‘They Possess God’: Mother Seton and Blessed John of Fiesole

It’s no wonder that Mother Seton and Fra Angelico experienced God so intensely in Italy, a land of splendid Catholic art and liturgy. They weren’t satisfied with a God who was merely transcendent, but yearned for the One who gave His life for the world and became our living bread.  

In the few months Elizabeth Ann Seton spent in Italy after her husband’s death, the Catholic faith became deeply attractive to her. She encountered it in the prayers and fasting of her hosts, the art and architecture of her environs, and above all in the mystery and reverence surrounding the Masses she was able to attend. The Eucharist was a prime draw.

At that time, she wrote with wonder to her sister-in-law Rebecca:

“My Sister dear, how happy would we be if we believed what these dear Souls believe, that they possessGod in the Sacrament and that he remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick.”

The words are those of an awestruck Protestant, and perhaps, we might think, we should not take them too seriously. After all, can we really say, as Elizabeth does, that Catholics “possess God”? God is transcendent, infinitely greater than his creatures. We have no property rights vis-à-vis God. We cannot make him our own. We might conclude that Elizabeth exaggerates the situation, the understandable mistake of an Episcopalian judging the faith from the outside.

But I think Elizabeth was onto something here. In this blessed moment, the dawn of her conversion, Elizabeth gives witness to a very deep and basic human need. She doesn’t want God to be just “out there.” She wants Him to be where she can see Him, touch Him, taste Him. She wants to go to Him every day and be sure she is getting Him. She wants to know He will never leave her, that He will remain with her to the end.

In short, Elizabeth wants a God who can be possessed.

And the truth is that in Italy, among the Catholics, she discovers that God wants that too. She discovers that God became man so that He can become bread, a living bread that can be really touched and tasted, carried and consumed. She has, it turns out, a Creator who comes to lie down among his creatures, hidden in a gold box. Such is His spendthrift love.

It rocked Elizabeth’s world, and it should rock ours as well.

It is no coincidence that Elizabeth had to go to Italy—a land replete with Catholic art and architecture, liturgy and spectacle—to have this experience. The Italians have a sense of God’s flagrant gifts like no other people, a fact that is evident in today’s saint, Blessed John of Fiesole, also known as Fra Angelico.

Born in the hills outside Florence around the year 1400, John trained as an artist from a young age. At the same time, he felt a deep calling to serve Christ. At twenty, he could no longer deny the pull and joined the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, an order known as much for their scholarship as their poverty. And, like the rest, he took the three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—that meant that from that time forth he would give up deciding what could be made of his gifts. When his superiors ordered him to paint, paint he did. And John’s talent, it turned out, was to be a spectacular one. He was destined to be one of the early Renaissance’s greatest lights, a master of color, line, and form.

Few artworks are as well-known as his glorious Annunciation, one of forty-three frescoes he painted on the walls of the Convent of San Marco over a five-year period. John’s Mary, robed in blue, is clearly startled by the appearance of the angel and yet is deeply serene. Gabriel leans forward to angle his eyes below her humble gaze, with rainbow wings unfurled. Yet what most strikes art aficionados is the background. John had taken interesting liberties. His Annunciation is set outdoors, limned with lines that give depth to the scene. This sense of perspective was an artistic innovation.

For Catholics, what is perhaps more striking is not the scene, but the painting’s actual setting—where it is physically located. This masterpiece does not grace the walls of a rich man’s house or decorate the altar of a fine cathedral. It occupies the wall at the top of a stairway in a convent dormitory corridor, making it one of the most “public” pieces in the convent. In fact, all but three of the forty-three frescoes John created in San Marco are on the walls of the friars’ bare cells.

This is how Friar John of Fiesole spent his gifts and his time, creating grandeur in humble places. Every friar had his own individual masterpiece all to himself. And all for the sake of each man’s prayer, each soul’s encounter with the living God. The friars thus learned about God’s love through John’s love of light and form.

Just imagine having such a masterpiece in your bedroom. Truly, this is God letting himself be possessed.

In later years, John became known as “Fra Angelico,” “the angelic friar.” It makes sense, because his paintings announce God’s love to the world just as Gabriel announced the Good News to Mary with the words, “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.”

This, Fra Angelico is saying, is where we ought always to live our lives—in the middle of this moment in which light takes wing, where the Word becomes flesh, where a virgin can become with child. We too can become “full of grace.”

Right now, right here, the whole extravagant love of our God is being poured out into the midst of our everyday, humdrum lives.The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

And St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was right: how happy we should be!

LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.

Image: Annunciation, c. 1440–1445, CC BY 2.0

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