The Play of the Heart: Saint Josemaría Escrivá and Mother Seton

God does not call us to a life void of joy and light. God is found both when we pray and play. He makes His presence known in the daily tasks of ordinary life—something that both St. Josemaría Escrivá and Mother Seton understood.

When I was a kid, my mother went through an Adelle Davis stage. Adelle Davis was one of the great American popularizers of nutrition. Long before the diet fads of the 70s and 80s, she was touting the value of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains and critiquing nutrient-sparse prepared foods in popular books chockfull of good advice and healthy recipes—many of which my own mother tried out on us, her unsuspecting children.

Truly, these were some of the worst culinary encounters I have ever known. Adelle liked to add “healthy ingredients” like nutritional yeast or wheat germ to things that I loved, like popcorn and cookies, making them almost inedible.

Because Adelle bemoaned the sparse nutritional value of white flour, my mother once determinedly made pizza dough entirely from whole wheat flour, blissfully oblivious to the critical elasticity—and thus lightness and texture—that even a touch of white flour naturally adds to dough. The result was a gluey, tasteless crust that was thickly spread with unsalted, unsweetened, unseasoned tomato sauce. As a ten-year-old, I obediently consumed this wholesome dinner—and secretly fumed.

This powerful early memory reflects some of my early attempts to concoct a recipe for my family’s spiritual life that was similarly “nutrient dense.” I distinctly remember one such experiment: I had decided that our young family was going to sit down and pray five decades of the Rosary together, every night, no matter what. Certain that this was a good practice, I went on to enforce this for about six months convinced that I was giving my kids the healthiest dose of Catholicism they had ever gotten.

It took a priest friend visiting our house to set me straight. Having seen my kids squirming and crying their way through the prayers, he gently suggested that I didn’t “have to” keep up this nightly regimen. At first, I was embarrassed that he had noticed how “bad” my kids were. Then I began to really look at my kids and I realized that I was crushing nature to impose grace.

With horror, I realized my kids were feeling the same way about the Rosary as I once did about the “healthy” pizza.

I began to do a lot of soul searching about what holiness meant. I realized that I had subconsciously thought that in order for us to “become holy” we must jettison everything that seems meaningless and empty—the taste and texture of life, so to speak—everything that is the spiritual equivalent of that little bit of white flour added to the whole wheat pizza crust. I was unwilling to let my children be children, to get up and dance, to be kids in the middle of the Rosary. I was afraid of their lightness and joy. I was afraid of mercy.

St. Josemaría Escrivá, whose feast is June 26th, was a great proponent of everyday life. He is best known as the founder of the lay movement Opus Dei, the “Work of God,” which he started in Spain and has now spread all over the world.

Josemaría’s approach to holiness is a straightforward recipe born of a spiritual inspiration that he received in 1926: that persons of all walks of life are called to be holy, not by retreating from the world but by remaining precisely where they are. He anticipated the Second Vatican Council’s “universal call to holiness” by some forty years in his insistence that lay people are called to holiness through their work in the world.

“You must understand now more clearly,” Josemaría wrote, “that God is calling you to serve Him in and from the ordinary, material, and secular activities of human life. He waits for us every day, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.”

Josemaría Escrivá is inviting the members of Opus Dei into an adventure in which Christ is not separate from our passions and concerns but part of them. He is present in the home, the workplace, the street, the commute, the grocery store. It is a deeply generous and sanctifying vision, one that recognizes the presence of Christ in every circumstance of our lives.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also had this deep sacramental vision. Her writings evince her easy familiarity with grace and nature and are infused with the joy that comes from seeing how the everyday is shot through with God’s love. Here is Elizabeth talking to her friend Amabilia of her own struggle to find her way into the Church:

For as to going a-walking anymore about what all the different people believe, I cannot, being quite tired out—and I came up light at my heart and cool of head the first time these many long months—but not without begging Our Lord to wrap my heart deep in that opened side so well described in the beautiful Crucifixion, or lock it up in his little tabernacle, where I shall now rest forever. Oh, Amabilia, the endearments of this day with the children, and the play of the heart with God while keeping up their little farces with them!

Elizabeth Ann Seton reflects on her reception into the Church and her devotion to the Eucharist in a kind of joyful reverie that finds fulfillment in the play of her own dear children.

Her evident joy in the sacramental nature of life is a lovely recipe that provides sustenance for the soul without denying the joy of the body. Like Josemaría and St. Elizabeth Ann, may our play and our prayer be ever joyfully entwined.

LISA LICKONA, STL, is the Editor for Saints at Magnificat and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.

Image: Josemaría Escrivá courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Listen to this reflection on our podcast page.