But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you. [Matthew 6:17-18]
Her conversion process began in Italy, where Elizabeth Ann Seton and her husband, William Magee Seton, had traveled for his health. William died there, but the example of lived faith that Elizabeth encountered among her Catholic acquaintances influenced her deeply. The practice of Eucharistic Adoration and the frequent reception of Holy Communion – which seemed to both strengthen and bring joy to her friends – created within Elizabeth a most unexpected hunger. Once, upon seeing a Eucharistic procession, she could not stop herself from dropping to her knees, her heart full of longing.
“Oh, my!” She wrote to her sister at one point, “When they carry the Blessed Sacrament under my window, while I feel the full loneliness and sadness of my case, I cannot stop the tears at the thought: My God! How happy would I be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find You in the church as they do!”
That thought would prove to be prophetic. After William’s death Elizabeth returned to New York, a young widow with five children, and found that her travels had not distanced her from the powerful attraction of the Church of Rome. Passing by St. Peter’s Church in lower Manhattan — at that time the only Catholic parish in the borough — she would feel compelled to enter its doors and spend time before the tabernacle, there finding the great stillness of soul, the “peace beyond all understanding” of which Saint Paul had written in his letter to the Philippians.
Finally accepted into the Church on Ash Wednesday of 1805, Elizabeth quickly found herself truly “far away from all so dear…” having been summarily dropped from her neighboring social set, and disowned by her family. Still, upon making her confession and receiving the Holy Eucharist for the first time, Elizabeth was overjoyed: ““At last…at last, GOD IS MINE AND I AM HIS! Now, let all go its round — I Have Received Him!”
It is fascinating to ponder someone coming into the Church and spending Ash Wednesday — a great day of penitence — so enraptured, particularly when the current fashion, if social media is to be believed, is for Catholics to grouse about the fast that accompanies the day. Restricted to one normal meal and two smaller meals that should not equal a normal meal (so, the equivalent of one day on any number of modern dieting plans) the inordinate Catholic bellyaching that floods newsfeeds does not accurately reflect the mildness of the discipline. Nor does it reflect the great joy that can be found amid our self-imposed Lenten penances and the extra mindfulness we bring to our almsgiving and prayer.
There is no reason, really, that we cannot approach Lent with the same sense of exhilaration that St. Elizabeth Ann experienced, if for different reasons. Some people do hate Lent and find it tough-going, perhaps, but I suspect many Catholics love the season, even as — against Jesus’ own advice — they grouse for the crowd.
Admittedly, I may be projecting here, because I do love Lent and always look forward to it as something I am about to do poorly, something I am about to “fail at” by my own judgments, which are usually harsher than God’s. I don’t mind the failing because it is a reminder that without grace, I can do nothing on my own.
“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” said Chesterton. Lent reinforces that paradoxical truth. We all do it badly — if we think we’re doing it well, we’re actually failing spectacularly — and our weaknesses should create, within our shared sense of spiritual mediocrity, a deeply shared camaraderie. Fractured as our faith community may be by politics or liturgy wars, when we consider our Lenten progress and then heave a deep breath as we shake our heads and roll our eyes toward heaven, no words are necessary; we know we are all in this together.
It’s the sigh that binds us.
Life hands us all kinds of challenges exterior to ourselves. Lent is the interior challenge that dares us to consent to having humility enough to struggle, and even to fail, in order to develop a dependence upon something beyond our own natures — the supernatural strength of Christ Jesus, whose “grace is sufficient.” [2 Corinth 12:9]
Lent encourages us to aim high and wide, and then learn to deal with it when our arrow does not hit the lofty spiritual target we had set for ourselves — to be consoled as we begin to appreciate what “When I am weak, then I am strong” [2 Corinth 12:10] really means.
If we really understood it, we would be as enthralled with Ash Wednesday as Mother Seton was, for the whole Lenten adventure of journeying out into what I call “the great empty” — the wide-open desert before us – is where, in seeking out the Lord and asking what we may do for his sake, we eventually meet our authentic selves.
Life lashes at us. No one escapes it without experiencing at least one episode of excruciating pain, and loss: loss of a loved one, certainly, but also loss of one’s dignity, of a sense of safety or security; loss of hope; loss of one’s sense of place, or worth; loss of belief in the goodness of others; loss of belief, full stop.
Particularly if those losses have came early and often, you may feel like you were pulled into the desert too soon, while you were still dewy with youth, and that you have been rather unfairly wandering for a long time — why must you endure it further, through yet another turn there?
But this is the great secret of the season: you keep going, even though it is hard and you feel like you’ve been here before, and you’re slipping in the sand and getting nowhere. Suddenly, if you are looking for them, the blessings and the graces you’ve already been given become apparent, and the promised land of further graces becomes enlarged in your sight, and everything…begins to make sense.
And at that point there will be glory, but not of your own making. It will be Christ’s glory, shining from your own face.
No wonder St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was so excited.
Ask this great saint to walk this Lenten journey with you, and to teach you what she knows about meeting the great empty with a heart fragile but full of longing.
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.
This reflection was originally published in 2019.