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From Widow's Grief to New Life View Comments
By Elizabeth Bookser Barkley

Dr. Elizabeth Barkley lost her husband, Scott, in 1999. With three daughters to raise alone, Barkley found that moving forward was made easier through the strength of friends and by staying in touch with her spiritual core.

ON JULY 17, 2004, I walked my daughter Katie down the aisle of Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati. On April 9, 2011, I walked my daughter Annie down the aisle of St. Clare Chapel. A few months later, on July 23, I did the same for my daughter Liz at Holy Cross-Immaculata Church. Each time, I did it alone.

Like other widows, I have embraced both the bitterness and joys of my life without my late husband, Scott. The marriages of my three daughters, all after his death in 1999, have been among the joys I cherish, as other widowed friends treasure high points in their children’s lives: graduations, sports triumphs, pregnancies and births.

Each year, more and more women and men in my life join the ranks of the widowed. All have their own stories, mostly shared privately with intimate friends.

But the rank of “literary widows” is also on the rise. First on the scene: Joan Didion’s National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve always admired Didion as a writer, and as I read the book, some sections did resonate, but more often I found myself, as a writer, envying her elegant and poignant style.

Recently, I received a book about widows from a friend: Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go?, a memoir of her years with Harold Pinter and, ultimately, of his illness and death. Again, I admired the craft of her writing. My judgment of the book was echoed in the words of a friend, a recent widower, when he finished reading it: “It’s sad.”

As fascinated as I’ve been by these memoirs of writer-widows, I wondered whether any writer had not only shared the pain of widowhood, but had also allowed readers a glimpse into how she had moved through her grief to new life.

The answer was on my bookshelf: the collected writings of St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton. In looking back over my years of widowhood, I realize my own emotional and spiritual journey has mirrored Elizabeth’s. Although the details of her plunge into grief and eventual resurrection differ from mine, key elements in her life offer a guide for returning to wholeness after the devastating loss of a spouse.

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Elizabeth Bookser Barkley is chairwoman of the Department of English and Modern Languages at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. She was a recipient of the 2011 St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award from the Sisters of Charity.

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Jacopone da Todi: Jacomo, or James, was born a noble member of the Benedetti family in the northern Italian city of Todi. He became a successful lawyer and married a pious, generous lady named Vanna. 
<p>His young wife took it upon herself to do penance for the worldly excesses of her husband. One day Vanna, at the insistence of Jacomo, attended a public tournament. She was sitting in the stands with the other noble ladies when the stands collapsed. Vanna was killed. Her shaken husband was even more disturbed when he realized that the penitential girdle she wore was for his sinfulness. On the spot, he vowed to radically change his life. </p><p>He divided his possessions among the poor and entered the Secular Franciscan Order (once known as the Third Order). Often dressed in penitential rags, he was mocked as a fool and called Jacopone, or "Crazy Jim," by his former associates. The name became dear to him. </p><p>After 10 years of such humiliation, Jacopone asked to be a member of the Order of Friars Minor(First Order). Because of his reputation, his request was initially refused. He composed a beautiful poem on the vanities of the world, an act that eventually led to his admission into the Order in 1278. He continued to lead a life of strict penance, declining to be ordained a priest. Meanwhile he was writing popular hymns in the vernacular. </p><p>Jacopone suddenly found himself a leader in a disturbing religious movement among the Franciscans. The Spirituals, as they were called, wanted a return to the strict poverty of Francis. They had on their side two cardinals of the Church and Pope Celestine V. These two cardinals, though, opposed Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII. At the age of 68, Jacopone was excommunicated and imprisoned. Although he acknowledged his mistake, Jacopone was not absolved and released until Benedict XI became pope five years later. He had accepted his imprisonment as penance. He spent the final three years of his life more spiritual than ever, weeping "because Love is not loved." During this time he wrote the famous Latin hymn, <i>Stabat Mater</i>. </p><p>On Christmas Eve in 1306 Jacopone felt that his end was near. He was in a convent of the Poor Clares with his friend, Blessed John of La Verna. Like Francis, Jacopone welcomed "Sister Death" with one of his favorite songs. It is said that he finished the song and died as the priest intoned the Gloria from the midnight Mass at Christmas. From the time of his death, Brother Jacopone has been venerated as a saint.</p> American Catholic Blog By immersing our lives in the rhythm of the season, charity can flood our souls and fill us with the happiness for which we were created. We awake Christmas morning prepared to celebrate the birth of our Savior not as a memory but as a profound experience of God’s redemptive love.

 
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