The stories of the saints have their share of drama — huge feats of self-sacrifice, burning zeal, and epic acts of heroism — and there’s plenty of that kind of drama to be found in the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. But perhaps more importantly, her life is an example of how powerful the “smaller” virtues are — the virtues we ordinary people often neglect in our daily lives.
Practicing virtues like courtesy, gentleness, and patience might not be as dramatic as the courage of a saint walking willingly to the lions, but God sees what we often don’t notice. And looking closely at the everyday holiness of the saints reveals just how powerful these “ordinary” acts of holiness truly are.
Nothing illustrates this so well as the story of St. Elizabeth Ann’s family’s arrival in Italy. Her husband William was sick, and they hoped the new climate, and the hospitality of their friends, the Filicchis, would do him good. William, Elizabeth and their young daughter, Anna Maria, had set out across the Atlantic in great expectation.
The trip took two months, but when they pulled into port, their troubles had only just begun. Italian officials had heard rumors of yellow fever, and upon seeing William’s apparent illness, immediately put the Seton family into quarantine. For weeks they were locked in a damp and drafty stone building while William’s health sharply declined from the cold temperatures, poor ventilation, and lack of medical care.
For months, Elizabeth had looked forward to care and rest with the Filicchis and she’d set all her hopes on William’s recovery. She had little children at home whom she missed terribly, and now, after all this time, here they were, trapped in an environment that all but guaranteed that William would die there.
What does a saint do in a situation like that? I know what I would do — I’d cry a lot, and be angry and scared, and depressed and withdrawn, and I would find a lot of people to blame. It’s very likely that the people around me (as if they weren’t miserable enough already) would lose hope in my company. Elizabeth understood that, and in a tremendous act of unselfishness, she took it upon herself to keep up the spirits of her family, instead of indulging in her own feelings.
I honestly can’t think of a bigger sacrifice than to prioritize the good cheer of others at the expense of expressing so many understandable, and probably overwhelmingly strong, feelings.
Elizabeth felt what she felt, but she didn’t express those feelings at the expense of others. Instead, she wrote of her absolute resolve to be there for William, and not to let her own troubles add to his own: “When I can no longer look up with cheerfulness, I hide my head on the chair by his bedside and he thinks I am praying—and pray I do—for prayer is all my comfort, without which I should be of little service to him.”
She sang hymns. She insisted on praying with him. She jumped rope with her daughter to stay warm and tried to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
Anne Merwin points out in her biography of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton that it was these choices that probably gave William the grace of a holy death, which he might not have had if they’d stayed home and been distracted by family, business, doctors, and false hope. Instead, horrible as that trying month was, it was a month where he did nothing but pray with his wife, and prepare himself for death.
In God’s eyes, what feat of self-sacrifice, burning zeal, or epic act of heroism could be greater? In our own human eyes, what a small thing it was — Elizabeth’s simple determination to keep her family focused on the one thing that really mattered: their hope in God’s salvation. But it just goes to show, there really are no small or ordinary virtues.
It was shortly after William’s death that Elizabeth first read St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, which no doubt encouraged her to keep practicing those “small” virtues. St. Francis de Sales, who lived in the aftermath of the Reformation, was a doctor of the Church and a man responsible for bringing tens of thousands of Protestants back to the Catholic Church. He understood—as Elizabeth did—that every act of love, no matter how small, is of absolutely immeasurable value.
Francis encouraged Christians to cultivate virtues like courtesy, mildness, gentleness. He reminds us to be content with any act of love, no matter how simple. He wrote, “The acts of daily forbearance, the headache, or toothache, or heavy cold; the tiresome peculiarities of husband or wife, the broken glass…all of these sufferings, small as they are, if accepted lovingly, are most pleasing to God’s Goodness,” and he reminded us that “God desires from us more fidelity to the little things that he places in our power than ardor for great things that do not depend upon us.”
In the end, our job is to do what good we can, in the life we are given, whether or not that goodness seems like much. It’s God’s job to use that goodness for his own purposes. For us, it’s enough to know that there is no choice made in love that’s small and insignificant, and that often in the end, it’s these smallest acts of love that bring the most souls to Christ.
ANNA O’NEIL likes cows, confession and the color yellow, not necessarily in that order. She lives in Rhode Island with her family, and tries hard to remember that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
This reflection was originally published in 2020.