Elizabeth: The House of God
Michael Gaughran, S.S.C
On 22 March 1913, Dom John Chapman, Benedictine noted for his spiritual direction, wrote to a Jesuit, ‘You asked for a picture of St. Therese of Lisieux; I have one on the table, so I enclosed it. She is very popular because she is so pretty! But you should read Sr. Elizabeth of the Trinity who is much more wonderful.’ Now I am not accustomed to comparing saints – each is a gift of God and each in his or her own way is a masterpiece of grace – but that was a very great compliment. Sixty-one years later, the Church pronounced this same Elizabeth as Blessed on the Feast of Christ the King.
We congratulate our Carmelite sisters on their joy at seeing another of their family raised to the altar. Carmel lives for the praise of the glory of God and by this Beatification the Church recognizes another aspect of its spirit, because each of these Carmelite saints is so different in many ways; and yet the heart of their life is always so true to the initial inspiration of Holy Mother Teresa.
But this spirit is not for Carmelite Sisters alone. For the life of Carmel does not consist of living some kind of spiritual life reserved to those within the enclosure, which has no reference to the rest of mankind. Rather, it is a question of living in its fullest depths the truth of every baptized soul. So often we lack understanding of the wonderful spiritual gifts that have been given to us, so that we do not feel drawn to live them deeply. Perhaps it is Elizabeth’s greatest gift to put before our eyes the wonder of life’s holiness. By holiness of life I do not mean the things we do well, the things we get right, the virtues we practice for only God is holy. The true holiness of life lies in the fact that ‘God with us’: ‘His name shall be called Emmanuel, which means God with us’ (Luke 1:23). He is with us not only in the world, in the Church, in God’s people; He is the treasured possession of every single one of us: the treasured possession of the soul. Carmelites live this truth and Elizabeth lived it, though not by writing another dry, theological book. These have their place but, thank God, Carmelites do not add to the number of unread books on our shelves. The book of the Carmelite is her soul, so often read by God who looks into the heart of His devoted servant and reads it with joy because it is written for Him in love. But now and again, by some chance, one of them comes into the open. It is her gift to tell the world all about it. And Elizabeth had that task for us, to speak about what she lived with all the generosity of her young life. She gives us what we need: a perception of doctrine, that is, the truth of God perceived in deep faith; it is a doctrine lived to the full in faith. If you were to live the Catholic life to the full, you have to understand the fruit of grace and live by it. This is the doctrine that we need today. There is no shallow sentiment here, but faithfulness to the truth that she lived.
Who was she, this little saint of holiness? She was the daughter of an artillery officer, born in 1880 in a military camp, who lived most of her life in Dijon, Burgundy. She did not start life as our ideal saint. She first appears on record, demonstrating her colorful personality at the age of about two, being taken into a church where she spotted a crib, one of her own dolls which her mother had, unknown to her, lent for the festivity there. There was a screech in the middle of the prayerful silence. ‘You wicked priest, give me back my Jeanette!’ The is a photograph of her about this time, clutching the said doll, with a face you would not say launched a thousand ships.—it would have sunk the whole lot of them without a trace! She was a thoroughly aggressive, bad tempered, dreadful little soul. ‘A will of iron’ her teacher said of her. ‘She gets what she wants at all costs’. And presumably whatever it cost anyone else!’ The priest who prepared her for her first confession predicted, ‘This one will grow up to be a saint or a devil’, but she cannot go down the middle way. There is something positive here to be harnessed but which would cost her dear for years.
But God took a hand. Her first confession brought an exceptional grace and this resulted in her entering upon a struggle with herself in which she overcame her temper altogether. At the age of nineteen she wrote, ‘It seems to me that, when someone says something unjust to me, I can feel the Blood boiling in my veins; my whole being is in rebellion! But Jesus was with me. I heard His voice in the depths of my heart and then I was ready to bear anything for love of Him’. What a long way she had to come in those years of struggle! Grace comes that way; there are two sides to it. There is the grace that demands something active of ourselves to fight for virtue, fight God’s good battle. Then there is the other more passive grace when God fills the soul. Elizabeth did not start as a saint, but all that mighty will in her was applied from the outset to the cause of God.
God did not leave her alone. At the age of fourteen, Elizabeth, who had already heard the call to religious life, seemed to hear one day after Holy Communion the word ‘Carmel’ spoken in her heart. She had already thought of the Trappistines — (she wanted something tough to fight) – and now Carmel became her one desire. At once she consecrated herself by a vow of virginity. Carmel became her whole ambition. Yet for a long time she suffered the opposition of her mother who even banned her from visiting the Carmel. For years, dominating that will of hers, Elizabeth remained obedient to that mother. She said later, ‘If she had not permitted it, I would never have entered’. But she set out to live it just the same, imitating St. Catherine if Siena who said, ‘I will create a little cell in my heart and adore God there.’ She lived in her heart what she longed to be: ‘Let me live in the world without belonging to the world. I can be a Carmelite within me and that I wish to be!’
She was a girl of high spirits; she plunged into life; which she loved. She was a most accomplished pianist, taking prizes. She loved nature, she loved the sea, she loved adventures and new experiences, going aboard an ocean liner, watching a cavalry charge. She loved her friends with very great warmth, which never left her even in Carmel. That was the kind of person she was.
The outward details of her life are interesting, but they only goo so far. Later on she was to write of our Lady, ‘In her everything took place within.’ And this is the secret of Elizabeth and the secret of Carmel. Her heart was for God and in the midst of activity there was a recollection of heart, which some people noticed, ‘it was as if she wasn’t with us’. Why are some people saints, and other not? Many could be proclaimed saints, but they are not. There seems to be a providence that watches over it. When the Holy Father was a Cardinal and he talking about Fr. Maximilian Kolbe he said, ‘Saints are selected because they are signs for our times’ offering the world a lead, pointing in the direction it needs to travel, perhaps correcting a failure. Elizabeth was just that. This is an age when there is a hunger for the things of the spirit; many directions are taken, some of them strange: too much of us and too little of God; spirituality can often have too much of sentimentality and feeling about it. Perhaps this is at least part of her message: the need for a life lived in faith and according to sound doctrine. I am convinced too that she is a saint for the young. Elizabeth lived only twenty-six years. Very many of the things she wrote addressed to young people; but always they contained strong meat: the strong love of God, the interior life, the life of faith. She spared them nothing. A young person living the deepest spiritual life – isn’t that a gift for today when the young often find it difficult to know where they are going? This is for us all.
But the grace which was, to mark her most deeply and was the first step towards doctrinal truth which was to shape her life, the doctrine by which she lived, began on her first Communion day when she enjoyed the treat of coming to Carmel. The Prioress, Mother Mary of Jesus, gave her a little explanation of the meaning of her name, Elizabeth. ‘It meant’, she said, ‘House of God’. She must have been referring to the fact that Elizabeth had just received her Lord within her. The name Elizabeth fitted the occasion.
Nothing more is recorded about it at this time. But the wonder of the truth of the name came to her later at the age of about nineteen when she received a grace, which gave the sense of a Presence. About that time she wrote in her diary concerning the social life she was leading,
You know good Master, when I am at these gatherings and festivals, my consolation lies in recollecting myself and enjoying your presence, for I feel You so truly in me, my Supreme Good. In these gatherings people hardly have a thought for you, and it seems to me that you are happy when even one heart as poor and miserable as mine doesn’t forget you.
She felt she must ask her confessor about this presence. About this time an eminent Dominican, Fr. Vallee, happened to be visiting Carmel. There they met and Elizabeth confided in him. Understanding the nature of the soul before him he explained in reply, ‘Yes, child, it is true the Father is there, the son is there, the Holy Sprit is there’. It was a continuation of the original grace: Elizabeth – the house of God.
She came to understand for the first time the great grace that belongs to every one of us from the day we were baptized. Our Lord expressed it most completely in one verse of the scriptures, ‘If a loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ (John 14:23). Here we have the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit as the guest of the soul. This was the great truth, which was the springboard of Elizabeth’s whole life.
The tabernacle is the most treasured place in the world, not to say the Church. In the tabernacle dwells the living God and we fall on our knees as we approach it. But as St. Therese once said, ‘God did not come down to earth to live in a gold ciborium’. God has found a home far more worthy of Himself: the human soul made in His own image and likeness. Each one of us can say, ‘I was made for this: the Living God within me. It is the greatest treasure on earth. His name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us’ (Mt 1:23). This is the truth that underlies our whole existence. For this Elizabeth was made. And she was made to give to the Church an understanding of this amazing truth. ‘Do you not know’, said St. Paul ‘that you are God’s temple and that God’s Sprit dwells in you’ (Cor 3:16). And again, ‘Doo you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (Cor 6:19).
At the end of her life, Elizabeth was to write about what she was convinced would be the grace that she would give to the Church when she was in heaven.
In heaven, I believe, my mission will be that of drawing souls into interior recollection, helping them to go out of themselves, to cling to God through a movement that is wholly simple and wholly loving and to preserve them in that great silence of the ‘within’, which allows God too imprint Himself on them and to transform them into Himself.
She was beatified in the Church to give this message to the world.
Bl. Elizabeth lived by a doctrine. It was this: to live in company with Him alone. The whole of Carmel is based on this. Anyone who knows the writings of
St. John of the Cross and of Holy Mother Teresa, knows that in the heart of their teaching lies this truth: God lives at the peak-point of the soul. Some would say, the center of the soul. Bl. Elizabeth talks about the abyss. It is all one and the same things. The very deepest truth about myself is that ‘I live not I, but Christ lives in me’.
When she entered Carmel and knew she was to be called by her own name, she wrote, ‘Did I tell you what my name in Carmel is to be, Sr. Mary Elizabeth of the Trinity. It seems to me to be a particular vocation’. Her own name spelt out the meaning of her life: house of God, house of the Trinity. Perhaps in this time as never before, it is hard for us to grasp and live truths of this kind, to grasp and live the truth of the interior life. We have to accustom ourselves to enter within, to live face to face with the unseen; that is, with the God in whom we believe. We believe Him because He Himself has told us that He is there.
How are we to manage? There is so much to do even in the consecrated life, and so many activities. It seems as if the salvation of the world depends on our efforts. Our spiritual energies became dissipated over so many things that it is hard sometimes to draw them together. There are the interminable discussions, which are the killer of the interior life; and the many activities, which are unnecessary since they are not duties of state. In our homes there is the blare of television, so ungoverned and unbridled. So that to go ‘within’, to penetrate into the realm of the truths of faith is something very difficult for us today. There is something else, if I dare mention it, which crops up in our very prayer life: a dependence on groups, an externalizing of prayer to the point where, though good in themselves, these factors eliminate the urge to seek God alone in the silence of the soul. We have to be very careful, in a noisy age, to look for the silence, which is necessary in order to find God. Sometimes one hears people say, ‘Well, so long as you pray, it doesn’t matter how’. But for the soul who wishes too taste the gifts of God there is a price to be paid – and it does matter. It matters desperately. We must long to find God where He wants to be found: in faith within ourselves.
That is why for Bl. Elizabeth, as for Carmel, the person of Mary Magdalene was always such a treasure. She was one who put everything else aside just to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen; and she was content to listen and found it was a sufficient use of her time. We have often to live in a noisy world. That we cannot help. But we must struggle to keep a reserve within ourselves, which will help us to return to the things of God.
Friendship with God is the heart of the Christian life. When we consider what it means to be a Christian, we must beware of the danger of thinking it is a question of doing many things in Christ’s name. This is not what He wants first of all. What He wants is the love of the heart: that personal quality of love which inspired St. Mary Magdalene to pour out the ointment lavishly so that everybody said it was a waste when so much could have been done with it. But our Lord’s reply was ‘Leave her alone; she has done it for me. It is for me and there was no waste in giving it to me’. Silence of the heart is the greatest testimony of our love for Him. As Elizabeth used to say, ‘I gather up all my faculties just to concentrate on Him’.
It is the gesture of true friendship to desire the Beloved’s company. Elizabeth put it so simply once in a letter to a young girl.
Like me, you have to build yourself a little cell in your soul; you must think that the good God is there, and you must enter there from time to time. Ah, if you knew it a little, prayer would not be tedious for you; it seems a rest and relaxation to me; you simply come to the One you love, stay close to Him like a little child in its mother’s arms, and you let your heart go. You used to like so much to sit very close to me and give me your confidences, and that is how we must go to Him. If you only knew how well He understands…
Simplicity is the bulwark of Carmel. It has nothing to do with big ideas or very many ideas. It is not concerned with knowing all the books of theology or long complicated books on psychology. St. Teresa said, ‘I don’t want a whole lot of ideas’. God doesn’t want a lot of ideas. He wants great love. And the simpler it is, the better. It is simplicity to treat Him as the Friend He is. ‘I do not call you servants any more, I call you friends’ (John 15:15). ‘Come and talk to me’, He says. ‘Forget everything for a moment. I am always here, come and speak to Me; come and tell Me of your love and appreciation’.
But this relationship with God demands self-discipline. It needs a discipline. Why? Because of the way we find God. Not through feelings but with faith. Carmel has much to say about this. We are speaking here of a doctrine, a revealed truth concerning God’s presence. We are not speaking of what we feel about God. Great spiritual masters like St. John of the Cross used to say that if you attach yourself to feeling, if you enjoy that feeling so much that you want to hold on to it, however spiritual and inspired it may seem to be, it is not God. It is just your feeling about God. No, we must believe in Him and go on believing whether we feel Him or whether we don’t, whether we enjoy our prayer or whether we don’t. We must pray because we believe.
Even before she entered Carmel, Elizabeth’s faith was tested in a dark night, which eclipsed the sensation of God in her soul. She wrote to a friend,
Pray hard for me, beloved sister; for me too it is no longer a veil which hides Him from me, but a very thick wall. It is very hard, isn’t it, after feeling Him so close, but I am ready to remain in this state as long as it pleases my Beloved to leave me there, for faith tells me that He is there all the same, and what is the use of sweetness and consolation! They are not He. And it is He alone that we seek… so let us go to Him through pure faith …
She says too, “God in me and I in Him” – let that be our motto. Ah, how good that presence of God within us is, in the intimate sanctuary of our souls. There we always find Him; even though our feelings no longer register His presence. He is there all the same.
And God asks that of people. He purifies us of attachment to too much feeling, too much consolation, too much of us, so that we can find Him in pure faith. That is why it is a mistake to try to create a spiritual atmosphere that depends too much on the emotions. It is looking for the wrong things. The purer in faith our prayer becomes, the better it is. It is a price that has to be paid, a price that demands discipline.
The soul who wants to follow Elizabeth must desperately want to live with God. And so it must give time, give effort and give energy, regularly to come back to that inner cell and choose that presence of God within rather than the many other attractions that are calling for attention during the day. God asks a price, and He may not let us feel His presence immediately. And so Elizabeth says,
I’d like to tell every soul what a source of strength and peace and happiness they would find if they would consent to live in this intimacy. The only thing is they don’t know how to wait – and God does not give Himself in the way the senses perceive… When He comes to them armed with all His gifts, He finds no-one: the soul is outside itself in external things instead of dwelling in the depths.
You may say to yourselves, ‘This is fine for the Sisters of Carmel’ and leave it there. But Elizabeth wrote this sort of thing for lay people. This was Elizabeth’s high ideal for everyone: come back and live the great treasure that God has given you.
All this came together in another experience that Elizabeth has later. In 1905 when she was visiting Sr. Aimee in her cell, the Sister drew her attention to a passage from the beginning of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Here St. Paul spells out the meaning of our life, the destiny God ordained for us, ‘We have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of His glory (Eph 1:12,14). Thus Elizabeth discovered the next grace of her life: to live for the praise of the glory of God. That seemed to her to sum up everything. She was to enter into that little cell within her and find there the Blessed Trinity. She was to live for the praise of His glory – and that would be all.
And what did she find in there? Reading her prayer to the Blessed Trinity which she wrote on a sudden inspiration on the night of the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, you will find she speaks of silence. And so she says, ‘ help my to be changeless and calm . . . May nothing disturb my peace . . . Your heaven . . . keep me all absorbed in Thee . . .’
Elizabeth wrote this contemplating the Incarnation. She thought of the day that the angel had come to Mary, the coming of the Son of God. Elizabeth knew that at that moment the Father had looked own on that little creature, Mary, and the Holy Spirit had come upon her because she was so little and given to God. And so the Son of God was made her own. Elizabeth knew she too must become little and quiet in the presence of God. The longing grew that the miracle of Nazareth would be repeated in her, that in her flesh, her body, her human nature, the Son of God would come again to praise His Father’s glory. She wanted too be the home of God, the place where the Eternal Son was present. So we find her saying to the Holy Spirit,
O consuming Fire! Spirit of Love! Descend within me and reproduce in me, as it were, an incarnation of the Word, that I may be to Him another humanity wherein He renews all His mystery. And Thou, O Father, bend towards Thy poor little creature and overshadow her, beholding in her none other than Thy beloved son, in whom Thou art well pleased.
For Elizabeth knew that in that silence within her, which was not just a silence of words but a silence filled with longing for God, that longing would be answered as Mary’s longing for the will of God was.