This reflection was originally published in 2019.
In a month drenched with hearts and pink flowers and too many frilly decorations, my mind has been less focused on the Hallmark holiday kind of love and more on the love story that’s been playing out right in front of me.
My parents, married for over 56 years, have always set a benchmark for the kind of love story I hoped to live in my own life. In their younger years, they were always the life of the party – the first on the dance floor and the last out the door. Their zest for life and each other was contagious. Now, in their senior years, they are displaying for us – their five children and our spouses – a new gold standard for love.
My parents’ dance shoes have been replaced by a walker and lots of prescriptions as Mom struggles with the rapid progression of her Parkinson’s disease. Daddy is quick to her side when Mom needs him. But as things grow increasingly more complicated with her health, we kids are learning as much from our parents’ unspoken acts of love for each other as from the romance lessons they taught us over the years. Humbling herself to allow for help doesn’t come easily for Mom, so there’s as much love on her side in allowing herself to be served as there is in Daddy’s tender service of her.
Theirs is the romance that came to my mind when our second reading at Mass in early February proclaimed the moving words from 1 Corinthians 13 that we so often hear at weddings:
Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
In so many ways, my parents’ love is a reflection of this beautiful passage, which stands in contrast to that seemingly selfish “Be Mine” sentiment you find on the small, pink, heart-shaped candies that are everywhere right now. St. Paul describes a generative love, one that seeks to build up, to serve, and to accompany our loved ones, rather than to possess them and to make them our own. All too often in my own relationships, “Be Mine” has meant expecting those I love to become my idea of what they should be, instead of my loving them just as God made them.
As I accompany my parents in their challenges, I have found solace in examining a chapter of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life that mirrors this phase my parents are walking through. In her book on St. Elizabeth Ann’s life, biographer Anne Merwin gives us a glance into the lazaretto, the damp brick building where the Setons were quarantined after their journey from New York to Livorno, Italy. Elizabeth Ann and William were hoping for hospitable convalescence with family friends in a warmer climate. Instead, they found themselves sequestered in cold, cramped and almost completely isolated conditions as William’s health spiraled downward.
But far from complaining about her circumstances, Elizabeth’s correspondence and journal entries from that time indicate that she turned their cell into a chapel of sorts, as she tended to William and prayed with and over him as his health deteriorated. Describing her husband’s condition and her own deep desire to ease his pain, St. Elizabeth Ann penned:
“Consider my husband who left his all to seek a milder climate, confined in this place of high and damp walls exposed to cold and wind which penetrates to the very bones…No little syrup…milk…bitter tea, and opium pills which he takes quietly as a duty without seeming to even hope, is all I can offer him from day to day. When…I can no longer look up with cheerfulness, I hide my head on the chair by his bedside and he thinks I am praying—and pray I do—for prayer is all my comfort, without which I should be of little service to him.”
This chapter of the couple’s life did not play out with a miraculous cure and a feel-good ending. Yet it was during this last act of their poignant love story that William Seton secured his relationship with Jesus Christ, and Elizabeth Ann Seton laid some of the most important groundwork for her own path to sanctity.
While it’s truly nice to pause on occasions such as Valentine’s Day to offer explicit expressions of love to our beloveds, it’s also important to recognize those tender acts of love offered in hidden ways: the wiped brow, the gentle care, and perhaps most of all, the whispered prayers known only to the Source and Summit of all true love. Anne Merwin captures this sentiment perfectly when she writes, “Elizabeth may not have saved William’s physical life by going to Italy, but in the lazaretto, she and her husband worked together to assure the survival of his soul. They were blessed with joy.”
With these lessons, and those from my parents, warm in my heart, I’ll be celebrating Valentine’s Day from a slightly different place this year. Their lives remind us that God’s love embraces us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.
“Be mine” is what God invites us to do every day of our lives – Be mine and know that you are never alone. Be mine and know that I will never abandon you. Be mine and trust that I love you unconditionally. Be mine.
In those moments when we’re tempted to fret or to give up hope, let us always remember, as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did, the words of St. Paul: Love never fails.
LISA M. HENDEY is the Founder of CatholicMom.com, an award-winning international speaker, the host of the weekly “Lisa Hendey & Friends” podcast, and the author of several books for adults and children including “I Am God’s Storyteller”. Discover her work at www.LisaHendey.com and connect with her on social media @LisaHendey.