By Neil Dhingra
Famously, Dorothy Day once said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” The writer Robert Ellsberg, who had recorded that line, noted that Day did not want to be reduced to a predictable quasi-aesthetic ideal — “some pre-fab conception of holiness.” Regarding canonizations, Ellsberg recognized, “There is always the danger in celebrating such a gift that the church will simply congratulate itself on including such a heroic figure.” In her fascinating recent book about the canonization of Elizabeth Seton, Kathleen Sprows Cummings likewise recognizes that American Catholics had been looking for a heroic figure to be what New York’s archbishop, Francis Cardinal Spellman, called “a glorious tribute, by God’s grace, to the health, zeal, and spirituality” of American Catholicism. When, in 1975, Seton was canonized in Rome, a six-yard long tapestry behind the altar depicted Seton as hovering on a cloud above a globe with the United States — bathed in sunlight — at its forefront.
But there can be something wonderfully unpredictable in canonizations. Cummings also notes that American Catholic biographies from the 1930s and 40s distanced Seton from her Protestant roots and envisioned her conversion to Roman Catholicism as a “spiritual martyrdom.” “By exaggerating the extent to which anti-Catholicism had circumscribed Seton’s life, … her supporters were able to celebrate her triumph over it — and by extension, their own — even more exuberantly.” Yet, by the 1970s, when Seton was canonized, ecumenical progress meant Roman Catholics could finally recognize the roles of the Episcopal Church and the Reverend John Henry Hobart, “a figure often demonized by her biographers,” in Seton’s life. Thus, at her canonization, Pope Paul VI observed the presence of Episcopalian dignitaries and recognized that Seton “found it natural to preserve all the good things which her membership in the fervent Episcopalian community had taught her, in so many beautiful expressions, especially of religious piety.”
Nevertheless, in her excellent biography of Seton, Catherine O’Donnell still notes that “it was during a chance conversation” that she learned that Seton is on the Episcopal calendar of saints as well as its Roman Catholic counterpart. What would it mean to consider Elizabeth Seton as an Episcopal saint, if not only that? What might an exercise in receptive ecumenism, in which Christian traditions seek to grow closer by trying to, in Pope Francis’ words, “find in other Christians something of which we are in need, something that we can receive as a gift from our brothers and sisters,” look like if focused on St Elizabeth Seton as a case study?
At first, the results for an ecumenical case study would seem unpromising, even if Seton lived a decidedly interesting and admirable life. Elizabeth Bayley was born in New York (and likely baptized into the Anglican Church) in 1774. Her upbringing included loneliness, Methodist hymns, and, aged fourteen, as she would later remember, “transports of first pure enthusiasm.” O’Donnell writes that she likely had little interest in institutional religion, but, in “individuals’ intense faith [which] held out the promise of peace,” whether Methodist or Quaker. She would also become interested in the peace offered by Stoic detachment.
In 1794, Elizabeth Bayley married William Seton at Trinity Church. There, she met the Reverend (later Bishop) John Henry Hobart in 1800. And there, she is listed as a communicant in 1801. Hobart, as Sister Mary Kathleen Flanagan writes in a pioneering 1978 dissertation, was a High Church Anglican who was called “Methodistical”; when preaching, he “stirred his listeners to hear the text” and “touched the deepest religious instincts in Elizabeth.” But after traveling to Italy in 1803 with her ailing husband, who would die there, and despite Hobart’s warnings, Elizabeth Seton became interested in Roman Catholicism. Amidst her grief, she was drawn to the immediacy of God in ordinary life, writing, “how happy we would be if we believed what these dear souls believe, that they possess God in the sacrament and that he remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick.”
On the ship back to America, she wrote to Hobart, “As I approach you I tremble.” Elizabeth Seton was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1805 after prolonged uncertainty, during which she imagined herself “twenty times speaking to the Blessed Sacrament,” and as Hobart, dutifully checking out a volume on the Council of Trent from the New York Society Library, wrote an eighty-page tract to convince her to remain Episcopalian. Seton was eventually persuaded to move to Maryland to open a school for girls. She was accompanied by her children. There, she became Mother Seton, the first superior of the “Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph.”
How does this story make Elizabeth Seton an Episcopalian saint? The easy answer (at least, for Roman Catholics) is to see the Episcopal Church as a necessary if temporary “high church” ecclesial home for Seton on her path from evangelicalism to, finally and enduringly, Roman Catholicism. But another answer, I think, is in a reinterpretation of John Henry Hobart’s inability to persuade Seton to remain Episcopalian. Paradoxically, Seton’s life shows both the inadequacy and the usefulness of historic Protestant unease with transubstantiation for Roman Catholics. If he prematurely dismissed Seton’s attraction to the real presence, Hobart posed useful questions about the danger of envisioning divine presence as destroying or destabilizing ordinary reality that may be answered by the shape of Elizabeth Seton’s life in Maryland.
To be sure, Seton did not convert because of apologetics. She had not been rationally convinced. Instead, as she would write, “My hatred of opposition, troublesome enquiries etc. brought me more into the [Roman Catholic] church more than conviction.” At the time, she considered, “As the strictest Protestant allow Salvation to a good catholick, to the Catholicks I will go, and try to be a good one, may God accept my intention and pity me.” To Flanagan, this means that Seton had discerned a “loophole”: “She knew, even by Episcopal principles, that she would be safe if she joined the Roman Catholic Church.”
But Seton was drawn to Roman Catholic sacraments. Thus, in his 80-page tract, Hobart argues that the Episcopal Church had preserved apostolic doctrine, priesthood, sacraments, and prayers, while the Roman church had introduced corruptions in all of these. And Hobart strongly criticizes transubstantiation. The Eucharist is to be interpreted figuratively not literally, Hobart maintains. “My soul shudders as I write,” writes Hobart, at the thought that swallowing consecrated bread would mean swallowing “the body and blood with the soul of divinity” of Jesus Christ. He goes on to address Jesus: “[S]hall I thus bring thee down from the right hand of the Father where I am taught to believe thy glorious humanity is seated, and veil thee in a bit of bread, immolate, break thee on the altar, and then barbarously feast on the inhuman banquet of thy real flesh and blood!” Besides its idolatrous creation of sacred objects, Hobart argues that transubstantiation suggests that God deceives both our senses, which “teach us that the bread and wine after consecration still remain the same,” and our reason, so that the doctrine is incompatible with miracles. After all, miracles could likewise be deceptions in a strangely unstable world.
Hobart was before his time in many ways, as his identification of the Episcopal Church with the apostolic church freed it from the constraints of Establishment towards an understanding of itself as a distinctive society, like the persecuted early church, meant to create a common humanity through reverent worship. Regarding the Eucharist, Hobart may seem behind his times, but his concerns reappear in the letters of Edward Pusey to the then-Catholic John Henry Newman in 1867. Like Hobart, Pusey wants to avoid a overly physical or literal interpretation of the Eucharist — “immoderate or fleshly realism,” even as he suggests that “substance” may be “abstract” and still “real.” (Newman will suggest that “of course transubstantiation is hyper-physical.”) Like Hobart, Pusey is concerned about transubstantiation as “an illusion to the senses” and writes that it “cannot involve us in anything which contradicts our physical knowledge.”
The concern that the Eucharist may be imagined to exist as a motionless sacred object in contradistinction to the rest of the world, or as a destabilizing illusion within it, is a concern that the Eucharist may end up being not a sign. The sacraments, in Rowan Williams’ words, must be “signs of what they are not … transformations of the world by re-ordering it, not destroying it.” (All this may be somewhat resolved in later ecumenical dialogues.)
The distinctive aspects of Elizabeth Seton’s later life may show that Roman Catholic spirituality need not “destroy” or destabilize the world. As Catherine O’Donnell writes, Seton’s spirituality at St. Joseph’s House in Emmitsburg, Maryland was not characterized by detachment. Her collaborator, Father John DuBois, first president of the nearby Mount St. Mary’s University, had counseled “detachment from all things even from her children in God and out of love for God.” Seton, however, saw contemplation of Christ’s suffering leading to attachment within her community. O’Donnell writes, “She actively cultivated connection at every turn, and she did so knowing she departed from a central tenet of the monastic tradition.” Seton wrote, “How can I hope that God will bestow on me his graces and benefits, if my heart is shut up from his members and children?”
Of course, Seton was a widow and the mother of five children, two of whom she outlived, and realized both the importance and fragility of familial connections. Also, as Judith Metz has written, as an Episcopalian in New York, Seton participated in benevolent societies in which women extended their motherhood into the public sphere. Some of these societies were organized by Hobart at Trinity, but even beforehand, Seton had participated in the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children for which she eventually served as treasurer. (Seton herself would also eventually become a vulnerable widow with small children.) Seton’s congregation in Maryland, which visited the sick and poor, besides teaching and caring for schoolchildren, may have been an extension of her earlier work. Metz judges, “Benevolence was the meeting place where many elements of her life could come together in natural expression.”
Thus, Seton, in O’Donnell’s words, “reunited ethical and spiritual elements of Catholic thought that had over the centuries tended to diverge.” As Howard Thurman has written, a contemplative might act with disinterestedness not only to avoid exploiting others but also to serve them so that they may become fully “persons” and themselves “ascend the mountain of vision.” Seton imagined that her fellow sisters, through her own example and the rhythms of the community, would themselves gain an expanded capability for love for others: “Fear nothing so much as not to love enough.” To be sure, there were tragic limits: Seton, sadly, did not criticize the practice of slavery in 19th century Maryland.
Nevertheless, perhaps Elizabeth Seton’s life makes sense as Episcopal sainthood if we imagine it as a prolonged unintentional response to John Henry Hobart’s 80-page tract. Hobart, writing before ecumenical dialogues, could not interpret Seton’s fascination with eucharistic presence, but he was perhaps right to worry about God’s presence existing in our world only as otherworldly illusion or destabilization. However, in Seton’s community in Maryland, God’s presence seemingly existed not in opposition to ordinary affections or benevolence but as a clarifying and intensifying force that enlarged the preexisting capacity to love. Saints can be predictable and even self-congratulatory, but St Elizabeth Seton may remind us of the unexpected gifts offered by our fellow Christians as her life shows us a re-ordered, not destroyed world.
Elizabeth Seton died in 1821. Before this, Bishop John Henry Hobart had let her know, through an intermediary, of his renewed affections.
Neil Dhingra is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.