Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton's Bible

Speaking to God Through Scripture with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton found in Sacred Scripture a path to God. Her life embodied what the Second Vatican Council called the “force and power in the word of God” that becomes the “support and energy of the Church.”


Some months ago, in his morning homily, Pope Francis offered a rather unconventional image of God while explaining a scripture reading. In the passage he cited, the prophet Isaiah recounts the Lord’s invitation to a sinner like this: “Come now, let us set things right” (Isaiah 1:18). Francis illustrated God’s words as: “Come on, let’s have a coffee together. Let’s talk this over. Let’s discuss it.”

It may seem odd to think of God chatting with us in the way that Isaiah and Pope Francis suggest. And yet, the Second Vatican Council assured us that yes, we can have such conversations with God. “For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them,” the Vatican II document on the Bible, Dei Verbum, asserts.

If we want to know God, if we want to hear him speak (and to speak with him), then the Bible is where to find him.

Holy Scripture is the basis for all genuine dialogue with God, says Fr. Jacque Philippe, a contemporary teacher of prayer, because the Bible makes God present:

“Scripture mysteriously communicates God’s very presence … When read in faith, [the Bible] makes God himself present in our lives and communicates him to our hearts. If we allow the words of Scripture to fill our thoughts and enter our hearts, God becomes present. For God dwells in his Word.”

These explanations help us to understand what the Church means when it refers to the Bible as the “living” Word. Though written at different times long past, Sacred Scripture (the Old and New Testament) lets us hear God’s voice — directed to each of us — in the here and now.

Or, again, as Vatican II explained: “God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son,” — that bride is the Church, you and me.

The Council goes on to note how this is a part of God condescending to be with us, just as He did through the Incarnation, adapting his “language” to us: “For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.”

The faith of the Church in the power of Scripture has been unwavering through the millennia. However, in certain centuries, and particularly in response to the Reformation, Catholics have too often been personally distant from the Bible.

By contrast, Elizabeth Ann Seton, as a Catholic convert from Anglicanism in the late 18th century, brought with her what Protestant converts even today very often bring when they enter the Church: a great love for and familiarity with Scripture.

St. Elizabeth Ann found in Scripture the path to God, just as the Church she would eventually embrace promises.

Vatican II’s teachings on Scripture remind us of what Mother Seton embodied. The Council speaks of the “force and power in the word of God” that becomes the “support and energy of the Church.”

Compare that to how St. Elizabeth Ann described one of the most difficult moments of her life — attending to her husband on his death bed, with her Bible in hand and in heart: “No sufferings, nor weakness nor distress (and from these he is never free in any degree) can prevent his following me daily in Prayer, portions of the Psalms, and generally large Portions of the Scriptures …”

Listen to the faith with which she describes her time at night with the Bible and spiritual reading: “[I] recall the word — my Bible, commentaries, [Thomas à] Kempis — visible and in continual enjoyment. when I cannot get hours I take minutes … Sometimes I feel so assured that the guardian Angel is immediately present that I look from my book and can hardly be persuaded I was not touched.”

The Council speaks of Scripture as being “food of the soul,” and “the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.”

Mother Seton personified this reality, even in her life as a young mother:

“At 4 o’clock this morning little Kate began to crow and twist her little head about, and after getting a plenty, and kisses enough went to sleep again quietly. But Mamma’s eyes and heart were awakened, the sky was sober grey, and I took my testament to the Piazza where I had two hours sweet Peace before any of my treasures moved.”

St. Elizabeth Ann was devoted to Scripture throughout her life. She spent hours each week pouring over God’s Word, dwelling on it in her heart, as Our Lady did.

And like Our Lady, the saint’s words, in her notes and letters, echo God’s Word, for us, to the present day.

KATHLEEN N. HATTRUP is the Spirituality and Church News editor for the online publication Aleteia. She has been working in Catholic media as an editor and translator for 15 years, and writes for the National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and other publications.