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Thomas Hawk, "Atlantique Resort Motel, Miami Beach, Florida"

The Good Life and the Price of Admission

Issue Three

Julia Harrell

It was the kind of Sunday afternoon made for a baseball game: a cloudless blue sky, the air warm but not oppressive. We had spent the last few hours in the cheap seats, with the free tickets you get for participating in the library’s summer reading program. My husband and I took turns apologetically climbing over our neighbors, ferrying a newly potty-trained toddler back and forth for allegedly urgent but mostly unproductive visits to the restroom. In between said trips, my older kids spilled popcorn, argued about who had consumed more fluid ounces of a shared milkshake, and complained about being forced to endure the free kids’ meal hot dog, rather than selecting a $20 meal of their choice. My husband and I have an adage for these sorts of things: this is the price of admission. The family outing extracts its payment in visits to public restrooms of variable cleanliness and protracted spending limit negotiations.

As we descended the upper deck pedestrian ramp to begin the trek back to our minivan, I glanced up and saw a group of people at the rooftop pool of one of the luxury condo buildings surrounding the ballpark. A Sunday afternoon with no obligations beyond hanging out poolside, having drinks, and watching the professional baseball game visible just below. The good life.

I flirted with the idea—the memory, really—of what it would be like not to be transporting four children in varying states of meltdown, not to be mentally planning ahead for what I was going to feed them when we got home, not to have a ketchup stain from someone’s hot dog on my shorts. To be at the pool having a drink with people for whom I am not responsible, people who do not make claims on every moment of my time, on every square inch of my body, and every dollar in my bank account. People who would later retreat to their own apartments and leave me to mine.

This, after all, is the highest aspiration of our contemporary society. To be free of obligations and burdens, to have no interpersonal ties that are not chosen, optional, and dissolvable. To be a self-defining individual with all options on the table, only awaiting one’s choice.

Everything in us resists the notion of giving away ourselves, our time, our money, our body. But clutching what is ours in the tight fist of autonomy leaves us with only the things that decay and die.

My own options are far fewer since I was in the position of the rooftop revelers. The infinite vistas of youth have narrowed. It occurred to me that if I decided that I’d like to become a doctor, that path is no longer available. The years of prerequisite classes, the MCATS, medical school, residency; by the time I was done, I wouldn’t have enough working years left to pay off the loans. This consideration was irrelevant; I’m not interested in a medical career. Yet the reality that all possibilities are no longer available to me, that I have made choices that tie me firmly to places and work that cannot be easily altered or overthrown, was a shock. It chafed. What if I want to be a doctor? I can be anything I want!

Except that I can’t. No one can. The desire to have, do, or be anything we want is not really the goal, though. No matter our particular desires—the specific things we want to have or do or be—it is the promise of happiness that draws us: the good life. The good news is that the good life, unlike rooftop pools and medical careers, is available to everyone, regardless of their station in life.

Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, knew well what it means to live the good life: to live in the will of God at all times, in any circumstances. In fact, this was her personal rule of life. “The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God, secondly to do it in the manner He wills; and thirdly to do it because it is His will.”

Born to an affluent, socially connected Episcopalian family in New York, Elizabeth Bayley’s early life was the 18th-century version of rooftop pools and cocktails. She traveled in socially prestigious circles and received the best of everything. At nineteen, Elizabeth married William Seton, a handsome and successful young businessman. They were deeply in love with one another, had five children, and enjoyed an active role in New York’s elite social circles. The good life.

Then William’s business began to fail. The demands for payment on outstanding debts arrived on their doorstep in unrelenting waves. William contracted tuberculosis. Bedridden and coughing up blood, tending to his business concerns was out of the question. It must have seemed to Elizabeth that the ground under her feet was collapsing.

In search of a cure, Elizabeth and William traveled to Italy for its mild weather. Was there an element of flight from the twin disasters of William’s health and business failures? Perhaps, but this decision to accompany her husband across the ocean, amidst the crumbling ruins of what had been their lives, brought Elizabeth to the place of her conversion. Among the stained-glass saints and warm glow of sacred gold vessels in Italy’s Catholic churches, Elizabeth encountered the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Before that, though, the Setons were placed in a quarantine lazaretto upon arrival. The damp stone walls and chill, briny drafts that wound their way through every crack and crevice did little to improve William’s health. Just days after their release from the lazaretto, William succumbed to his illness. Elizabeth was widowed in a foreign land, one child at her side and four more awaiting her return home, thousands of miles across the ocean. Such circumstances would tempt the fiercest among us to despair.

Again and again, in the cross, Elizabeth found grace, which, as the saying goes, is free but not cheap.

Weather and politics and illness conspired to delay Elizabeth’s return to America and her children, and she found herself in Italy during Lent, sheltered by her friends, the Filicchi family. A devout Christian from the earliest days of childhood, Elizabeth was now praying and attending Mass in Italy’s Catholic churches with her hosts, drawn by the beauty of the liturgy, the basilicas and shrines, the sacraments.

In a letter home to her sister-in-law, Rebecca, Elizabeth wrote that Antonio Filicchi had taught her to make the sign of the cross. “I was cold with the awful impression my first making it gave me. The Sign of the CROSS of Christ on me.”

After returning to New York, Elizabeth was tormented by the question of conversion. She sat praying in the pews of the familiar Trinity Church, but found her eyes leaving Trinity’s bare altar and alighting on Old St. Peter’s across the street, where she spoke to Christ in the tabernacle. It was her belief that Jesus Christ was truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, that He awaited the faithful in the tabernacle and was carried to them in their need, that led Elizabeth, finally, to become Catholic.

Her conversion demanded an embrace of the cross that few contemporary Americans understand. It was not a personal choice dictating little more than the location at which she would spend her Sunday mornings. It meant social ostracization and years of financial instability, with five children to support. Teaching jobs were closed to her because of her Catholic faith, and the school she began failed when families learned of her conversion. Her entry into the Church entailed a relinquishing of everything we consider the good life, an abandonment of comfort and security for the suffering and uncertainty of the cross.

This was a price Elizabeth was willing to pay. Upon receiving Holy Communion for the first time, Elizabeth considered this cross, “a triumph of joy and gladness that the deliverer had come…I feel all the powers of my soul held fast by him who came with so much Majesty to take possession of this poor little kingdom.”

A new life began to open before her. Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore invited her to begin the first American Catholic school in Baltimore. Elizabeth took her children to Baltimore, beginning over again. Before long, the Sulpician priests brought her several young women with the request that she begin a new order of American religious. Elizabeth was given the title “Mother Seton,” and the women moved to rural Emmitsburg, Maryland to begin the Daughters of Charity. Elizabeth loved Emmitsburg and her home there, but not because she had arrived in a place free from suffering. In Emmitsburg, she suffered the politics and interpersonal conflicts that plague all human interaction, attempts to undermine her authority, and the devastating loss of two daughters to tuberculosis. Yet, Elizabeth remained steadfast in her willingness to do the will of God. “I am a mother. Whatever providence awaits me consistent with that plea, I say Amen to it.”

Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life was everything our culture views as oppressive and limiting: an early marriage, five children, devout religious observance, voluntary poverty, celibacy, and service to others. Again and again, in the cross, Elizabeth found grace, which, as the saying goes, is free but not cheap. It was the sign of the cross upon her own body, first experienced in Italy, that spoke to her of the price of admission to the life of grace. Our efforts to eliminate the cross from our lives cannot and do not eliminate suffering. They only empty it of its meaning and power, depriving the sufferer of life-giving grace. In the spiritual economy, the grace of the cross means new life, the good life.

The good life—the genuinely good life—is a rebuke to contemporary egoism. Everything in us resists the notion of giving away ourselves, our time, our money, our body. But clutching what is ours in the tight fist of autonomy leaves us with only the things that decay and die. Relinquishing what is ours grants returns of one hundredfold.

Reflecting on the sufferings and losses of her own life, Elizabeth describes a small bird who is driven from one branch and alights on another, moved along by disturbing hands until at last he finds himself leaving the highest branch, taking wing and soaring into the sky. So are we, she concludes, when we are chased from one perch to another by the trials that strip us of our crutches and buttresses. Such suffering purifies us, makes us aim higher, until we take flight in the will of God himself.

The appeal of the rooftop pool scene is obvious, the view from the cheap seats less so. This is not a rebuke of the former, only a call not to grasp at it, clutching it in hand past its time. The good life isn’t a particular station in life, an income threshold, or zip code. There are as many versions of the good life as there are lives. In any given existence, the good life is free for the taking, though it’s not cheap. The price of admission is nothing less than the cross, opening up the encounter with regenerative grace at every place and time, stirring us from branch to branch until we find ourselves.

Julia Harrell is the author of How to Be a Hero: Train with the Saints. She lives outside Washington, DC with her family.

Posted on March 14, 2024

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