On the contrary, Elizabeth Seton was a symbol to him, and should be to all of us. Of the many saints around us, doing without a cry or whimper the ordinary and indeed, the extraordinary tasks of the day, unsung and unheralded, with “no time to be vigilling or watching the twilight dawn or storming heaven’s gate,” but rather to be a “saint by getting meals and washing up the plates,” and I add, changing and powdering and feeding the baby as well as the old and feeble. (POTP p. 38)
Elizabeth Seton was the first native-born United States citizen to be canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic church, and is considered by many to be the patron saint of Catholic schools. In 1810, in Emmitsburg, MD, she established Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School to educate Catholic girls and later that year founded a religious community to care for children and the poor. It was the first of its kind in the U.S. and was known as the “Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph.”
She ministered in the mundane. No crowds flocked to hear her speak, no one clamored to buy her next book, no one paid her a high salary, and she didn’t seem to care. Her focus was on those kids, those poor people in Maryland, and on serving the God she loved. So simple, yet so powerful. It’s ironic how we admire a woman like Elizabeth Seton while our culture looks at her “vocation” with disdain. First and foremost, she was a devoted wife and mother to her five children. After her husband died, she focused her attention on her children and the other children of their community. The man, who wrote the letter quoted above, appreciated her for doing the ordinary tasks of the day, and apparently the Catholic church did too.
Why don’t we?
It’s the same materialistic, performance based thinking that leads us to devalue people with disabilities. I’ve written about this repeatedly in this blog, but when we place a value on people based purely on what they contribute materially, we dehumanize them. It’s this contribution-oriented caste system that marginalized the disabled. It also strips motherhood of its value.
The cake of life is made from family, friends, and faith, mixed together with love. Everything else is icing, and America is a country of icing. We are so deep in the sugary sweet surplus of life that we tend to forget the cake it’s resting on. We view things through the lens of value and cost, and it taints our view of motherhood, the extraordinary culture of the disabled, and the home in general.
Ricky Henderson was one of the best baseball players of his era, but he was also a little naive. He played for the Oakland Athletics, and they tell a story about their books showing a million dollar error one season. After checking and re-checking, they discovered Henderson’s million dollar bonus check hadn’t been deposited. When asked about it, Ricky said he had framed it, and hung it on his wall!
We tend to look at college educated women, who choose to be full-time moms, like Ricky’s framed bonus check. We consider the $100,000 cost of the education and the potential value of the job that education could earn, and deem the “ordinary tasks of the day” ignoble and a waste of valuable time. Because loving and nurturing a child to maturity wont pay any bills, we consider it worthless, and instead, pay someone else to do it. Why would we spend our days “getting meals and washing up the plates” when we could be “watching the twilight dawn or storming heaven’s gate?”
The classic criticism of this idea comes from the feminist movement and the quest for equality in the workplace. The rhetoric says that when women are “forced” to stay in the home, they are losing ground in the professional world. Read this statement from Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.
“I cannot refrain from saying that women must come to recognize there is some function of womanhood other than being a child-bearing machine.” – What Every Girl Should Know, by Margaret Sanger (Max Maisel, Publisher, 1915)
The pursuit of wealth is viewed as the ideal, and anything that keeps us from it is seen as an obstacle to climb, or a barrier to destroy. In America, the home became the obstacle, kids became the barrier, and now we find ourselves in a shattered culture.
At a minimum, being a domestic engineer is equal in value to being a civil engineer. We have to reject the lie that being a mom is akin to indentured servitude.
Consider this quote from C.S. Lewis. On March 16, 1955, he wrote a letter to a “Mrs Ashton” from Magdalene College, Oxford. In it he said,
“I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes?… We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist…” (pg 447-Letter of CS Lewis 1988 ed.)
Our society’s view of mothers is symptomatic of the deeper issue of performance based acceptance and we have to root it out, it’s a poison. This toxin can also cause us to see those with disabilities as a hinderance, and only you can know if you’ve been effected. We all must look at ourselves in the mirror and identify where we might be placing achievement, wealth, or comfort above the people in our lives and make a healthy change.
I too hope that we would let Elizabeth Seton become an example to all of us.