My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? – Mark 15:34
For me, the precious center of the Passion is our Lord’s cry from the Cross. A few moments later, His heart gives out and darkness descends upon the earth. But in His despondent cry, Christ has entered our inner darkness. He takes on one of the most fragile aspects of our condition – the sense that we are alone, abandoned, and unwanted – and redeems it from within.
We do not know how the sinless Son of God experienced a break from His own Father. But we know why He did it, though: for love. He desires our life, our wholeness, our salvation. In His death, the dark night of the soul is already giving way to light.
The late author Fr. Benedict Groeschel said that “there is a dark night in every day.” I get this. Almost every day I have an hour or two when I’m down, when I feel lost and uncertain, when the way forward is dimmed. Usually I press through it — take a walk, get some coffee, distract myself. But these remedies don’t always suffice. Sometimes the darkness drags on, and a crushing lack of meaning overtakes me. What is it all for? Where is God in this? Grief after the death of my daughter brought this on, and another time, it was an unexpected betrayal by a dear friend.
In these bleak moments, when love, comfort, and certainty seem out of reach, I find myself desperate to find someone to follow on the path of life, someone who knows this anguish and can guide me forward. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is such a friend to me. And, indeed, this path through spiritual darkness is one she has already trod.
It’s true that from a very young age Elizabeth was captured by the idea of heaven, the promise of eternal life. She was just 3 years-old when her mother died. Her sister Catherine followed a year later. Such losses so early in life! Yet, Elizabeth was already able to see beyond the loss to something greater. She wrote of that time:
“…at 4 years of age, sitting alone on a step of the door, looking at the clouds my little sister Catherine 2 years old lay in her coffin, they asked me did I not cry when little Kitty was dead?—no because Kitty is gone up to heaven I wish I could go too with Mamma—”
The death of her mother and sister is the beginning of Elizabeth’s journey toward God. From this young age, she moves forward always drawn by the promise of eternal life.
Some years later, Elizabeth faces another harsh blow, the death of her beloved husband William — and we can see how far she’s come. William dies after a month-long quarantine in a cold and dreary Italian lazaretto.
By his side in his agony, cut off from every comfort, Elizabeth nevertheless yields to God’s will. After William’s burial, her Italian hosts the Filicchis look upon her with pity. But Elizabeth does not need it: “My poor high heart was in the clouds roving after my William’s soul and repeating my God you are my God.”
Later though, such certainty eludes her. When she is in Emmitsburg, struggling to lead a fledgling religious order, Mother Seton watches as her eldest daughter Anna Maria, just 17, is taken by tuberculosis. Anna Maria dies bravely with the name of Jesus on her lips. But afterward, darkness descends upon Elizabeth. She is gripped by fear for her daughter’s salvation and cannot find consolation in any of the old images or prayers. Death seems to have the upper hand.
Yet, amazingly, she carries on. Mother Seton does not escape into her own head, into some abstract grief. She clings to what is concrete. “For three months after Nina was taken I was so often expecting to lose my senses and my head was so disordered that unless for the daily duties always before me I did not know much what I did or what I left undone.” Mother Seton keeps her hands busy with the tasks at hand: the teaching of the girls, the instruction of her sisters, managing the affairs of her community. She cleaves to the daily rhythm of prayer. She relies on an order that has already been laid down, even as her soul swirls in chaos.
And she relies on another human being.
At this time, Elizabeth is assigned a new spiritual director, Father Bruté. Though he struggles with English, he is a shrewd judge of her soul. Elizabeth is torn up by the abiding sense that Anna Maria is lost, but Father Bruté tells her to embrace Anna Maria’s life, sending her to gather every word her daughter has ever written. In the process, Elizabeth encounters hope, through the testimony of her own daughter. A slow healing begins. In the process, Father Bruté becomes Elizabeth Ann’s spiritual companion. They share a Bible in which they write down their insights for each other.
Attending to the demands of her daily duty and relying on the support of a dear friend, these actions testify to an underlying reality in Elizabeth’s life: her approach to suffering. This woman doesn’ t flail against God’s purposes. She doesn’t seek to eliminate the inner chaos. Rather, precisely in this moment Elizabeth releases a new part of herself to Christ—the dark and chaotic part. She yields to him her daughter, her fears for her daughter’s soul, the daily uncertainty. Her goal is not to fix the situation, but to permit Christ to be at work in her.
In the end, Elizabeth emerges from spiritual darkness, because, even in this darkness, she still belongs to Christ. What she cannot bear, He bears. He who bore the inner darkness of all men bears her. “The saints easily understood when we look at heaven,” she once wrote. “We talk of sacrifices. Where? In what? In our miserable weakness we feel the whole weight. But all in Him who strengthens.”
As we journey through the Holy Triduum, through the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, to rise into the light of Easter, we can rely on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to accompany us. She reminds us that only in Christ can we find our sure center. She shows us how to yield our lives to the Crucified One, that we might live.
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: Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Vale of Tears (unfinished) (1883), oil on canvas, Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
This reflection was originally published in 2019. Click here to read more reflections.