Have you ever played Jenga? It’s a simple game. A tower is built with alternating layers of wooden blocks. Play begins when the first player has to remove a block from a lower layer and place it on the top of the tower. The next player does the same, and so on. The entire object of the game is to keep the tower aloft and growing ever taller, all the while removing blocks from the lower sections. The end is obvious: the tower, slowly undermined by the continuous removal of blocks, finally collapses. The game always ends—because no tower can withstand having every single lower building block removed. It is a physical impossibility.
My life this past year has felt like a Jenga tower. Everything keeps getting pushed to a new height: I have to work online, help my kids go to school online, juggle constantly evolving schedules due to repeated lockdowns and re-openings. More and more is asked of me, with less and less to support it. I cannot see friends because of COVID-19. I cannot visit my family. My children need me more. And then the election comes along, and the protests, and the financial strain. Every little building block of strength that is left in me is removed one by one and then placed on the top. I have to be more and more with less and less.
It is a physical impossibility. But perhaps not a spiritual one.
When I read the lives of the saints, what strikes me most is the way God builds incredible monuments of their lives while at the same time apparently removing all the supports. The saint’s life is like a supernatural Jenga tower: with all that they have suffered, with all that they have endured, how do they still stand? And not only stand, but tower above us, light our way like beacons, give us courage and strength?
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a testimony to this that takes my breath away. Here was a woman who lost her husband and her inheritance. Bereft of her family’s support, she took her place in a convent in the isolated woods of Maryland where she went on to lose two daughters to tuberculosis and then die of the disease herself. It was not much of a life by worldly standards. And yet, soon after her death, Father Simon Bruté, who had served as her spiritual director, scrawled a glowing “letter” to her in his journal:
Many times [I have been] pressed to write of you. . . how sincerely holy, elevated, humbly kind, merciful, eager to do good, attached to faith, loving your Jesus, ardent for his presence in the Eucharist you were—what a mind, a heart, a soul I have known and enjoyed, and now removed—oh, my whole life to remember you and cherish the remembrance—how much of grace I have received by you (quoted in The Soul of Elizabeth Ann Seton, Dirvin, 19).
Let’s try to appreciate the significance of this journal entry. The Sulpician Father Bruté had been sent to Maryland to become Elizabeth Ann Seton’s spiritual director. He was supposed to guide her soul, shape her heart and mind. He was the leader, the shepherd—and she the willing sheep. But in the presence of this diminutive widow, Bruté was in awe. Elizabeth transformed him, moved him, so that upon her death, he wanted nothing but to be like her! I have no doubt Father Bruté, who went on to become a bishop in France, became a saint because of Elizabeth. And that is why Elizabeth is a saint! Her life is a beacon, a shining tower. She is still making saints. Just as surely as you are here reading this, she is working in your life—and mine.
But this holy example, this unearthly light, does not come about by either magic or concerted effort. If, at the end of a saint’s life, he or she becomes a tower of light, a guide for others, it is not because he has patiently built himself up to such height. Rather, it is a kind of spiritual parody of the Jenga game. The saint is the tower, and God is the player. One by one he carefully removes blocks from the bottom and places them on the top. All the saint does is refuse to stop him. God remakes the saint from the ground up, reorders the entire edifice, He for whom nothing is impossible. In the end, who can say how a saint can stand, and with what sheer daring and beauty? It is by His grace alone.
Few saints show this better than St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. Raised in a large, devout French family, educated by Visitation nuns, Rose learned as a girl of the vast unexplored New World and knew at once what she was called to do: she would be a missionary sister, wholly consecrated to the work of drawing souls to Christ.
And starting here, with this shining tower of a vocation, God got to work. Blocks came off the bottom and started going to the top. First, Rose’s dream of becoming a nun was cut short by the French Revolution only eighteen months after she entered the convent. Then, ten long years were spent at home. At last able to join Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat’s Society of the Sacred Heart, Rose saw her mission play out one night in prayer: “I spent the entire night in the new World. . . carrying the Blessed Sacrament to all parts of the land.” And she told Madeleine: “When you say to me ‘now I send you,’ I will respond quickly ‘I go’.”
But twelve more years passed before Madeleine sent her.
When Rose finally reached the New World, she was already 49, and she was not to carry the shining light of Christ to the Natives, but to teach young girls their letters. And for more than 20 years Rose followed this path, patiently building up little schools out of the Missouri wilderness.
Then, at last, at the age of 72, her moment came. The Potawatomi tribe, ousted from Indiana and exhausted by a 660-mile trek, arrived in Sugar Creek, Kansas asking for a priest to serve them. And Rose went along.
But what could Rose Philippine Duchesne now do? Her body was feeble, her eyesight weak. There could be no mission work, no fervent service, no catechesis. Naught was left to Rose but prayer and quiet presence. She spent all her time in the chapel.
And the Natives loved it. They called her Quah-kah-Ka-num-ad, “The Woman Who Prays Always.” And it got around that she could be seen throughout the night, rapt before the Tabernacle. That she hardly moved. That she rarely slept. Could it really be? They decided to find out. And so, one night the little children crept into the chapel and placed pebbles on the hem of her cloak as she prayed. And, indeed, when day dawned, Rose was still in prayer, with the pebbles unmoved.
I can tell you for certain, this was no feat of stamina, no marathon. Rose herself was not capable of it. But God was. He alone had made 72-year-old Rose a shining edifice, a pillar of prayer. In all those years in which He had been removing blocks from the bottom and placing them on the top, he had built her into a wondrous tower of his grace.
Amazingly, after this, one more block had yet to be removed. One year after Rose arrived at the mission, her superior visited from France, took one look at the feeble old nun and sent her home. And Rose obediently went. She was to live and pray for ten more years. We can hardly know what was accomplished in that time—what hearts converted, what souls were won. But I have no doubt that when Rose died at the age of 83, she had gained more for Christ than we can imagine.
And we behold her now, Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, a beacon of light, a sign of Christ’s love and a promise of what we, too, by the patient submission to his grace, might become.
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: A painting of Sr. Philippine Duchesne en route, by Margaret Mary Nealis RSCJ