You may have seen the Saint’s Name Generator posted on the internet. It randomly chooses a saint for whatever occasion you wish. Many Catholics use it to pick a patron for the new year.
The generator was created by Jennifer Fulwiler. She came to Catholicism from atheism and wrote about her conversion in a book called “Something Other Than God.” She is one of my favorite writers, so, needless to say, I also follow her on Facebook.
That’s where I learned that Jennifer, always creative, came up with something new this year. She decided to create a Word of the Year Generator. The idea is to choose a word to contemplate as a theme for the year.
The Saint’s Name Generator gave me St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. The Word of the Year Generator picked the word “clean.”
I knew nothing about Mother Seton before this week. If she is going to be my companion this year, I decided I should learn something about her. While reading, I kept the word “clean” in mind, trying to combine them both.
“Clean”, spiritually speaking, makes me think of purification. Psalm 51:10 (RSCVE) says, “Create in me a clean heart, oh God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
Maybe God is asking me to make this my prayer this year. Yet if I pray this prayer, I know that God will not just miraculously make me pure. Purification is a process. Reading the story of Elizabeth Ann Seton, I get an idea of what that process involves.
First, I am impressed with the sheer number of accomplishments she packed into her life. She became Catholic on Ash Wednesday 1805 at the age of 30. By 1809 she had founded the Sisters of Charity, the first American religious community for women. Mother Seton also started the first Catholic elementary school in America. She ministered to the poor and the sick, and, in doing so, opened the first American Catholic orphanage. Elizabeth also found the time to write hymns and translate French spiritual works. Even more remarkable, she completed all of this in a span of 16 years. That is all the time she had as a Catholic before dying of tuberculosis at age 46.
Often the story of saints is the story of great service to others. Their accomplishments seem to stem from taking care of people. They dedicate every moment to God in a way that I have not achieved yet. One of my goals this year, then, could be to give God more of the time He has already given to me.
Second, Elizabeth suffered a lot, but like so many saints, she suffered well. She experienced much grief in her life. As a child, she lost her mother and a sister. Her husband died when she was only 29, and shortly after that a sister-in-law who she was very close to died. Elizabeth lost two daughters; as a mom, I can only shudder at the thought and wonder how she continued in life. She was abandoned by relatives and friends when she became Catholic. Her writings also indicate great spiritual desolation, but she just continued turning to God through it all.
Suffering can bring out the best or the worst in people. I have learned that my tendency in difficult times is to turn away from God. I am not sure how to resolve this. Maybe this ties into the first point. I need to give God more of the time that He has already given me. This could help me develop a more solid relationship with our Creator, and hopefully make me less likely to ever turn away.
Third, this saint desired to follow the will of God no matter the difficulty. She lived during a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was strong. She married into a wealthy family, but ultimately the family business went bankrupt. After her husband died in 1803, finances became an issue for her. Any number of relatives would have been willing and able to assist her, but none of them were willing to help a Catholic. Elizabeth knew this before she was received into the Church.
Trying to make living, she started a school for young girls in her home. Parents pulled their daughters out after Elizebeth became Catholic. She tried working at a boarding house for boys who attended an Episcopal church, but again the parents were upset and pulled out their kids. As frustrating as all of this was, she trusted that God would take care of her.
The anti-Catholicism continued. The Setons were a prominent family in New York. During their marriage, Elizabeth and her husband, William, were friends of Alexander Hamilton and had even hosted a reception for George Washington. Given the prominence of this family, when Elizabeth’s sister-in-law, Cecilia, announced she wanted to become Catholic, the New York legislature threatened to kick Mrs. Seton out of New York.
What brings a person to the Church when they know there will likely be severe consequences? In Elizabeth’s case, it was a combination of factors. She began looking into Catholicism because of the compassion of the friends who took care of her and her family after William died. Their actions moved her to consider the faith that drew them to such holiness. That is a big lesson for me.
Other things that attracted her were the Catholic view of redemptive suffering and the consolations of the sacraments at the time of death. The biggest draw for her, though, was the Eucharist. She was already devoted to communion as an Episcopalian, even with the understanding that it was symbolic.
Elizabeth prayed that God would reveal the truth to her. She read books both for and against Catholicism. She consulted influential Episcopalians and Catholics, including bishops. This was no easy decision. Her desire to know truth caused such anguish that it even affected her weight. It is said she became like a skeleton.
Once she became convinced of Catholicism, she embraced it. God had answered her prayers. No matter the consequences from the world she lived in, she desired to be where God was leading.
I have heard it said that we all claim we want to hear God’s voice, but when He speaks, it is often to call us to difficult things. Scripture is full of such stories. It takes a special kind of courage to follow Him. It did in the days of the Old and New Testaments, it did in the early days of Christianity as well as during the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and it does now.
Just look at the life of Jennifer Fulwiler. As with Elizabeth Ann Seton, it was ultimately seeking the truth that led her to the Church. You can read her story very moving story here. While on the path to Catholicism, believing in its truths but still not Catholic, Jennifer learned during her second pregnancy that she had a serious clotting disorder. Doctors told her to not have any more children. It was too dangerous for her. When she mentioned Natural Family Planning, they laughed.
In Jennifer’s words, “To stick with the Church now would be to lose my life as I knew it, and to set out down an unfamiliar, frightening path.”
Yet the truth was important to her. Ultimately she said this: “But I decided, for the first time in a long time, to choose what was true instead of what was comfortable.”
Jennifer and her husband Joe now have six children. I well remember following her writings during her last pregnancy. Even though she was taking preventative medication, she ended up with multiple pulmonary embolisms in both lungs. Everyone who knew of her was praying for her.
After the baby was born, a weaker person (maybe me?) might decide that it was time to forego Catholic teaching and just undergo sterilization. Not Jennifer. She stands with Church teachings.
I like to think I would be that courageous. Her article makes sense, but I am not at all sure I could be so rational given the risk of death. Worse, what if my daughter was to one day find that pregnancy could be life-threatening? I might find myself re-thinking Catholic teaching, not because I was seeking the truth, but because I would want her to have a way out.
Given all of this, do I have the courage to pray Psalm 51:10? Purification so often leads to hardship and suffering. I cannot claim to be at all prepared for that.
In her conversion story, Jennifer tells of some of the things she learned from C.S. Lewis. Given my word of the year, this stood out to me:
[God] shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.
It seems possible that God is calling me to do a better job of dusting myself off this year. While it is exhilarating to think that God would call me to anything at all, it is also a bit scary. Sometimes I pray to follow God’s will, then look at a crucifix and think, “Wait, Lord, I take that back.”
If I could only request one gift of God for me this year, it would be for the courage to follow wherever He calls. At least, I think I that would be what I would ask for. Then again, maybe that request in itself requires more bravery than I possess.
Through her Saint’s Name Generator and the Word of the Year Generator, Jennifer Fulwiler has given me much to think about. It could be an interesting year.