One evening years ago, I dropped my oldest kids off at our church for a youth group meeting. Then, as I drove through the parking lot toward the exit, I noticed large numbers of people walking toward the parish center. They stood out because most of them looked a bit disheveled. Many were dressed in ragged clothing, and some carried multiple bags as they made their way through the parking lot.
I have to admit: My first thought, as I watched these people walk by, was, “I should leave. I’m not sure it’s safe here.”
I soon realized the crowds were headed into our parish center for a weekly free dinner sponsored by our church. And then I felt terrible. When I got home, I described my less-than-charitable response to my husband, and while he assured me I wasn’t the worst person on the planet, he still jokingly refers to that experience as my “Mother Teresa moment.”
I care about my fellow human beings, especially those in need. I try to see every human being as an irreplaceable gift, created in the image and likeness of God. But clearly there’s room for improvement. When it comes to genuinely loving and caring for my fellow human beings, I’m not quite “there” yet.
Many of us are not quite “there” yet. It’s easy to write a check to a charity that serves the poor, but actually loving and serving the needy human beings around us can be challenging indeed. It’s hard enough to love our own friends and families, but what about strangers on the street who look different and smell funny and might not even remember to say thank you?
When I struggle to see others’ in their full dignity and worth, I sometimes ask God to give me His eyes, so that I might see others as He does–-as precious children with infinite worth. This is what the saints do. They cultivate virtue in order to see things “through God’s eyes,” and this motivates their every word and action.
St. Brigid, the patroness saint of Ireland born in 451, whose feast day we celebrate February 1, was renowned for her hospitality and care for the poor and needy. One popular story from her childhood recounts a time when a beggar came to her door, and Brigid gave him her family’s entire supply of butter and bacon. She was worried her mother would be angry, so she prayed to God for help, and her family’s food supplies were miraculously replaced. Brigid also founded multiple convents that attracted poor young girls from all over Ireland and offered them improved academic and social opportunities. She even founded an art school in Kildare that taught metalwork and the art of illustrated manuscripts.
Though they were born on different continents more than 1,300 years apart, St. Brigid and St. Elizabeth Seton share many things in common, most notably a tender heart for the poor, especially young women in need of better life opportunities.
In 1809, Mother Seton founded Saint Joseph’s Free Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by religious women in the country.
The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the religious community St. Elizabeth Ann founded, whose members made vows of chastity, obedience, and service to the poor, would go on to generate new communities, as well as hospitals, orphanages, and schools across the nation.
Throughout their lifetimes, St. Elizabeth Ann and St. Brigid had many moments of encountering those in need, and their responses were infinitely holier than my own in the church parking lot years ago. My “Mother Teresa moment” stays with me, reminding me that I have far to go. But Mother Seton and St. Brigid remind me that it is possible to see others “through God’s eyes,” with great love.
The challenge to truly see others as God does is ongoing. It’s easy to offer fleeting or superficial gestures of kindness. The real challenge lies in consistently embodying compassion and service in our everyday encounters.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Brigid teach us that, despite our shortcomings, it’s possible to cultivate a heart that sees the dignity and worth of every person, and works towards loving and serving them. Their stories aren’t distant legends, but timeless invitations to infuse our own lives with selfless love and unwavering compassion.
DANIELLE BEAN is a writer and popular speaker on Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. She is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest, and the author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
This reflection was previously published. Click here to view all Seton Reflections.
Image: Public Domain