Elizabeth Of The Big Feet: Teen years
Elizabeth had gone as far as she could with her piano studies at the Dijon Conservatory; if she wanted to continue, she would need to go to the Paris Conservatory. It was decided that she would stay in Dijon and take a further two years of harmony instead. In addition, perhaps concerned that her general education was not keeping up with their music studies, Mme. Catez engaged in a new teacher for the two girls, Mlle. Irma Forey. She was too easy going, though, and their studies had been too neglected for them to improve.
In an attempt to get to know her new pupils better, toward the end of November Mlle. Forey gave them an essay to write-to describe their physical and moral portrait. Elizabeth tackled the assignment with a light touch that revealed almost nothing of her inner life.
To draw one’s physical and moral portraits is a delicate subject to deal with, but taking my courage in both hands I set to work and begin!
Without pride I think that I can say that my overall appearance is not displeasing. I am a brunette and, they say, rather tall for my age. I have sparkling black eyes. And my thick eyebrows give me a severe look. The rest of my person is in significant. My “dainty” feet could win for me the nickname of Elizabeth of the Big Feet, like queen Bertha! And there you have my physical portrait!
As for my moral portrait, I would say that I have a rather good character. I am cheerful and, I must confess, somewhat scatterbrained. I have a good heart. I am by nature a coquette. “One should be a little!” they say. I am not lazy; I know “work makes us happy.” Without being a model of patience, I usually know how to control myself. I do not hold grudges. So much for my moral portrait, I have my defects and, alas, few good qualities! I hope to acquire them!
Well, at last this tedious task is finished and am I glad. (Works, v. l.p. 13)
Her friends agreed that she wasn’t pretty in the accepted sense. She normally wore her thick, dark brown, waist-length hair caught back to hang loose or in a long plait. According to Francoise de Sourdon, her mouth was too large and her nose turned up a bit too much. However everyone agreed that there was a luminosity about her that made her special. Above all, it was her incomparable dark eyes. “She had a look about her,” said Antonette de Bobet, “her smile! What I still see is that radiance, that look. I felt as if she could see right through me.” (LLL 9) It was above all when she was in prayer, or returning from Holy Communion, that her expression was unforgettable.
Already, by the age of fourteen, she could in all honesty say that self-control, rather than lack of patience, was characteristic of her. Her temper tantrums were long a thing of the past, although perhaps only she knew how her blood could boil at an occasional slight or injustice, and that she would need all her self-control to bite back an impatient or angry word. Only the most observant of her friends noticed her self-denial, so graciously and unobtrusively did she practice it, eating whatever was given to her, giving way to the wishes of others. One of her friends testified that no one ever remembered her saying anything bad about anyone, or anything good that wasn’t true. (Souv. 24-25; LLL 51)
She was most appreciated not only for her kindness and thoughtfulness toward others but also for her tremendous drive, her sense of fun. “She did not love the world but she was in it and seemed to enjoy herself (EP 4:2-9; LLL 9), summed up Francoise.
The year at the Conservatory ended with Guite taking First Prize for the piano, and Elizabeth winning a prize for harmony. It was an exceptional hot and humid summer, and they were glad to get away from Dijon to the Midi where, in the refreshing air of the pine woods of Mirecourt, they had some respite from the heat.
They spent a longer period at Champagnole with their old friends the Halles. “Every day we set out as tourists,” Elizabeth recorded in the diary she kept of the holidays, “either by carriage or on foot, for we have excellent legs and are not frightened by 20 kilometers. (CE 30; LLL42) Charles, a year and a half younger than the two eldest girls, Marie-Louise and Elizabeth, must have felt somewhat overwhelmed by the female company and ended up arguing with Elizabeth on one of their trips. She was very fond of him, though, the “little brother” she and Guite didn’t have themselves.
The next year was Elizabeth’s last at the Conservatory. Guite won First Prize for Excellence with reviews in the local paper calling her a little prodigy. Then they were off once more on their holidays with a packed itinerary that she described in a letter to Alice Chervau:
We have arrived safely in Carlipa, less tired than mother feared. We stopped for four hours in Lyons, time to make a pilgrimage to Fourvieres, which was crowded. The basilica is splendid; Lyons has lavished all her wealth on it. Leaving Fourvieres we dined at a restaurant in the open air, then at eight o’clock we left for Cette, where we arrived at five o’clock in the morning. We spent our morning on the beach admiring the sea that I love so much and watching the bathers. By four o’clock we were in Carlipa, where my cousins pampered and fussed over us, and we did honor to the excellent Midi cuisine. We are having some marvelous walks; only after a storm the temperature is so fresh that it is almost cold. (L9)
“I have put my hair up,” she added in a postscript, “and it has made me look very grown-up.” Suddenly, she was a young woman.
From Carlipa they went to Saint-Hilaire to see Canon Angles and were given such enormous meals that their stomachs begged for mercy, then to Limoux, where she met another of her friends, Gabrielle Montpellier. “She is twenty years old and charming,” wrote Elizabeth to Alice.
We are having some wonderful trips into the country. Tomorrow we are going to spend the day at Ginoles-des-Bains, and we are looking forward to it immensely…. I am making lots of music here; my friend has an excellent baby grand that is my delight; it has a superb tone, and I could spend hours at it. I accompany Gabrielle’s cousin who plays the violin very well; her husband is an excellent pianist and we sight-read for four hands. (L 11)
There was also the visit to Lourdes, probably the second time. She had been there, and they returned to Dijon, at the end of October.
What she didn’t mention in her letters was her increasing homesickness for Carmel. It was only in her poems, which she called “the echo of my heart,” that she was able to express her longings for the solitude of Carmel, for a cloister hard and austere. (P. 29) The Dijon Carmel was just around the corner from their house, and from her bedroom window Elizabeth was able to see part of the garden, a stately avenue of trees, with glimpses of sisters working or praying in the garden, and drink in every detail of their monastic dress…. She loved all of this, but at the same time. It was tantalizing to have Carmel so near, and yet so far.
On three days of February 1897, three clothings took place, which Elizabeth attended and described in a poem, noting every detail:
The gentle chimes of Carmel.
Mount slowly to heaven.
The altar is adorned with flowers.
Releasing their sweet fragrance.
The candles shine everywhere,
Making it a corner of heaven.
All at once, in her bridal robe,
The gentle bride appears.
Her face is pure and radiant,
Her joy is painted in her eyes.
Soon at the monastery door.
She goes and gently knocks.
And veiled figures within austere air.
Come and open to her, singing.
At the foot of a great crucifix,
This confidant, this heavenly friend,
His bride kneels,
And gives her heart to her divine Spouse.
Then, saying farewell to those she loves on Earth.
She disappears to live alone.
With these elite souls,
A pure and humble Carmelite. (P 31).
Elizabeth would often slip into the Chapel at Carmel to pray or to go to Mass; she could talk sometimes to the extern sisters, with perhaps an occasional visit to the parlor. Seeing the sisters at close quarters, she could take in every detail of the coarse brown habit, the big wooden rosary with its simple crucifix, the white mantle, the leather belt, and she longed for the time when she would be clothed in them all, when she would have a bare cell with its bed of boards herself.
Her confessor, Abbe Sellenet, left Dijon around this time to take up another post; he had long been convinced that Elizabeth’s vocation was genuine, and before he left, he spoke with her mother, urging her not to oppose Elizabeth’s call to the cloister. Unfortunately, his intervention had the opposite effect and alarmed by the thought that she really could lose Elizabeth Mme. Catez forbade her to make any more visits to Carmel. This was an enormous blow to Elizabeth, but one she obeyed without question. In her poems, she expressed her longing to suffer with and for her mother, and there would be no greater sacrifice for her than this.
What she could do, though, was to steep herself in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and absorb the Carmelite spirit. Her poems of this period drew their inspiration quite heavily from St. Teresa’s writings; ironically, she used her mother’s own treasured copies of St. Teresa’s works. Prayer was becoming habitual to her, as natural and necessary as breathing:
My heart is always with him,
And night, and day it thinks
Of that divine and heavenly Friend
To whom it wants to prove its tenderness. (P 43)
She wanted to keep herself pure for him, to do what pleased Him, and to suffer long for Him on behalf of others. This bare recitation sums up the basis of her spiritual life, and from it brings the richness of her mystical life.
The asceticism implied in this poem was lived out unobtrusively in the social round and of the enjoyment of their extended holidays. In 1898 they stayed at Tarbes, which, as Elizabeth wrote, was one long round of pleasures: with a wide circle of friends. She attended dances, played and listened to music, and went on trips to the countryside. It was only in an unguarded moment during a party was she was dancing and having a good time at Mme. D’Avout caught of faraway look in her eyes and whispered to her, quote, Elizabeth, you were not here, you see God.” Elizabeth smiled at her without speaking. (AP 648; LLL 9).
From Tarbes they went on to Lourdes that corner of heaven were Elizabeth was able to pray and receive Communion at the Grotto for three days. From her description it was far different from today. “They don’t have big pilgrimages,” she wrote to Vallentine
Defougues, “I love the calm of Lourdes.” (L. 15)
After Luchon, though, it was on to dear Carlipa, which Elizabeth loved so much, and before whose peaceful serenity even the splendors of Pyrenees faded. Her contemplative Spirit was deeply at home in the quiet tranquility of the country life she loved. They returned to Dijon, via Marseilles, the Grand chartreuse, Annecy, Grenoble, and Geneva. At Marseilles, they went on board, a transatlantic liner, when once again she gave evidence of her strong stomach and nerves; she was not affected by an extremely rough crossing in the small boat that took them out to the ship. At the Grand chartreuse she was able to appreciate the depths of the silence that enveloped the famous abbey, deep in this magnificent countryside of richly wooded mountains. They stayed in a small convent close to the Abbey; each having a cell to sleep in, with atrociously hard beds. At Annecy they stayed with a friend of Mme. Catez and were able to tour the picturesque Lake. (L 18)
Mme. Catez hoped that she might persuade Elizabeth to change her mind by having her experience some of the beauty of the world that she was so intent on leaving. In this she failed, Elizabeth, in the words of Scripture, was charmed by their beauty but knew how much the Lord of these excelled them, since the very Author of beauty has created them. (Wisdom 13:3) All that she saw simply raised her mind and heart to their Creator and made her long for the sight of the One whose beauty was far beyond what she saw. But it did provide her with a rich store of memories and experiences when she was within the cloister that she loved far more than the world.