Elizabeth of the Trinity
In Search of the Absolute
Elda Maria Estrada, OCDS
Editor’s Note: This was originally recorded as a retreat and distributed as an audiotape album by ICS Publications. We hope you enjoy it printed as a 5-part series throughout the balance of 2009.
These articles are fairly long, but can easily be read in one sitting. This first part was published in the March-April issue of the Carmel Clarion.
Part I – Elizabeth of Dijon: God’s Masterpiece
Each of five conferences will go into greater and greater depth. The first one is a preparation for what is to come. It is called “Elizabeth of Dijon: God’s Masterpiece.” This will be followed by “Elizabeth’s Process of Becoming, “Elizabeth: A Life Utterly Lived in Praise of Glory of Her Three,” “Elizabeth: Prophet of the Presence of God, Spirituality of Presence.” And finally, “Elizabeth: Spirituality of Interiorization.” Elizabeth is, in fact, God’s Masterpiece.
I will take you through the milestones of her life first and then focus on her personality. Elizabeth was French. She was born in 1880 on July 18th. Her parents were Francis Joseph and Marie Rolland Catez. She was baptized on July 22nd, which is the Feast Day of a woman who sinned much but her sins were forgiven because she loved much, Mary Magdalene.
In 1887, Elizabeth’s family moved to Dijon. They took up residence very close to the monastery of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns. See how God weaves the threads of our existence and takes us where he wants us to be? There is no such thing as a coincidence. The child was a prodigy. After her first confession, Elizabeth changed her conduct radically and decided to become a religious when only seven years old! Her determination mirrors her likeness to Our Holy Mother Teresa of Jesus. Elizabeth called this experience “my conversion.”
In 1891, when 11 years old, she made her first communion on April 19th. She went to visit the Prioress of the Dijon Carmel who told her the name she would take as a religious when she entered Carmel. She called her: “of the Trinity” and told her that Elizabeth means House of God. However, I did a little research and found out that besides being a House of God, the term Elizabeth means God is plenitude, God is fulfillment.
God is just awesome. Do you see how God is leading her! We must make connections in the very same way. He leads each and every one of us. The Saints, specifically the Saints of Carmel, are not just to be admired. We must ask ourselves how do I emulate that person? Every Saint is a living word of God and so are we, saints in the making.
In 1894, Elizabeth made a vow of perpetual virginity and was increasingly aware of her vocation to Carmel. She said I quote, “We gave ourselves to each other totally. I love Him with His own love.” We know that God’s own love is the Holy Spirit. God can be known intellectually as He knows Himself. And God can be known effectively and spiritually, as He loves Himself. That can only be achieved in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
When she was 11 years old, Elizabeth received the revelation of her personal vocation. She decided to love Him and only Him in the style of Deuteronomy 6, with all her heart, with all her mind, and with all her soul, and with all her strength. That’s the way we love in Carmel. And if you think I’m exaggerating, just go through the lives of Teresa, John and Therese.
In 1899, she was present at a retreat taught by Father Cherney, a French Jesuit. During that retreat, Elizabeth received her first grace of supernatural prayer. Prayer is the focus of our encounter with God. Everything of worth in our lives occurs only in and through prayer. For a loving person, everything turns into prayer. That’s exactly what Saint John of the Cross taught us when he spoke about mediated experiences. Everything becomes a means to union with God, a means to deeper knowledge of Him, and consequently to deeper love. Elizabeth describes her prayer as “being alone with God alone.” Holy Mother Teresa describes prayer an intimate sharing between friends and being alone with Him whom we know loves us.
So she began reading and was taken by the Way of Perfection. When she went to confession during a mission preached by the Redemptorist Fathers, she was given the assurance that by divine favor, the Lord had preserved her Baptismal innocence. In other words, she had not committed a mortal sin. The same has been said of our Holy Mother Saint Teresa of Jesus and of Saint Therese, a little flower with a stem of steel. You have to have that kind of willpower to really grow and to become holy. When that experience happened, she became confirmed in her vocation to Carmel.
I want to say something about the theology of vocation. Vocation is a gift like everything else. Therese says over and over again, “everything is a gift, everything is a grace.” But that gift needs to be nurtured like a little plant. It needs to be taken care of. It needs to be enhanced. It needs to be defended in order to become rooted. So in the theology of grace, God is giving. As St. Augustine says, “God cannot do it without me. I cannot do it without Him.” So there has to be the flux and reflux of God giving and myself receiving the gift to make it become alive in me.
Elizabeth wanted to enter Carmel right away, but her mother said no. She would not give permission until she reached the age of 21. So Elizabeth waited. She waited, hopeful that her mother would experience a change of heart. In the meantime, she didn’t waste any time. She offered herself as a victim for a sinner, a very public sinner and for the sins of the whole world.
In January 1900, she was on another retreat, this time with a Jesuit, Father Hoppenot. At that time she resolved to lead a life of a Carmelite in the world. Does that sound familiar? That’s us. Don’t get me the excuse, I cannot be a saint because I ‘m a mother. I’m a grandmother. I have a profession. So what? It doesn’t make any difference. It’s more difficult for us because we don’t have the canonical hours established, because we don’t have particular times of silence and recollection, and a special time for spiritual reading which nourishes our way of life. But if we are not saint, it is for one reason and one reason only. And that is that we don’t want to be.
Providentially, Our Lord places certain people along our path. For Elizabeth it was the wonderful Father Vallee, a Dominican. During a visit in February 1890, he explained to her the theology of he indwelling of the Blessed Trinity. She had a keen awareness of the Trinity dwelling in her soul and that was the changing element of Elizabeth’s life. That became the Raison d’etre of her existence. It became her center, her axis, her north star.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, used to say, “God is closer to me than I am to my own self.” While I am saying this, my cry to the heavens is: where in the world are we! We are distracted, divided, dichotomized, dispersed all over the place except in the center where the true action is. We need a conversion. We need a profound change of direction. We need to gather everything, everything. That’s what recollection means – to really gather all that is dispersed and bring it to the center where God dwells, lives, abides, loves and calls us to a constant meaningful, personal, intimate, transforming and sanctifying relationship.
On August 2, 1901, Elizabeth entered Carmel as a postulant. She received the habit on December 8th of that year and was given the name of Marie Elizabeth of the Trinity. On January 11, 1903, Elizabeth made her religious profession. It’s interesting that the motto of the Carmel of Dijon was, “God in me and I in Him”, which is really the Trinitarian indwelling. I have not been to Dijon yet. I am waiting for our dearest Elizabeth to be canonized. And I am going to step out in faith and make a prophetic utterance, that Elizabeth will also be another Doctor of the Church, because of the depth of her spiritual doctrine is unparalleled. I hope and pray that that is so and soon.
In 1904, on November 21st, she was inspired by the Holy Spirit to compose her famous elevation to the Blessed Trinity, a most divine prayer, which is a synthesis of her experience of the Trinity and also of her spiritual doctrine.
In 1905, she began experiencing the symptoms of her illness, the illness that ultimately would take her life. She was relieved of her duties and allowed to live a less rigid observance of the Carmelite life. At the Feast of Easter, she discovered her particular unique vocation Laudem Gloriae, or Praise of Glory of the Trinity. In February 1906, while so gravely ill, she became fully convinced that her personal vocation to be a Laudem Gloriae of the Trinity was going to become realized in the measure and in the degree that she configured herself with the wounded, suffering, broken Christ of Calvary. Her initial vocation was and will always be Trinitarian, but the Father in the Person of he Holy Spirit sent her back to the son so that she could experience the Pascal mystery in all of its pathos, agony, and suffering.
On March 1st, after experiencing a severe crisis she was placed permanently in the infirmary. She knew what was coming and she was ready. She surrendered totally to the Divine will. When I say that, I remember the words of aint Augustine, “Oh Lord, that I love You so much that I can only want or not want, only what You want or not want.” It takes a lot of love to be identified with Him in such s way and to such a degree.
In the beginning of May 1906, she suffered a tremendous relapse and in order to sustain her, God gave her the very special grace of experiencing His divine presence. In July of that same year, Elizabeth spoke at length with her Mother Prioress and through the exchange of these two persons that loved the Lord so much, Elizabeth gained a deeper understanding of her vocation to become a living image of Jesus crucified.
On October 15th, the Feast of our Holy Mother Saint Teresa of Jesus, she was allowed to have a last visit with her spiritual director, Father Vallee and the members of her family. On November 1st, Elizabeth received her last communion and then entered into a very painful death agony. On November 9, 1906, she passed sweetly and swiftly to Heaven to sing the praises of the Trinity for all eternity. In 1984, on November 25th, on the Feast of Christ the King, Elizabeth of the Blessed Trinity was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Now, let’s look more closely into her personality. Elizabeth was a live wire. She had a very strong temperament. She was impulsive and irascible. I love to hear those things. The saints were people of flesh and bones, passions, and untold limitations and imperfections, as are we. The only difference is that when they fell, they appealed to the mercy of God, got up right away and continued hoping against hope.
She was a very determined person. Her governess said and I quote her, “This girl has a willpower of steel. She will obtain whatever she sets out to do.” Her mother said Elizabeth was “est tres diabolique”, a little devil. She said that lovingly, but Elizabeth was a handful. Elizabeth had a very gregarious personality. She loved to be with her friends. She was vivacious and expressive. She was extroverted, but had a contemplative nature. She had an extremely passionate personality.
Elizabeth was profoundly enamored of beauty and a tremendous artist. She found beauty in all of its manifestations. She saw every created reality as nothing but an echo of the beauty and goodness of the Father, who through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit makes everything what it is.
Elizabeth possessed fine qualities. She had a very delicate sensitivity towards beauty and friendship. Sometimes you hear the expression that every gift has a downside. The flaw of character that Elizabeth had to fight most strongly, was this sensitivity. She was hypersensitive, as was Therese.
She had a delicate sensitivity for friendship and a highly developed artistic sense. She had a great passion for music and was a very accomplished pianist. She also had an extraordinary aptitude for contemplation. She has such a rich and ardent nature that is caused her problems.
However, like her mother Saint Teresa, she was able to maintain balance and equilibrium. Elizabeth acquired a tremendous amount of self-mastery through which she obtained a great harmony, balance and equilibrium. And of course, it was not easy. Don’t think or believe that these saints were born saints. They became holy, first through great love. Hat is the secret of the whole thing, the great love that was translated in a profound conversion process and a profound transformation process bringing them closer and closer to Christ, until they were transformed into the image of Jesus the Lord.
Her mother said and I quote, “In Elizabeth I admire the work of grace.” Elizabeth’s sensitivity is the foundation of her availability to others, of her openness to friendship. Elizabeth was extraordinarily endowed for communication, for loving exchange, for friendship. That is why, like her Mother Teresa, she realized that the intimate sharing between friends was her life. A friendship developed, nurtured, rooted with her “Three,” inside of her, in her most profound center.
I want to share a quote of something Elizabeth said in the 1900’s: “Divine Master, allow that my life be a continuous prayer that nothing, nothing can distract me from You, neither my occupations or my joys or my sufferings. Lord, take possession of my whole being. Holy Will of God be always my will.” And also, she repeats it again, “In the world, I want to totally belong to You.” I think this statement of Elizabeth should be our prayer as well; that nothing, nothing can distract us from becoming more and more aware, more and more conscious of the divine presence within us. Elizabeth continued, “I am Yours. Take possession of me, of my will, and of everything that I am.” This appeared in her diary on January 27, 1900, the Feast of Saint John the Beloved Disciple.
Together with artistic love for beauty, we have to be aware of Elizabeth’s humanness. Her heart was enlarged by her contact with her “Three.” Her experience of being loved by them was the source of everything valuable in her life.
Elizabeth said, “He teaches me to love as He loves.” We need to go to the feet of Jesus and listen. Listen is the first contemplative verb. We need to listen, be quiet, and still whatever is distracting us. In the words of Saint John of the Cross, in the first stanza of the poem, Dark Night, I left my house.” In other words, I went out of myself after everything was still and quiet. In silence we can listen to the Lord’s voice, which is so gentle, so soft, so subtle, and then He can teach us to love as He loves.
Elizabeth has a very affective heart. Friendship penetrated all of her human and spiritual attitudes. She realized that friendship did not simply mean spending time with someone. She understood friendship in the most profound sense, because it is the calling of every baptized person. We are called in the words of Saint John of the Cross to union with God, union with the Father through the Son inn the power of the Hly Spirit. Saint Teresa of Jesus takes that and calls it spiritual marriage. Teresa also calls it friendship. Saint Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of all time, said that there is no one more existential term that can better describe the profound union with creator and creature than friendship.
The impression one gets from reading her letters is that for Elizabeth, friendship is like a physiological need. We cannot deny that without this quality, we wouldn’t have had the Elizabeth of the profound experience of the Trinitarian Indwelling. Once she discovered that presence, she also discovered slowly but surely, that the presence was absolute and dynamic. Our Lord wanted to relate to, be connected with, and infuse Himself within her, to be One with her. In the school of Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross, she learned very well and very early that the love of God increases the love of neighbor. This appears in the Way of Perfection, Chapter6, numbers 7 through 9.
In Carmel, Elizabeth experienced how her capacity to love was enlarged. That brings to mind what they said about Holy Mother Teresa, who had a transverberated heart. Our Lord made her heart as vast as the sands on the seashore. In her, in Elizabeth, as in every love whether human or divine, that friendship has to be purified and perfected. In Elizabeth, all the aspects of her rich personality have their vertex. their point of convergence, their unification, their nucleus in her absolute fidelity to her Trinitarian vocation to the living, loving God who constantly and eternally lives and loves within us and calls us to an ever deeper relationship that will culminate in a more profound transforming and sanctifying union.
I repeat what I said at the beginning, the Saints are not just to be admired. They need to be imitated. They are living works that God gives us so that by looking at one or the other we can see how God loves each one of us personally, particularly, and individually.
I hope and I pray that while we consider this great woman, Elizabeth, there may be awakened, revived and strengthened in us that appreciation, that love, and the ardent desire to realize what Saint Luke (Lk 17:21) says, “the Kingdom is within,” and that like Elizabeth, everything in us will converge in our most profound center. Amen.