The lives of some saints are inspiring, but not in the most practical of ways.
When I was young, I had an illustrated storybook of lives of the saints, and some of the details in it left me speechless. There were saints who wore hairshirts, plucked out their eyes, were shot through with arrows, and were boiled in oil. There were saints who rolled their bodies in briar patches and wore no shoes on their feet, even in wintertime. There were saints who levitated, bilocated, read minds, and saw visions of heaven, hell, angels, Jesus, and Mary.
When I read stories like these as a young girl, it was easy to think of these saints as so otherworldly that their sanctity was utterly unattainable for the likes of me. Then I encountered Mary Magdalene de Pazzi.
Born in Italy in 1566 and whose feast day we celebrate on May 25, de Pazzi was not one of the saints in my storybook, but she could well have been. The details of her life read like a combination of all the fantastic things I have ever read about other saints.
Mary Magdalene de Pazzi practiced self-mortification in many forms. Beginning at a young age, she whipped herself, wore a barbed metal undergarment, and made herself a crown of thorns. She learned to meditate and would regularly fall into ecstasies as she prayed. She made a vow of virginity at a young age, and then joined a Carmelite monastery a few years later. There, she reportedly read minds, predicted the future, bilocated, and healed people. In addition to wearing a crown of thorns, she also rolled in thorns, walked barefoot in the snow, burned herself with hot wax, and licked the wounds of people with leprosy.
As astonishing as these things are to read about, many of us might be left wondering just how relevant a saint like Mary Magdalene de Pazzi can be to regular people like us. I mean, I pray, but I’ve never once levitated; my feet are planted quite firmly on the ground. I have a regular job, and I’m a normal mom, doing laundry and driving the kids to baseball. I don’t feel called to put on a crown of thorns any time soon.
We must reconcile other-wordly stories of saints, though, with the fact that every one of us is in fact called to be a saint. That’s our goal. All of us should be striving for heaven, even as we live out our ordinary lives. St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi is quoted as saying, “Those who call to mind the sufferings of Christ, and who offer their own to God through His passion, find their pains sweet and pleasant.”
She makes no mention of seeking out suffering in imaginative ways. That part is not required. Suffering is simply part of the human condition, an inescapable part of our lives here on earth. It is by uniting our suffering to Christ that we can become great saints ourselves, hairshirts or not.
St. Elizabeth Seton knew this well. In her lifetime, she didn’t seek out suffering in any deliberate way, and yet suffering certainly found her. As she endured financial hardship, lost friendship, illness, and the deaths of her husband and children, she carried her crosses out of immense love for God and in union with Christ. Like St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, she saw acceptance of suffering as the path to heaven and sought comfort only in Jesus. She once said, “How sweet the presence of Jesus to the longing harassed soul! It is instant peace and balm to every wound.”
St. Elizabeth Ann’s faithfulness to many of the ordinary things God called her to is an inspiration to me in my own ordinary life. Raising a family and founding a school and a religious community are the kinds of vocations that come with a great deal of ordinary suffering, the kind that I can relate to: dishes, laundry, and sickness, messes to clean and bills to pay. Mother Seton remained close to Christ as she lived out an ordinary vocation with extraordinary faithfulness.
I am grateful for a Church tradition that allows for saints who have heroic life stories and saints whose lives are more familiar. It’s a reminder that, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary the details of our own lives might be, there isn’t only one way to please God. Together, St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton help us to see that no matter what circumstances we face, if we can embrace the will of God and unite our suffering to the passion of Christ, we too can become great saints. God calls us to do nothing less.
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. To view all of our Seton Reflections, click here.
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