Saintly strength in times of doubt
Even through moments of depression and despair, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton demonstrated strength and courage.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and I have a few things in common. We were both born in New York City and raised two “saucy” boys, though in addition she raised three girls. Also like me, Elizabeth was social, loved to dance, and was good at organizing. She even helped arrange President George Washington’s first inaugural ball in 1789, which was held in New York.
We often read about St. Elizabeth’s accomplishments as a mother and foundress of the American Sisters of Charity and the American Catholic School System but the thing that originally drew me to her was the fact that she endured several episodes of depression.
From her own writings and those of her biographers we know that she experienced at least three major episodes. The first occurred as a teenager when she contemplated suicide by overdosing on her physician-father’s opiates (called Laudanum). At the time opiates were used to alleviate pain in the sick and dying. She describes the event in her memoires.
“16 years of age--family disagreement--could not guess why when I spoke kindly to relations they did not speak to me..…Alas, alas, alas! ...God had created me--I was very miserable...driven to misery this the wretched reasoning--Laudanum--the praise and thanks of excessive joy not to have done the horrid deed, the thousand promises of eternal gratitude.”
The second depressive episode occurred around 1803, while Elizabeth was struggling with the dilemma of whether or not to covert to the Catholic faith. Her husband had recently lost the entire Seton fortune to pirates and bad investments and then died shortly after along with her father and her confidant, Rebecca Seton (a sister-in-law). Fr. Joseph Dirvin, a biographer described the ordeal.
“[Elizabeth] lost weight until she was scarcely more than a skeleton. She cried incessantly. Her little children tried to comfort her with their caresses…. And failing, they carefully watched their behavior lest they add to her distress.”
St. Elizabeth’s third episode of depression evolved from the intense grief she experienced after the death of her oldest daughter Annina, who she had called the “child of my soul.” She later described herself as on the brink of insanity.
While St. Elizabeth was clearly a woman of strength, integrity, and courage, she was also plagued with self-doubt, scrupulosity, and a general sense of unworthiness. Once when meeting with Baltimore’s Archbishop John Carroll along with a group of priests to discuss the future of her newly founded religious order she began to cry uncontrollably, knelt down, and confessed all her faults since childhood, saying she could not possibly teach others in the ways of the faith. Obviously the bishop and priests did not consider this a hindrance or excuse for her to abandon the task.
The beauty of Elizabeth Seton is that waves of depression and the companions of self-doubt did not stop her from becoming holy. During episodes of depression she cried out to God and asked others for support. In between episodes she laughed and supported others. Even when sick with tuberculosis she followed that same pattern. Instead of giving in or simply tolerating her pain she used her experiences to forge a deeper relationship with God and more profound compassion for others.
On the hutch of my desk are words St. Elizabeth once wrote to a young man who asked her for advice. I look at them whenever I feel discouraged, self-doubting, or depressed. They read:
“Keep well to the grace of the moment. Do your best and leave the rest to God.”
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