Into God's Light | Abandonment: Why am I alone? Where do I belong? - Seton Shrine
Into God's Light | Abandonment

Into God’s Light | Abandonment: Why am I alone? Where do I belong?

Week Four | An Easter reflection series with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton on the spiritual and mental health crisis afflicting young people.

Click here to read the Introduction to Into God’s Light.

David is turning twenty-one, a milestone he’s been dreaming of since he was thirteen. That was a bad time. All his parents did was fight. But since they were devout Christians who didn’t drink or smoke, and always sought out the strictest churches, divorce was out of the question. It would be a sin. Instead, they divided the house and lived in separate halves. That calmed down the fighting, but for David and the other kids, it was like living in a cold war zone.

He’d planned it all out, how on the day he turned twenty-one, he’d buy beer and cigarettes and plop them right down on the kitchen table, and then—drinking, smoking and cussing as much as he wanted—tell them he was out of there and they could all go to hell.

But his mom beats him to it. Two days before his birthday, everybody comes home from jobs and school to an empty house. Her clothes are gone, along with the old mantle-place clock and some of the dishes. There’s a note: I got my own apartment. I’m not coming back. Don’t try to find me. I’ll be in touch when I’m settled in.

So here he sits, alone on his twenty-first birthday. No beer, no cigarettes—not even a cake. His mother has left them. She couldn’t even stick around to wish him a happy birthday. He tries to tell himself it’ll be better for his parents this way. Maybe his brothers and sister will finally have a chance to live a normal life. But he feels hollow inside, as though by leaving them, she’s cut out his heart and he’ll never get it back.

Abandonment by a parent can inflict permanent damage on the psyche. Children who’ve been abandoned when they are young can so intensely fear being left again that they struggle to form trusting adult relationships. When they finally do allow themselves to commit, they often cling so hard they drive their partners away. Or they live in a state of high anxiety, certain the relationship can’t last. Constantly doubting their partner’s intentions, they are often angry, unreasonably jealous, or depressed by imaginary slights. They may find it difficult to form a healthy sense of self. They may even develop serious mental illnesses, such as borderline personality disorder.

Though David will forever associate his mother’s leaving with his miserable milestone birthday, he and his siblings were in a certain sense abandoned by both parents many years before one of them actually left. Obsessed with their anger toward one another, neither had the energy or inclination to build genuinely loving relationships with their children. Emotionally, David has been on his own since he was a toddler.

Neither did he get a chance to develop the kind of religious beliefs that might have given him strength and comfort. Though his parents took them to various churches during his childhood, the marriage was so hostile they couldn’t risk becoming part of any real community; they might be judged. So despite sitting in many pews along the way, David does not associate God with love and certainly does not think of God as a refuge. If he has any picture of God at all, it has been shaped by the legalistic and judgmental attitude of his parents.


Elizabeth Seton also knew what it felt like to be abandoned. When she is barely a toddler, her father Richard Bayley leaves his young wife and two small daughters and sails for England to continue his medical studies. While he is gone, the British invade the rebellious colonies, landing thirty-two thousand British and Hessian soldiers in lower Manhattan. Though Elizabeth’s mother has by then moved her children to safety, war and talk of war dominate Elizabeth’s first few years.

When her father finally returns from England, he is a surgeon in the British army, and he is stationed far from his wife and little daughters. Though he visits when he can, his visits are rare. And then, when Elizabeth is two years old, her mother dies shortly after giving birth to a third daughter. The motherless children are left with relatives on Long Island while their father returns to his military post.

Though her father remarries within a year, the marriage is an unhappy one, and so the pattern established when Elizabeth was only a baby continues: her real mother is never coming back, her step-mother is incapable of mothering, and always, her father’s career comes first. When she is fourteen, with more rumors of war in the air, her father once again sails for England to pursue his studies. Relegated to yet another stint in the home of relatives, Elizabeth waits longingly for his infrequent letters. At a time when she most needs the reassurance of his love, she cannot help but wonder if she matters much at all to him. As she writes, “I thought at that time my Father did not care for me.”

Though they finally begin to form a relationship when she is fifteen, it is a lopsided one. Now that he is finally paying attention to her, Elizabeth devotes herself to making him happy. Writing of a commonplace book he encourages her to keep, she says, “This book was began when I was fifteen and written with great delight to please my father.” Though they grow closer, in the back of her mind, Elizabeth understands that his new affection for her is partly due to the widening gulf in his marriage.

Despite how much she loves and admires him, Richard Bayley deals her one last blow. When he dies in her arms of at age fifty-seven, he knows full well how dire are her straits. Her young husband has recently declared bankruptcy; Elizabeth has had to oversee the sale of their home and most of their goods. Yet Bayley has never bothered to revise his will; the inheritance that might have made an enormous difference in his favorite daughter’s life is instead left to a woman he has not lived with for years, Elizabeth’s estranged stepmother.


Jesus’ anguished cry from the Cross evokes the hollow sense of abandonment that David felt on his twenty-first birthday and by Elizabeth Seton each time her father failed to come through: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15: 33-35). At the moment of death, Jesus is giving voice to a peculiarly painful experience: He who I most love has left me.

Often, this feeling arises during times of loss and grieving. Other times, it’s when we’re so distracted we lose the thread of prayer. And sometimes it simply happens, as it mysteriously did for decades in the life of Mother Teresa. As she describes it in private letters to her spiritual director, “I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies).”


Elizabeth found spiritual mentors who helped her understand what was going on under the surface during these painful times of feeling forsaken, whether by her earthly father or by God. From the beginning, Christian saints have envisioned the life of faith as a long, difficult journey on a winding path that is all too often obscured by fog. Initially, we are thrilled and energized by the challenge that lies ahead. Then we begin to realize just how little we know and how much we still need to learn. During this more daunting phase, we sometimes seek a mentor or teacher who can impart the knowledge we lack. We study, meditate, try to absorb all we can.

But then, often just as we are finding our footing and the excitement is beginning to stir again, we are suddenly plunged into a state of unknowing. We can’t sense God’s presence, no matter how hard we pray. It’s as though we’ve been abandoned and are now lost, shivering and alone in the middle of the trail on an inky, starless night.

St. John of the Cross, who influenced some of Elizabeth’s most important mentors, refers to these baffling experiences as “dark nights of the soul.” They can feel like episodes of depression. They can be quite frightening. But if they are truly from God, they are accomplishing something marvelous within us. We are growing at a level not accessible to our conscious minds. As John of the Cross explains: “Rather than a sign that God [is] far, ‘this dark night’ is an inflowing of God into the soul.’”


Understanding that even the most devout life does not follow a straight, easily charted, comfortable path but is filled with inspiring ups and devastating downs, helped Elizabeth stay the course. And though he has not yet met God, there is much hope for David too. Despite his negative experiences of church, the wound in his heart caused by parental abandonment has fostered a great longing within him. As he leaves childhood behind and tries to build his own life, he will be seeking something better, something he can rely on, something he can love without fear of abandonment.

Whether he realizes it or not, the good news is that he will be seeking God.

To learn more about this series of seven Easter reflections click here.

PAULA HUSTON is a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow and the author of two novels and eight books of spiritual nonfiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and in the annual Best Spiritual Writing anthology. Like Mother Seton, Huston is a convert to Catholicism. In 1999, she became a Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate and is a lay member of New Camaldoli Hermitage’s community of monks in Big Sur, Calif. She’s also a former president of the Chrysostom Society, a national organization of literary Catholic writers.