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Sitting in the Side Pew: First Meditation
The Whisper of Love
- Under the Chestnut Tree￼
- Sitting in the Side Pew
- Conclusion: How Not to Be a Saint
The Whisper of Love
Every single one of us is called to become a saint — because only that will lead to our greatest possible fulfillment; it’s what God created us for. The Catechism puts it like this:
All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness…
– CCC 2013
But becoming a saint is not something that any of us can do just by trying real hard. Sanctity, also known as holiness, requires our effort of cooperation, but its primary source is God; God’s grace makes saints. And that simple fact should fill all of us with intense hope, and maybe even a bit of relief.
All we have to do to reach the fulfillment we yearn for is to cooperate with God, to listen to him and go where he leads. That’s all!
Here’s how Pope Benedict XVI explained it:
Holiness demands a constant effort, but it is possible for everyone because, rather than a human effort, it is first and foremost a gift of God…
– Homily, 1 November 2006
In the case of some saints, this ongoing gift of God arrives in dramatic fashion — through visions and miracles. But in the case of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, it arrived in normal, ordinary ways, just as it does for most of us.
If we can learn to cooperate with God in these ordinary ways, we will find ourselves making rapid spiritual progress, just as she did. So let’s look at two times in her life when God worked powerfully through ordinary circumstances.
Under the Chestnut Tree
Elizabeth Bayley had a good, but not perfect, childhood. Her mother died when Elizabeth was not quite three years old. Her father was a dedicated physician and medical scientist.
Even though Dr. Bayley married again, his work, along with the apparent aloofness of Elizabeth’s stepmother, required him to send his two daughters to live with relatives outside New York City for long periods of time.
Luckily, there were plenty of options and plenty of cousins, and the Bayley clan proved to be a lively and engaging society for a bright young girl to grow up in.
Dr. Bayley made a point of giving Elizabeth a solid education. This included religious formation, of course, in the Episcopal Church. But it also included music, and literature, and social experience with the most educated families of the budding American Republic.
Elizabeth loved to read, and to dance, and to play the piano — and she enjoyed her long periods visiting relatives in the country. In all these ordinary situations, she was able to hear and heed the whispers of God’s love.
During one of her stays in the country, when she was fourteen-years-old, she had a delightful encounter with her Lord that she described years later. Her description beautifully illustrates one of God’s favorite ways to speak to our hearts — through the simple beauties of his creation. She wrote,
In the year 1789, when my father was in England, one morning in May, in the lightness of a cheerful heart, I jumped in the wagon that was driving to the woods for brush, about a mile from home; the boy who drove it began to cut, and I set off in the woods, soon found an outlet in a meadow; and a chestnut tree with several young ones growing around it, found rich moss under it and a warm sun. Here, then, was a sweet bed — the air still a clear blue vault above — the numberless sounds of spring melody and joy — the sweet clovers and wild flowers I had got by the way, and a heart as innocent as human heart could be, filled even with enthusiastic love to God and admiration of His works… God was my Father, my all. I prayed, sang hymns, cried, laughed, talking to myself of how far he could place me above all sorrow. Then I laid still to enjoy the heavenly peace that came over my soul; and I am sure, in the two hours so enjoyed, grew ten years in the spiritual life…
The intense beauty of a spring day in the country — not a vision of angels or an apparition of saints, just a bright hour in the meadows under a chestnut tree; there God whispered his love to her heart, and there she heard his voice and delighted in it.
I think we can all relate to the scene, so innocent and simple, and yet so authentic and powerful. We have all been moved with a kind of heavenly nostalgia at the marvels of nature, God’s first book of revelation.Let us not underestimate it; let us not be deaf to it.
Sitting in the Side Pew
Although God often calls out to us through external messengers, like the beauties of nature, he also sometimes moves us from within. This is how Elizabeth found herself becoming a Catholic.
She had taken a trip to Italy with her ailing husband, William — the doctors thought that a change of atmosphere might help treat his consumption. William survived the voyage, but died soon afterwards. Elizabeth and her oldest daughter, Anna, were unable to find a boat and trustworthy captain that could bring them back to America right away, so they stayed with her husband’s friends, the Filicchi family.
The Filicchi were devout Catholics, and generous hosts. While staying there, Elizabeth was not only exposed to the beautiful art and culture of Catholic Italy, but the Filicchi brothers also explained much of the Catholic faith to her. What struck her most, however, weren’t the theological arguments. Rather, it was the devotion to the Eucharist that she witnessed firsthand.
That Holy Communion could be not only a symbolic union with her Lord — as was taught in her Protestant Church — but a real one, was a thought that seemed infinitely too good to be true. But when she attended Mass with the Filicchi and saw the deep devotion of those who adored and received the Blessed Sacrament, she began to be convinced that it was true.
With that conviction came a deep interior yearning to receive our Lord in the Eucharist. It was a yearning that took root in her heart, and grew steadily stronger.
When she was finally able to return to New York, she was already considering becoming a Catholic; she was already looking forward to her first Holy Communion.
But Catholics were social outcasts in the New York
of the early 1800s, and her relatives and friends were vehemently against her conversion. Both clergy and laity argued tirelessly to convince her not to abandon the faith of her fathers, not to abandon her social circle, not to subject her children to such a trial.
And if she had made a list of practical advantages and disadvantages that would flow from becoming Catholic, she certainly would have found no earthly reason at all to take such a step.
The tension of her predicament was causing her great interior anguish. And yet, in the depths of her heart, she felt that yearning, that desire to be more intimately united with her Lord.
It was another whisper of God’s love, arising from within, a whisper that she listened to in spite of the clamor of so many other voices that swirled around her. It got to the point where she even found it difficult to go to church on Sundays. And when she did, her heart was elsewhere — in the Catholic church next door, in fact.
Here is how she described one Sunday morning at her Episcopal church in a letter to the Filicchis:
Antonio [Filicchi]… would not have been well-pleased to see me in St. Paul’s [Episcopal] church today, but peace, and persuasion about proprieties, etc., over-prevailed. Yet, I got in a side pew which turned my face towards the Catholic church in the next street, and found myself twenty times speaking to the Blessed Sacrament there, instead of looking at the naked altar where I was, or minding the routine of prayers. Tears plenty and sighs as silent and deep as when I first entered your blessed church of the Annunciation in Florence; all turning to the one only desire, to see the way most pleasing to my God — whichever that way is!
It would have been easier for her if God had sent her some kind of a dramatic, miraculous, supernatural sign to indicate whether she should stay Episcopalian or convert to Catholicism — but instead he chose to send her nothing more than a persistent whisper of love, a deep interior yearning.
And God often works that way. He is interested in our friendship and in our love. And so, instead of dazzling us into following him, he gently but insistently invites, tugging at our hearts with the call of his goodness and truth, but refusing to get into a shouting match with the other voices all around us — the voices of ambition, popularity, fear, pleasure, and comfort.
Elizabeth allowed herself to be wooed by God’s interior courtship, and she didn’t stay in the side pew looking out the window.
In spite of violent objections from friends and relatives, in spite of the social and economic sacrifice it would entail, in spite of the shame and mockery that she had to endure, Betsy Seton finally walked across the street and into St. Peter’s Church.
There, after passing through the congregation of uneducated, poor, and stigmatized Catholic immigrants of early nineteenth-century New York City, she entered the sacristy where the priest received her into the Catholic Church. And 11 days later, she knelt at the altar rail to satisfy the deepest yearning of her heart: she received Holy Communion.
It was the liturgical Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25, 1805, a day she would never forget. She
had listened to the quiet but insistent voice of God deep within her soul, and preferred that voice to all the others, and she had been duly rewarded.
Here is how she described her First Communion in a letter to her friend back in Italy, Amabilia Filicchi:
At last, Amabilia, at last god is mine and i am his! Now, let all go its round — I Have Received Him… To the last breath of life will I not remember this night of watching for morning dawn; the fearful, beating heart so pressing to be gone; the long walk to town; but every step counted, nearer that street, then nearer that tabernacle, then nearer the moment He would enter the poor, poor little dwelling so all His own… it seemed to me my King had come to take His throne, and instead of the humble tender welcome I had expected to give Him, it was but a triumph of joy and gladness that the deliverer was come and my defense and shield and strength and salvation made mine for this world and the next.
Conclusion: How Not to Be a Saint
In one of his homilies for All Saints’ Day, Pope Benedict XVI made a point of explaining what being a saint does not require. Here is what he said:
But how can we become holy, friends of God? We can first give a negative answer to this question: to be a Saint requires neither extraordinary actions or works nor the possession of exceptional charisms.
– Homily, 1 November 2006
We need to believe this with all of our hearts! Growing in holiness doesn’t require us to leave behind our humanity — on the contrary, it is the only path to the true fulfillment of our humanity. We can find God’s love under chestnut trees, and we can hear his voice deep in our hearts while we’re sitting in the side pew.
If there’s one shining truth that stands out from the example of Elizabeth Seton’s spiritual journey, it’s that being a saint truly is, as Pope Benedict put it in the same homily: “possible for everyone because, rather than a human effort, it is first and foremost a gift of God.”
Let’s take some time now to prayerfully reflect on this comforting, invigorating truth of our faith. The following questions and Bible passages may help your meditation.
Questions for Personal Reflection or Group Discussion
1. What does the word “saint” say to me and why? How firmly do I believe that my most basic calling in life is to become a saint?
2. Have I ever had experiences like the one Elizabeth had under the chestnut tree? If so, remember them, savor them, and thank God for them. If not, reflect on what aspects of my lifestyle may be inhibiting me from hearing God’s voice speaking to me through the beauty of life’s simple joys and pleasures.
3. In this season of my spiritual life, what is God whispering in my heart, and what other voices are trying to keep me stuck in the side pew?
O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth! I will sing of your majesty above the heavens with the mouths of babes and infants. You have established a bulwark against your foes, to silence enemy and avenger. When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place: What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet: All sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!
– Psalm 8, NABRE
Hear, O children, a father’s instruction, be attentive, that you may gain understanding! Yes, excellent advice I give you; my teaching do not forsake. When I was
my father’s child, tender, the darling of my mother, he taught me and said to me: “Let your heart hold fast my words: keep my commands, and live! Get wisdom, get understanding! Do not forget or turn aside from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will preserve you; love her, and she will safeguard you. The beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom; whatever else you get, get understanding. Extol her, and she will exalt you; she will bring you honors if you embrace her; She will put on your head a graceful diadem; a glorious crown will she bestow on you.
– Proverbs 4:1-9, NABRE
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.
– John 6:53-58, NABRE