Joan Barthel’s newest release, the historical biography American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton, offers an innovative perspective of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life paralleled with the colonial and post-Revolutionary epoch of the infant United States. Barthel sets the stage for the crux of the story with the theme, “What will become of us?” that serves as the underpinning of St. Elizabeth’s personal journey to sanctification. At the outset, the reader is extended a familial background of Elizabeth’s upbringing in conjunction with the cultural milieu; we are taken to New York City when it was young and novel, a provincial geographical location that defies the modern concept of “The Big Apple.” In an era before industrialization, Elizabeth was born into wealth and Protestantism, both of which significantly imbued her conversion and quite possibly added to the extraordinary nature of her life story.
Barthel makes St. Elizabeth relevant to her audience rather quickly, which creates a story both endearing and captivating. Though I am not specifically lured by historical novels or even historical biographies, Barthel’s voice draws the reader with succinct language often peppered with potent rhetorical questions or transitional phrases that linger at segment and chapter endings. While Barthel is an excellent storyteller, the foreword and introduction may eschew some readers due to the overt political and even theological dissuasion from some traditions within the Catholic Church. While St. Elizabeth was avant garde in many ways, Barthel seems to connect modern feminism within the religious life to the birth of St. Elizabeth’s vocation as a consecrated sister, and this could avert some readers who disagree with Barthel’s opinion that the Catholic Church needs to be challenged by progressive thinking.
Throughout American Saint, Barthel often returns to her personal views on liberalism and feminism, though the cautious reader may either overlook these points or recognize the alternative: that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint not because she rebelled against or jettisoned authority, not because she transcended the patriarchy of early American culture, and not because she fiercely opposed the Magisterium. Rather, St. Elizabeth is a saint, because she was authentic and humble; she was true to herself, irrespective of what her perceived limitations as a woman were considered to be by societal mores. St. Elizabeth heard the call of the Holy Spirit, and she responded; before her conversion, Barthel makes it clear that Elizabeth vacillated between conversion to Catholicism and pleasing her family and social circle. This is only one of many ways that Barthel brilliantly displays the humanity of a saint, which elevates the reader’s soul to a hope that we, too, can be saints, despite and in spite of our frailties and weaknesses or obstacles and adversities. Like most saints, Elizabeth encountered roadblocks to achieving God’s Will for her religious order, but despite her frustration, she submitted herself in obedience to the superiors she recognized were placed in her life to be a significant aspect of her sanctification.
Another theme Barthel uses in American Saint relates to Elizabeth’s family coat of arms: “At whatever risk, yet go forward.” Truly this was her personal dictum that motivated her to rise above grief after the loss of her husband and two daughters, to provide for her children when her husband’s fortune vanished through bankruptcy, and to build a foundation of education for all children, regardless of race or creed or gender or socioeconomic status, that remains invaluable in modern American society.
Barthel summarizes St. Elizabeth’s faith from childhood until her death:
Thy will. The will of God. The phrase resounds, again and again, in Elizabeth’s letters and prayers. For Elizabeth, the will of God meant being aware of God’s presence in her life, not only when she was praying or reading her Bible but every day, in every happening, every circumstance (p.67).
Truly, what distinguishes sainthood from ordinary living is the unwavering desire to know and follow God’s will. Like St. Thomas Aquinas further noted (and Barthel includes in American Saint), “Conscience is the application of knowledge to activity,” and Barthel convincingly showcases how St. Elizabeth paved the way for modern education and religious life. Her legacy remains not only in historical landmarks and textbooks but also in the burning of her heart to apply the knowledge of God’s will to action, and this is what creates a saint. It’s not the extraordinary holiness that we perceive as unattainable, nor is sainthood for the elite or scrupulously religious; rather, sainthood is a universal calling in how each of us responds to our unique temperaments and in how we use our individual gifts for God’s glory rather than personal gratification. Barthel offers the reader a gift of herself as she recounts this fascinating tale of a woman who became the first American Saint.