To Take Wing and Soar: Awaiting Easter with St. Benedict Joseph Labre and Mother Seton

As the dawn of Easter approaches, let us follow Jesus, along with Benedict Joseph Labre and Elizabeth Ann Seton, as they enter into the freedom of the Resurrection.

We all have something that makes us feel secure. Support from family and friends who believe in us. A roof over our heads. Success at school or work. Confidence in the future.

This week we saw Jesus progressively let go of all these things. One by one, he let everything that makes a human being feel loved, wanted, or secure be taken from him.

Before he goes to Jerusalem for his final Passover, Jesus has already renounced many of these props. He was an itinerant preacher, dependent on the generosity of others. But he also had a slew of followers, friends who had sworn that they would defend him to the end. He had a people, the Jews, to whom he belonged by blood and by faith. He had his physical integrity, his intelligence, his will. And he had the most precious thing: his relationship to the Father.

By the end, on the Cross, none of this is left to him. On the Cross, Jesus’ whole life was stripped down to one essential fact: the acceptance of that “chalice” offered to him by the Father. It was the Father’s plan from all eternity to save us—to save you and to save me. It was a plan the Son knowingly and willingly accepted: “Not my will, but thy will.”

We are called to follow Christ on this path. And if we do, a wondrous process of transformation will start to take place. It is taking place now, today, as we contemplate his death and await the coming dawn. At Easter, our great hope arises. We have only to contemplate the Resurrection to know what we are looking forward to: a future in which we will no longer need all the crutches we rely on, everything that we currently use to keep ourselves up and moving. We will be truly free.

Our great hope is this true freedom.

The saints are people who go before us, who point to this wondrous mystery and live it in such a way that we begin to feel such a thing is possible for us. When we start to feel the touch of their friendship, the certainty of their support, we begin to see that something different is possible. We see a new path—and we set out upon it.

As a daughter who lost her own mother, a wife who saw her husband go bankrupt and then die a harrowing death, a mother who nursed her own dying children, a convert who saw her friends and family reject her, Mother Seton knew this path better than most. And she lived it in a way that draws our hearts upwards to our own true hope. “Drive a Bird from one branch to the other,” she wrote,

and he hops to another, then a little higher, and higher, till at last by continuing to disturb him you drive him away. . . he takes wings and soars, so when we are followed up with trial after trial, driven from our stays and props, our desires by degrees take a nobler aim. Like the poor Bird finding no rest, we take our flight to those regions of liberty where the free mind moves secure and finds independence in its GOD.

Another saint, Benedict Joseph Labre, sought this same soaring freedom—and he was not afraid to renounce family, friends, home and stability to attain it.

The oldest son in a French family of fifteen children, Benedict would have been expected to get married, to find a suitable situation, to pass on the family legacy and name. But the call from Jesus—which is the call for all of us—came to him at a very early age. Already as a boy, he felt Love tugging at his heart, and all he could think about was how to respond. His parents sent him to study with the parish priest. By seventeen, having read and re-read the Gospels and the Lives of the Saints, Benedict was determined to enter monastic life. He longed to go where he could give himself without reserve.

He chose the most demanding monasteries—the Cistercians, the Trappists, the Carthusians—and, one by one, they turned him down. He was too young, not healthy enough, too intensely focused on penance.

At around the age of twenty-two, having failed to enter religious life, he wrote a letter to his parents, telling them of a new plan: he was going to become a wandering pilgrim, a homeless beggar. He would live in the world, but be not of the world. It was his way to live entirely for God.

Benedict spent the next four years of his life walking from shrine to shrine in Europe. He ate what he was given or could scrounge. If he was given money, he gave it away to the poor. He spoke infrequently, preferring to remain in silent union with the Lord.

At around the age of twenty-six, he found his way to Rome and there settled into a routine: days were spent praying in the churches, nights were spent sleeping on the streets. Not surprisingly, this extreme lifestyle took a harsh toll. Benedict became ill during Lent of 1783, and, true to form, sought no treatment. He collapsed in Mass on Wednesday of Holy Week and died later that day, April 16, at the age of thirty-five.

Afterward, his confessor, convinced of his holiness, wrote up the story of his life. The news spread like wildfire, as did the wondrous signs. Within only a few years of his death, over a hundred verified miracles were reported by those who sought Benedict’s intercession. He became a great hero to many, this homeless tramp who had been desperately in love with Christ.

And what can we glean from this story? What is here for us? Elizabeth’s words point the way. Despite the fact that to the eyes of the world Benedict looked hopelessly lost and confused, he was living like that bird, hopping every day to the higher branch. He was pursued by Love, and, finally, in the end, he took flight. He left every human support behind and attained the only freedom that really makes us free. A flood of miracles was the sign of this freedom.

What is Benedict’s message? That nothing in our lives is more certain than Jesus. He, in fact, is the only certain thing.

And Jesus knows exactly what we must give up to come to Him, because he did it, too. And, if we desire, he will take us on this path, the same path that Elizabeth and Benedict took with him.

Tonight, as we await the dawn of Easter, let’s let him begin this work in us.

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: Public Domain

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