Embracing the Cross with Saint Lea and Mother Seton

Saint Lea and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton trusted that the reality of eternity was hidden within the crosses they faced in their lives.

“Remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish” (Lk 16:25 ESV).

This line in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus never ceases to sober me in my tendencies to compare my own circumstances to those of others. It awakens me to an insidious hidden resentment I tend to harbor against the Lord: that others, from my point of view, receive the good things of the world that they ask for, while I (falsely) perceive that I do not.

Regardless of the accuracy of this perception, like the psalmist in Psalm 73, I find understanding this seemingly unfair and almost random disparity of fortune a “wearisome task” (Ps 73:16) until I contemplate it in the light of eternity.

The life of St. Lea, documented by St. Jerome in his letter to their mutual friend Marcella, illustrates this reality: that the comforts of this world are at best meaningless, and at worst detrimental, at the moment of death.

In the letter, St. Jerome reflects on his and Marcella’s reception of the news of Lea’s death as they were studying Psalm 73. The psalmist meditates on the good fortunes of sinners, acknowledging his envy of the wicked who enjoy prosperity, concluding that “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26).

Jerome’s portrait of Lea is of a woman who embodied this belief. Perhaps the death of her husband, who left her with great wealth and comforts, led her to confront her own mortality. After his death, rather than retiring in comfort as the “mistress of many” (Jerome, Epistle 23, §2), she had so complete a conversion that she abandoned her inheritance and entered a religious community in which she consecrated herself to Christ for the rest of her life.

Jerome says that the more Lea renounced her identity as an earthly mistress, the more she humbly entered into her mission as a servant of Christ. She eventually became the head of the monastery of religious women, in which “she showed herself a true mother to the virgins,” leading them “even more by example than by precept” (Ep. 23, §2). She led a life of humble austerity wearing a “coarse sackcloth instead of soft raiment” and spent “sleepless nights in prayer” (Ep. 23, §2).

Jerome recalls Lea’s detachment from the things of the world: she was “careless of her dress, neglected her hair, and ate only the coarsest food” (Ep. 23, §2). He notes that she, who once ran a Roman household, “avoided ostentation that she might not have her reward in this world” (Ep. 23, §2).

Jerome does Lea the honor of comparing her to Lazarus in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, even though she knew what it was to have the good things on earth. He contrasts her to a Roman official who had also died around the same time as Lea, who Jerome regards as one of the arrogant whose reward was in this life and who was likely to spend eternity “lying in torment” like the rich man in the parable (Ep. 23, §3). The parable flips the paradigm of good fortune so that the one who suffers in this life like Lea, whether through providence or mortification, is truly blessed, as she is disposed to recognize the insignificance of worldly pleasures.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton embodied this same principle, though her suffering came from circumstance, at least at first, having been left impoverished after her husband’s death. Mother Seton once asked God in prayer to “view… this sad and tear-worn cheek, this anguish’d heart, that feeble tott’ring frame.” She asked, “when shall I join thy blest?”, showing a steadfast hope in heaven. Her suffering through the sorrow of a dying husband, and the struggle of being a 19th century impoverished widow, animated her soul, driving her to long for God and eternity.

We may do the same with our sufferings, ill-fortunes, and seemingly unanswered prayers. We, with Mother Seton, may acknowledge that we ought to receive our crosses without “look[ing] at what [they] are made of,” but instead realize that “eternal life is hidden under” the acceptance of these very sufferings.

Jerome asserts in reference to Lea that “all must hail with joy the release of a soul which has trampled Satan under foot, and won for itself, at last, a crown of tranquillity” (Ep. 23, 2). Through their love for the Lord and apathy toward worldly affections, Mother Seton and Jerome received the same heavenly reward. Truly though, we must believe that it is the Lord’s will that we, too, receive Him as our portion forever when our flesh inevitably fails (Ps 73:26) and our bodies lie in the grave.

It is tempting for me, like the psalmist, to be “envious of the arrogant” when I see the apparent “prosperity” of others (Ps 73:3). I must renounce the tendency to resent the Lord out of a hidden preference to receive from Him comforts of the flesh instead of Himself. I must accept gratefully my joys, but especially my sufferings, which allow me to see the vanities of this world for what they are, and set my eyes on my eternal goal. Most importantly I must accept with passion the gift of the Lord Himself in the present moment.

May we, on the feast of St. Lea, embrace our crosses, desiring nothing on earth besides Our Lord (Ps 73:25). May the Lord in His mercy allow us, like Lazarus, Lea, Jerome, and Mother Seton, to rest eternally in the bosom of Abraham having received the crown of tranquility our Heavenly Father desires to give.

CHRISTINA O’BRIEN is a student and employee at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO, where she is studying for an M.A. in Theology. Her writing has appeared in VIGIL Magazine, the Young Catholic Woman, The Catholic Woman, and America Magazine. After moving from her home state of Maryland to California, she taught middle school science and religion for three years at a Los Angeles Catholic school. She now works in Denver for the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press to develop catechetical resources.