St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), whom we celebrate on January 4, holds the distinction of being the first native-born American saint. Looking back over her great achievements (which include planting the seeds of Catholic education in America and founding a religious order, the Daughters of Charity), what is so special and relevant about Mother Seton is how ordinary her holiness was.
From Wall Street to Italy, from Baltimore to rural Emmitsburg, MD, Elizabeth initially lead a privileged life, but always remained humble and grounded. After becoming a widow with five children at only 28 years old, she eventually moved her young family to Emmitsburg and founded a religious order and Catholic school. After the death of her husband, her life was difficult, filled with personal trials and hardships. Yet, through all of it, she demonstrated constant dedication to discerning and pursuing the will of God, or, as she simply called it, “The Will.” In fact, it is through looking at how Elizabeth sought God’s will in the toughest moments of life that we stand to learn the most from her remarkable, yet ordinary life.
“God, forgive what I have been, correct what I am, and direct what I shall be.”
Humans are creatures of habit, which makes change a scary thing. God certainly called St. Elizabeth to change directions many times over the course of her life, even change her vocation! Elizabeth remained faithful and constant in the moment, while exercising abandonment to the will of God to respond freely as her circumstances changed. Elizabeth demonstrates how we do not become saints overnight, but grow through a day-by-day process of seeking forgiveness and correction every step of the way.
Faithfulness in Failure
“We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life. We know that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.”
Growing up in a prosperous family, Elizabeth enjoyed a happy and fruitful marriage, blessing her with five children. Together with her husband William, to whom she was very much in love, they inherited a successful business on Wall Street. But in a short period of time, all that changed. William’s business failed and went bankrupt.
Elizabeth knew success very early on, but learned firsthand the difference between success and faithfulness. As an American saint, Elizabeth powerfully challenges the American tendency to view outward success as an indisputable sign of God’s grace. The experience awakened in Elizabeth a newfound love of the poor, as well as a deeper understanding of the will of God in the midst of many obstacles and difficulties on the path to a holy life.
Trust During Tragedy
“The accidents of life separate us from our dearest friends, but let us not despair. God is like a looking glass in which souls see each other. The more we are united to Him by love, the nearer we are to those who belong to Him.”
Not long after her family went bankrupt, Elizabeth and her husband William moved to Italy, where he became sick and died of Tuberculosis. Elizabeth had already lost her mother and sister early in life. Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth found consolation and hope in visiting and praying in various churches throughout Italy, and felt especially drawn to the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary even though she was still Episcopalian. Her experience planted seeds for her entrance into the Catholic Church.
Many of us, myself included, have experienced tragedy strike at the heart of a family. Elizabeth demonstrates that tragedy, though profoundly shaking, need not lead to despair, but an invitation to rely even more on the will of God.
Rejoice Despite Rejection
“Afflictions are the steps to heaven.”
When news of Elizabeth’s conversion in 1805 became public, many parents removed their children from the school where Elizabeth taught in Baltimore (after returning from Italy) and other friends no longer associated with her. Used to being a well-liked socialite, this experience must have been painful. Despite feelings of rejection, Elizabeth did not become bitter, defensive, or lose her natural joy and generosity. Instead, Elizabeth teaches us that following the will of God opens us to greater love and acceptance of others, not enmity with them.
The tragedies and setbacks in Elizabeth’s life were not enough to keep her from trusting the will of God. In her own words, “God has given me a great deal to do, and I have always and hope always to prefer his will to every wish of my own.” Let us approach this new year as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton would have, eager to both desire and do the will of God. Consider starting off 2017 with this novena to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton starting tomorrow, January 4th. Pray in a special way to desire, know, and follow the will of God as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!