Saturday, January 5, 2013

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, My True Love Said to Me....

Yesterday, January 4, was the Eleventh Day of Christmas. It was also the feast day of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first person born in the United States to be declared a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

In Emmitsburg, Maryland, there is a basilica—a very large, grand church—dedicated to honoring the life and legacy of this woman. It is built on land where St. Elizabeth worked, died (on January 4, 1821), and is buried.

In early October 2012, I spent a couple of days in Emmitsburg, and more than a few hours in that basilica. At one point, I entered a small prayer room outside the main sanctuary. On the wall to my right, written large, was this quote from Saint Elizabeth Ann: "If it succeeds, I bless God, if ... it does not succeed, I bless God, because then it will be right that it should not succeed."

These are countercultural words in a world that measures human worth on the basis of "ability to succeed," and attributes success (and failure) to human effort (or lack of effort) alone. But the Office of Readings for yesterday tells us to "work in the world yet without becoming immersed in it" and without "adopting" the "spirit of the world," "for the world in its present form is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31).

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's comfortable world "passed away" with the "failure" of her husband's business and his early death due to tuberculosis, which left her with five small children and no money to support them. She turned for help to God and His Church, becoming a Catholic in March 1805. For the rest of her life she made doing the will of God the scale of her "success."

I sat for a while in that little chapel at the basilica and thought about the many "failures" of my own life. When I finally stood up and turned around to leave the room, I noticed another quote written big on the back wall: "Be but faithful to God with your whole heart, and never fear. He will support, direct, console, and finally crown your dearest hope."

The word that jumped out at me from those two sentences, and still does, was "console." Merriam-Webster's defines "console" as "to alleviate the grief, sense of loss, or trouble of; comfort." If wholehearted, fearless faithfulness enables us to receive God's support, direction, and fulfillment of hope, then why is consolation necessary?

Because for now we experience God only "through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12) and thus our faith is not wholehearted and fearless, and we fight constantly against that darkness in ourselves.

In a talk given to her "spiritual daughters," Seton once said,
"We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life, 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.

"But we lack courage to keep a continual watch over nature, and therefore, year after year, with our thousand graces, multiplied resolutions, and fair promises, we run around in a circle of misery and imperfections. After a long time in the service of God, we come nearly to the point from whence we set out, and perhaps with even less ardor ... than when we began our consecration to him."
This is why (as God knew and knows) we needed and need Jesus to "show us the Father" (John 14:8). In John 14:7-11, He said
"If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.... The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these."
This is why (as the Church knows) we also need the witness of the Saints: because they show us the truth of Jesus words, "whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these."


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