My mother spoke firmly to the young nurse in the pediatrician’s office: “I’m sorry, but you’ll need to do that again.”
My sister and I sat on the paper-covered, metal table. We dreaded doing that again.
We were there for throat cultures, a test to see whether or not we had strep throat. My mother, who raised nine of us, was no rookie to this scene. She knew that a throat swab was ineffective if it wasn’t done vigorously enough. A false negative would send an infectious kid home to infect and then re-infect the entire family. Timid nurses quickly learned to swab our throats thoroughly, and if we needed an antibiotic, we got it.
Strep throat, with its high fevers, body aches, and painful sore throats, was one of those illnesses that seemed to make the rounds through our family at least a couple of times per year. Since getting married and having a large family of my own, I have thought of my mother’s seriousness about strep throat often over the years. One year, just before Christmas, every one of us was diagnosed with it. I made sure our throat cultures were done properly, and then thanked God for the Christmas gift of bottles of antibiotics that filled the fridge and lined the kitchen counters. When it came to strep throat, like my mother before me, I wasn’t messing around.
On February 3, the Church commemorates the feast of St. Blaise. One of the ways we celebrate his feast is with a traditional blessing of throats because he once saved a child who was choking to death on a fish bone. Some might find this tradition odd. Why bless throats? But those people probably never mothered a brood of children through a strep throat epidemic. I can be seen at our parish throat blessing each year, telling my children to get in line.
Illnesses, whether they be common colds, strep throat, stomach viruses, or something more serious, are an inevitable part of family life, one that can cause a great deal of stress, suffering and anxiety for mothers in particular. We can wash our hands and get our flu shots, but there truly is no controlling the fact that our families will sometimes get sick. And when they do get sick, so much of the worry and exhausting work for their care falls on a wife and mother’s shoulders.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who raised a large family of her own children in addition to her husband’s orphaned siblings in the years before antibiotics, certainly knew this kind of suffering in sickness. In particular, she and her family suffered immensely as a result of tuberculosis. She cared for her husband William through his long bout with the illness. In a desperate attempt to improve his health with a more favorable climate, Elizabeth even left small children in the care of others for a length of time so that she could accompany him to Italy.
William was not cured, though, and after the couple spent a terrible time in quarantine, he died in 1803, leaving Elizabeth widowed, caring for numerous children alone, and facing financial crises. In the years that followed, Mother Seton lost two of her daughters to tuberculosis before finally dying of the illness herself in 1821.
And yet, through all of her trials in the face of illness, St. Elizabeth Ann never lost sight of the fact that it was Christ himself whom she met in her suffering. She once wrote: “It is very certain that we receive no grace in the communion of the Holy Eucharist but in proportion as we receive it in the communion of the cross … In receiving his cross we are not to look at what it is made of, that is, on the nature of our sufferings, it being a mystery. We are to look at only the interior virtue, not the exterior form. Eternal life is hidden under it … When our Savior offers us his cross in any way, it is Himself.”
It is Jesus Himself whom we meet in our suffering. Whether our suffering takes the form of family illness, financial problems, or even the loss of a loved one, Mother Seton inspires us with her example of steadfast faith in the face of adversity. We can pray to St. Blaise for protection from illness, and we can line up every year for the blessing of the throats, but God’s plan for our sanctification might still be for us to meet Him inside the suffering of physical ailments.
Can we trust in the goodness of God, even when it comes to our health and the health of those we love? Even when sickness is serious or life-threatening? Can we have faith that God will work all things together for our good, even when faced with daunting challenges and enormous trials?
This is what God calls us to do. And St. Elizabeth Ann Seton shows us how to do it. Through large trials and small ones, we are called to trust God as we embrace the cross of suffering. By following Mother Seton’s example, we learn not only to accept the crosses that come our way, but to see the gift of Jesus Himself in them.
This reflection was previously published. Click here to view all Seton Reflections.
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.