The Carmel Clarion is going to focus on the life and writings of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. So the following article will be the first installment seeking to gain a better understanding of the way she lived the history of the indwelling of the Trinity in her life, as well as the heavenly mission she accepted, to teach us how to let our souls be a paradise where God can take his delight. The first two issues by Father Marie Michael Phillipon, O.P. provides us with a perspective of her early life before Carmel.
“A Carmelite: in everything she bears the mark of this predestination.”
Before we seek to sound analytically the depths of the soul, one general remark is called for: Elizabeth of the Trinity became a saint only after eleven years of struggle and constant retouching of details. Even after she had entered Carmel and had there spent several years of silently faithful religious life, it remained for her to undergo at the hands of God, those purifications by which He brings heroic souls to the unchanging peace of transforming union, above all joy and all suffering.
PART 1- INTERIOR LIFE IN THE WORLD
As the daughter and granddaughter of soldiers, Elizabeth Catez bore in her veins the quickly roused the blood of warriors. She inherited a fiery temperament. When not more than three or four years old, she once shut herself into a room of the family dwelling and stamped and raged behind the door, kicking that offending bulwark furiously all the while.
Until she was seven, these violent outbursts marked her childhood. It was impossible to control them. There was nothing to do but wait for the storm to subside of itself. Then her mother reasoned with her and taught her to overcome herself through love. “That child has a will of iron,” her teacher would say. “She is determined to have what she wants.”
She was but a child when her father died in her arms and left her with only her mother and her sister Marguerite. Marguerite was a gentle and retiring girl, and Elizabeth shared every hour of her life with her until her entrance into Carmel.
Undisturbed by any other serious event, life flowed along in Dijon in happy Christian fashion.
Her first confession wrought a change in Elizabeth’s soul which she later called her conversion, a shock “which caused a complete awakening. with respect to the things of God.” (56) From that day forward she resolutely entered upon, the struggle against her predominant faults: anger and oversensitiveness. This hard phase of spiritual warfare was to last until she was eighteen. The priest who prepared her for her first Communion and knew her well told an intimate friend of her mother: “With her temperament, Elizabeth Catez will either be a saint or a demon.”
This first contact with Jesus, hidden in the Host, was decisive. “In the depths of her soul she heard his voice.” The “Master took possession of her heart so completely that thenceforth her one desire was to give her life to him.” (P47). To the astonishment of those around her, a sudden and profound change took place in Elizabeth and she began to make great strides toward that calm self-command, which was soon to characterize her. One day, after Holy Communion, she seemed to hear the word “Carmel” spoken in her soul. She understood. She was only fourteen when, on another occasion, during her thanksgiving, she heard an interior call from the Master and she instantly made a vow of virginity in order to belong to Him alone. She was to die faithful to that vow, and as pure as a Lily.
Her poems, written between the ages of fourteen and nineteen, speak only the name of her beloved Jesus, her heavenly Mother Mary, her angel guardian, the Saints, and Joan of Arc, “the Maid whom none can dishonor.” (P. 25).
Carmel had a particular irresistible fascination for her, in her verses sing the praises of the externals of the Carmelite: the course surge habit, the white veil, the cheap wooden rosary, the hairshirt chastising the flesh and, lastly, the ring worn by the bride of Christ. (P38). A she lived very near her dear Carmel, she often went onto the balcony of her room, “sadly dreaming,” and gazed long and fixedly at the monastery. (P40). Everything spoke to her heart: the Chapel hiding the Master of her life, the ringing of Angelus, then knell for the dead, the cells with their “tiny windows” and the poor furniture, where the nuns rested after a long day of redemptive prayer. She was seventeen, and longed for the realization of her dream, still so remote. She did try once to escape “this sad, seductive world” by having a priest friend speak to her mother, but Mme.Catez could not be moved. So, in prayer, Elizabeth confidently awaited God’s hour.
After that attempt, she was claimed by a constant round of amusements and parties, in which Mme. Catez quietly urged her to take part. Perhaps without wishing to dissuade her daughter from her vocation, she secretly cherished the hope that God would not take her from her. Nor did he Elizabeth need to be urged; it was enough for her that her mother wished it. She went everywhere, and apparently always enjoyed herself. “She never seemed the least bit bored,” is the constant refrain of those who knew her. No one could have guessed that Elizabeth was the future Carmelite whose intense interior life, wholly hidden within herself in Christ, was to bring to the Unchanging Trinity a most moving testimony of silence, and recollection.
She made a beautiful figure, always simple, but irreproachably dressed, and she received several offers of marriage. Typically, she bought new gloves for one of her last evening attires, not wishing anyone to suspect her departure. She joyously took part in the social life of her circle, shunning nothing but sin.
Throughout the year, at Dijon, Elizabeth gave herself to good works in her parish. She helped with the choir, she taught catechism to the children and to older first communicants, whom the little girls made fun of, and did whatever else she was asked. She also had charge of the club for “tough” children who worked in the tobacco industry. They were so passionately fond of her that she had to conceal her address from them to keep them from overrunning her home. As Elizabeth of the Trinity, she later followed their lives and protected them with the Carmelite’s silent prayer.
With exquisite tact, Elizabeth was at home with everyone, everywhere. She loved her childhood because of its innocence and God granted her a wonderful gift of interesting youngsters. At parties for the family and friends, she sometimes had as many as forty children around her. She liked to get up tableaux, particularly of Jesus in the midst of the Doctors, and we find her dressing up her little company and teaching it how to act. She herself wrote both script and music for the plays, and she was especially clever at arranging children’s dances. Finally, when all the excitement of the play had died down, chairs would be set out in the garden, and she would read to them while, all ears, they listened to “Patira.” Sometimes they teased her to join in their games and she would smilingly give in. During the month of May, the little group she took to church used to make her stay in the back, as near the door as possible. And, “scarcely was the tabernacle closed then we would drag her off for a walk. Then she would make up wonderful stories to tell us. Elizabeth Catez always fitted into every mood.”
Let us remember this characteristic. In the cloister as in the world, Elizabeth of the Trinity tried not to seem different from others. With the rest, she appreciated the good tarts made by Francine, the best cook of Dijon, and laughed gaily at the heavy dinners typical of the South of France which filled them to the bursting point the three days after.
As the summer holiday came round, the family always left Dijon and went on long journeys. Thus Elizabeth visited Switzerland, the Alps, the Jura, the Vosges, the. Pyrenees, and a considerable portion of France.
Her letters show that she enjoyed herself; she was made much of in the whirling round of visits to relatives and friends and became strongly attached to a few chosen friends. More often, however, she seemed simply to mingle in the groups of girls of her own age, having, motives both of charity and good breeding, a happy companionship with all.
“Our stay, at Tarbes has been nothing but a long succession of pleasures; afternoon dances and musicals, country excursions, one after another. The people at Tarbes are delightful. I have come to know a number of girls, each more charming than the rest. When X, who is a very good musician, and I were together, we never left the piano, and all the music shops in Tarbes could not keep us supplied with pieces to play at site.” (L13).
“We’re leaving today for Lourdes, and it breaks my heart to leave my dear Yvonne. She is the prettiest girl and a wonderful character. As for Mme. X…, not a trace of her illness remains; she is younger and more stunning than ever and always so kind. The day before yesterday was my eighteenth birthday, and she gave me a very lovely set of turquoise blouse studs. Write to me soon. I must leave you to finish packing. I shall be thinking of you a great deal at Lourdes. From there we will tour the Pyrenees, going to Luchon, Cauterets, etc. I am wild over these mountains, which I am looking at while I write to you. I feel as though I could never live without them.” (L13).
She was especially charmed, with Luchon. “It deserves its name of Queen of Pyrenees. I was more excited about it than anyplace. The location is in comparable. We spent two days there and were able to make the trip through the Lys valley. We had gone out in large Landau, drawn by four horses, and were with cousins of R…, and S…, whom we had met again at Luchon. These ladies put us in the charge of someone we knew, who is also making the ascent as far as the Gouffre d’Enfer. We were 1801 meters above sea level, hanging over that horrible abyss. Madeleine and I thought it so beautiful that we almost wanted to whirl away in those waters, but our guide, enthusiastic as he was, felt differently. He proved to be much more cautious than we, who galloped along the edge of the precipice without feeling the least bit giddy. Our friends gave a sigh of relief when we got back, for they had hardly felt easy about us during our escapade.” (L16).
Thus she hurried from one set of friends to another, enjoying the most delightful life, as she tells us herself. Luneville was typical: “Lunching here, dining there, in addition to numerous tennis parties with the most charming girls.” (L13). In short, she had not a minute too herself. On 14th July, she was present at the review at the Champ de Mars, because of her family’s close friendships in military circles. As befits an officer’s daughter, she was thrilled by the Calvary charge. “Just imagine all those helmets and cuirasses sparkling in the sun. . . . The dazzling performance ended in the evening, in the groves of the park, with fairylike illuminations rather resembling Venice.”
Yet amid these worldly amusements, in her heart she was still homesick for Carmel. As soon as the guests had left, without the slightest effort Elizabeth was back again with the Lord she had never left. At Tarbes, in order to escape for a moment from the noisy, gaiety, she took refuge in a Carmelite convent, and the out-sister found her kneeling by the grille in the parlor. Gladly would she have kissed every wall in the house of God! Lourdes was close by and for three days she buried herself in recollection near Our Lady of the Rock. Holidays and social gaieties easily dropped from her mind. Rapt in prayer, she remained motionless for long time before the grotto, beseeching Mary Immaculate to keep her pure in her own image, and offering herself as a victim for sinners. (P64).
Nothing could distract her from her Lord. Later on, from her Carmel at Dijon, she could write this postscript in a letter to her mother: “Do not forget to make your meditation on Friday, when you are on the train; it is a very good opportunity, as I remember.” (L295). She spoke from experience. Likewise, the earthly riches of the great cities she visited left her indifferent. For her, Marseilles, meant Notre Dame de la Garde, (L18) and Lyons, only Fourvieres. (L14). At Paris, to which she had gone with her mother and sister for the great Exhibition of 1900, only two things really interested her: Montmartre and Our Lady of Victories: “We went to the Exhibition twice. It is very fine, but I detest the noise and the crowd. Marguerite laughed at me and declared that I was like someone just returned from the Congo.” (L347).
During this period of her life, her generous watchword was “agendo contra.” A note in her diary, made when she was nineteen, reads: “Today I had the joy of offering Jesus several sacrifices over my dominant fault, but how much they cost me! I recognize my weakness there. When I receive an unjust reproof, I feel as though the blood is boiling in my veins; my whole being rises in revolt . . . . But Jesus was with me. Deep down in my heart I heard His voice and then I was ready too hear anything for love of Him.” In order to find out whether she was really advancing in the way of perfection, she kept a little notebook in which, every evening, she marked down her victories and defeats.
Elizabeth tried to fast without her mother’s knowledge, but the watchful Madame Catez discovered the fact in a few days and scolded her very severely. Once more Elizabeth obeyed. God did not will to lead her by the way of the great mortification of the saints. It was to be the same throughout her life at Carmel. The silent Trinity expected another kind of homage from her. “Since I can impose almost no suffering on myself, I must accept the realization that this physical suffering is only a means-albeit an excellent one-of attaining to interior mortification and complete detachment from self. O Jesus! my Life, my Love, my Bridegroom, help me! It is absolutely necessary for me to reach that stage at which I may always, do the contrary of my own will.”
The First Mystical Graces
God could not wait to reward Elizabeth’s continual efforts to triumph over her nature by secret touches of His grace. The ascetic life leads to the mystical life and constitutes its necessary safeguard.
With her usual good sense, St. Teresa said: “Delicate living and prayer do not go together.” All this is quite normal. The Living Flame of LoveAscent of Mount Carmel, with its dark nights and active and passive purifications such as to make the most resolute tremble. We are too prone also to forget the long contemplative ecstasies of the author of the Spiritual Exercises in his cell at Rome, where the enraptured Ignatius murmured over and over: “O beata ‘Trinitas!” We need not deny absolutely diversities of tendencies and spiritual paths-alius sic, alius sic ibat-but the Scriptural truth includes all these shades, and saints of all schools meet at a point beyond them all. At the summit, they are all transformed into Christ, identified with the beatitude of the Crucified. presupposes the painful
The “spiritual combat” against her faults and the triumph over her natural temperament led Elizabeth Catez to the first manifestations of those mystical graces which were to transform her life, at first slowly and by successive touches as though step by step; then, from the time of her religious profession, by a calm and continuous motion; finally, in the last phase, the six months spent in the infirmary, by giant strides lifting her to the loftiest heights of transforming union.
She did not become aware of these first divine touches (received during the course of a retreat in January 1899) until several months later, when she was reading the works of St. Teresa. Her diary’s account of the matter is of the greatest importance in the history of her spiritual life. It marks her entrance into the mystical way after a hard spiritual struggle which had lasted more than eleven years; which, in fact, was never to end.
“At present I am reading St. Teresa’s Way of Perfection. I find it tremendously interesting and it is doing me a great deal of good. St. Teresa speaks so well about prayer and interior mortification, that mortification which, with God’s help, I am determined to reach. Since I cannot for the present impose great sufferings upon myself, I can at least immolate my will at every moment of the day. Prayer-how I love the way St. Teresa handles this subject! When she speaks of contemplation, that degree of prayer wherein God does everything and we do nothing, wherein He unites our souls to Himself so intimately that it is no longer we who live but God living in us … oh, I recognized there the moments of sublime rapture to which the Master deigned to raise me so often during that retreat, as He has done since then too. What can I render to Him for such great benefits! After these ecstasies, those high raptures, during which the soul forgets everything and sees only its God, how hard and trying ordinary prayer seems! How painfully one must toil to unite all one’s power! How much it costs and how difficult it seems!”
God was even then raising Elizabeth to the higher states of prayer and this was obvious when she prayed. She would be seen coming slowly up the central aisle in the parish church; she would kneel down in her place and be immediately absorbed in deep recollection. For a long time she would remain motionless as though wholly possessed by God. Her most intimate friend was always struck by the sudden change that would come over Elizabeth the moment she entered the church to pray. “She was no longer the same person.”
For some time, she had been experiencing strange phenomena in the depths of her soul, which she could scarcely explain to herself. She felt as though she were dwelt in. “When I see my confessor,” she said to herself, “I shall speak to him about it.”
The Meeting of Father Vallee
It was then that she met a Dominican Friar at Carmel, the meeting with whom was to give a decisive orientation to her interior life. Mother Germaine of Jesus, Sister Elizabeth’s prioress and novice mistress and the author of the Souvenirs, justly remarked that “this providential meeting” recalls, by its effects of grace, that of which St. Teresa tells us in the Eighteenth Chapter of her Life and the Fifth Mansion of her Interior Castle (First Chapter)(566). The Saint does indeed relate how “a great theologian of the Order of St. Dominic [Master Banez, a celebrated professor at the University of Salamanca] by confirming from the doctrinal standpoint what she had experienced of the divine presence within her during prayer, brought great consolation in addition to the complete security which the truth gives.”
When Elizabeth timidly questioned the distinguished religious as to the meaning of the movements of grace of which she had been aware for some time and which gave her the impression of being dwelt in. Father Vallee replied, in the forceful, thought provoking language that characterized him: “But most certainly, my child, the Father is there, the Son is there, and the Holy Ghost is there.” And, like the contemplative theologian he was he proceeded to explain further how, by the grace of Baptism, the soul becomes that living temple of which St. Paul speaks and how together with the Holy Ghost, the whole Trinity is present with Its creative and sanctifying power, making Its dwelling in us, coming to abide in the most secret recesses of the soul, there to receive in an atmosphere of faith and charity the interior worship of praise and adoration that is Its due.
Elizabeth was delighted with this dogmatic explanation. Since it was grace that was urging her, she could, in perfect security, yield to her interior attraction and dwell in the innermost depths of her soul. During this interview she was overcome by an irresistible movement of recollection. The priest went on talking but he soon saw that Elizabeth Catez was no longer listening. “I was longing for him to be silent,” she said later to the Prioress.
Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity is completely portrayed in this avowal eager for silence under the influence of the grace received.
On his part, Father Vallee said of this decisive hour: “I saw her borne away as on a tidal wave.”
Elizabeth was one of those souls who, having once seen the divine light, never turned aside. From that day on, everything was transformed and illuminated; she had found her way. Henceforth, no matter what happened, the Trinity was to be her whole life.