be at peace.
This exhortation to leave behind our fear follows us through the Gospels. St. Paul, from prison, reiterates the same call: “Do not be anxious about anything,” and “let “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding guard our hearts…” (Philippians 4:6-7)
All of us long for the peace St. Paul describes, but longing for it and living it are two different things. It’s a struggle that was as familiar to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton as it is to us.
When her daughter Anna Maria died at just sixteen years old, Mother Seton felt no peace at all. It’s not that she was angry with God. She wrote of her absolute refusal to, “by a free act of the mind, to regret his Will,” but her emotions didn’t follow that heroic act of will. Instead, she fell into a three month fog of grief and depression so deep that she wrote, “My head was so disordered that unless for the daily duties always before me, I did not know much what I did or what I left undone” (O’Donnell, 314).
Elizabeth couldn’t shake off her grief. She was helpless against the sheer sorrow of it all, even to the point of being plagued by worries about the state of her daughter’s soul (319).
Mother Seton had translated some of the works of St. Teresa of Avila. She probably knew one of St. Teresa’s most famous works, a poem:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
Let nothing disturb you and let nothing frighten you? That’s a wonderful goal, but how do we get there?
St. Elizabeth Ann was floundering, trying her best to trust God, trying her hardest to feel with her heart the peace that reflected her firm belief, that “God alone suffices.”
She tried as desperately as any of us would and for a while she did exactly what many of us would do — she tried to fake it.
Mother Seton’s older sister Mary traveled to Maryland to comfort her, knowing that nobody can be strong all the time, and she left amazed. Her little sister seemed so cheerful!
Elizabeth hadn’t wanted anyone to see her as anything but peaceful, and so she poured all her inner resources into making sure that she presented herself to the world that way. But for all her efforts, the feeling of peace did not come.
Don’t we tend to think that peace is an emotion? It’s tempting to think that if we just act peaceful, happy, and confident, the emotion will follow. But fear and grief aren’t emotions we can turn off. Peace must be something deeper than an emotion.
Emotions come and go like the weather, and you can’t wish away a thunderstorm when you’re in the middle of one. What you can do, though, is find shelter.
St. Elizabeth Ann did find shelter — and she found peace — not long after this dark period in her life, in the one choice she had the power to make: a resolute act of the will. She refused to wish that God’s own will concerning her daughter had not come to pass. Because feelings change, but “God never changes.” All things pass away, but not God. In the end, as St Teresa of Avila knew, God is all we have to rely on. And if He is everything, then He is enough.
True peace is not an emotion so much as it’s a conviction. I don’t think Mother Seton ever stopped grieving her daughter, or missing her. Friends who’ve lost children tell me that it’s not a wound you ever get over. Even so, she did the only thing any of us can do, and the only thing that could ever make a difference — where she could not subtract the grief, she added God. She felt the grief, but refused to forget the rest of reality — the truth of God’s mercy, His power, His love.
Emotions change, grief clouds our minds for weeks, maybe even years. Nothing we have is as stable as it seems, least of all our emotions themselves. Only God remains the same — and it’s that truth, as St. Teresa of Avila and Mother Seton knew, that gives us reason to be at peace, no matter what kind of storms are blowing all around us.
“I will tell you what is my own great help. I once read or heard that an interior life means but the continuation of our Savior’s life within us; that the great object of all His mysteries is to merit for us the grace of His interior life and communicate it to us, it being the end of His mission to lead us into the sweet land of his promise, a life of constant union with Himself.” – Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
ANNA O’NEIL likes cows, confession and the color yellow, not necessarily in that order. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, son, and daughter, and tries hard to remember that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
Image: Teresa of Avila (detail), Francois Gerard, (1827)