Well, I just failed at another novena. And this was not just any failure; this was one of my worst.
I began, as I always do, with such great intentions. I was going to pray a novena to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, for the intention of my son and his fiancée who are getting married later this month. I have great affection for this young and passionate saint who promised to spend her heaven “doing good on earth,” and I just knew she would intercede, so that this young couple might be showered with blessings as they begin married life together. I signed up to receive the daily reminders from PrayMoreNovenas.com and I was ready to go.
But then I missed a day. Undeterred, I resolved to catch up on the novena the next day, but then I missed that one too. By the time St. Thérèse’s feast day rolled around and the novena was supposed to be completed, I was still on day 3. I shared the shame of this epic failure with my oldest daughter who reminded me of something I have always told her – that when we have good intentions and we pray a novena with a group of others, we help each other along. If one of us misses a day, the others who are praying fill in that gap, and so by the end, we have all completed the novena, even if we weren’t perfect about it.
I raised an eyebrow at my daughter. Missing a day or two is one thing, but this was a really bad showing, not something that deserved that kind of understanding and compassion.
But then, isn’t God’s mercy just like that?
It’s hard for us to fathom a God so good and so loving that he forgives us again and again, that he makes up for where we are lacking over and over, and never grows weary of encouraging us, helping us, and providing for our every need, even when our faith is weak and our follow-through is pathetic at best.
St. Faustina, an early twentieth century Polish nun whose apparitions of Jesus inspired devotion to Divine Mercy, and whose feast day we celebrate on October 5, had just this kind of confidence in the generosity and faithfulness of God. In her diary she writes:
“Oh my Jesus, how very easy it is to become holy; all that is needed is a bit of good will. If Jesus sees this little bit of good will in the soul, he hurries in to give Himself to the soul, and nothing can stop Him, neither shortcomings nor falls — absolutely nothing.”
Nothing can stop him. I like the confidence that words like these inspire. I’m encouraged by the idea of needing only “a little bit of good will” to become holy. I think even I, with my lackluster novena skills, might have that.
Throughout her life, Mother Seton also modeled a simple confidence in the goodness of God.
It’s easy to say words like this, but more challenging to live them out, and Elizabeth always did live them out. Through financial crises, sickness, quarantine, widowhood, and the early deaths of two of her children—arguably the worst calamity any parent can suffer—she persevered and trusted in the goodness of God.
It can be easy to look at the lives of the saints and romanticize them. I’m sometimes tempted to picture Elizabeth as a statue on a pedestal, steadfast and faithful, but not quite real, not quite as “in the world” as the rest of us. There is a danger of sanitizing the lives of the saints, so much so that we wind up feeling that they have little relevance to the kinds of struggles we face in our humdrum daily lives.
However, when we consider the details of St. Elizabeth Ann’s life, we can clearly see that they were anything but other-worldly. Her daily struggles were very much like our own, especially in this time of COVID-19. She nursed loved ones who were dying from tuberculosis, a disease that causes high fevers and the coughing up of blood. This is not romantic. The experience of grieving for a husband and struggling to provide for the children he left behind while his business failed is something many single mothers—whether widowed or divorced—have experienced.
And yet, through all these challenges and sufferings, Elizabeth brought her “little bit of good will” and trusted that God would provide the rest. And He did. She went on to found a school that provided academic and spiritual instruction for poor girls who had few other options, as well as a community of women religious.
In the end, the legacy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s “little bit of good will” changed the lives of not only her family members, students, and religious but thousands of others who benefited and continue to benefit from the American parochial school system that has grown from her work and her life.
Today, I’m not facing a crisis of any kind. My children are healthy, thank God, and so am I. What I am facing are work deadlines and piles of dirty soccer uniforms and socks that are taking over the laundry room; I’m facing a disgruntled teen who needs help writing a lab report and a dog that needs to be taken to the vet. These are admittedly trivial crosses and nothing on the order of what Mother Seton had to bear. Nevertheless, they are not any less real for that.
Inspired by the examples of St. Faustina and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, I can bring my own little bit of good will to the small tasks that God sets before me and trust that He can accomplish great things through them.
Who knows? After the laundry, lab report, and the vet, I might even finish praying that novena.
DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.