This reflection was originally published February, 2020.
“The cup which Our Father has given us, shall we not drink it? Blessed Savior, by the bitterness of Thy pains we may estimate the force of Thy love. We are sure of Thy kindness and compassion. Thou wouldst not willingly call on us to suffer.”
These lines, written by Elizabeth Ann Seton in her spiritual journal just before her father took ill and died, express a saint’s conviction. While she was still an Episcopalian, Elizabeth had already intuited and embraced the heart of the Christian mystery, the cross on which hangs the salvation of the world.
Ash Wednesday is a liturgical high point in our identification with this cross. It is smeared across our brows and we go out into the world wearing this badge of our salvation, a sign of our participation in the Mystery it signifies.
And, for the most part, the world does not understand. Perhaps at no time since the martyrs’ blood was spilled on the floor of the Roman Colosseum has the cross seemed more mysterious, more out of reach. “We are sure of Thy kindness and compassion,” the saint says. And yet, what our contemporaries are least certain of is God’s kindness. In the face of darkness, fear, violence, the cry goes up: Where is God? How could a good God let such bad things happen?
As we go out to face the deep chasm between the meaning of that black mark we bear and the sensibility of our age, we are challenged to go deeper, to penetrate the mystery we say we believe, to fully own it, and to re-own it every day. Today, more than ever, we must see that “being Christian” is anything but a badge. It’s a pilgrimage, a journey. We must pick up our cross each day and follow Christ. Ash Wednesday must become the form of our lives.
But without the witness of the saints who have gone before us, we will likely attempt this journey in the typical American way. We will trudge forward by our own strength, measure our own steps, and pull ourselves up, when necessary, by our own bootstraps. We will attack Lent with a fierce sense of independence, boasting our own itinerary of fasts and recited prayers. And then—precisely because such a thing cannot be maintained—we will flag, we will falter, and, at last, give up.
No, indeed, this is not the way. In Elizabeth Ann Seton, our saint, we see the same American gusto, the same energy, but joined to a sense of what it means to follow Christ within the communion of believers. St. Elizabeth Ann witnesses to Ash Wednesday lived in the ambit of the Church.
In her first Ash Wednesday in Italy, where she meets the Catholic faith for the first time, Elizabeth Ann Seton cannot help but compare her normal Episcopalian way of entering into Lent—with a “hearty breakfast of cakes and coffee. . . with little thought of my sins”—to that of her Catholic friend, Mrs. Filicchi, who “never eats this season of Lent, til after the clock strikes three. . . . united with Our Savior’s sufferings.”
The witness of contrition strikes Elizabeth to the heart, both challenging her and attracting her. Soon she is throwing herself open to this new sacramental way of approaching reality—fasting, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, and longing to partake of the bread which is at the same time the Body of the Lord.
But at every moment, the future saint’s journey is founded in friendship and in communion with others: first the Filicchi family, who introduce her to the Church in its mysterious beauty, then the Catholic priests in America who support her conversion, and then the small, growing group of believers that gather around her, including her own children and the women who join her in religious life.
To the very end of her life, Mother Seton draws strength and help from her constant correspondence with mature Christian friends. She is docile to their suggestions and willing to change, mature, and go deeper with their help.
As much as Elizabeth Ann Seton was a pioneer in her way of acting and thinking, as much as she knew how to take initiative and stand on her own two feet, she knew, in the depths of her soul, how such individual courage flows from a deeper dependence. The Christian life is meant to be lived out with the help of others. The truth is that the martyrs of the early Church were constantly seeking each other out. They prayed together in the prisons and encouraged each other. Only this way could they persevere in their sacrifice, each one taking his or her place at the executioner’s block with a song of praise on their lips.
So it was with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Even in her later years, when she suffers the mystical dark night, the searing pain of God’s absence, Elizabeth continues to rely on her friends. She is held up by an invisible web of love, which she cannot feel but nevertheless acknowledges.
In one letter she confesses to Father Brute how tears have become her bread, and her need to yield to Christ, to “abandon all to him,” continually. She sounds all spiritually grown-up. And then, like a little child, she begs the priest: “Pray, pray for your poor one continually!”
Over time, St. Elizabeth Ann becomes more and more aware of her need to depend both on Christ and the communion of the Church. As she grows up in the faith, she grows in her dependence on others, and in her sense of poverty and need. This is the great paradox of Christian life.
On this Ash Wednesday, we might be feeling called to a new level of asceticism, feats of fasting, and Catholic heroism. But just as the cross is placed on our foreheads in the heart of the liturgical celebration of the Mass, let us remember that these efforts can succeed only insofar as they tap into the communion of the Church.
We would do well this Lent to seek out others with whom we might make this journey. Perhaps we can pray the rosary with others, join the Church choir, host friends for brunch, or reach out in emails or letters to those with whom we share the faith (like Elizabeth did!).
From this we will gain strength. And as we file out of the Church, each to our own homes, workplaces, and schools, we will know that we are all part of the same communion, joined in the same great work. Living this joy of communion, we have a chance of making Christ known to an unbelieving world.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
Image: Christ Carrying the Cross, Titian (1490-1576)