Mother Seton, Saint of the Incarnation

Something powerful always happens when divinity meets humanity. This is best exemplified in the Incarnation, when God took on human flesh, and we see this reflected when ordinary people rise to become saints. Mother Seton’s life speaks to this mystery, and by her example she leads us closer to the Incarnate Word.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint of the Incarnation.

Her January 4 feast day is surrounded by Christmas feasts, sandwiched between the January 1 Christmas Octave celebration of Mary, Mother of God, and Epiphany Sunday.

These feasts show how “at home” God made himself in his world through the Incarnation by choosing a family and “pitching his tent” among us.

They are also feasts that show how out of place God was among us, with his immaculate virgin mother, heralding angels, and visits by strange men from the east bearing strange gifts.

Mother Seton was also very much at home in her world — and out of place in it.

Young “Betsy” Bayley was courted by the handsome William Seton and was “perfectly happy” in her life of dances and fellowship framed but not dominated by her Episcopalian faith.

Soon she was a young wife and mother, giving herself to both roles generously. Her husband’s work often took him away from home, and she delighted in her children in his absence.

“Your Darlings have enjoyed this cool day and are merry as birds,” she wrote to her husband. “They cannot understand that Papa is not to come nor tomorrow, nor the next day, nor the day after – that is for their mother to feel.”

She also told her husband that “these arms, heart and bed are all forlorn without you.”

But for all her comfortability with her life, Elizabeth had many reasons to feel out of place in the world.

Her childhood home had been awkward. Her family had backed the wrong side in the Revolutionary War and had to reconcile with the new regime. She lost her mother at a young age and had a distant relationship with her stepmother.

Five children in to her marriage, her husband started coughing and only stopped when he died in 1803 in Italy of tuberculosis.

Elizabeth had taken him there to save him with the country’s Mediterranean climate, but ended up saving herself by encountering the country’s Catholic culture.

She would soon convert to the Catholic faith, making her out of place in her own family. She was given strict orders to not proselytize her relatives, so instead she told them about the new love of her life in secret.

She was both in the world and out of place in the world. So was her new faith.

The very things that attracted Elizabeth to the faith bore the marks of the God who made a home in our world in order to call us out of it.

This is clear at Christmas, when God comes among us as the most loveable and most startling thing God can be: a baby. But it is even more stark when he comes to us as something even more commonplace and startling: bread.

The miracle of the Eucharist was like home to Elizabeth. “This heavenly bread of Angels removes my pains, my cares – warms, cheers, soothes, contents and renews my whole being,” she said.

It was also a mystical intrusion from another world, a Christmas. St. Elizabeth Ann transcribed the following message from her daughter, preparing a child for communion.

“Spend every day till Christmas a quarter of an hour in the Chapel to offer your dear heart to our Blessed Lord,” she wrote. “Beg our dear Lord to be born in your heart as he was in the Manger for our Salvation – Oh! Theresa remember you can make your first Communion but once. Try to make it well.”

This “saint of the Incarnation” would give Christ a new incarnation in America.

Just as the infant Jesus in the manger led to the Eucharistic Jesus in the tabernacle, the incarnation of Christ on earth led to his incarnation in the Church throughout time.

St. Paul VI meditated on this very mystery in his canonization homily about Elizabeth Ann Seton. He said there are “two elements that are entirely different but which come together to produce a single effect: sanctity. One of these elements is the human and moral element, raised to the degree of heroism. …. The second element is the mystical element, which express the measure and form of divine action in the person chosen by God to realize in herself — always in an original way — the image of Christ.”

He saw this mixing of the human and divine in Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life. Now we can all see it.

Google “Elizabeth Ann Seton” and you learn the two shorthand facts of her life: “she was the first person born in what would become the United States to be canonized,” and “She opened the first American parish school.”

She was a child of the American Revolution who became a saint of the Church of Rome. She was mother to five Setons who became Mother Seton to many others. She established an ordinary thing, a school, and achieved an extraordinary thing, sparking the Catholic education system in America.

So it makes sense that, in between the Mother of God and the Magi, we celebrate Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

In each case, grace erupted into an ordinary life to turn it into something special. It’s a reminder that each of us has the same identity: we are children of our parents and children of a Father in heaven, meant to act on earth, but meant to act for God.

TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.