Elizabeth of the Trinity
In Search Of the Absolute
By Elda Maria Estrada, OCDS
Editor’s note: This is the final part of a retreat originally recorded and distributed as an audiotape album by ICS Publications. We hope you enjoyed it printed in its conversational style as a 5-part series.
Part V: Elizabeth’s Spirituality of Interiorization
Interiorization is the characteristic reality of the life and spirituality of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. It is her personal charism that defines her and differentiates her from other persons.
Her spirituality of Interiorization has a human foundation that demands a theological response from us. To be interior does ot mean just to go toward the most profound center, but it means in truth allowing God to be God in us, which means we allow ourselves to be penetrated, invaded, and possessed by this reality. This then empowers us to go out in the name of Jesus and practice the loving mercy that we receive from the Trinity.
Elizabeth had a permanent tendency to live her life in her most intimate center, regardless of what was going on outside of her. For us as secular Carmelites, this is of supreme importance, whether we are at work, whether we are shopping, whether w are watching a movie, taking care of children or grandchildren, or doing any ministry in our parishes. Whatever the case may be, we must do it for Him, with Him, and particularly and especially in Him. All contemplative souls that really know God by experience have to live in this specific dimension if we are to be true to our vocation.
It is also a theological demand that flows logically from her experience of the loving knowledge of God that she received living in the very heart, the very bosom, the very essence of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. For Elizabeth to live spiritually really meant to live with, communicate with, commune with, and to live abundantly with God. It was not the transcendence of God that captured her heart, but the imminence of loving, continuous, never ending, perennial presence of God that permeated her whole being, transforming her, calling her constantly to a deeper union, a complete surrender of self coming from her most profound center, in the innermost mansions where the Lord, the King of the Castle dwells.
Like Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross, Elizabeth gave us a program for the spirituality of Interiorization that a Carmelite person and a committed Christian must follow in order to reach an encounter with the Living God in the depths of our very being, within our bodies, our souls, and our spirits. We have to pray to discover the mystery of the presence of God within. This is the mystical life. We already have it. It was given to us at baptism. It is already ours, a free gift from the merciful heart of the Father, through the Sacred Heart of Jesus and through the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the power of the Holy Spirit. But we have to activate that gift. We have to personalize it. We have to claim it. We have to bring it to fruition through fidelity first and foremost, to a very dedicated, constant, loving prayerful encounter.
The whole life of the Carmelite or for any devoted Christian has to be a life of prayer. We need those special, strong times to be alone with God alone, so that this reality can mature in us, so that we become united with Him, so that we become the spouse of Christ, so that we become friends. This is our calling, that we become holy. We have many good Carmelites, including friars, nuns, and seculars, but we desperately need holy, saintly Carmelites, who will live the ordinary things of life, in an extraordinary way. Every day we have to prepare the space, that inner receptivity; empty the vessel, in order to be replenished, invaded, and possessed.
That divine presence is always and forever active and operative within us, calling us to a deeper knowledge, to a deeper intimacy with God. Once we are replenished, He says go and share with others. Tell them who I am. Tell them how much I love them. Tell them how much I want to purify them like fire-tried gold so they can become holy, truly the image of Jesus the Lord.
The spirituality of Interiorization of Elizabeth, like the spirituality of Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross is one of going within, indwelling. He dwells inside, calling us to a total freedom from all attachments, all bondage, and all distractions, so that we can be free; free like the eagles to fly to the heights. It is a spirituality of searching and knowing that we would never begin searching if we did not already possess what we are looking for. It sounds like a paradox. But we would not search for God if we did not already posses Him on some degree. What I am telling you in the name of the Lord, my dear brothers and sisters, is that it is not OK to be content with living a very good life. No. You have God inside. You have a vocation to be Carmelites, which means a vocation to be holy and become saints, to be true contemplatives who have experienced, and tasted experientially who God is. You know His love. So we must search more deeply in faith, hope and love to complete a tremendous exodus. The more theological we are, the more knowledge we have in our intellect, the more difficult it becomes. The great exodus for all of us is to move from the intellect to the heart and from thoughts and images to the silence of a purified heart and an open spirit always eager to receive.
If we understand properly what I have shared with you during this 5-part series, our lives cannot continue to be the same. In the words of St. Paul, we have to experience urgency. He says that charity urges us. We have to allow the prompting of the Holy Spirit within us to lead us to this union. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that God gave us this great gift of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity, so that we can joyfully experience His presence, His love and His action within us, as much as is humanly possible.
The other reason God gave us this most exalted of all gifts, the tremendous gift of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity, is that God becomes in truth, our Father, through fusion of the gift of piety, and above all, our friend through an intimate knowledge, intimate sharing, and intimate love, whereby we become one with Him.
St. Teresa said to her nuns, “My daughters, I want you to know that for this reason and this reason only, God gives us the highest gift of spiritual marriage so that from it may come works, works.” She repeated “works” because what the Lord desires is works. The spirituality of Interiorization is an interior movement that supersedes the psychic order. It is a spiritual movement because it establishes us in a theological order that says yes, I’m not alone. Yes, the Father, Don, and Holy Spirit dwell in the deepest recesses of my being and lead me to a radical experience of the God echo lives and loves within.
Elizabeth’s spirituality of interiority is a spirituality of plenitude. That’s what her name means. Remember, not only does “Elizabeth” mean the house of God, but it is the fulfillment of God. It’s the plenitude of God. God gives himself totally for us and we have the awful capacity of limiting His life, His love, and His action in us. Surrender. Surrender. Become like Mary. Open up and make room to receive the gift of God.
The spirituality of the interiority of Elizabeth has concrete dimensions that are very well defined. The first one is interior silence. If there is equilibrium and balance within, it is conducive to the unity of the spiritual self and leads to recollection and solitude in the sense of the transcendence of the spirit.
The second great element of this spirituality of Interiorization, naturally, has to be prayer.
When talking about solitude and silence of recollection, Elizabeth most imitates John of the Cross, but her life of prayer is fundamentally Teresian. She follows the style of our Holy Mother.
I want to say a word about inner silence. Inner silence is the vital atmosphere that is absolutely needed for the development of the spirituality of intercession. The silence, understood as the medium, as the means, as the environment, that is needed for lovers to encounter and exchange their love.
This silence is founded in two personal realities of the life of Elizabeth. First, the experience of the living God present within her; second, her mission of being a praise of glory in the Trinity. The perception of God present and operative in her spirit commits and convicts her whole complete, entire being: body, soul, and spirit. It asks of her a total unconditional gift of self, because the Absolute asks to be looked for, searched for, and loved absolutely in the same manner and degree that He gives Himself to us.
Elizabeth’s mission as a praise of glory obliged her to be an echo of the silence that exists in God. Interior silence and the Trinitarian spirituality OF Elizabeth are in a postitive sense, the stage of the person given exclusively to the love and service of God. This silence is obtained through self-control. We have to make conscious efforts to be silent. It was also for her sublimation, and her spiritual orientation which brought about liberation of the spirit. She had to part from any material reality that distracted her. She lived in a monastery with monastic discipline, but for us it’s more difficult, but it can be done. It is a science and it is an art, both things. I’ve been telling you the science of Interiorization and going to the center throughout these articles. But you and only you can cultivate the art. You know what works for you best. You must learn what’s most helpful for you to live constantly in the presence of the living God.
Our fullness of life in this world and in the one to come depends entirely on this principle: the practice of the presence of God. That interior silence present in the life and the spirituality of Elizabeth has two different aspects, which I mentioned earlier. First, it is active, which means there was a conquest that she had to make, like we do, through effort, blood, sweat and tears. The second element is passive. Once we are receptive, God comes in. This second element is purely a gratitos, a gift of God.
Active silence was the purifying process that Elizabeth realized in her person as the necessary condition to become a praise of glory. Notice in our lives how many useless, silly things we say: the gossiping and idle talk, the excessive watching of television and the practice of seeing and considering so many that are ot of the essence. We have to apply in out spiritual life from now on what St. Ignatius of Loyola called the tantum, quantum rule. What does this mean? Ignatius said, “In as much as this person, this activity, this endeavor, this ministry, this work; in as much as it helps me to obtain the goal of my existence, which is union with God, I do it. In as much as it doesn’t help me to achieve my goal, I don’t do it. Elizabeth practiced this rule. She probably never knew that it was St. Ignatius, but she lived it in her own life ruthlessly because she was consumed by the passion of only God.
Teresa of Jesus offered her the aesthetical program to clear her inner castle in the Way of Perfection 28:12:
So that soul won’t be disturbed in the beginnings by seeing that it is too small to have something so great within itself, the Lord doesn’t give it this knowledge until He enlarges it little by little and it has the capacity to receive what He will place within it. For this reason I say He is free to do what He wants since He has the power to make this palace a larger one. The whole point is that we should give ourselves to Him with complete determination, and we should empty the soul in such a way that He can store things there or take them away as though it were His own property. And since His Majesty has the rights of ownership, let us not oppose Him. [Even here below guests in the house are a bother when we cannot tell them to leave.] And since He doesn’t force our will, He takes what we give Him; but doesn’t give Himself completely unless we give ourselves completely.
This fact is certain and because it is so important, I bring it to your minds so often. He never works in the soul as He does when it is totally His without any obstacle, nor do I see how He could. He is the friend of all good order. Now, then, if we fill the palace with lowly people and trifles, how will there be room for the Lord with His court? He does enough by remaining just a little while in the midst of so much confusion.
Volume Two, pages 144-145
John of the Cross also gave to Elizabeth the spiritual dynamism of the nadas of nothing, nothing, nothing; founded on the purifying force that faith leads a person toward evangelical radicalism of a total gift of self. A Carmelite is a person that lives and breathes gospel values. And if we don’t, two things: 1) We are not Carmelites; 2) we are not even Christians.
Elizabeth said, “Carmel is like heaven. We have to abandon everything in order to possess the One who is all.” We don’t like to think about it, but these spiritual purifications were indispensible in the process of becoming, for Elizabeth. The purification of her human sensitivity and the purification of her senses were her starting point. The Fathers of the Church taught that the very first thing we need to practice in order to achieve this interior silence and attachment and purification is something this generation doesn’t know, doesn’t want to know, or ignores completely. That is a simple practice called the custody of the senses. Today we want to see everything and hear everything. We are so “programmed” to have noise, to have entertainment. No wonder we are so dichotomized psychically and have psychological troubles. Because of that we are depleted of our inner energies or the custody of our senses. Remember to apply this rule and remember how important it is to live the practice of God in our everyday life.
So, we have to become purified. We have to become empty. Whether we like it or not, we have to go through the desert. We have to be stripped of anything and of everything that is not God in out lives. Remember that Ezekiel 36:24-28 says, “In His immense mercy, I will lead you. I will bring you to your own land. I will cleanse you from all your impurities, from all your idols, I will purify you.” So this means that I have to be in such union, such a fusion with the Lord Jesus Christ and His Mother, who perennially directly and without deviation takes us to her Son, to that Jesus who takes us to the Father, and that Father who in unity of love wraps us up in His Holy Spirit.
He is doing it right now in your lives, guaranteed. You might be more or less aware, but I know, in the name of the Lord Jesus, that He is very active in you. However, He wants more, much more because He can never be content. This empty vessel has a particular quality that no other vessel has. The more it receives, the larger it becomes. As we become larger, only God can satiate the deepest existential hungers of our hearts. Only the Lord can quench all of the existential thirst that consumes us. Please, let’s not waste more precious time going all over the place drinking from those broken cisterns that cannot supply what we need most. I hope and I pray, that you and others who will read these articles, will be determined with a very determined determination, not to stop this process of Interiorization, this process of becoming, this process of deification, of searching for union with God, which is the goal of our existence. Even if the whole world collapses, we will not stop because our eyes as the Psalmist says, will be fixed upon the Lord who is always calling us and leading us and helping to bring us to a deeper relationship with Him.
In this last period of the life of Elizabeth, in the synthesis of her life, when she becomes more and more a praise of glory, her aesthetical spirituality is eminently Christocentric, centered on Christ. It is also profoundly, Marian, as you cannot do it without her, and essentially Trinitarian. Here again, she lives the doctrine of St. John of the Cross in faith, dark faith. Faith is the initial step, followed by hope, strengthened by charity and love. That is why faith is the key virtue of Elizabeth’s spiritual life. She said on October 10, 1906, “The Carmelite is a soul of faith” meaning it’s a person of faith, dark, naked faith.
Because she was wrapped in faith, she saw the hand of God in every circumstance of her existence. And she said that every event of life, of course with exception of sin, is a sacrament that reveals the Triune God to us. Elizabeth saw that we must become like a child, trés petite. She saw everything in her life in and through God, and saw God in everything. Her special formula, which explained it all was “my faith in love.”
It reminds me of one of my favorite Psalms: Ps 144:2, “He is my love, my fortress, my stronghold, my shield, my place of refuge, the One in whom I trust.” It is in the hour of suffering that her supernatural, heroic faith is most evident. Elizabeth is a praise of glory, and the glory of God consumes its victims. Her desire to become identified with Christ, the crucified One had become for her a surrogate humanity. This is why she took upon herself, given by God, of course, the role of adorer, atoner, and savior, uniting her sufferings with the suffering Christ. She knew her death was not going to be sweet ecstasy, but would be the abandonment that Jesus Christ experienced on Calvary. She said, “I am going to die in pure faith.”
Elizabeth pronounced at the top experience of her life, the culmination of her mystical itinerary, a revealing word, which expresses the depths of her process of purification. She said, “nescivi,” which translated means “I did not know anything else.” This is the doctrine of “not knowing” from John of the Cross, nada, nothing, nothing, nothing, lived in all of its consequences.
Most of the time, we do not know whether we are coming or going. However, there is one thing we do know, and that is what Our Lord says 366 times in the Bible. “Do not fear.” He has given us this message for every day of the year, plus one. Fear not. Not because He wants us to be superman or superwoman. No, the opposite; we are weak and wounded and broken. But don’t be afraid because He says, “I am with you. I take you by the hand. I do the journey with you.” It was the complete opening of her intellect to the supernatural world in order to be illumined by the word of God. The silence of the will led Elizabeth to become detached of all her natural inclinations in order to act always in conformity with the Divine Will. This is something we must strive for and ask the Lord what He wants us to do. This discernment should not only be for the great decisions in our life, should I marry, etc., should I enter the Order, should IN make vows, should I separate from my spouse? No. This has to be a reality for a Christian who lives the gospel values daily; it should be a constant exercise throughout our days asking, “Lord, what would you like me to do?”
There are some things that do not involve a profound discernment process. If you’re hungry, it’s obvious that you go and eat moderately. However, it is that attitude of a listening heart that is always in unison with the Beloved, and so is asking. We have to forget about the “I” and the “you”. It has to become a “we.” We have to develop a psychology of a married person with the Lord. Good marriages don’t make unilateral decisions. They consult about everything. At least they should. They have to if they want to be one mind, one heart, and one spirit. The same thing is true with the Lord. Invite Him into every activity of your life. Jesus, let’s go shopping, and please get good bargains for me. I tell Him that rather often. Jesus let’s go to the movies. Jesus, let’s go to this wedding, and let’s enjoy ourselves. If you’re dancing, dance the best because in enjoying yourself with Him, in His name and for His glory, you are becoming holy and having a wonderful time. Do you realize that? When you are loving your spouse with passion, with eroticism, what you are doing is sharing God’s own divine life that instituted that sacrament of marriage so that you will enjoy yourself to the utmost as humanly possible and that you will become open to the gift of life and love in a child, and become holy doing it.
Many of us Catholics have some very strange ideas sometimes. We think we have to have sour faces. That’s the most anti-Carmelite thing I could ever think of. Look at St. Teresa of Jesus. She was joyful, absolutely filled with the spirit of joy. She used to say from santa trista to trista santo. A sad saint is really a sorry sight. That’s one of the assurances of the presence and the action of the Holy Spirit in people’s life, joy. I don’t mean ha ha ha. I don’t mean these artificial smiles that are so fake. I mean joy, peace, and equilibrium. Of course, we have every reason to be so because the Kingdom is within.
I want to say a word about the unity of the spiritual self. The aestheticism of the interior silence creates the unification of our spiritual and of course our psychological self. As I mentioned before, Elizabeth’s spiritual life is dominated by two key ideas: the mystery of Divine Presence within her and the aesthetical doctrine of Carmelite spirituality. We have to practice self-control, we have to be disciplined, we have to do penance and we have to check all our passions and tendencies, in order to arrive at the goal of our life, which is union with God.
Elizabeth lived that immutability of God. She was anchored in Him. I thankfully speak from experience, we have a natural tendency, a product od original sin and also compounded by our personal sin, of going in and out of the fire. Today, yes. Tomorrow, no; or maybe I’ll just wait until next year, I’m really not that bad. It’s a pitiful condition. Elizabeth was in it for the whole nine yards. Interior silence is the unity of the Spirits. What she tried to do constantly, especially when she had a little time going from one place to another, or between one duty and another, was to go inside to her most profound center. She descended to the inner, unfathomable abyss in which God dwells. There she became replenished, nourished, strengthened and revitalized. We need to do that many times during the day, many times. Otherwise, the crazy lives that most of us live will literally eat us up. Because, we need to BE, even if it’s for a few seconds, it doesn’t matter. God is faithful, even if it’s an instant. The more we do it, the better we do it. Good practice brings mastery. Even if it’s just for a few seconds, go in. By putting ourselves in the presence of God, we become recharged. All the gifts and powers and fruits and charisms of the Holy Spirit become reactivated in us when we, as Elizabeth said, “are alone with God alone.”
I want to read some words that she said: “If you would only know what God demands of me in spite of the fact that He hides Himself so much from me.” You know that whole experience where the Lord sometimes likes to hide Himself. He’s nowhere in sight. The more you look for Him, the more He hides. This is a game of lovers. You know that also by experience. “In spite of that, He doesn’t allow me even a look outside of Himself.” He’s a very jealous lover. He’s very, very possessive. Inner solitude, of course, is not an individualistic trip. On the contrary it’s being alone with Him so we can find the Trinitarian plenitude, become converted, transformed, sanctified and go out to others, helping them in this process of becoming.
I want to say a very short word on the life of prayer of Elizabeth. Prayer is the integrative element of Elizabeth of the Trinity’s spirituality. She lived her life, as I mentioned before, in the style, in the spirituality of her mother, Teresa of Jesus. So, what did she do? She exercised a process of Interiorization by entering her interior castle, by entering within herself where God dwells. The second reality is a story of friendship. What she did inside was tatalia mystad an intimate sharing inside the very nucleus, the very core of the Trinitarian intra-relationship. She said that prayer was a cordial dialogue with her Three. In other words, prayer is life in the intimacy of the presence of God. So, besides the spirituality of presence, what Elizabeth of the Trinity lived to the fullest has very strong Teresian connotations. That is a spirituality of spousal love, of being the spouse of Christ, in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. The spouse of Christ, that’s what every Carmelite is called to become: friar, nun, or secular. Only with that profound transforming union with Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives, will we be able to arrive at that transforming union that really gives the essence, the weight, and the quality, to our spiritual lives. It is possible. You know, it is possible.
I’m asking, with these, my final words, that we take this very seriously. That this, be our raison d’etre, the reason for our lives, by which God calls us to Carmel. This is the call for every baptized Christian, that we really and truly allow God to be God in our lives, that we remember in very simple terms that the only ministry in the spiritual life, as we minister to others, is to know and love Jesus and to make Him known and loved. Please, in the spirit of Elizabeth, become present to presence. Amen.