ELIZABETH OF THE TRINITY
by James E. Milord
My belated discovery of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, at an Ignatian retreat two years ago, was a fortunate meeting with a kindred soul. As a lifelong pianist, bass player and former music critic, as I enter the twilight years, she has become one of lifes kindest "accidents."
Not only am I an avid biographile, but I am always watchful for uncomplicated, tuneful, earthy saints, without the usual varnish and syrup that clutter so many pieces of hagiography. "The history of mankind," said Carlyle, "is the history of its great men." He obviously did not know people like Teresa of Avila, and a great pity he had not become friendly with Elizabeth Catez, one of Teresas most remarkable daughters in the Carmelite orbit.
More than any other form of literature, perhaps, biography seems doomed to unique pitfalls. There is so much flummery floating around in libraries and journals. In a sense, many biographers lie, or at least conceal, often unconsciously, many unlikeable or grisly facts of the objects of their research. In spite of this, truth does break through, as Emerson opined: "There is properly no history, only biography." But the task is hard won. How does a writer avoid prettifying, or, conversely, invade too deeply the privacy of a soul?
Today the pendulum has swung jauntily to the other side. There is now a current fashion to debunk saints, as a reaction to the plaster cast images placed on untouchable pedestals in the past. Now we have revelations of alleged neurotic saints, anorexic saints, punitive saints, fanatic saints. Weaknesses are important, because they lend contrast and balance out the heroism, but has any writer the right to sacrifice one to the others. It behooves any biographer to heed Walt Whitmans advice to Horace Traubel, his biographer, not to exclude "the hells and the damns." At the same time, we must not flinch from heroism, and even when we are not up to it, and desire to dethrone to make a point of our own common clay.
This sketch of Elizabeth is little more than that of a photographer who happened upon the musical love and talent of his subject and, through his lens encountered, in time, a recognizable, contemporary soul. I wish to add the valence of her handwriting against the backdrop of her Carmelite ethos. Please bear with me as I zoom my lens in on her and raise, maybe, more questions than answers.
II. CARMELS UNIQUE VOCATION
Unlike other religious orders who zero in on a particular mode or presence of Jesus, Carmelites try to refract all the patterns of Christs personality, expressed in His healing, preaching, praying, relating, suffering and glory. Perhaps it is too tall an order. But some have attempted to live it so comprehensively they claim our riveted attention. Elizabeth of Trinity is one of those who, in her brief 26 years, encapsulates the best of the Carmelite ideal of living in the present moment, loving, contemplating, and serving in silence. Her immediacy is both exciting and comforting.
Fortunately we have a mine of information in her writings: three notebooks, a diary, four spiritual treatises 364 letters, 124 poems, and 17 personal notes, two-thirds of which have never been published.
"Life can only be lived backward," Kierkegaard observed, but it can only be lived in a forward motion. All her sources offer clues of her transformation in a series of events, decisions, awakenings and openings, which fall like dominoes.
In a letter to a friend, Elizabeth describes her vision of the Carmelite as one "who has beheld the Crucified, who has seen Him offering Himself to the Father as a victim for souls and, meditating in the light of this great vision of Christs charity has understood the passion of love that filled His soul and has willed to give herself as He did."
The root of her widening vision grew out of the vast silent world she chose to enter. There she fulfilled the recipe of the author of the Book of the Poor in Spirit, an unknown Rhineland mystic, who asserted: "They who contemplate the Passion of our Lord most intensely are in a sense a second Christ." He adds that no one can get lost who clings to Christ and promises that whoever contemplates Him in His sufferings receives a power that in one hour could draw a soul further than what might be attained over a very long time by other natural means.
From the very beginning Elizabeths favorite point of the Rule was not poverty, chastity or obedience, but silence. She identified from the start with the early Orders motto: Alone with the Alone.
But it was not always this way. It is a long climb from the spoilation of a comfortable, middle class my Officers environment to the naked cell of Carmel. By the age of 21, she had already lived two lives. France was suffering the waves of anti-Semitism, flag waving colonialism and anti-clericalism. In such a climate of upheaval, and the rootlessness of Army life, it is not surprising to discover her mediocrity, expressed in her irritable temper tantrums. This habit was so persistent that her parish priest warned that within such a temperament, Elizabeth Catez will be either a saint or a demon. Gods plans were in motion, which enabled her to transcend that germ of self destruction, and to fulfill to a "T" her lovely names meaning: "dwelling place of God."
In contrast to the clinging vine type of semi-cloistered life of Thérèse at Les Buissonnets, Elizabeths social life was cosmopolitan. Despite a veneer of religion that disguised Frances "official" atheism, the gods of fashion and frivolity demanded their fealty. Elizabeths flurry of activities centered around the typical bourgeois parties, vacations, and high-caloried eating feasts. A pretty girl, and tall for her age at 14, she admitted to being "scatter-brained," probably like most girls of her age and time. She flattered herself, in a composition, that she was also a "coquette." She tried hard enough, wearing all the modish styles of hair, and had a full wardrobe of au courant clothes. In 1898 she tells a friend how in one city, "all the music shops could not keep us supplied with enough pieces to play at sight." Her piano skill grew by what it fed upon and we can be certain that much of it was the junk music of the day.
Underneath the glitter was a serious side. Although she was becoming a good candidate for a life of Epicurean indulgence, a stylism bon vivant, she managed to pull off a First Prize in her Conservatory competition with Mendelsohns Capriccio Brilliant - at 13, no small accomplishment .
The turning point came at 19 when she visited a nearby Carmel in Dijon and met the chaplain. He affirmed her first mystical inklings of God s presence within her. She asked about these stirrings, and he related at length that, indeed, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit resided in her soul. She confessed later that she wished the poor man would have stopped talking. All she required was a single glimpse to speed her vocational maturity forward. But Mama Catez rejected all notions of entering Carmel, or even visiting there. She put a ban on the idea for at least a two year wait. Swallowing her anger (as we shall see later), she sublimated her frustration by bustling with parish programs, childrens groups and organizations. She entered the Dijon Carmel in 1901 and, a year later, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception became part of the Community.
Saints often link closely to certain biblical precepts or counsels and polish them to brilliance. Elizabeth was galvanized by two texts: "to pray in secret," and "for every idle word spoken, men will have to give account on the day of judgment . . ."
III. A SECOND STAGE
In our world of banal talk shows, where the gods of consumerism rule or impulse release, rumor and gossip, the first casualty is truth. In our age of distorted reporting of "news," is there any valence of society like silence as noticeable by its absence?
In November 1904, her community renewed their vows. While reciting them, Elizabeth felt a magnetic pull of grace. Returning to her cell, she took a sheet of notebook paper and, in her erratic handwriting, penned one of the most trenchant prayers in Carmelite history. She called it her Act of Oblation. In three minuscule years of formation, she had already come close enough to see the summit and, girding herself for the final assault, she wrote with ineffable pathos:
"O my God, Trinity whom I adore! Help me to become utterly forgetful of self, that I may bury myself in Thee, as changeless and as calm as though my soul were already in eternity . . . O my Three, my All, my Beatitude, Infinite Solitude, Immensity wherein I lose myself! I yield myself to Thee as Thy prey. Bury Thyself in me that I may be buried in Thee, until I depart to contemplate in Thy light the abyss of Thy greatness!"
Well, God took her at her word, and within months her trials became part of what often appears to be a horror story to outsiders. From that moment, Elizabeth literally took Revelations 2:17 to heart, where Christ promises "a new name," to those who persevere. In her final letter, following the agonies of the summer of 1906, she signs it falteringly: "Laudem Gloriae," with a postscript advising: "This will be my name in heaven." Grammarians frown over her poor Latin, but her affirmation was all that mattered. A few months later, on November 9, 1906, she mumbled her last words, summarizing her Trinitarian framework: "I am going to Light, to Love, to Life."
We are still close to her to intuit fully the significance of her life. A fleeting five years of the invaried round of prayer, penance and work, in utter seclusion - what can it conceivably tell our alienated world?
IV. HIDDEN CLUES
Graphoanalysis converges with biography to give us hints to her inner life. Happily, handwriting expertise offers not only what is between the lines, but what elicits the sentences themselves. In spite of Elizabeths outward silence, her pen was highly articulate. I am indebted to my wife, Lauretta, a certified graphoanalyst, for her deciphering many of Elizabeths dominant moods and traits.
Like many persons of high fluidity Elizabeth s handwriting was a teachers nightmare. She herself called it a "horrible scrawl," and apologized for her "scribbling." Not only was she afflicted with a poor sense of paragraphing and grammar, but she often strung out her sentences, often covering the margins on all four sides of the page! Sister Aletheia Kane, O.C.D. admitted how arduous it was to decode it. Moreover, Elizabeth omitted any dates on 165 of her letters, making chronology impossible. She warmed this unkempt scribblers heart, in spite of her deplorable syntax, as she was lead chiefly by sound, rather than by sight.
As unerringly as ones fingerprints, while her soul unfolded, so did her handwriting. The arty flourishes of her capital letters slowly fade away as her pride diminishes. Between the ages of 14 and 19, her writing looks like two different people. Again, in the anguished "waiting" years, 1899 -1901, there is intense inner exploration, along with a stubborn irritation, strongly evidenced in the "sharks teeth" letters. These betray a "cutting" feeling within - obviously a reaction to her mothers ban on visiting or entering Carmel. So determined is our young, budding saint, however, that Madame Catezs restriction was a waste of time, and she finally relented. We can only guess at the words that may have passed between them.
Rhythm is literally coded into Elizabeths genes as musicality leaps out, line after line. Although Carmel had long, sacred traditions Elizabeth often discloses a deep conflict in accepting it. She manifests an unmistakable desire to do her own thing. Once her mind was made up, she could be unyielding. Fortunately, she turned this trait into one of exacting loyalty and perseverance to the Rule.
At 23 a major shift takes place. Her exploratory traits diminish. She triumphs over her desire to analyze everything; an enduring softness surfaces and remains until her death. She never lost her vivid imagination, even in her illness, but let it work for God, as her material creativity is barely discernible during her final three years.
The darkness and lightness of her samples show wide fluctuations of depth of emotion - coinciding with her admitted feelings of dryness, but also divulging unadmitted inner turmoil and pain. No amount of lofty embroidery by biographers can mask the deep resentments that surface over and over. A person with as much love of variety as she had, must have found the monotony of Carmel very difficult. Temper, temper, temper. It remains strong to the very end, and is a major characteristic of her spiritual combat. Little wonder she could write in her final days: "Pride is not a thing that can be destroyed with one bold sword stroke . . . rather we must die daily." This was her path, and one she called both "austere and sweet."
Hans Von Balthasar argues that our present thrust to produce a spirituality of "relevancy" to the world can find an antidote in the Carmelite contemplatives approach of daily dying. He calls Carmels contemplative vision "the most active form of assistance that can be given to the Church in the world. The soul that goes out of itself into the infinity of God has passed over all barriers, and so is able to find in God all other souls and bring them help."
Elizabeth had no problem finding germane roots to the "outside." Unlike many earlier spiritual teachers, who felt persistent tension between the command to love God and neighbor, and often vacillated from one to the other, Elizabeth found her neighbor directly in God. She wrote: "Souls do not need. to communicate in writing, They press on right to the infinity of God to find each other there . . . Whoever stays at the source of living water can make it gush out all around."
Always a thorough-going nun, Elizabeth never forgot the world. A great measure of correspondence - 40 letters in all - were sent to lay people. There are no exotic flights from a Big, Bad World. Rather, she lives in a state of continual, practical transition growing daily, struggling, evolving. From her tiny corner of a finite world, she leaped across into the Infinite abyss, by resting in communion with the Trinity, reaching a focal point in her reception of Holy Communion. When final illness forced her to surrender even this joy, it caused her little distress. She had, after all, lived in a continual spiritual union with our Lords indwelling. She fed this presence through her most contemporary aspect - immersion in the Bible. She saw eternity best through biblical lenses; hence, she lived close to the hub of the Churchs framework.
Paul and John, her favorite writers often speak about light with great warmth. Elizabeths letters reflect the same quality. There is no coldness that prompted Julien Green to wonder: "He knocks on all doors, but whoever opens it? The room is taken. By whom? By ourselves." Why do we so often close it?
V. A NEW DESPOTISM
A new gospel of consumerism has literally choked North American spiritual life to death. Pope John Paul II calls it a "tyranny." Consumerism is a counter-spirituality to the bible-centered spirituality of Blessed Elizabeth. Both offer conflicting gospels to the meaning of life. Elizabeths gospel of the kingdom within frees from material idolatry anyone who takes it seriously. It nourishes those hungry for self-understanding and virtually forces us to see the world as a family. The consumers bible, laid out in the unholy writ of Advertising World, Business Marketing, Hi-Tech Marketing, More Business, and Wall Street Journal are the new scriptures of consumerism. They lay down guidelines to a thousand publications that teach us to be self-centered, unrelated to others, to live in, through and for material objects. The pulpiteers of consumerism are seen at their most disgusting on game shows which turn people into buffoons for products, as they scream for joy. The magazines and papers carrying the gospel of "Thou Shalt Consume," to all nations depict people hugging toilet tissue, towels, perfumes, stroking velvety car seats, shavers and polished furniture. One ad refers to a car as a "Trouble-free relationship." Another praises a new car with: "This is me." Some ads blatantly de-sexualize, telling girls that "having a female body does not make you feminine." Only through the product can femininity be created. Men are told: "Love is musk."
Saints Paul and John exalted the powers, beauty and glory of both body and soul, the former compared to the "temple of the Holy Spirit," wherein God dwells. The commodity gospels preach, on the other hand, a message of self-loathing, suggesting we are too fat, untanned, blemished, unworthy of love. Advertising depends upon unhappy people. Happy people feel no urge to consume, they want to live! They do not find Merit in cigarettes, or Joy in a detergent, or Life in a cereal.
VI. OTHER TYRANNIES
The world of spiritual deceit is hardly limited to word manipulation. Ours is also a culture of sound pollution. Harsh sound, the stock-in-trade of radio, TV and industry offends sound-sensitive people. Those of us who catch even a glimmer of the beauty of Elizabeths silent world, often believe we carry a stigma, a sense of being "abnormal." Just as no amount of subtle advertising can convince us that more fat, salt and sugar, is good for us, so also sound-sensitive people cannot possibly persuade themselves that more poisonous noise will create well-being. The mind may condition itself to jackhammers, jet aircraft, and rock music, but the body cannot. All research indicates that stress, poor digestion, hypertension, headaches, hearing loss, irritability are directly related to an infinity of 20th century sound pollution-illnesses we need not accept. Abusive noise among children is a world-wide problem. At the noise laboratory of the University of Tennessee, Dr. Dave Lipscomb found that more than 60 percent of incoming freshmen tested had hearing no better than people in their sixties. A New York Times study confirmed similar Japanese research.
A culture of noise collides with Jesus silent years, His solitary prayer, His death on Cavalry. Elizabeth learned her lessons of the Father, in this same silent climate, as Jesus did, in the center of His being. In the depths of His heart, He was closest to His Father. Gerard Manley Hopkins sums up the framework of Elizabeths life:
"Thee God I come from
To Thee I go
All day long I like fountain flow
From Thy hands out, swayed about,
In Thy mighty glow."
Elizabeth also refracted Our Ladys inner "pondering," as a "woman wrapt in silence." She would have appreciated the Vatican Councils references to Mary as a viator (pilgrim). I think, too, she would say a soft Amen to Karl Rahners observation that with Mary, "We too have been made the holy temple of God. In us too, the Triune God dwells. We too have often been sent by Him, from this beginning, into our life that we may carry the light of faith to the flame of love through this worlds darkness, to the place we belong in His eternal radiance, His eternity."
VII. ELIZABETHS PLACE IN OUR SPECTRUM
As people become sick of being sick, whether from noise pollution, sexually transmissible diseases, or the nightmares of consumerism, their disillusion drives them to seek solutions. A variety of pseudo nostrums form a smorgasbord of trendy hokum astrology charts, occult trips, guru prescriptions - all trying to assuage our impoverishment of symbol and meaning. At the same time, a counter culture ground swell of interest in mysticism, retreats, icons, contemplation, Cursillos, spiritual journal keeping and much more keeps washing over the land.
Far ahead of her time, Elizabeth is the archetypal "Jesus freak," the authentic "flower child," without benefit of drugs, rock music, free love or groupie dependence where hollow men and women lean together, their headpieces "filled with straw." Her astonished non-Catholic doctor testified how she faced death with total serenity, and it confounded his preconceptions. The desperately sought-after "peace" of soul and mind by the hippy generation was seldom found. Elizabeths way of peace did surpass all understanding. It was, and is, the "only way to go."
Unable to sleep one night, on the fifth anniversary of her vows, she hunkered down in her window rapt in prayer. She knew the end was near. Her stomach illness had drained her strength to the fainting point. Yet, with child-like gratefulness, she could write of that wondrous night: "The sky was so blue, so still: the monastery was so deeply silent . . . I went over these five years, so filled with grace."
Preparing for her passage to eternity, she began her last retreat on August l5th, 1906. During those last weeks, she had dragged her fevered skeleton to evening office, fulfilling in every jot and tittle, the last point of the Rule. During her retreats sixteen days, she wrote some of the most sublime reflections of modern times, each one a precious jewel of intense, free, wild love. In spite of violent headaches and a quivering fever, she smiled through it all, a sure sign of another deep secret of her discipleship: Joy. The final week was a ghastly ordeal. She predicted Mary would lead her to her "Three." At the very end, she opened her eyes that had remained shut for seven days, and gazed with luminous, fixed stare above the Prioress, and, in her habitual still fashion, without a sound, she was gone.
Yes, she knew Jesus "in the fellowship of His sufferings being conformed to his death," not because she relished suffering in itself in some masochistic way. She was no more of a stoic than her Lord. She did not hide her pain, and often groaned and cried with them, as her Master had wept, complained of thirst, loneliness and abandonment. She recognized that God did not "enjoy" tormenting His creatures, knowing that God loves to give. If God called for volunteer sacrifices, it was precisely because she wanted to share everything, including His generosity. She received all the Trinity could give. In return, she did what her "Three" did - she gave. Without vision, miracles of Wonder Woman feats, in unsung dailiness, she solved the ultimate riddle of evil, and located the pearl of great price, the meaning of existence. At last she pieced the puzzle of Jesus bittersweet demand: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross."
The world has seldom been ready for that demand. Elizabeths magnificent appropriation of it was not wrought by psychoanalysis, ESP, astro-charting, Primal Screams or transactional "Im OK, your OK" tactics. There is no phoniness in a pain-wracked body who could sing a duet with the Psalmist, on the day of her terminal retreat: "As the hart pants after the fountains of water: so my soul has thirsted after the strong living God."
The crosses God sends us never seem to be the "right" or the "fair" ones. We inevitably end up asking: Why me? Elizabeths major triumph was her certain recognition that her crosses were the right ones and only she could bear them. Her crowning teaching is that we, too, must be hurt exactly where we are the most vulnerable, and most humiliated, where pain stabs us the most - otherwise they would no longer be our crosses!
Thank you, Elizabeth, for playing your song for this brutal unfeeling century. Yours is the sweet music of joy-in-the present, and sweeps us away, not to a faraway heaven out there, but to its ever present reality, at this moment, because we live in Him, and He lives in us.
Thank you, "Laudem gloriae," for saying your silent Yes. May it reverberate around this starving planet.
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880 - 1906)
Every happening, every event, every suffering as also every joy, is a sacrament that gives God to the soul.
Prayer is a rest, a relaxation, . . . We must look at Him all the time; we must keep silent; it is so simple.
I have found my heaven on earth, since heaven is God, and God is in my soul.
We shall not be purified by looking at our miseries, but by gazing on Him who is all purity and holiness.
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of Life, Decree, Foreword, and Articles 2, 4, 5 and 8.
2. Elizabeth of Dijon, Pantheon Books, N.Y., 1956.
3. Mary, Mother of God. Sheed & Ward, N.Y., I963.
4. Elizabeth of the Trinity, (The Complete Works, Vol. 1, General Introduction and Major
Spiritual Writings: ICS Publications, 1984.
5. Light Love Life. (A Look at a Face and a Heart): ICS Publications, 1987.
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