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Sitting in the Side Pew: Second Meditation
Courageous on the Cross
- Making Ends Meet
- Under the Oak Tree
- Conclusion: The Ordinary Way of the Cross
Courageous on the Cross
In the homily where Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that becoming a saint does not require “extraordinary actions or works nor the possession of exceptional charisms,” he went on to say what becoming a saint does require. This is what he told the congregation gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica:
Then comes the positive reply: it is necessary first of all to listen to Jesus and then to follow him without losing heart when faced by difficulties…
– Homily, 1 November 2006
This is our part in the pursuit of holiness — allowing God to lead us, listening and following, even when he guides us along the way of the Cross. Following God’s will even when it’s hard, when it leads us to the tears of Mount Calvary instead of to the joys of Mount Tabor, is what Jesus did to open the gates of salvation.
And it’s what we need to do in order to enter through those open gates. The new life of the resurrection is always found on the other side of the crucifixion. Jesus made this clear when he told us that “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
This doesn’t mean that Christians are glum and grumpy and pessimistic. Those characteristics are not included among the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul identifies in his Letter to the Galatians:
… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
– Galatians 5:22, NABRE
We are not called to be wet blankets. But we are called to be courageous in the face of the difficulties and challenges that necessarily accompany our spiritual pilgrimage through this fallen world.
Elizabeth Seton showed that kind of humble courage in every stage of her life; it was one of her most characteristic virtues. Let’s take a look at two of her experiences that illustrate what this courage looks like in a saint who lived as normal a life as you or me.
Making Ends Meet
In the first scene, we have to picture Elizabeth at her little desk in the residence of her Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, trying to balance her books.
Two great dreams animated Elizabeth’s 16 years as
a Catholic. The first was her desire to somehow consecrate herself completely — heart, mind, and soul — to the Lord.
Mother Seton would end up fulfilling this desire by following through on an idea that originated with
the Sulpician priests in Baltimore: to establish a new religious community of women in the United States, following the rules of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac for their own Daughters of Charity.
The second dream was to put her privileged education and motherly love at the service of the poor through opening free schools for girls — something almost unheard of in the United States of the early 1800s. Mrs. Seton received guidance, moral support, and financial assistance from many different sources in her pursuit of these dreams, both of which came true.
The first Catholic bishops of the United States took a lively interest in the distinguished convert, especially Bishop Carroll of Baltimore and Bishop Cheverus of Boston. A wealthy Philadelphian convert to Catholicism pursued his calling to the priesthood and disposed
of some of his fortune in buying the land for Mother Seton’s foundation and school. The local clergy and priests from the Society of St. Sulpice, who had started Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, provided spiritual and sacramental nourishment. And she frequently appealed to personal friends to help make ends meet, especially in the first years of the foundation.
But even with all this providential support, Elizabeth faced a persistent difficulty that most of us can probably identify with: lack of funding.
Her dream, remember, was to open an entirely free school, a school where the poor could go to receive the education they needed to live a life of freedom and dignity. This was the desire God had planted in her heart. But try as she might, she just wasn’t able to generate enough cash flow to make that dream work.
A free school would simply always be in the red, always at the mercy of circumstance. And that was unacceptable for Mrs. Seton.
She felt that she had no right to put her students and her religious order in constant risk of material failure.
Her institutions required a certain degree of stability
in order to fulfill their mission. And so, eventually, she made a decision: the day school would remain free. But in the same institute, she would also accept boarding students, who would pay for their education.
It was a viable solution that demonstrated her practical wisdom: the income from her paying students, combined with support from benefactors, provided enough stability for both the order and the school not only to survive, but also to thrive.
The Fruits of Courage
But even so, this decision took real courage. Not the dramatic, visible courage of the martyrs who were thrown to the lions in ancient Rome.
But the quiet, hidden courage of humility: she had
to let go of her original dream; she had to admit her limitations; she had to change her plans. It seems like such a small thing, such an obvious thing.
But so often it’s in small and obvious things that our fears come out, and we resist change, and we get stuck in our personal plans and preconceptions.
In this case, Elizabeth’s decision not only enabled her institutions to flourish in her lifetime, but it set a tone for the future generations of her sisters, whose same courageous humility spawned five other daughter congregations and hundreds, if not thousands, of charitable works and institutions around the world.
She had listened to Jesus and followed him, facing this difficulty without losing heart.
Under the Oak Tree
This following of God’s lead, “without losing heart in the face of difficulties” is the path to sainthood that Pope Benedict XVI identified in his All Saints’ Day homily.
But financial struggles weren’t Mother Seton’s only cross. Without a doubt, the difficulties that most threatened Mother Seton’s strength of heart had to do with her family. To understand them, we need to trace some events that marked her first years as a Catholic.
Soon after her entrance in the Catholic Church, Elizabeth’s dreams of consecrated life and running a free school were already ripe and vivid, but they seemed an impossibility.
She was a widow, and now that she was a Catholic, many of her relatives and former friends had ostracized her.
The school she taught in order to support herself and her family after her husband’s death had failed quickly, partly due to parents’ fears that the crazy widow would try to turn their children into Catholics.
She had no income, very little family support, and five young children to take care of (her oldest child was only 9 when she entered the Church).
How could her dreams of becoming a religious sister and opening a school for the poor ever come true under those circumstances? And why would God have given her those holy desires, which seemed to contradict so starkly her obvious duties as a widowed mother?
Only God knows why he chose as foundress of the first native community of religious women in the United States a convert and a widowed mother of five young children, but he did.
It turned out that her desires were in perfect harmony with the desires of a priest from Baltimore, who invited her to leave New York to start a school for girls near one that he had started for boys.
The bishops of Boston and Baltimore seemed to be in cahoots with the plan. Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore funded the Seton boys’ tuition at Georgetown, and later the Sulpician priest, Father Dubourg, enrolled them at St. Mary’s College (boarding school) in Baltimore free of charge.
Her school on Paca Street on the outskirts of Baltimore began in 1808 with only seven students, three of whom were her own daughters.
But it was a success. And just a few months later marked the arrival of the first postulants for the religious order of sisters that the good clerics also wanted Elizabeth to start up.
In her second year, the school and the budding religious order moved to their providentially provided permanent location in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and Mother Seton’s dreams seemed to be coming true.
But new heart-wrenching difficulties were not too far away.
The First Three Graves
Her two sons were provided for as they pursued their education at nearby Mount St. Mary’s College. And she continued to care for her daughters even while she served as Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.
Her daughters lived in the religious community and attended the school where the sisters carried out their apostolate. This was a highly uncommon situation, and it actually required alterations to the Vincentian rule
of life that the Sisters of Charity were following. But Mother Seton would have it no other way, and her ecclesiastical superiors agreed. All seemed to be in place.
Then her eldest daughter, Anna, became sick; she fell victim to the Seton family scourge: tuberculosis.
Elizabeth was no stranger to death. She had lost her mother and younger sister when only a little girl. She had helped bury her beloved father-in-law, her own father, and her husband and true soul-mate, William Seton, in the course of four years. And yet, even such ample training in the fleetingness of life couldn’t shield Mother Seton from painful sorrow at the loss of her eldest child: it shook her to the depths.
There was already a graveyard on the property in Emmitsburg. It had been chosen playfully during a tour of the property when the sisters first arrived. Harriet Seton, one of Elizabeth’s young sister-in-laws who had accompanied her younger sister, Cecilia who was frail and sickly, to visit Elizabeth, finished eating an apple as the tour made its way through a small grove of trees. She tossed the apple core against the trunk of a large oak tree, and laughingly proclaimed that where the core had landed she should be buried. Six months later, suffering from a mysterious brain fever, she died.
Her grave was the first in the little cemetery that still lies under the oak tree, located precisely where her apple core had landed. Cecilia Seton, another of Elizabeth’s sister-in-laws and a sister in Mother Seton’s community, died soon afterwards — the second grave. Elizabeth had been close to Harriet and Cecilia, and their deaths wrung her heart.
But when just two years later she stood under the oak tree gazing down at young Anna’s grave, the third grave, more than just the pain of loss pierced her heart.
Anna too had entered the sisterhood, and so she was Elizabeth’s daughter twice over. Why would the Lord have taken her away? Why not take Elizabeth first? Why must the mother outlive such a daughter and suffer a double pain?
The darkness and loss that she experienced, she united to the suffering of her Lord, repeating herself the prayer he prayed in Gethsemane. In her grief for Anna, she wrote to her friend of many years, Eliza Sadler:
Poor Mother must say no more now; only pray, Eliza, that she may be strengthened… You believe me when I say with my whole soul, “His Will be done forever!”
Her courage to continue trusting and serving God under the weight of her crosses was bearing fruit. Mother Seton’s religious community was growing, and even spreading to other locations.
Her school was developing its well deserved reputation for excellent all-around education, and her graduates were continuing to write to her for advice when they went off to start their own families. But new crosses were still to come.
In 1816, just four years after losing Anna, her oldest child, Elizabeth’s youngest child, Rebecca, also passed away. One more grave under the oak tree. But at least Rebecca and Anna had died with fervent faith, looking forward to a heavenly reunion with their Lord.
Adolescent Sons — Challenges
Mother Seton’s sons were a different cross altogether. Although she worked as hard to get them started
in the world as she had worked on her school and
her order, she was never blessed with seeing them properly established, either in their faith or in their circumstances.
They were inconstant, distant, and often inconsiderate towards her, as immature young men tend to be towards their parents. Praying and suffering and working for them, for their souls in the first place, but also for their careers and their reputations, was perhaps the heaviest cross of all.
She had had such clear success as a mother of her religious sisters, of hundreds of students and boarders, even of young clerics who learned the spiritual life from her. But in the case of her own biological sons, even her heroic efforts seemed helpless to stir them out of their listlessness.
This cross weighed upon her and continued to purify her even to her deathbed. There, without even the satisfaction of knowing that her sons were firm in their Catholic faith, her abandonment and trust in God reached their glorious culmination.
Conclusion: The Ordinary Way of the Cross
The path to holiness, to human wholeness, doesn’t always pass through extraordinary actions or works, or exceptional, dramatic charisms. But it does always involve listening to God’s call and continuing to follow where he leads, without losing heart in the face of difficulties.
And this was the path that Mother Seton followed. God granted her many special graces, but they were all small in the eyes of the world. Her successes were real, but modest, during her lifetime. Her losses were equally real, but in the face of them all, she continued forward, daily embracing the tasks that Providence gave her.
If there is one lesson that her example can teach us above all others, and if there is one grace more than the rest that we should ask her to intercede for on our behalf, maybe it’s this one: to truly understand the sign of the cross. The crosses we face in life are not outside of God’s plan; they are not exceptions to his wisdom and love. No, they are part of his plan for our lives, just as they were part of his plan for the life of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
Listen to how Mother Seton described in a letter her first encounter with the sign of the cross, that particularly Catholic prayer that we are all so familiar with. She was in Italy, after the death of her husband, exploring the Catholic faith and culture under the gentle tutelage of the Filicchi family. Here she puts in writing her feelings of solemnity and awe when Antonio Filicchi taught her the sign of the cross:
This evening, standing by the window, the moon shining full on Filicchi’s countenance, he raised his eyes to heaven and showed me how to make the sign of the cross. Dearest Rebecca, I was cold with the awful impression my first making it gave me. The sign of the cross of Christ on me! Deepest thoughts came with it of I know not what earnest desires to be closely united with Him, who died on it…
If by God’s grace we can learn how to make and how to live the sign of the cross, as did St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, we will need neither extraordinary successes nor extraordinary sufferings to lead us into the heart of God and towards the fulfillment we yearn for.
For us, as for Mother Seton, the ordinary ones will suffice.
Take some time now to prayerfully reflect on the experience of this ordinary woman who had the humble courage to allow God to adjust her plans however he wanted, and to persevere with Christ through loss and sorrow.
The following questions and Bible passages may help your meditation.
Questions for Personal Reflection or Group Discussion
1. Mother Seton learned how to combine docility to God’s will, determination to carry it out, and a healthy detachment from her personal hopes and plans. How far along am I in learning that lesson?
2. What are the usual sources of difficulty and loss in my life? How do I tend to react to them?
3. Read the following excerpt from the first biography based on research and interviews with those who knew Mother Seton. Then reflect on how these principles would apply in your life situation:
… And what was the first rule of our dear Savior’s life? You know it was to do his Father’s will. Well, then, the first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will.
I know what his will is by those who direct me; whatever they bid me do, if it is ever so small in itself, is the will of God for me. Then do it in the manner he wills it, not sewing an old thing as if
it were new, or a new thing as if it were old; not fretting because the oven is too hot, or in a fuss because it is too cold. You understand — not flying and driving because you are hurried, not creeping like a snail because no one pushes you. Our dear Savior was never in extremes. The third object
is to do his will because God wills it, that is, to be ready to quit at any moment and to do anything else to which you may be called…
Biblical Passages to Help Your Meditation
Then the king will say to those on his right,“Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him and say,“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
– Matthew 25:34-40, NABRE
￼Listen to counsel and receive instruction, that you may eventually become wise. Many are the plans of the human heart, but it is the decision of the lord that endures.What is desired of a person is fidelity; rather be poor than a liar.The fear of the lord leads to life; one eats and sleeps free from any harm.
– Proverbs 19:20-23, NABRE
Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
– Isaiah 42:1-4, NABRE
The lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters
he leads me; he restores my soul. He guides me along right paths for the sake of his name. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me. You set a table before me in front of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me all the
days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the lord for endless days.
– Psalm 23, NABRE St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Favorite Psalm