Elizabeth Ann Seton: Wrestling and Dancing with God

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I have always loved reading journals and personal letters of other people, most particularly holy people. I like Henri Nouwen's books, but I devour his journals. Thomas Merton's Sign of Jonas struck me way more than Seven Storey Mountain did. Mother Teresa's Come Be My Light allowed me to connect with her more than anything else would. It almost seems contradictory, considering I've been journaling regularly since I was 16 and, although I may share parts, I have never let another person read them.

There is a deep personal part of our soul that is shared in journals and perhaps in letters. Our soul becomes raw, in openness, a willingness to share our weaknesses, our wrestles with God and our joy. We hold nothing back. To read someone else's journal is to dive into their soul, to dive into the mystery of their being. And for our saints, for those holy people we admire, it is diving into the human soul of someone we may not think of as human, diving into the soul of someone who both wrestled and danced with God.

I've been reading the book Friendship of My Soul: Selected Letters by Elizabeth Ann Seton 1803 - 1809 by Sister Betty Ann McNeil, DC. I've known Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton since 2003 when I first started attending Mount Saint Mary's College in Emmitsburg, where she lived and died. I've been through the museum a handful of times and thought I knew almost everything about her. But in this book, Sister Betty Ann publishes Elizabeth Ann's most intimate letters with her best friends. Elizabeth Ann paints the picture of everything leading up to her husband's death....the ship, the conditions, the smells....and then the sorrow she feels upon William's passing.

In one letter, we find her complaining about the singers at the Opera House in Italy and says that anyone who finds that pleasurable must not have never known real pleasure (when I read this, I looked up at the icon of her on my wall and laughed, trying to imagine her saying that). A few letters later, we find her wrestling with herself and with God over the thought of Jesus' Real Presence in the Eucharist, an idea contradictory to herself, a good Episcopalian woman. You can feel her confusion, grappling over what she truly believes.

Suddenly, Elizabeth Ann became real to me. The book description  "rarely does a story come along where a reader feels effortlessly transported back through time—where words and thoughts vividly convey a feeling of life some two hundred years past." is accurate. Every time I pick up the book, I feel transported back in time, as if I were face to face with Elizabeth Ann herself, as if I could emphatically feel her pain, feel her confusion, feel her anxious doubt.

As you can see, I haven't even gotten to the point where she finally decides to convert to Catholicism. That's where Elizabeth Ann's story really takes off - from losing some close friends because of her conversion, from fleeing New York to Baltimore, from founding the first American religious order and starting a new life in Emmitsburg, from losing so many, both family members and Sisters.

I invite you to read this book as well, or at the very least, research our dear Elizabeth Ann Seton. She, our first American-born saint, is truly a hidden treasure. Her name may be familiar, but I feel that her story is obscure. Her story is one that we all need - a story of pain, of human struggle, but also of a saintly trust in God. Yet it is also important to remember that saints are real, not just stories. Elizabeth Ann was in fact real, a woman who apparently hated opera and whose heart broke a little at the passing of her husband, with her children still so young, and a woman who spent her life both wrestling and dancing with God. May we learn from her example.


  1. When I learned about what we will be celebrating these next three days (besides the beginning of advent :) I thought of no other place than here to get started with my prayers and contemplation on the life of the beautiful Daughters of Charity.
    I love this post because I CANNOT journal... And yet I love to read other people's journals :) I'm curious! ... But the real stories that are told on a journal do connect more with my real stories - the saints humanity and my humanity. Not that I'm comparing my pitiful life with theirs... But letters and journals of the saints tell me in many ways that the best way to become a saint is by recognizing first that i am human. It sort of takes the pressure off my shoulders... In a world where independence is valued so highly ... We learn through the lives of saints like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton  that dependence on the grace of God is not just valued... But the only way to go.
    I often read the journal of two Trappists, a monk and a nun... Current stuff.. great short entries... although, you know my opinion can be bias ;)
    Happy "trilogy of holy anniversaries" :)

  2. On January 10, 2012 at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (Emmitsburg MD), the Seton Heritage Literary Guild will meet for the first time. This is an opportunity for those interested in Elizabeth Ann Seton to come together and enjoy a lively discussion of literary selections based on Elizabeth Ann Seton and other topics relating to; an opportunity to have a deeper understanding of her, her life, and her legacy. For January 10, we will be touching on the first half of the book, Friendship of My Soul (Intro and EAS, 1803-1809). If interested in joining, please contact the Seton Shrine at 301-447-6606 or visit thier website,


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