Praying and Working with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Praying and Working with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Like Saint Benedict, the father of western monasticism, Mother Seton’s life was grounded in contemplation and action. She was a woman of prayer who put all of her energy into the work God called her towards, always trusting in Grace.

Thus ends the beautiful prologue of the Holy Rule of St. Benedict:

Therefore, we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.

St. Benedict of Nursia, whose feast day we celebrate today, is one of the patrons of Europe, a patron – along with St. Joseph – of good deaths and (again like Joseph, the “Terror of Demons”) those under spiritual attack.

Most remember Benedict today as the Father of Western Monasticism, whose ancient Rule, come down to us from around 516, remains so relevant to us and our times that even secular organizations reference it when designing their leadership training programs.

In September of this year it will be 17 years since I become a fully-professed Oblate in the Order of St. Benedict. (Put simply, an oblate is a lay person who lives according to the rule of a religious institute.) My duties as a Benedictine oblate include making a continual study of the Rule. This is something I sometimes (more often than I care to admit) lapse in doing, putting aside all of that Christian wisdom for the sake of spending time with Dickens or Austen or Pratchett. I make the excuse that when you read and write Catholic content day in and day out, “something’s got to give.”

Benedict, of course, anticipated that reasoning by some 1500 years, writing in Chapter 22:8 of the Rule, “… the sleepy like to make excuse.” The argument could certainly be made that when you push aside scripture, or devotional reading, or instructional works like the Rule, you’ve chosen to become spiritually “sleepy,” and thus inattentive.

Because that’s true, I used to feel guilty about those times when I neglected a discipline of my oblation in order to submerge myself into fiction.

Lately, though, I’ve stopped beating myself up about it, because there is some validity to the notion that spiritual material can become so overfamiliar that it stops speaking to us – or, more rightly, we can no longer hear it with clarity.

If our reading becomes sluggish, we’ll fail also to perceive the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who guides us in our studies. We Benedictines read mindfully – listening “With the ear of the heart,” as Benedict invites at the very beginning of his prologue. Through this Holy Reading we hope to glean a morsel meant specifically for us within our lectio divina – that phrase or verse on which we are meant to dwell, to prayerfully ponder, for our personal insight and spiritual benefit.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was anything but ‘sluggish’ and she wasn’t one to make excuses, either. Yet I credit her with helping me to avoid becoming over-scrupulous in the practice of my oblation.

That’s not to say she tolerated distractions. Indeed, she once wrote to her sisters, “We must guard against dissipation, and also against [distractions…].” But she ever reminds us that heroic faith is not something we can will for ourselves, but remains wholly the purview of Grace as it is bestowed upon us, and which helps us to grow in holiness even as we sometimes flail a bit or are imperfect in our practices:

You think it very hard to lead a life of such restraint unless you keep your eye of faith always open. Perseverance is a great grace… Which of [the saints] gained heaven without a struggle? … Yet we know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life, that He gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.

In this way, Mother Seton – in her reliance on grace through her simple humility – made me realize that as long as I was continuing to read mindfully, rather than simply wallowing in my own imagination, that even a sidetracked immersion into 19th Century English fiction (or 20th Century English satire) could impart new and worthwhile spiritual insights, if only I continued to read, as it were, with the ear of the heart, which is how Elizabeth approached everything.

The religious congregations that Mother Seton founded are Vincentian in spirituality and practice. The Church’s preferential option for the poor is prominent in the work of these communities, which built orphanages and provided social services for struggling people long before governments ever thought to do so.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, Mother Seton’s nature and character was strongly Benedictine. She certainly understood the Benedictine motto of ora et labora (“pray and work”) down to her bones, as her life story amply demonstrates.

Like a Benedictine, Elizabeth was a thoroughly pragmatic and practical woman who knew she had to work with the world before her – the world as it was – and did that by first discerning through prayer what the Holy Spirit was guiding her toward, and then putting all of her mental, spiritual and physical energies into the work necessary to bring to fruition the purposes of God, always trusting in Grace. Certainly, these lines – again from the rich prologue to the Rule (39-41) – would have resonated with Mother Seton:

Now that we have asked the Lord who will dwell in his tent, we have heard the instructions for dwelling in it, but only if we fulfill the obligations of those who dwell there. We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.

It’s the Memorial of St Benedict, of course, but on this feast day I highly recommend spending time getting to know the hands-on yet spiritually grounded St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who seemed to instinctively “get” this Holy Father of prayer and work, and amply personified his teachings.

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.