Musing on Mother Seton

Author’s Note: This musing turned out longer than I had planned, so there will be no musing/meditation tomorrow. Sorry, but I feel like this one is two days’ worth of reading, anyway. Still, I hope you enjoy it!

A Musing on Mother Seton (and Why I Admire Her So Much)

Anyone can be a saint. A saint can be anyone from anywhere at any time in history. We are all called to holiness — to be a child of God who strives to preach the Gospel.But, when I say “think of a saint,” you probably think of an Apostle, early church martyr, or Doctor of the Church – odds are, they’re male, they’re European (or from the Holy Land), and they’re a religious or priest.

Saints can come from any walk of life, but the majority of the canonized saints — and the most well-known ones — are European (or Middle-Eastern) male religious/priests: Saints Peter and Paul, and any of the other Apostles; St. Benedict; St. Augustine; St. Francis of Assisi; St. Dominic; St. Thomas Aquinas; St. Ignatius of Loyola; St. John of the Cross and so on.

That is not to say that any of the aforementioned saints are not worth studying, imitating, etc. They are. They are awesome, and I want to imitate their love for Christ and His Church in every moment of my life.

However, I’ve found that sometimes it’s harder to relate to these saints. They were from another country, another time, another vocation, etc. But, in my own life, I have been blessed to spend time at parish named for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Mother Seton is awesome, as are all the saints – canonized or not. But, unlike many of the aforementioned saints, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton seems more ‘approachable’ to me — as a lay, American woman — for three very simple reasons:

She was an American woman.

The Church recognizes 17 canonized American saints, but only three of them were born in (what is now) the United States: Mother Seton and Saints Katherine Drexel and (newly canonized) Kateri Tekakwitha.

Mother Seton was born in the British colony New York in 1774 — so, the American Revolution took place during her childhood. During her lifetime, she would have experienced things like George Washington become the first U.S. President; Washington D.C. established as the nation’s capital; and the newborn United States fight with former mother-country Britain during the War of 1812.

Today, Mother Seton’s remains are enshrined at the National Shrine in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There is also a shrine to her near her former home in New York City.

Mother Seton is the patron saint of Maryland and American Catholic schools (as she founded the first free ones in America).

As a relatively new country, there aren’t very many canonized American saints yet.

But the ones that we do have truly embody many of those ideals and virtues that Americans and Catholics alike greatly value: courage, independence, a strong will, generosity, benevolence, kindness, and so on.

She was a wife and mother.

Tying into the above point, Mother Seton’s life attests that people from any vocation can become saints. Everyone is called to holiness, and people in all vocations and walks of life will have their trials to overcome.

Elizabeth Bayley was married to William Seton when she was 19. They had five children together, and – despite her busy life as wife and mother – she helped organize a lady’s charity group that would distribute food to the poor.

Her husband, whose shipping company had went bankrupt, was in poor health, and the family sailed to Italy for William’s health. He died on the way, and Elizabeth Seton landed in a foreign country as a widowed mother to her five children.

As a wife and mother, Mother Seton had her own struggles; but she was still able to live a noble and charitable life. We do not have to be a religious or a priest to do the same.

She was a convert.

Saints can come from any kind of initial religious background, and Mother Seton can attest to that. She grew up in a devout Episcopalian household. Her husband and children, too, were raised in the Episcopalian faith.

After her husband died en-route to Italy in 1803, Elizabeth stayed with the her late husband’s friends – the Filicci family, a prominent Italian Catholic family.

The Filiccis introduced Elizabeth to Catholicism, and when she returned to New York, she continued studying the Faith and finally converted in 1805.

After her friends and neighbors found about her conversion, she was shunned and avoided by many members of her community. Many parents withdrew their children from her school, which she had started to support her family.

In the years following, Mother Seton founded the first free Catholic school in America and started a religious order – the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph – in Emmitsburg. Her daughter Catherine was among the first sisters to join her.

In common with many saints, St. Elizabeth had a special devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother. Truly, her conversion was whole-hearted, and despite the social stigma of the time, she became an important figure in the Church’s history in the United States.

In Summary

I believe that we like to find people that we can relate with – someone who’s on “our level,” so to speak. Whether it is in life, literature, or anything else, we like encountering people who are like us in some aspect.

Our mindset is: “If she can do it, then I can do it, too.” If we are like them, in some aspect or other, whatever they achieve, we realize we can achieve, too.

So, why should our spiritual lives be any different? If the saints can share God’s Love and Joy in the world, despite all the adversities in their way – torture, loneliness, abandonment, persecution, alienation, and personal attachments – why can’t I do the same?

That’s why I admire St. Elizabeth Ann Seton so much: because, as a lay, American woman, she and I are alike. And, if she can become a saint, then I can become a saint, too.

We all have saints that we relate to because we have common ground with them – shared life experiences, trials, vocations, etc. We admire them because they are like us – and they are holy.

And that is why I love all the saints, including Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton! They all give me the hope that…

If they can do it, then I can do it, too.

Essay on the Crucifix

Essay on the Significance of the Crucifix

Author’s Note: This column/essay was written in 2007.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of any Catholic church usually hangs over the tabernacle – a crucifix, adorned with an image of the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike other Christians, Catholics put a big emphasis on the crucifix, rather than simply on a cross. It seems awkward that, as Christians with such a devout respect for human life, we should put so much spiritual stress on an instrument of torture and suffering. However, the crucifix has a deeper message that is important for all men to realize.

The most important aspect of the crucifix is that it serves as a reminder that Christ’s sacrifice won our salvation. By dying for us on Calvary, Jesus built a bridge to Heaven with two boards and three nails. The Son of God became humanity’s bronze serpent (c.f. Num 21:4-9) and “died for us, that all of us, whether awake or asleep, together might live with him” (1 Thes 5: 9-10).

As the means of our salvation, the Cross of Christ is a source of joy and hope. St. Paul even goes so far as to say, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14). Also, Jesus’ selfless sacrifice redeemed Adam’s original sin – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). In addition, the crucifix is not a symbol of death but resurrection. The Letter to the Romans assures us, “If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom 6:5). Thus, the crucifix is not a simply a form of execution, but rather is a symbol of new life in Christ.

Similarly, the crucifix is a daily reminder of God’s infinite love for humanity (c.f. John 3:16). The Second Person of the Trinity took on our human nature to personify the Suffering Servant that Isaiah said would be pierced for our offenses and crushed for our iniquities (c.f. Isaiah 53:5). God loved us so much that He willingly accepted death, and through it, He “purchased for God men of every race and tongue” (Rev 5:9). Ultimately, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross calls us to love one another as God has loved us by laying down our life for our friends (c.f. John 15:12-13).

For us as Catholics, the crucifix is also important because it parallels the Eucharist. Just as the body of Christ is presented on the cross, so the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is re-presented in an un-bloody way at the Mass. The symbol of the crucifix, like the Eucharist, echoes what Jesus told His disciples at the Last Supper: “This is my body” (Mark 14:22). Additionally, the presence of Jesus’ body on the cross, especially at the Mass, reminds us of St. Paul’s words, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27).

Ultimately, the crucifix is more than just an instrument of torture – it was the means of salvation for all of humanity. As such, we as human beings should give it due respect. It was not simply the cross that saved us, but Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice that made our redemption possible. In the end, the crucifix echoes the words of Christ for all eternity:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).

Essay on Bl. Mother Teresa

Looking Beyond the Darkness

Author’s Note: This column/essay was written in 2007 or 2008, after some members of the media and the public criticized Bl. Mother Teresa and her legacy when it was revealed she had experienced a “Dark Night of the Soul” for decades.

Mother Teresa was not the first on the path to holiness to have doubts about her faith. St. Thomas the Apostle first doubted that Jesus had risen from the tomb, and would not believe until he had seen Him in the flesh (c.f. John 20:25). Even in the Old Testament, King David wrote several psalms asking God to save him from his loneliness (c.f. Psalms 22, 88, & 143).

 

Looking carefully at Mother Teresa’s letters, it is obvious that she was troubled about having doubts and lacking faith while on her God-given mission; however, we see that in 1956, she asked her correspondent to pray for her that she might keep “smiling at Him in spite of everything.”

This corresponds to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which he says, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (c.f. Ephesians 6:19). Mother Teresa, like Saint Paul, was asking for prayers that she might be given the strength to continue doing the will of God, despite all her doubts.

And perhaps, Mother Teresa’s religious doubts may have been God’s way of testing her. Just like Abraham in the Old Testament, Mother Teresa was walking blindly along the way God had set for her, with nothing but her faith in the Living God to guide her footsteps.

Even so, Mother Teresa could be considered gold refined by fire. This spiritual turmoil that she experienced makes her charitable works seem all the more miraculous. As Hebrews reminds us, God’s “discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it (c.f. Hebrews 5:7-13).”

The ‘Saint of Calcutta’ is not the first person to experience these religious doubts, nor will she be the last. Just as God tested the Israelites in the desert, to “know what was in their hearts” (c.f. Deuteronomy 8:1-3), perhaps He tested Mother Teresa in the same way.

“Please pray for me,” Mother Teresa wrote, “That Our Lord may show Himself – for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.”

But perhaps she did not realize that, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (c.f. 1 John 4:12).

Skeptics will say that these private reservations prove the emptiness of her faith, but society should not try to discredit Mother Teresa. She always did her best to see Christ in everyone, even in the poorest of the poor. She continually strived to do God’s Will, by loving the least of her brethren (c.f. Matthew 25:40). We, as human beings, should do our best to follow her example and emulate Jesus Christ by loving one another as He has loved us (c.f. John 13:34).