God is close and attentive to each of us. Apart from the Gospels themselves, this revolutionary idea was best expressed by the saint we celebrate on May 2 — St. Athanasius.
“The fundamental idea of Athanasius’ entire theological battle was precisely that God is accessible,” said Pope Benedict XVI in his weekly audience about the great saint. “He is not a secondary God, he is the true God and it is through our communion with Christ that we can truly be united to God. He has really become ‘God-with-us’. ”
This was the doctrine St. Athanasius brought to the Church and the world in the 300s, and it is a doctrine that characterizes St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life and works as well.
First, God makes himself accessible to us in his incarnation.
Athanasius is the great saint of the Incarnation. He began his vocation in the Church assisting Alexandria’s bishop at the council of Nicea, which rejected the ideas of the priest Arius, who taught that God the Father was Divine, but that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were merely especially blessed creatures.
That doctrine made a lot of sense — and it even jibed better with common sense. After all, God is spirit, human beings are bodies; God is all-powerful, we are weak and compromised.
But Athanasius saw the mind-blowing truth at the heart of the Gospel: God left the purity of a spiritual heaven and entered the messiness of human life. The Council of Nicea proclaimed that Jesus Christ was “consubstantial” with the Father, “God from God, light from light.”
Athanasius later spelled out how far-reaching the consequences of this doctrine are. “Since the body of the Word is a real human body” it meant that human beings’ bodies had real dignity and that the death of Jesus Christ affected everybody.
The incarnation also meant that the physical world is trustworthy and part of God’s kingdom. “The Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit,” he wrote.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton understood the centrality of the incarnation intuitively; it fills her letters and prayers throughout her life. “God is so infinitely present to us that he is in every part of our life and being,” she said. “He is more intimately present to us than we are to ourselves, and whatever we do is done in him.”
Second, God is accessible in Scripture.
Athanasius didn’t just see God as metaphysically close — he knew God spoke our language in words anyone could read and understand. Athanasius was not just a student of Scripture — he helped form it. The complete list of books we now call the New Testament was first outlined in a letter from Athanasius in 367.
Scriptures became the place where generations of Christians heard the very words of Jesus, spoken to them.
In 1803, Elizabeth Ann Seton remembered in a journal entry when the Scriptures got personal for her husband shortly before his death. “William says he feels like a person brought to the Light after many years of darkness when he heard the Scriptures as the law of God and therefore Sacred, but not discerning what part he had in them or feeling that they were the fountain of Eternal Life,” she wrote.
Hearing the words of God spoken directly to you doesn’t just bring comfort, though; it can also cause pain. Elizabeth wrote to Antonio Fillicchi, her mentor in the Catholic faith, that as the truth dawned on her before her conversion, “Scriptures, once my delight and comfort, are now the continual sources of my pain. Every page I open confounds my poor Soul. I fall on my knees and, blinded with tears, cry out to God to teach me.”
Third, our intimacy with God is part and parcel with the first two: In history.
The historical reality of the Church is a large part of what convinced St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She wrote to a friend years after conversion that she became convinced that the Catholic faith was the one given and founded by our Lord and his apostles and secured by Apostolic Succession.
The historical argument for the Catholic faith was also important to Athanasius, with a significant difference. As Cornelius Clifford puts it in the Catholic Encyclopedia, “His career almost personifies a crisis in the history of Christianity, and he may be said rather to have shaped the events in which he took part than to have been shaped by them.”
Pope Benedict XVI pointed out further that Athanasius didn’t just shape history; he wrote its rules. “It was the custom of the bishops of Alexandria to circulate a letter after Epiphany each year establishing the date of Easter, and therefore other moveable feasts,” Benedict said.
Which brings us to the last way Athanasius saw God’s intimacy with man: In our personal histories.
While scholars celebrate him for his writings against the Arians, Athanasius’ real smash bestseller was his Life of Antony, a gripping account of the desert hermit’s battles with the devil. By focusing on the life of Christ as it expressed itself in one man’s personal experience, Athanasius makes a significant move: from seeing God present in human events to God present in personal experiences.
It inspired a flowering of monasticism, but it also helped establish the lives of the saints genre, which allows us to see God’s mighty actions writ small, in individual lives.
This has obvious applications to the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, as does his work On Sickness and Health, which saw God’s drama in our own illnesses too.
Despite all the pain and struggle in her life, Elizabeth always saw God’s hand there. “When we are troubled, we forget how good our Jesus is,” she wrote to her friend Julia Scott a few years after her conversion. “I told my Jesus this morning when I had the happiness of receiving him, I said, ah I could say with St. Paul ‘it is not I who lives, but it is Jesus lives in me.’ ”
And thus, St. Elizabeth Ann experienced not just what St. Paul described, but what St. Athanasius described as well, in his most famous phrase about Jesus: “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is.”
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Saint Athanasius, icon from Sozopol, Bulgaria, end of 17 century. Tempera on wood, 73/52 cm, Bulgarian national art gallery – Sofia.
This reflection was originally published in May, 2020.