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Lay Faithful

A Widow's Walk

By Katrina J. Zeno
Ronda Chervin, herself a widow, provides poignant stories of widowed saints in A Widow's Walk.


Our Sunday Visitor -

God, who “writes straight with crooked lines,” has done so most notably in the lives of women who became saints after the death of their husbands. Ronda Chervin’s book poignantly tells the story of 30 such widowed saints, including St. Marie of the Incarnation, St. Jane de Chantal, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Chervin’s stories detail the sufferings and, often, dire circumstances resulting from their spouses’ deaths—the very crucible through which their sanctity is achieved, and which often shaped their later life’s work.

Over my kitchen sink, there is no window. Instead, yellow tiles decorated with photos and sayings remind me of what’s important in life. One saying reads, "A boat must have ballast as well as sail."

Frankly, before a friend gave me this card, I’d never thought about ballast. But as I scrubbed plates and bowls for the next couple of months, I thought frequently about how ballast grounds our life. Coincidentally, I was not the only one thinking about ballast.

A Floating Balloon

Author and widow Ronda Chervin had been struggling with it for a couple of years. With the death of her husband, Martin, in 1993, she experienced a disturbing lightness, like a balloon released from a rock to which it had been tied. "What I realized is that my earthy husband was the ground for my feet," Ronda writes in her latest book, A Widow’s Walk. "Without him I did not soar toward Christ: I just floated, miserable and without ballast!" To find her grounding again, Ronda turned to the widow saints—and found over 30 companions on the road of grief, suffering, single parenting, and rebuilding. Through the lives of these holy women, she rediscovered the ballast of grace and spiritual marriage. Their stories speak not only to widows but to all women (and men) who find themselves "floating miserably" because of loss, heartache, or adverse circumstances.

Difficult Circumstances

While many individuals fear the suffering and change that second singleness brings, A Widow’s Walk shows how adverse circumstances can become the Divine Artist’s tool for holiness: St. Marie of the Incarnation was widowed at 18 and laden with her husband’s business debt. St. Elizabeth of Hungary went from "riches to rags" and was obliged to give up two of her children so they could be raised for political roles. St. Rita of Cascia endured a violent alcoholic streak in her husband, earning her the nickname of "the woman without a grudge.” St. Brigid of Sweden yearned for the cloistered life after the death of her husband Prince Ulf, but remained in court to evangelize her friends and relatives. While each story is unique, collectively they remind us that grace works through the circumstances of life rather than detouring around them.

Saint Jane de Chantal (1572-1641)

Jane lived in France where she was happily married to Baron Christophe de Chantal. When her husband was killed in a hunting accident, she was prostrate with grief for four months. In addition to her emotional suffering, Jane was caught in a practical and spiritual crossfire: How to provide financially for her four children while honoring a private vow to celibacy she had made shortly after her husband’s death.

In those days, French inheritance laws required a widow to live with the husband’s family. Consequently, Jane’s father-in-law threatened to disinherit her children unless she moved into his manor and become housekeeper to his mistress and their five children. Jane could have avoided this exploitive and immoral situation by marrying one of her many suitors, but, instead, she remained single and served her father-in-law for seven years.

During these adverse years, Jane yearned for a cloistered life of prayer. She also met St. Francis de Sales who consoled and encouraged her as a working mother in the world. He cautioned her not to idealize the contemplative life but to realize that "solitude has its assaults, the world its busyness."

Jane, like many women, struggled to fulfill the desires of her heart. Although she was ready to move on, she had to wait for the practical circumstances to catch up. Through this delay, God forged a spiritual friendship between Jane and St. Francis de Sales that resulted in the founding of the Visitation Sisters. For 31 years, Jane adapted St. Francis’ spirituality to the needs of the feminine heart, traveling sidesaddle throughout France to visit her convents.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821)

Elizabeth Ann Seton’s story is an American version of Jane de Chantal. Elizabeth was happily married to a prosperous New York businessman, widowed at a young age with five children, and longed to be a religious sister after embracing the Catholic faith. Her life as a single mother was made even more difficult by her Episcopalian relatives, who persecuted Elizabeth and refused to help her financially. As a result, she found herself cleaning houses for the social class to which she once belonged.

As with Jane de Chantal, God provided a new source of masculine strength and spiritual companionship through Antonio Filicchi, a married friend of the family who also supported Elizabeth financially. Selections from Elizabeth’s candid letters, as quoted in A Widow’s Walk, reveal both her feminine affection and vulnerability:

I should wish earnestly, my most dear Brother [Antonio], never to think of you with tenderness but when calling on Almighty God to bless you, then often my heart overflows and exhausts the sighs and tears of affection which at all other times are not carefully repressed—and far from feeling less interest for you and less value for your affection, it has never so earnestly, so anxiously, prayed for you.

Elizabeth was a woman with a large heart, a heart that refused to shrivel up or withdraw. Rather than repressing her affection, Elizabeth sought to direct the overflow in a non-possessive way. At the invitation of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, Elizabeth founded a teaching order of sisters (The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph) in 1808, and opened a school for girls in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There, her spiritual motherhood blossomed and nurtured hundreds of young souls entrusted to her care.

Conchita of Mexico (1862-1937)

For women with small children, reconfiguring the pieces of life usually occurs within the context of dishes and diapers, not veils and vespers. The holy Mexican widow-grandmother Conchita weaves together a contemporary spirit of prayer and practical motherhood. On her wedding day, Conchita asked two wishes of her husband: that no matter how many children they had, he would let her go to daily Mass, and that he would never be jealous. Even at a young age, Conchita knew the secret to loving motherhood—prayer and the Eucharist. After the death of her husband, she continued this theme: "Let us see whether as a widow, I am going to seek my perfection and become a saint on carrying out the sacred duties of a mother."

In addition to providing a home for her eight children that was fun loving, firm, and hospitable, Conchita founded the Works of the Cross—a cluster of apostolates for sisters, priests, and lay people dedicated to prayer and penance. Conchita, however, like St. Brigid, remained in the world. This is where she carried out her apostolic works—by teaching women about the spiritual life; praying for, and instructing, her children; and helping the poor.

This is also where Conchita met her second bridegroom. At Mass on the feast of the Annunciation, she was overwhelmed by the presence of Christ who said to her: "Here I am. I want to incarnate Myself mystically in your heart. … Receive me. … I have taken possession of your heart."

Mystical Espousal

Thus Conchita followed the great spiritual tradition of many saints who experienced mystical espousal to Christ. This special grace provided the ballast that allowed these saints to hoist their spiritual sails and catch a new wind of the Holy Spirit: Bl. Marie of the Incarnation to the missionary territory of Canada; St. Angela of Foligno to a path of penance and joy; and Conchita to a deeper participation in the royal priesthood of Christ.

Mary: Spouse of the Spirit

Of course, no discussion of a widow’s walk would be complete without Mary. Her life gathers the fragments of all the other women and offers them to God in a seamless way. Through her joys and sorrows, Mary shows us how to remain spiritually grounded. She never drifted aimlessly, but remained tied to the Rock, her Son Jesus Christ. Her life is a mystery of grace, contradiction, suffering, and glory; of virginity and motherhood; and of espousal to the Spirit.

Tucked Away

It’s amazing what spiritual lessons can be tucked into a simple saying about ballast and sail, especially when the lives of the saints and the pen of Ronda Chervin illuminate it. It makes me glad there’s no window over my sink, because it gives me time to think about things like ballast and grace and second singleness. And every once in a while, it even gives me a window to the eternal.


Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor, Nov. 1, 1998. Visit their Web site at http://www.osv.com.


Katrina J. Zeno, a freelance writer and speaker on topics such as the nature of men and women, singles and romance, the culture of life, the new feminism, prayer, and parenting, is also co-foundress of Women of the Third Millennium, an organization that promotes the dignity and vocation of women through one-day retreats. Her articles and interviews have appeared numerous periodicals, including Our Sunday Visitor, New Covenant magazine, Catholic Parent, and Franciscan Way, and she has spoken in the U.S., Canada, England, and Trinidad.




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