Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was a naturally peaceable woman, one who neither sought out conflicts or wished to extend them where they existed.
In Catherine O’ Donnell’s Elizabeth Seton, American Saint, we become acquainted with a woman whose instincts are graceful, friendly, forgiving and geared toward the good and welfare of others. She seemed to have a gift for comity, for the sort of civility and friendship that rejoiced in commonalities and sought to understand others in the best possible way. “The longer I live and more I reflect and know how to value the realities of Friendship, the more precious that distinction becomes…” (Collected Writings).
Reading this excellent biography through my lens as a Benedictine Oblate, I couldn’t help but think that even as a devout Episcopalian, Mother Seton had a bit of the Benedictine about her, in the sense of her practicality and her intuitive grasp of the Benedictine motto, “ora et labora” (prayer and work).
Her rich interior life – deeply adoring and contemplative – was matched, in the way of so many of our great saints, to a clear-eyed and sensible pragmatism. In current parlance we might speak “ora et labora” as “say the prayers; do the work,” a sentiment that rather defined Elizabeth Ann Seton through and through, even before her conversion (and most certainly after), as she went about the work of essentially inventing Catholic education and social services systems through the religious community she founded.
One striking example of her practical realism comes to us through her words to Sister Cecilia O’Conway, the first candidate to join the Daughters of Charity in 1808. Ten years later, when the saint assigned her to help establish an “orphan’s asylum” in New York City, Sister Cecilia resisted. Her inclination was toward prayerful silence (she had considered becoming a Carmelite at one point), and the arduous mission to New York – noisy, necessarily social and therefore intrusive – seemed an almost unbearable challenge to her; it would leave her with even less time for prayerful meditation than her teaching duties at Emmitsburg.
Mother Seton, who understood the sister’s contemplative leanings because she shared them, nevertheless urged the sister onward, saying, “If you suffer, so much the better for our high journey above. … This is not a country, my dear one, for Solitude and Silence, but of warfare and crucifixion.”
Sister Cecilia went to New York, of course, but what striking – even shocking – words from a saint who so often seemed to bear her wounds and challenges with such placidity.
Mother Seton, like so many holy men and women, knew the experience of dryness in prayer. She lived through the dark night of the soul described by others – Mother Teresa of Kolkata and St. Therese come to mind — as that sense of God’s absence, day by day, and yet continued to form, build, and innovate for the sake of the Kingdom.
But here, in just a few words, we see something rather fierce within her – words so very different than her thoughts on friendship. Seton is acknowledging that the field in which she and her sisters labored in this young country was a conflicted place, both generous and self-interested, materialist and often short on mercy; as full of peril as it was of promise.
“A country… of warfare and crucifixion.” What is so startling about Mother Seton’s words of 1817 is that they are still true, relevant and timely in 2021. As we enter into Good Friday, and look toward Easter Sunday, we know that we are currently a nation in deep conflict – the haves have never had more, and the have-nots seem increasingly forgotten. Politically and socially, we are divided and seemingly incapable of reaching out in good faith to address common concerns, or to resolve historic injustices with wisdom made perfect through love.
And yet, amid this “warfare and crucifixion” how was Mother Seton able to build so many good things – form what functioned in service to what is good?
Possibly it was her familiarity with the Cross that helped the saint overcome trials and persevere in an energetic country full of challenges. She knew personal sufferings – early widowhood and the loss of beloved children. She experienced tests to her faith, and to her own vows, which were heavy, and she carried them with a kind of Paschal instinct, certain that “the one who governs us all will bring light out of darkness.” (Collected Writings, June 24, 1811).
“If anyone will come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me,” said Jesus (Matthew 16:24). Of the verse Mother Seton shared, “[I was] not only willing to take [up] my cross, but kissed it too, (Collected Writings, 257). For Elizabeth Ann Seton, taking up her Cross in communion with Christ ultimately obliterated every obstacle, and she wrote of this with great eloquence.
… it is very certain that we receive no grace in the communion of the Holy Eucharist but in proportion as we receive it in the communion of the cross. … When our Savior offers us his cross in any way, it is Himself. (“Meditations on the Communion of the Cross”, 52).
A few lines later, Mother Seton makes it clear that embracing the Cross is rather like Saint Paul’s adjuration to “pray without ceasing” as one can meet the cross at any moment, in every day, consenting again and again to bear both its weight and its power: “We need not go to church to make this communion of suffering. Our Savior comes to find us where ever we may be.” (54)
Our first American-born saint’s wise observations on communion with the Cross remind us that Christ is constantly present to us – most especially in times of division, conflict, and strife, whether these are occurring in our personal lives or all around us in anxiety-laden headlines – because where the Cross is present, He is too.
This truth can speak to us on this Good Friday, helping us to bind ourselves in communion with Christ, who is Peace, who is Justice, who is Mercy, and thus all we in America are seeking, as much today as in Elizabeth’s day.
Mother Seton, pray for us.
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.