Reflection given at the morning Mass at Caritas Christi, mother house of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, January 4, 2016
About twenty years ago, you may remember, Seton Hill University undertook to do some needed repairs of the Administration Building that had been built between 1888 and 1889. The plan also included some remodeling of the building to make it a “smart building” capable of making use of the swiftly developing technology available for our educational mission. A building that was then about 110 years old was capable of sustaining such remodeling while still maintaining its original architectural integrity and beauty.
For some reason, thinking about what reflections to offer on this special feast of Elizabeth Seton, the image of the Administration Building came to me. It seemed to offer an analogy for how the story Elizabeth Seton begun in the 18th century continues to have contemporary energy in the 21st. To find that relevance, one need not rely on trying to force a few parallels from some aspect of Elizabeth’s life. To the contrary, one can, without exaggeration say, “Elizabeth Bayley Seton is a woman for our times!”
An experience I’ve had this past year revitalized this conviction of mine. Dr. Mary Finger called together a Task Force on Mission made up of faculty representatives from all academic divisions, staff members, and Sisters of Charity. One of the first things we did was to read American Saint by Joan Barthel, a journalist, author, and screen writer. The book had just been published in 2014. Barthel presents Elizabeth Seton as
rich, poor, an aristocrat, an outcast, a wife, a mother (a working mother), a widow, a teacher, a nurse, a social worker. She was a Protestant most of her life, then a Catholic, an almost-accidental nun, and the first American-born saint in the Catholic Church. When she was born in New York in 1774, on the edge of revolution, she was a British subject. By the age of two she was an original American whose life is a paradigm of spiritual growth, sometimes in a context of organized religion, sometimes outside it, sometimes in spite of it.
Gloria Steinem, well known for her part in the struggle for women’s rights, commented that American Saint was about “this larger-than-life woman who was so far ahead of her time that we’re still catching up with her.”
Reading the book and discussing it gave the Mission Task Force not only a common base for its work but also an enthusiastic boost. Our discussions led us to conclude that the future of Seton Hill University will depend on our being true to the spirit and intent of this remarkably contemporary woman.
As a community that calls Elizabeth “mother” and “foundress,” we may think we already know all about her. It’s always useful, however, to re-think the familiar and to draw out new insights about her. Without such ongoing reflection, we are in danger of reducing her to a statue in a museum, far from a living presence and spirit in our lives.
What is it that makes Elizabeth such a living presence and spirit in our lives? Here are some thoughts that came to me:
- Her courage-based faith. Some might prefer to say her faith-based courage. But I prefer courage-based faith because it highlights how God’s gifts interweave in our lives. Some people might claim courage but have no faith. They attribute all their success to their own efforts. Some might claim to have faith but, even so, lack courage. Faith is a gift, but so is courage. Courage is a quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face danger, fear, and events that can appear by chance, and to face them with self-possession, confidence, and resolve. Faith is a secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will. It was the interweaving of these two gifts of God to a human being that shaped Elizabeth Seton’s way of living.
- Her resilience. Resilience is a property in a material that enables it to resume its original shape after being bent, stretched or compressed. When resilience is lost, we say something loses its “snap.” Resilience can be lost, if the material is stressed beyond its limit. Elizabeth was bent, stretched, trampled on, and events threatened to flatten her—but she never lost her “snap.” Joan Barthel describes Elizabeth in the Lazaretto experience—an experience of darkness and light, of anger and acceptance, of hope and despair. Barthel see Elizabeth overall as “brimming with energy and confidence.” That’s “snap.”!
- She was a risk-taker. A “risk” is not just a difficulty or a temporary obstacle. When we glibly repeat, “Hazard yet forward,” we must remember that “hazard” means risk, it means facing the possibility of major loss or injury, of danger.
- She was true to her conscience. Elizabeth followed her conscience in faith. She was guided by religion but she didn’t mistake religion for faith or for conscience. When family and friends and spiritual advisors tried to dissuade her from becoming a Catholic, she told them that she thought that all religions were pleasing to God and that she would be as safe in the Catholic church as anywhere.
Today’s first reading from John tells us that we receive from God whatever we ask. John advises us not to trust every spirit, but to test the spirits to see whether they belong to God. Elizabeth asked God only to know, to love, and to do God’s will. She used her gifts of nature and grace to discern which of the spirits she encountered belonged to God. Elizabeth is undeniably a contemporary woman.