Embracing the Tears and Joys of Motherhood with Mary of Nazareth and Elizabeth Ann Seton

by | Feb 9, 2023 | Formation, Reflections

When the Holy Family presented the infant Jesus at the temple, Mary learned that her soul would one day be pierced by a sword. Like the Blessed Mother, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s faith-filled devotion helped carry her through the pains and trials of motherhood, and can inspire us today.

“The Presentation in the Temple,” by Alvaro Pirez (ca. 1430). Tempera and gold on wood.

Every year, when the Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2, I love to reflect on the Holy Family as they made their way to the temple, humbly purchased two turtle doves as an offering, and then presented the infant Jesus to the Lord. This feast is a kind of second Epiphany, a moment when Jesus is again revealed as the Messiah.

The prophet Simeon, whom they meet in the temple, does the revealing:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to Gentiles, and glory to thy people Israel.” – Luke 2:29-32

Simeon, who is quite elderly, had waited his entire life for this moment. At last, he sees his savior. At last, he meets Jesus, the Messiah for whom the world has been waiting. It is a dramatic moment, indeed.

Simeon’s prophetic words to Mary, though, are even more dramatic.

“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” – Luke 2:34-35

Imagine how Mary must have felt in this moment. When the angel Gabriel spoke to her at the Annunciation, the words he used to describe her son were equally powerful, but there was no mention of a sword that would pierce through her soul. Though Mary understood that she was accepting some level of suffering when she said yes to becoming the mother of Jesus, it must have been jolting to hear these suspicions confirmed.

We know now that the piercing of Mary’s soul came three decades later when she suffered by her son’s side as he was tortured, crucified, and buried for the salvation of humankind. But at the time, Mary could not have known exactly what the future held for her and her beloved baby boy. And yet, for love of God and for love of her son, she accepted all that her vocation as mother would require.

As a mother myself, Mary’s faith-filled devotion and obedient acceptance of the pains and trials that come with her motherhood inspire me. We aren’t called to be the mother of Jesus, but in many ways, motherhood hurts. From labor pains to sleepless nights, from teenage rebellion to grown children gone astray, women suffer in their motherhood.

As a widowed woman left to care for many young children on her own, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also knew the suffering of motherhood under extreme circumstances. And yet she, who leaned on Mary as her own loving mother and perfect example, never lost sight of the value and meaning of her suffering.

In the midst of the struggle to provide for her family, she once wrote to a friend, “I have been constantly busy with my Darlings mending, hemming, and turning winter clothes. They have in turn all been sick from the change of the weather, added to their whooping cough … in short, dear, I have been one of Job’s sisters, and from all appearances must long look to his example. Well, I am satisfied to sow in tears if I may reap in joy.” (Elizabeth Bayley Seton Collected Writings)

I love St. Elizabeth Ann’s description of her feelings here. Not every mother experiences the high drama of having an elderly prophet predict that a sword will pierce her soul, but every mother does have moments when she feels like one of Job’s sisters.

I felt it when all my children were small and seemed to conspire together to ensure that I never slept for more than 4 consecutive hours.

I feel it when I return home exhausted from a day of work and find a cluttered kitchen with a sink full of last night’s dishes that no one bothered to clean because “Mom will do it.”

I feel it when my son’s teacher leaves me a voicemail describing my child’s behavior in class as “disruptive” and “distracting.”

I feel it acutely this week when we are on our third ice storm in five days and my home feels filled to the brim with restless, cranky teenagers and an incessant, raucous game of Nerfoop.

In my own trials I am grateful for the example Mary gives us in her willing acceptance of the prophet’s words to her at the Presentation. Now, as she is our mother in heaven, we can call on her to intercede on our behalf in every trial we might face during our time on earth.

And I am grateful for St. Elizabeth’s example of cheerful suffering in the trials of motherhood as well. Mending, hemming, and whooping cough sound a lot like the everyday kinds of duties and trials I might face in my home and family this wintertime. I know that she too can intercede for me when I find my own strength failing. She reminds us to focus on heavenly goals in this last part of a letter she wrote to her friend:

“When all the wintry storms of time are past, we shall enjoy the delights of an Eternal Spring.”

DANIELLE BEAN is a writer and popular speaker on Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. She is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest, and the author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.

Source: https://setonshrine.org/