Elizabeth Ann and William Magee had a busy, beautiful life together in Lower Manhattan. They co-hosted a party for George Washington's sixty-fifth birthday. They lived next door to Alexander Hamilton. The were stalwarts of the Episcopalian church, and set a good example for their children in their charitable activities.
Then, everything went smash, all at once. The family import-export business William ran failed, forcing him to file for bankruptcy. The health problems that had plagued him turned out to be tuberculosis. The Setons and their five children were short on money and on hope. But they managed to cobble together a plan for Elizabeth and William and one daughter to visit Italy, where William had business friends, to see if the climate would improve his health. Unfortunately, the trio ended up in quarantine for thirty days after they arrived… and less than two weeks later, William died.
Elizabeth’s despair, worry, grief, and homesickness are almost impossible to imagine. How would we even know where to start if we were in that situation? It turned out she didn’t need to do anything; God provided some angels in the form of William’s business friends, Antonio and Filippo Filicchi, and their families. They took Elizabeth and her daughter to Mass and showed them the beauty of Italy’s Catholic churches. They provided financial help. They listened and consoled and comforted, including one brother’s decision to go with the pair to make sure their voyage back to the United States was uneventful.
Elizabeth had had little exposure to Catholics until she met the Filicchis. But their tender care and the way they lived their faith changed her life. She converted amid the disapproval of family and friends. In 1809, she relocated to Emmitsburg, Maryland, a rural area about sixty miles and a whole world away from Baltimore. There, she founded the American Sisters of Charity, which now consists of more than five thousand religious women ministering through schools, social service centers, and hospitals throughout the world. In 1975, she became the first native-born U.S. citizen to be canonized.
What a blessing for Elizabeth and all of us that her husband’s friends weren’t afraid to talk with her about the strength they found in their faith—and to demonstrate it! It’s that kind of real-world evangelization that even the shyest of us can do for God.
Put your heart at His feet. It is the gift He loves most. (Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton)
Spend some time thinking and praying about why you follow Christ as a Catholic and how that informs the way you interact with non-Catholics.
Elizabeth Seton had no extraordinary gifts. She was not a mystic or stigmatic. She did not prophesy or speak in tongues. She had two great devotions: abandonment to the will of God and an ardent love for the Blessed Sacrament. She wrote to a friend, Julia Scott, that she would prefer to exchange the world for a “cave or a desert.” “But God has given me a great deal to do, and I have always and hope always to prefer his will to every wish of my own.” Her brand of sanctity is open to everyone if we love God and do his will.
They say it was love at first sight, the beautiful, educated, pious English princess and the rough and tumble warrior, widower, and Scots king twenty years her senior. Margaret was devoted to the Lord; Malcolm III, not so much, though he considered himself a believer. Despite all their differences, Margaret and Malcolm proved to be exceptionally well yoked.
In addition to her royal household duties, which included raising their eight children and two sons from the king’s first marriage, Malcolm involved Margaret heavily in matters of state. It was through Margaret that Catholic traditions were integrated into court life, specifically through a synod that resulted in rules regarding the Lenten fast and Easter communion and challenged clerical abuse. She also lived her faith in seemingly small but very visible ways: she washed the feet of the poor and orphans. At meals to assist the needy, she made sure others were served before her. She set aside time for prayer and devotions, a practice Malcolm so admired (though he did not emulate it) that he had some of her books covered in gold and silver. It is said that while he never learned to read them, he was known to hold them and kiss the pages she had been reading.
The couple also founded a number of churches, including the Abbey of Dunfermline, where they are both buried. Margaret died just days after Malcolm and their oldest son were killed in battle. On her deathbed, she mourned them both; blessed their other children; and made a final prayer to the Lord.
It’s not always a bad thing when opposites attract. Margaret’s love for and influence on Malcolm helped Scotland mature into a well-run, compassionate land. May we seek to find the commonalities with those whose upbringings or worldview are different from our own. It may be an evangelization opportunity.
O, my children, fear the Lord; for they who fear Him shall lack nothing, and if you love Him, He will give you, my darlings, prosperity in this life and everlasting happiness with all the saints. (Saint Margaret of Scotland)
Talk with your husband or a close friend about your seeming differences and the similarities that lie underneath. Pray together about ways your strengths can be united to serve God.
There are two ways to be charitable: the “clean way” and the “messy way.” The “clean way” is to give money or clothing to organizations that serve the poor. The “messy way” is dirtying your own hands in personal service to the poor. Margaret’s outstanding virtue was her love of the poor. Although very generous with material gifts, Margaret also visited the sick and nursed them with her own hands. She and her husband served orphans and the poor on their knees during Advent and Lent. Like Christ, she was charitable the “messy way.”
Even as a child, Frances knew she was made to be a missionary; she loved crafting little paper boats and sending them off to sail with “missionary” flowers aboard. The flame continued to grow during a childhood full of illnesses, and a young adulthood full of challenges. More than one community of women religious turned her down; the orphanage where her pastor had urged her to work closed six years after she started. So, with five others, she formed the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At last, Frances knew she would answer that call through this community. She was quite sure it would be lived in China. But her local bishop and then Pope Leo XIII advised her that she was instead needed in the United States to help Italian immigrants. And so, the sisters agreed, arriving in New York in March 1889.
Missionary work in the United States did not prove to be easy. The women had no place to stay, and were advised by the New York archbishop to return to Italy until things (including their living stipend) were ready for them. Instead, they stayed, finding support from the Sisters of Charity and then from the immigrant community to whom they were planning to minister. From that inauspicious beginning, the sisters during Frances’ lifetime would found more than five dozen schools, orphanages, hospitals, and more on three continents. Frances never did get to China. But she found souls to save and a home in the United States, where she became a naturalized citizen in 1909.
Have you ever been rock-solid, 100-percent certain of God’s plan for you—only to find out you were wrong? God does seem to have a gentle sense of humor sometimes. Mother Cabrini’s willingness to listen to her bishop and pope instead of insisting on doing things her way reminds us that God can speak to us through the advice of others.
I have started houses with no more than the price of a loaf of bread and prayers, for with him who comforts me, I can do anything. (Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini)
Spend some time reflecting on where God wants you to use the gifts he has given you.
The compassion and dedication of Mother Cabrini is still seen in hundreds of thousands of her fellow citizens who care for the sick in hospitals, nursing homes, and state institutions. We complain of increased medical costs in an affluent society, but the daily news shows us millions who have little or no medical care, and who are calling for new Mother Cabrinis to become citizen-servants of their land.
Josephine Bakhita’s life started like many other children amid a loving family in the southern Sudan’s Darfur region. But before she reached the age of ten, she was kidnapped by slave traders. The experience frightened her so badly that she forgot her name. She became known as Bakhita, which sounds like a cruel joke, since the word means “fortunate.”
She was traded time and time again to a series of men, including one who had her tattooed everywhere but her face. Most beat her; all whipped her. Then came the Italian consul in Khartoum, who was kinder than the others and who passed her on to a friend in Italy. There, she attended the Canossian Sisters’ Institute of Catechumens in Venice as the caregiver of the man’s young daughter. She liked to sit and contemplate the crucifix; Jesus’s wounds and sufferings did not seem unlike her own. Ultimately, Josephine regained her freedom with the help of the Canossians and the Venetian patriarch.
It’s easy to understand why Josephine eventually became a Canossian sister. What is more challenging to understand—and so inspirational—is that she forgave the slave traders who had abused her and robbed her of so much, including the family she never saw again. Indeed, she said she was grateful to them and recognized the good fortune they had brought her, for otherwise she would not have had an opportunity to become a Christian.
Our life journeys take us to some painful places—the loss of loved ones, illness, physical violence, betrayal. And yet God is there with us every step of the way, offering his healing balm if we have faith and trust enough to accept it—and to share his love and forgiveness with others, even those who reject him and us.
The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone...we must be compassionate! (Saint Josephine Bakhita)
Each time you are tempted to complain today, stop yourself and offer up a prayer of thanksgiving for how God has helped you through the trials of life. Pray for the faith to believe he will see you through your current struggles as well.
Josephine’s body was mutilated by those who enslaved her, but they could not touch her spirit. Her Baptism set her on an eventual path toward asserting her civic freedom and then service to God’s people as a Canossian Sister.
She who worked under many “masters” was finally happy to address God as “master” and carry out everything that she believed to be God’s will for her.
Read more about her life.
She was an obedient child by all accounts, taking care of her siblings and the housework so that her widowed mother could work in the fields, hoping against hope to bring in the crop that would keep her little brood together. That meant no time for school for Maria, but a kind woman taught her enough about Catholicism that the child was able to make her First Communion.
Maria hadn’t turned twelve yet when a pornography-addicted young man who shared the Goretti house attempted to rape her and when she resisted, stabbed her fourteen times. This brave defense of her purity would be reason enough to love and venerate Maria. But what happened next is jaw-dropping: On her deathbed, Maria offered total obedience and faith to the Lord. She identified her murderer, forgave him, and said she would see him in heaven.
As time went on, the young man had a conversion experience in prison, an experience that included Maria coming to him with white lilies, the flower of purity, one for each of her stab wounds. He was released after twenty-seven years, and asked Maria’s mother for forgiveness. He had taken more than her beloved daughter; the resulting financial disaster had broken up the family. The mother quickly said she had to forgive him; after all, Maria had. Maria’s murderer spent his remaining years as a Capuchin monastery’s gardener and caretaker, and may have been present at Maria’s canonization in 1950.
Anyone can have a conversion experience—convicted murderers, pedophiles, corrupt politicians, gossiping neighbors, backstabbing coworkers. We’re not called to be foolish and irresponsible about putting ourselves in dangerous situations. But like Maria, we must strive to forgive all, just as God does. Our actions and words, big or small, could help or hinder someone with a mustard seed’s worth of faith. Which will it be?
Our Lord prefers to wait Himself for the sinner for years rather than keep us waiting for an instant. (Saint Maria Goretti)
Have a prayerful conversation with God about where you can sow some seeds of conversion. It may be in your own life!
Maria may have had trouble with catechism, but she had no trouble with faith. God’s will was holiness, decency, respect for one’s body, absolute obedience, total trust. In a complex world, her faith was simple: It is a privilege to be loved by God, and to love him—at any cost.
Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul. Paula and Jerome. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. It’s not unusual for women saints to have had non-romantic ministry or spiritual instruction relationships with men also honored by the Church. But many would agree the best known of such partnerships is that of Clare and Francis of Assisi. Clare was just eighteen when she heard Francis preaching his message of poverty and simplicity. Her parents named her Clare (Chiara), based on comfort the Holy Spirit provided during her mother’s difficult labor. The legend is that her mother would give birth to “a light that will … shine brilliantly in the world.” That light caught fire when Clare was eighteen and heard Francis preach during Lent. It put the young noblewoman’s life on an entirely different course than she (and, certainly, her parents) might have expected.
Not long after that first interaction, Clare, wearing her best clothes on Palm Sunday, ran away from home to become one of Francis’s first followers. Intrigue followed, with Francis sending her to two different Benedictine monasteries until he honored her wish to have a small place built next to his church at San Damiano. Clare’s sister Agnes and other women joined the community shortly thereafter and when Clare was twenty-one, Francis named her abbess of what would become known as the Poor Clares. It was a position she would hold for forty years.
The women’s lives of poverty were striking similar to that of the men: no meat, no property, no shoes, and silence most of the time. They seldom if ever left the monastery; indeed, while Clare interacted with many leaders of the day, those interactions almost always came via letter or by the other party visiting her. That did not prevent her from speaking boldly in the Lord’s name even at great potential peril: In 1224, when the Holy Roman Emperor’s forces threatened Assisi, it was Clare to the rescue. Depending on the source, either she marched out to meet the troops, the Blessed Sacrament in hand, or caused the Eucharist to be displayed where they could see it. In any event, Assisi was left unharmed.
Clare’s work went on for nearly thirty years after Francis’ death in 1226. Fittingly, each of them was canonized just two years after earthly life ended.
Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance! And transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead itself through contemplation. (Saint Clare of Assisi)
Can you identify defining moments on your faith journey? Journal about them and how they continue to inform your development today.
The 41 years of Clare’s religious life are scenarios of sanctity: an indomitable resolve to lead the simple, literal gospel life as Francis taught her; courageous resistance to the ever-present pressure to dilute the ideal; a passion for poverty and humility; an ardent life of prayer; and a generous concern for her sisters.
Watch a short video on Saint Clare here.
The wealthy Drexel family of Philadelphia was socially conscious, donating large amounts of money to help the less fortunate. Indeed, three days a week, Katharine’s stepmother would welcome people in need into their home; there was plenty of food, clothing and financial aid to share, and Katharine and her two sisters would teach the children about Jesus. The experience made such an impression on Katharine that in her teens, she considered becoming a woman religious. But she was advised against it, and when she really thought about what would be involved, she noted, “I do not know how I could bear the privations of poverty of the religious life.” Better, she decided to be generous on terms she could accept.
When she was twenty-six, Katharine’s father died, leaving a sizable estate. The will stipulated that the sisters would receive most of the interest earned on his holdings. Katharine selected the plight of Native Americans for her personal philanthropy, and felt called during a trip to Rome to meet with Pope Leo XIII in Rome and to asked for missionaries to staff some of the schools she was financing. His response: She should consider becoming a missionary herself. Katharine spent some time in discernment, visiting reservations and seeing firsthand that the need extended far beyond that which could be solved with money. In 1891, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which provides religious education within the Native American and African American communities. Katharine opened and supported nearly sixty missions and schools in the next forty-five years, then after a heart attack spent her final twenty years at the community’s motherhouse.
It’s easy to complain about the world’s problems and despair that there is nothing one person can do about it. Katharine’s example shows the amazing things that can happen when we take up the cross and follow where God leads. Even if our bank accounts don’t have millions, our hearts and souls have plenty to give.
And here is the passive way—to be filled unto the fullness of God. The passive way—I abandon myself to it, not in a multiplicity of trials, extraordinary penances accomplished, practices of great works—but in peaceful abandonment to the tenderness of Jesus, which I must try to imitate, and by being in constant union with his meek and humble heart. (Saint Katharine Drexel)
Next time you begin complaining about why your parish, neighborhood, or community isn’t doing something about a problem, pray for guidance on how you can become part of the solution.
Saints have always said the same thing: Pray, be humble, accept the cross, love and forgive. But it is good to hear these things in the American idiom from one who, for instance, had her ears pierced as a teenager, who resolved to have “no cake, no preserves,” who wore a watch, was interviewed by the press, traveled by train, and could concern herself with the proper size of pipe for a new mission. These are obvious reminders that holiness can be lived in today’s culture as well as in that of Jerusalem or Rome.
We all know the story of how Mary appeared to Bernadette, a simple girl of fourteen, at Lourdes. But what sometimes gets lost in the story is Bernadette’s strong faith. Her statements were challenged over and over again by learned Church officials and local authorities who attempted to catch her in lies and contradictions. People were openly skeptical about why the Blessed Virgin would appear to a girl who was functionally illiterate, who at the time of the first apparition had not even made her First Communion. Bernadette was so… unimportant! She lived with her family in a one-room cottage that had once served as a jail!
But Bernadette was spiritually indifferent to the doubts and verbal rocks thrown her way. With unfailing simplicity and calm, Bernadette shared what had happened—nothing more and nothing less—about the eighteen times in six months that she saw the Lady. When investigators changed her words or tried to add to them, she corrected them. When they asked what it meant when the Lady said, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” she said it was not her responsibility to explain these things, only to share the message.
And when the visions ceased, Bernadette did not make a single attempt to trade on her fame. She entered a convent, not leaving even for the dedication of the Lourdes basilica. When someone asked why she herself, sickly her entire life, was not cured by the waters, Bernadette responded: “The Blessed Virgin perhaps desires for me to suffer. I need it.”
It can be tempting to do some self-aggrandizement, to inflate our own importance to the well-being of our family, our parish, or our employer. Yet we are all only vessels for God’s work in the world. May we, as Bernadette did, respond to the profound gifts we are given with humility, modesty, and clarity.
From this moment on, anything concerning me is no longer of any interest to me. I must belong entirely to God and God alone. Never to myself. (Saint Bernadette Soubirous)
Do a good work for a family member or a friend in secret. Don’t tell anyone but God.
Millions of people have come to the spring Bernadette uncovered for healing of body and spirit, but she found no relief from ill health there. Bernadette moved through life, guided only by blind faith in things she did not understand—as we all must do from time to time.
Some of our most beloved saints wouldn’t take no for an answer. Catherine of Siena, a Doctor of the Church and one of the most influential women in Catholic history, is one of those saints.
One of the first examples of Catherine’s gift of getting the other party to see her side in negotiation came when she was just sixteen years old. An older sister had died, and the family decided Catherine would marry his widower. Now, Catherine had decided nearly ten years earlier that she would be the wife of no one other than Christ, and so she declined. (Her decision might also have had something to do with the way she had seen the man treat her sister.) When her parents persisted in pushing for the match, she went on a fast, a tactic she would use throughout her short life, and then cut off her hair. Ultimately, her parents gave in. They also acquiesced when Catherine chose to become a Dominican tertiary and enclosed herself within a room in their home for three years. Then, a mystical encounter with Christ prompted her to re-enter the world, nursing and comforting the sick, the poor, and the condemned.
But her work did not stop there. When Catherine emerged, she quickly became a political force with which to be reckoned. Though she had no formal education and was not a member of a religious order, her letters to monarchs, Church leaders, and others were persuasive. Her activism may have had a role in returning the pope to Rome from France after nearly seventy years.
We know her best, however for her obedience to the One to whom she would never say no, with whom she never bargained. Her Dialogues and other writings illumine a God who loves us and desires union with us, not a deity who seeks to punish capriciously or willfully. Catherine’s example inspires us to continue to talk and reason with those in our lives who seem intractable and stubborn… and to believe in the promise of the Resurrection and reunion.
Start being brave about everything, driving out darkness and spreading light as well. Don’t look at your weakness, but realize that in Christ crucified you can do everything. (Saint Catherine of Siena)
Consider Catherine’s advice. If you can’t start by being brave about everything, identify one thing. Maybe it’s being a lector at Mass. Maybe it’s helping out at a women’s shelter. Maybe it’s running for City Council. Resolve to spread the Light.
Though she lived her life in a faith experience and spirituality far different from that of our own time, Catherine of Siena stands as a companion with us on the Christian journey in her undivided effort to invite the Lord to take flesh in her own life. Events which might make us wince or chuckle or even yawn fill her biographies: a mystical experience at six, childhood betrothal to Christ, stories of harsh asceticism, her frequent ecstatic visions. Still, Catherine lived in an age which did not know the rapid change of 21st-century mobile America. The value of her life for us today lies in her recognition of holiness as a goal to be sought over the course of a lifetime.
The conflicts known as the Hundred Years’ War had been going on for seventy-five years by 1412. All told, it’s estimated that 3.5 million people died in the battles between Britain and France. Surely, people wondered if peace would ever return. The Lord sent an unlikely leader: a slip of a French peasant girl named Joan who knew only the rudiments of prayer, and could not read nor write.
The voices—eventually, she would identify them as Saint Michael, Saint Margaret of Antioch, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria—started when Joan was thirteen or so, first telling her to be a good girl, then telling her to save France by coming to the aid of the dauphin. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the child who had been outgoing and cheerful became increasingly thoughtful and silence. Finally, when Joan was seventeen, she was convincing enough in her insistence that she was allowed to lead an army into Orleans, which had been under siege by the English for seven months. The maid and her army emerged victorious. Her prediction to the dauphin that she would see him crowned King Charles VII came true less than three months later.
But then things changed. Charles didn’t seem interested in her assistance anymore, and seventeen months later, Joan was an English prisoner. Almost overnight, Joan went from being lauded as a national hero to being shunned. No one came to her aid—not even Charles, and she was burned at the stake as a heretic, sorceress, and adulteress. To the end, she remained confident she had remained obedient to God and the voices.
The Hundred Years’ War dragged on for twenty-two years after Joan’s execution. Three years after that, she was retried before a papal court—and found innocent. She was not canonized until 1920.
You have been with your counsel and I have been with mine. Believe me that the counsel of my Lord will be accomplished and will stand, and this counsel of yours will perish. (Saint Joan of Arc)
Pray for someone you have betrayed. Perhaps it’s a former friend or coworker; perhaps it’s someone with whom you volunteered. If it is possible to do so without causing still more pain for the other person, ask him or her for forgiveness.
“Joan of Arc is like a shooting star across the landscape of French and English history, amid the stories of the Church’s saints and into our consciousness. Women identify with her; men admire her courage. She challenges us in fundamental ways. Despite the fact that more than 500 years have passed since she lived, her issues of mysticism, calling, identity, trust and betrayal, conflict and focus are our issues still.” (Joan of Arc: God’s Warrior, by Barbara Beckwith).
Kateri, called the “Lily of the Mohawks,” had virtually no traditional family support on her Christian journey. By some reports, her Algonquin mother was a Christian, educated by French missionaries.
However, before her mother, father, or baby brother could have much influence on the four year old's life, all died of smallpox. The disease also left the child with serious facial scarring and partially blind. It was because of the latter she became known as Tekakwitha - "she who bumps into things."
She went to live with an uncle and aunt, and it was as she was working as a servant in their home that she met the Jesuit missionaries who put her on a path to Christianity. It would be nine years before she was baptized, taking the name Kateri in honor of Catherine of Siena. While her uncle did not oppose her conversion, others in the community were less accepting and began to talk of her as a sorceress. Tensions at home grew when Kateri refused to marry the man who had been selected for her, saying she was not called to marriage.
Finally, Kateri left the village and traveled two months to reach a Catholic mission near Montreal. She worked with children and the elderly, providing tender guidance as her role in the community that became her family. She was only twenty-six when she died of tuberculosis. We know her today as the first Native American to be formally canonized.
No one has a perfect upbringing or is a perfect parent. Sometimes, our faith community is solely people with whom we are joined in Spirit, not blood. In Kateri, we see the power of the unquenchable thirst for Christ, even when those around us ridicule and hurt us as we seek to quench that thirst.
Who can tell me what is most pleasing to God that I may do it? (Saint Kateri Tekakwitha)
Write a letter of thanks to the person—one of your parents, perhaps, or your childhood pastor or a teacher—who fed your spiritual fire while you were growing up.
We like to think that our proposed holiness is thwarted by our situation. If only we could have more solitude, less opposition, better health. Kateri Tekakwitha repeats the example of the saints: Holiness thrives on the cross, anywhere. Yet she did have what Christians—all people—need: the support of a community. She had a good mother, helpful priests, Christian friends. These were present in what we call primitive conditions, and blossomed in the age-old Christian triad of prayer, fasting and almsgiving: union with God in Jesus and the Spirit, self-discipline and often suffering, and charity for her brothers and sisters.
Teresa Benedicta of the Cross may be one of the best known Catholic converts of the twentieth century. She was born Edith Stein on Yom Kippur and was raised Jewish, but she abandoned a faith life at an early age.
Her life’s love became the study of philosophy, and she was good at it; her doctoral dissertation on empathy drew acclaim. Then, in the summer before she turned thirty, she read Saint Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, which shook her to her core. After reading the book, she said she told herself, “This is truth.” She knew her path ahead would be as a Catholic, and was baptized on New Year’s Day 1922.
Edith’s initial plan after her conversion was to become a Carmelite nun. But rather than withdrawing from the world, she was called to use her intellect for God’s glory. She embarked on an ambitious schedule of teaching, writing, lecturing, and translating the works of Catholic philosophers. Then, in 1932, that livelihood was taken from her when people of Jewish descent were barred from working in German universities. She entered a Carmelite monastery in Cologne in 1933, where she continued her philosophical writings. She chose the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in honor of Teresa of Avila, who was so key to her conversion, and because, as she put it, “I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf.”
Teresa Benedicta continued her scholarly work in the convent for five years. With the Nazi threat intensifying, she was sent to a Carmelite convent in the Netherlands in late 1938, where her sister Rosa, also a convert, later joined her. It was there that she completed her final work, The Science of the Cross, a study of Saint John of the Cross’s writings.
Less than two years later, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.
In August 1942, Teresa Benedicta and Rosa were among more than two hundred Jewish converts who were arrested. The sisters were sent to Auschwitz, where it is believed they were gassed shortly after their arrival.
People come to Christ and the Cross in different ways and at different times. For some like Teresa, conversion is the result of intellectual pursuits. For others, it’s an outstretched hand in a time of trouble. Remember that we always represent the face of Christ to non-believers. Make sure the face you show is full of love and compassion.
When you seek truth, you seek God whether you know it or not. (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)
Invite a non-Christian or non-practicing Catholic friend or acquaintance to volunteer with you at a homeless shelter or food pantry, or attend a lecture or event together at your parish.
The writings of Edith Stein fill 17 volumes, many of which have been translated into English. A woman of integrity, she followed the truth wherever it led her. After becoming a Catholic, Edith continued to honor her mother’s Jewish faith. Sister Josephine Koeppel, O.C.D. , translator of several of Edith’s books, sums up this saint with the phrase, “Learn to live at God’s hands.”
Read more about Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
You surely have heard of Hildegard, the medieval mystic, composer, author, poet, and playwright who, in October 2012, became the thirty-fifth Doctor of the Church—and the fourth female Doctor. She was gifted with her first vision when she was still a toddler, and when she was somewhere around thirteen, went to live with Jutta of Sponheim, a woman religious who would be responsible for the education of Hildegard and other girls. The lessons included Latin, scripture, and reading and writing. This knowledge would prove critical to Hildegard later in life; starting when she was sixty, she put together at least four lengthy preaching tours, something that was as unusual for a woman then as it would be today. She traveled for miles and miles by foot, horseback, or ship despite some serious illnesses (not to mention natural aging; Hildegard wrote that her body was tired “like the herbs losing the greening power in winter.”
You may not know, however, that she was involved in controversy in the year she died. A young man who had been excommunicated had received the last rites and the Eucharist and been buried at the cemetery next to her convent. Local church authorities ordered Hildegard to have the body removed; she refused, saying he had been reconciled to the Lord. The convent for a time was barred from all religious activities, but ultimately, Hildegard prevailed, with the archbishop of Mainz accepting her explanation, but cautioning her against such activities in the future.
Knee-jerk challenges to authority benefit no one. But as Catholics, we are called to study our dogma and doctrine. It is our duty to share our thoughts and discernments on issues and situations that are open to discussion and interpretation, and to provide a thoughtful alternative view where appropriate.
The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature. (Saint Hildegard of Bingen)
Spend some time with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or talk with a priest or spiritual adviser to better understand the basis for Church teachings that trouble you. You may be surprised to find your understanding of the Church’s position is more nuanced than you thought.
Pope Benedict spoke about Hildegard of Bingen during two of his general audiences in September 2010. He praised the humility with which she received God’s gifts, and the obedience she gave Church authorities. He praised too the “rich theological content” of her mystical visions that sum up the history of salvation from creation to the end of time.
During his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women like Saint Hildegard of Bingen who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.”
Read more about Saint Hildegard of Bingen.
When we think of Thérèse, we think of her “Little Way,” the practice of offering up even the most commonplace tasks to God’s glory.
But the Little Way came no more easily to its originator than it does to us. She was just two when, instead of selecting a single item from a doll dressmaking kit as her sister did, Therese grabbed the basket and the remaining contents, saying, “I choose all!”
Evidence of self-control came just before her fourteenth birthday. As the youngest, Thérèse loved the tradition of finding Christmas presents in her shoes and so it continued in the Martin family, even though she was past the age when most children put the activity aside. She overheard her father saying he was glad that, at last, this would be the final year. While she was injured by the remark, she restrained herself from throwing a tantrum and crying uncontrollably. Instead, she pulled herself together and went downstairs and opened the presents, giving her family the gift of a joyful holiday instead of one spent consoling her.
That is not to say Thérèse demurred from standing up for herself when she needed to do so to accomplish God’s will. When she was just fourteen, she felt local church authorities were taking too long to make a decision about her request to join the Carmelite Order. So, when a pilgrimage from her diocese met with Pope Leo XIII in Rome, Thérèse departed from the prescribed “kneel and kiss of the ring and feet” ritual to ask him for permission to join the Order. While the pope didn’t grant her request immediately, she found out soon thereafter that she would be allowed to enter the convent the following Easter.
Thérèse was wise beyond her years in knowing when it was appropriate to adapt her behavior to serve God’s will, whether it was being brave enough to approach the pope or humble enough to do despised chores without complaint. Often, we simply brush off spiritual growth opportunities by saying, “That’s just not who I am.” The better approach is, “Who does God want me to be in this situation?”
"Jesus, help me to simplify my life by learning what you want me to be and becoming that person."
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
Ask God who he wants you to be today. Then be it.
Thérèse has much to teach our age of the image, the appearance, the “self.” We have become a dangerously self-conscious people, painfully aware of the need to be fulfilled, yet knowing we are not. Thérèse, like so many saints, sought to serve others, to do something outside herself, to forget herself in quiet acts of love. She is one of the great examples of the gospel paradox that we gain our life by losing it, and that the seed that falls to the ground must die in order to live.
Preoccupation with self separates modern men and women from God, from their fellow human beings, and ultimately from themselves. We must re-learn to forget ourselves, to contemplate a God who draws us out of ourselves, and to serve others as the ultimate expression of selfhood. These are the insights of Saint Thérèse, and they are more valid today than ever.