What They Teach

Devotional intercession of canonical Saints is a heartwarming, soul-affirming practice. Just as God becoming man in Jesus gave our laughably small intellects a context, shape, and form to understand a boundless, infinite Deus, our identification with Saints gives context, shape, and form for how faith can be expressed in this often-baffling world.

Saints existed in this messy world and they blundered through it just like we do now, with the same wonderment at both the majesty and tragedy of this reality. Of course they were unique as holy women and men, which made them noteworthy enough to catch the special attention of the Church.

However, what people often like most about Saints is not what beatific things they did, but instead is how human they are—in spite of being Saints. We identify with Saints because they too struggled, and what the Saints teach us is how to overcome.

Saint were afflicted with all forms of human suffering, including what grandmothers used to call “dark days.” To be more modern and clinical, like many of us Saints too suffered from the mental illness called depression.

Just a few decades ago, saying a Saint suffered any mental illness would be blasphemous. Yet, as the Church progresses incrementally—often in centurial increments—we have accepted that suffering through mental illness does not diminish a Saint’s saintliness. Instead, it actually elevates them because often they were healed through faith, perseverance, sacraments, prayer, medical attention, and with the support of a network of friends and a community of believers—all good things.

Mother Cabrini suffered “a sense of depression” at least once in her life. We shouldn’t go so far as to presume that the Saint suffered from clinical depression, but she was having “dark days.” The Saint battled back, and as Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC, Ph.D., noted in her biography of the Saint, any “serenity” attributed to the Saint wasn’t God-given. No, it required work. Sullivan tells us:

The serenity which impressed her contemporaries was neither natural to Mother Cabrini nor achieved without much prayer and determination of will. In the first years of her new institute she confided to her spiritual notes a sense of depression which she felt. We read in 1883: “Neither in God nor my superiors do I find the comfort I need for my soul in this moment of tremendous need. My God, what sadness!” As time went on, it becomes apparent that she made great efforts to lift her own spirits so that she could lift those of others: “I will not be…cast down even when various events in life seem to indicate that all is lost.” Cabrini made frequent references to suffering, personal desolation, loss of courage and disappointment, and resolved: “In adversity, in misfortune, in unpleasant announcements, I will try to keep my spirit calm, my face serene.”

Even Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini—for all that she accomplished in her life—the axiom still applies: We identify with Saints because they too struggled, and what the Saints teach us is how to overcome.

By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College

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