Reflection for the Canonization of Elizabeth Seton
By S. Jean Patrice Harrington at St. Francis Xavier Church, Pueblo, on Sept. 13, 1975, and at St. Mary Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Sept. 14, 1975.
“A woman came, sent by God;
Her name was Elizabeth.
She came as a witness,
As a witness to speak for the light,
So that others might believe through her.
She was not the light,
Only a witness to speak for the light.”
I begin with the borrowed and adapted words of the evangelist John, because I know of no truer description of the woman whose life we remember and celebrate today. For she was one who never doubted that she came from God, that she was called by Him and sent to witness not to herself and her own goodness, but rather, to show goodness and love are creative of all that is good or beautiful or happy within any of us.
It will not help to set Elizabeth Seton somewhere far beyond us, to regard her as having had so much more than we. For her call to holiness is our own; the unfathomable love with which the Father loved her surrounds and penetrates us, too; the “yes” she spoke again and again throughout her life to even the most unlikely demands of God, is also asked of us; participation in the joy and love and light that God is, is open to us as much as it was to her. So it is that we must let Elizabeth resonate with us, within us today.
If it is true that we resemble her and she resembles us, why do we as Church single her out and name her “saint”? There are two reasons. The first is because we wish to rejoice that one merely human being could allow herself to fall so freely into the loving hands of God that she was rendered beautiful in his sight and in ours. The second is because we need to remember always that she stands as pledge and promise of what God intends for each of us. So if canonization is to mean anything to us, if canonization can be legitimately celebrated by us here today, we must look not at what Elizabeth achieved, but at what God did in her, at what she allowed Him to do in her.
Jesus explained it this way:
How happy are the poor in spirit;
How blessed the gentle;
the ones who mourn;
the ones who hunger and thirst for justice;
the pure of heart;
the ones who are persecuted in the cause of right.
And Jesus placed no time on any of it and He never spoke of anyone whose destiny lay elsewhere. Rather, He was saying that every person open to receive the life of God within might incarnate these words.
Elizabeth was so vulnerable to the love and life of God that Jesus’ words describe beautifully her wholeness and her holiness. For she learned poverty in fact and in spirit and held all gifts in open hands. Her living became a “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything” (T.S. Eliot). She was gentle – gentle with herself, with the persons who entered her life, with all the things of her life. In all ways she learned to respect the fragility of being and to nourish whatever life she found. And she mourned, from childhood on, the dying of mother, husband, father, children, friends, because she loved life enough that death could carve its sadness in her very being. Her hunger and thirst for what was just and true were insatiable even when they meant waiting in lonely darkness, searching in a void for what God willed of her or her family or of her newborn religious community. And she was merciful, with consciousness that she was not more than any person, but no less than anyone – and so she gave and forgave knowing mothering she had was for her alone. All she was was gift beyond any price. And she was pure of heart, centered in “a vision so compelling, possessed by a reality so insistent and eternal” that it endured beyond her death, independent even of her remembrance of it. And she concerned herself with making peace—not in the false sense of keeping others happy no matter what the cost of her integrity—but in the sense of seeking reconciliation and homecoming within others, among others. She was persecuted in the cause of right, because her single-heartedness led her to always choose the preference of God, to do what was of truth, rather than what others wished of her. And so she knew the anger and the harshness and the rejection which comes to anyone whose values and whose life challenge what is popular and esteemed by the majority.
Make no mistake, I do not say Elizabeth, from birth, lived all this. Rather, I say she grew to these heights of heroic holiness. The initiative was God’s, always, and in all ways, she learned sensitivity to His call and how it came, to His demands what they meant. The choice was God’s, always, and in all ways, she became forever willing to say yes – “Let it be done even as You say.” It is not easy to live with the emptiness of God, with the darkness He can seem to be, with the cold His apparent absence brings. But even this she came to recognize as part of being called and chosen, surrendered and given. All was grace and gift from Him – not just the call and the choice, but even the darkness and the cold, and also her response and her surrender.
Elizabeth, woman, Christian, lover, wife, mother, foundress and now, saint. She stands before us today as dramatic witness to the word and light and love of God because all she has become speaks more of Him than of her. She stands before us today as immutable pledge and promise of what God wishes to do in each of us, for each of us, because what He has accomplished once for one human person, He will surely do again if only we allow Him.
We, her daughters, who are the Community called Charity, have often said she claims us specially. And it is true she has a special claim on us but not for reasons we most often give. We are not daughters of her and sisters to others, primarily because we spend ourselves in ministries of healing, teaching, writing, speaking or praying, not even because we might be found in service of the poorest of the poor. Her claim on us is rather something which demands we be no less open to the life of God than she was, no less responsive to His call than she, no less amenable in His creative hands, no less vulnerable to what His love would have us become. And the covenant we’ve made through our vows of celibacy, obedience and poverty is our acknowledgment of the heritage we have because of her. That covenant is surrender, similar to hers, surrender out of love to the three-personed God in whom we live and move and have our being.
We who are the Community called Charity thus bear tremendous responsibility to the Community called Church. It is not that we are asked to do or be something other than what Jesus said His Father intends for all who ever live. Rather, it is that we seek to create bonds among us as members of a Congregation because the person and the gift of Elizabeth Ann Seton have found special resonance in us and we would be those through whom her charism can continue to inspire and serve. And we have promised to be found whatever, however, the giving and the serving she began will lead and shape us.
Yet, the mystery and the paradox in all of this is not that we are different from others in the Community called Church, though we stand, perhaps, in unique relationship to Elizabeth. But just as her greatness, her holiness lay in her allowing God to make her poor in spirit, merciful, gentle, seeker of justice and truth, peacemaker, pure of heart, and love of life, so we who bear the name of Charity, like all human persons, are called to do the same.
As we continue together our celebration of this Eucharist which again seals in Jesus’ blood the promise of our God’s faithful and redeeming love, let us find ways to thank him for the person and the life of Elizabeth, for what she consented to let Him do in her and through her. And let us pray that each of us may find the words of John descriptive of our living as they were of hers:
There came one, sent by God,
She came as a witness.
As a witness to speak for the light
So that others might believe through her.
And let us make her words our own today, with a hope that they may become sign of the authenticity of our lives as they were of hers:
May the just, the most high, the most amiable
will of God be in all things fulfilled, praised,
and exalted forever.