St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, born near the end of the Age of Enlightenment, was formed in a cultural milieu that valorized Reason and the calm equanimity of Classical Greece. The New York society in which she grew up much preferred Episcopalian respectability to the unseemly enthusiasm of Great Awakening preachers. As a teenager, she’d had some powerful spiritual experiences, but her religious view was typical of her time: the “rules, rituals, and habits” of Christianity were “just as subject to circumstance and taste as cuisine or fashion.”
It was only in her late twenties, still dazed with grief after her husband’s death and struggling to discern what came next, that Elizabeth was introduced by Italian friends to the Catholicism she would practice for the rest of her life.
Unlike Elizabeth, Georges Bernanos, a famous French novelist of the early twentieth century, was a cradle Catholic. Born in 1888 and raised by middle-class parents who often invited local priests to dinner, he dedicated his life to God during his first communion at ten. He was a wide-eyed, dreamy child with a complicated nature who suffered much during his years in conventional, bourgeois Jesuit boarding schools, dreading “the black winters, the stinking classrooms, the dining rooms with their greasy breath, the endless and crushing High Masses during which the only thing that an overtired little soul could share with God was its boredom.”
Like the young Elizabeth Seton, Bernanos felt closest to God in nature, often roaming the country roads near the family home with his older sister and reveling in the beauty of the landscape. Later, during his college years—including a brief stint at the elite seminary of St. Sulpice—he considered taking orders before deciding that his real calling was to be a writer.
If serious faith was already becoming unfashionable during Elizabeth’s day, the situation had only gotten more pronounced by the time Bernanos began to write. Young Modernist intellectuals, profoundly disillusioned by the nightmare of World War I, revolted against the venerable institutions that had failed to stave off the carnage. Like Bernanos, many were battlefield survivors; unlike him, many had rejected the Christian doctrine of evil, which was anchored in a robust view of Satan and his works and ways. They were not sure about what they had been dealing with, where evil came from, or how to defend themselves against it.
The diminishment of Satan as a culture-shaping force was well underway by the time Elizabeth was born, the seductive demon who’d preyed on the girls of Salem already seeming quaint. When Bernanos began to write a century later, the Devil had nearly disappeared. People were still doing terrible things, but the new science of psychology could provide far more interesting and up-to-date explanations than reference to a laughable medieval relic.
The fact that both Elizabeth Seton and Bernanos experienced what might be called “Satanic theophanies”—terrifying glimpses of spiritual evil—thus made them spiritual outliers.
Elizabeth’s encounter took place shortly after her oldest daughter died of tuberculosis. Though Elizabeth was astounded at the sixteen-year-old’s unshakable courage throughout the ordeal of dying, she worried that Anna Maria’s spiritual fortitude had not been enough to guarantee her salvation. So she knelt in fervent prayer at the graveside, seeking assurance that her child was truly safe in the arms of God. In place of the divine sign she was hoping for, however, came first a strange rattling sound and then, to her horror, a “large and ugly snake” slithering over the grave itself. Elizabeth “lunged for the creature, dragging it toward a gate in the fence that enclosed the graves and hurling it away.” Shuddering, she envisioned wild hogs digging Anna Maria’s body from the earth.
This episode haunted her for some time. She had long known that life required suffering, and her daughter had suffered more than most. But Elizabeth couldn’t shake the notion that even the greatest agonies were not, in the end, sufficient to counterbalance sin or convince God to dispense grace. Yet without grace, how was a person to bear the trials of living? For a while, Elizabeth hovered on the brink of despair, sharing her inner turmoil with no one. Finally, she wrote to a French Sulpician priest, Fr. Brute, whose good counsel and urgent prayers helped her regain her spiritual footing.
Bernanos too felt the presence of the Evil One. In his 1927 novel Under the Sun of Satan, he constructs a mythical landscape, dreamlike yet frighteningly real, where shape-shifting demons relentlessly torment good people, for “[Satan’s] hatred has reserved the saints for his ministrations.” The weak are even more vulnerable; as his priest protagonist gently informs a furious young woman who believes she is making her own brave choices: “You are like a plaything, like a child’s toy ball, in the hands of Satan.”
In later books, Bernanos’ portrayal of evil becomes more subtle, in some ways closer to the early Christian view of Satan as an insistent whisperer rather than a horned-and-tailed monster. One of the most riveting scenes in his famous novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, involves a confrontation between a bitter mother, enraged with God for failing to save her little son, and a young priest who can read hearts. He quickly discerns what she is trying to hide: she has come to hate her rebellious teenaged daughter, the child who survived when her little son didn’t. When he accuses her of rejecting the God who still loves her, she rears “like a viper” before him, and he himself is “seized with unnameable fear.” He has caught a whiff of hell, which for Bernanos is not a place but a state of mind, a “vast yearning for the void, for emptiness.” Without our connection to the divine source of love, “we can still deceive ourselves, think that we love by our own will. . .. [b]ut we’re like madmen stretching out hands to clasp the moon reflected in water.”
Yet as Elizabeth discovered after her own brush with hell, when all is dark the light shines more brightly. Fr. Brute’s compassionate intervention in her hour of despair led her to a deeper Catholic faith. “He owned hundreds if not thousands of books, and as the two pondered suffering and grace they read and discussed centuries of Catholic writing.” Where in the past she’d closed off her heart to protect herself from grief, the glimpse of desolation she received at Anna Maria’s grave set her on the path to sainthood: “Your first step in this heavenly way,” she discovered, “is to contract a habit of the presence of God. . . and let Divine Love cast out fear. Fear nothing so much as to not love enough.”
According to Bernanos, one way God brings good out of evil is by allowing us these glimpses of the dark side. For until we understand the vastness of the gulf between God’s love and Satan’s relentless destructiveness, we often do not recognize a saint like Elizabeth Ann Seton when we see her. According to his admirer and biographer, the theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Bernanos’ great novelistic theme was simple yet profound: “For the saint to be revealed and exposed, hell itself must be exposed and revealed along with him.”
PAULA HUSTON, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow, is the author of two novels and eight nonfiction titles. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. She taught writing and literature at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and creative nonfiction for the Master of Fine Arts program at Seattle Pacific University. A wife, mother, and grandmother, she is an oblate (lay member), of a Camaldolese Benedictine monastic community in Big Sur, California. Her latest book, a history of that community, is called The Hermits of Big Sur.
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