Elizabeth of the Trinity
Part II – The Carmelite
When Elizabeth Catez was shown her Carmelite cell she was heard to murmur, “The Trinity is there!”
At her very first community exercise in the refectory, when she had finished her frugal meal, Elizabeth was seen to fold her hands simply beneath her cape, then, her eyes closed, to fall into a profound mood of meditation. The nun who was serving, noticing her, said to herself, “It is too good to last.” She was mistaken; the Carmel of Dijon possessed a saint.
Elizabeth’s Carmelite Ideal
A week after her arrival at Carmel, Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity filled out a questionnaire, at recreation, which shows us her state of mind on the threshold of her religious life. The most characteristic features of her spiritual physiognomy are already clearly indicated there; her ideal of sanctity-to live by love in order to die of love; her ardent devotion to the will of God; her love of silence; her devotion to the soul of Christ; the watchword of her whole religious life-to bury herself in the very depths of her soul in order to find God there. Nothing is forgotten, not even her dominant fault, over-sensitiveness. The only things lacking are that stripping of self which will be the work of the passive purification of the novitiate and the supreme grace which will transform her life by showing the meaning of her final vocation: to be a praise of glory to the Trinity.
What is your ideal of sanctity?
To live by love.
What is the quickest way to reach it?
To become very little, to give oneself wholly and irrevocably.
Who is your favorite saint?
The Beloved Disciple, who rested on the heart of his Master.
What part of the Rule do you like best?
What is the dominant trait in your character?
What is your favorite virtue?
Purity. “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.”
What fault of character to you most dislike?
Egoism in general.
Give a definition of prayer.
The union of her who is not, with Him Who Is.
What is your favorite book?
The Soul of Christ. In it I learn all the secrets of the Father Who is in heaven.
Have you a great longing for heaven?
I sometimes feel homesick for heaven but, except for the vision, I possess it in the depths of my soul.
In what disposition would you wish to die?
I would like to die in an act of love, and thus fall into the arms of Him Whom I love.
What form of martyrdom would you prefer?
I love all forms, but especially the martyrdom of love.
What name would you like to have in heaven?
“The Will of God.”
What is your motto?
“God in me and I in Him.”
In accordance with her special grace, it was in the very depths that she lived her Carmelite ideal. She went straight to the essentials: solitude, the life of continual prayer, the consummation in love.
“A Carmelite is one who has beheld the Crucified, who has seen Him offering Himself to His Father as a victim for souls and, meditating in the light of this great vision of Christ’s charity, has understood the passion of love that filled His soul and has willed to give herself as He did. On the mountain of Carmel, in silence, in solitude, in a prayer that never ceases because it continues through all else, the Carmelite lives as though already in heaven, by God alone. The selfsame God Who will one day be the cause of her beatitude and will fully satisfy her in glory, is already giving Himself to her. He never leaves her; He dwells within her soul; more than that, the two become but one. And so she hungers for silence in order to be always listening, to penetrate ever more deeply into His infinite Being. She is identified with Him Whom she loves. She finds Him everywhere; she sees Him shining through everything.” (L133)
“There is the whole Carmelite life: to live in Him. Then all the sacrifices, all the immolations become divine. The soul sees Him Whom she loves through everything, and everything takes her to Him. It is a continual heart to heart union. Prayer is the essence of the life at Carmel.” (L 136)
Her favorite point of the Rule was silence and, from the very first, she was delighted with the familiar motto of the early Carmelite: Alone with the great Alone.
Sensible Graces of Her Postulancy
As often happens, the first stage of the religious life of Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity was marked by a flood of sensible consolations. God leads souls to the heights slowly, taking them to Calvary by way of Tabor. Sister Elizabeth often went to her Prioress declaring, “I cannot bear this weight of grace.”
At that time, she would scarcely reach the choir and kneel down before being irresistibly enveloped in deep recollection. Her soul seemed to be immovably fixed in God. She passed through the cloister silent and absorbed and nothing could distract her from her Christ. One day a nun saw her so seized upon by the divine presence while she was sweeping that the sister did not even speak to her. Outside of recreation hours, when Sister Elizabeth was joyous and charmingly spontaneous in manner, chatting with each of her sisters about what she knew would please her, her whole outward bearing showed a soul possessed by God. This recollection of her powers as though lost in God even caused some involuntary forgetfulness during the Divine Office of which she sincerely and humbly accused herself. She was visibly upheld by grace.
So passed the months of her postulancy. Her clothing took place on the 8th of December and Father Vallee came to preach the sermon. Completely given up to the joy of her total surrender to her Master, Sister Elizabeth that day lost consciousness of what was taking place around her, being wholly absorbed in that Christ Who had taken possession of her. In the evening, back once more in her little cell, alone with Him, her soul exulted. A song of thanksgiving rose to God from her heart. For a whole life of love she was at last alone with Him Who is Alone!
The Purification of the Novitiate
Thus far divine grace has been showered upon her. She had yet, through weary days, to experience her nothingness, to feel that she was a poor creature and capable of any failing and thus to become more understanding of her sisters’ weaknesses.
For a long year God was to leave her to herself: to her helplessness, her weariness, her hesitation over her own future, even as to her vocation. On the very eve of her profession a priest would have to come and reassure her and declare what was God’s will for her bewildered soul.
Facility in prayer disappeared. No more flying: she had to feel her soul dragging itself along. Her artist’s nature lay dormant; her sensitiveness was dying. Many, many times did the young novice go to her Mistress and faithfully report her helplessness, her struggles, her temptations, the martyrdom suffered by her sensitive nature in passing through the terrible nights described by St. John of the Cross. To help in the accomplishment of the divine work, Mother Germaine of Jesus guided her kindly and firmly. At the time of Sister Elizabeth’s entry into Carmel, she had realized how excessively sensitive she was. In the evening during the Great Silence, the young postulant loved to walk on the terrace; the sight of the sky helped to raise her soul to God. One evening, Mother Germaine happened to pass by. It was the time of the Great Silence, so she said nothing, but the next day the young postulant heard these words addressed to her: “We do not come to Carmel to dream in the starlight! Go to God by faith.”
Later on, in order to test her, Mother Germaine never lost an opportunity to reprimand her for the least shortcoming, the slightest oversight. Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity would then humbly kiss the ground and go on her way.
Mother Germaine of Jesus purposely disciplined an over affectionate disposition which might easily have become dangerous. The brave child let her do so, for, from experience, she understood better than anyone else how necessary it was for her to watch over her heart at every instant. As a young girl, she had become extremely fond of a friend whom she met almost daily at Carmel and had had long, intimate conversations with her. She loved to write to her and to read and re-read her letters, especially the passages in which her friend declared that she loved her more than anyone else. This recalling of her girlhood’s past in retrospect throws special light upon her religious psychology.
“Dear little sister, yes, let us be only one; let us never be separated. On Saturdays, if you are willing, we will receive Holy Communion for each other. This will be our contract and so shall we always be one. Henceforth, when God looks at Marguerite, He will see there will be but one victim, but one soul in two bodies. Perhaps I am to sentimental, dear sister, but I was so happy when you told me I was that sister whom you loved best. I love to re-read those lines. You well know that you are indeed my little sister, beloved beyond all others; need I tell you so? When you were ill I felt that nothing, not even death, could separate us. Oh! Sister dear, I do not know which of us two the good God will call first; our union will not cease then, but, on the contrary, will be perfected. How good it will be to talk to the Beloved of the sister one has left behind!
“Who knows? Perhaps He will ask our blood of both of us! Then what happiness to go to martyrdom together! I cannot think about it, it is too good!. . . .Meantime, let us give Him our heart’s blood, drop by drop!”
There is a certain sentimental emotionalism in these lines and, from the oral testimony of this same friend, we cannot but recognize that Elizabeth was excessively affectionate. Could anyone be astonished at weaknesses like these in the saints! Even St. Margaret Mary was momentarily held back by a too human affection for one of her sisters, for which the Sacred Heart reproached her. St. Thomas, who was both a great doctor and a great saint, teaches that no one on earth can completely divest himself of faults or weakness; ot even the most perfect escape them.
A fine book-and a most consoling one for us-could be written on the failings of the saints and the manner in which they corrected them, with God’s grace aiding their own efforts.
As soon as Elizabeth Catez perceived her heart was not free, she heroically detached herself, but gently and with exquisite tact. “Dearest Marguerite: I can safely confide some thing to you, though I do not want to hurt you. You see, in the chapel with you this morning I realized that being there together was even better than our nice talks; so if you are willing, we shall spend with Him, side by side, the time we used to spend in the garden. Am I hurting you? Dear little sister, have you not felt as I do? It seems to me that you have. Tell me, quite simply. You know that you can say anything to your Elizabeth.”
After this generous act of detachment, this intimate friend told us, “I felt her move away.”
Something similar, but very much deeper, took place during the phase of passive purification which Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity understood during her novitiate. All her senses had to attain this complete detachment which alone can set the soul free.
No one around her, except her Prioress, even suspected this stage of purgative suffering. At that time, everything which it would seem should have consoled her either left her indifferent or irritated her. Even a retreat preached by Father Vallee whose teaching, beautiful and profound as always, she truly appreciated, could not rescue her from this interior anguish. The priest himself no longer understood her and, over and over, sadly asked: “What have you done to my Elizabeth? You have changed her.” The work he did not understand was God’s doing and men could avail nothing.
From that hard year of trials, Sister Elizabeth gained a more robust faith and an experience of suffering that would enable her to understand and comfort other souls who were being tested by God. The essential result of this period of purgation was to render her more virile and to establish her definitely in a spiritual life based entirely on pure faith, which would henceforth go forward peacefully, under the eye of God, secure from any recurring assaults of over-sensitiveness.
Physical health returned with the establishment of spiritual balance and the conventual Chapter admitted her to profession. She was informed of this fact on Christmas Day. As on all the most important occasions of her life Sister Elizabeth took refuge in the all-powerful prayer of Christ in the Mass. This time, however, she most particularly sought His help, begging for a whole novena of Masses from the venerable priest friend who had been the first person to whom she had confided her aspirations when, as a little girl, she had climbed upon his knee. Then Sister Elizabeth disappeared in retreat beneath her lowered veil. She passed like a shadow through the community halls, her face always veiled, and her Sisters enveloped her with their prayers. But soon the retreat, begun in such joyous anticipation of her profession became so painful as even to raise doubts as to her future and her vocation. It was necessary to send for a religious of wide experience who reassured her. Sister Elizabeth believed the priest’s word as the voice of God. It is customary in Carmel to prepare for profession by keeping a sacred vigil the night before. Sister Elizabeth was in choir, wholly united with her Lord, beseeching Him to take her life for His glory, when the Master visited her. “During the night preceding the great day, while I was in choir awaiting the Bridegroom, I understood that my heaven was beginning on earth: the heaven of faith, with suffering and immolation for Him I love.” (L 169)
A new stage of her spiritual life was beginning. No longer would there be sufferings from a sensitive nature not yet purified, or scruples and anxieties over mere nothings. Henceforth she would tread the road to her Calvary with the peaceful and unshakeable confidence of a bride who knows she is loved: she would go forward amid the most heroic sufferings with the majesty of a queen.
Intense Interior Life
Her profession once made, Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity set herself on the pursuit of religious perfection, without the least sentimental emotionalism but with a new enthusiasm and a calm, heroic strength which would lead her from sacrifice to sacrifice, up to the consummation of Calvary.
The whole program of her inner life was to realize her name Sister Elizabeth, that is, the House of God, in which the Trinity dwells.
It is true that this seeking of the presence of God in all circumstances is the very essence of the Carmelite life and is in the established tradition of the Order. St. Teresa constantly refers to it in her Interior Castle. “Intimacy with the Three Divine Persons” constitutes the central truth of her mystical doctrine.
By a special grace, Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity found the most characteristic inclination of her interior life in that doctrine. Her letters, her conversations in the parlor, her poems, her retreat resolutions, all converge on this dwelling which was, if we may trust her own testimonies, “:the beautiful sun lighting her life.” (L 261) “This day I understood that. Everything became clear to me. My only practice is to enter into myself and lose myself in Those Who are there.” (L 179)
As the years of her religious life passed, her soul buried itself more and more in this tranquil and peace-giving Trinity, which at every moment imparted to her something of Its eternal life. At times, indeed, there were still some slight disturbances in her interior life, but more and more everything hushed to silence. “It is the greatest happiness to live in close union with God, to make one’s life a heart to heart intimacy with Him, an exchange of love, to know that the Master is to be found in the depths of the soul. One is never alone then, but must have solitude in order to enjoy the presence of this adored Guest . . . . Everything is lighted up and it is so good too live.” (L 161) “You ask me what I do in Carmel. I might answer that a Carmelite has only one thing to do: to love and pray.” (L 168) “A Carmelite life is a communing with God from morning till night and from night till morning. If He did not fill our cells and our cloisters, how empty they would be! But we see Him through all for we Hear Him within us and our life is an anticipated Heaven.” (L 192)
The tranquil rhythm of this spiritual life is simple, constantly coming back to certain unchanging essential movements: to be silent and to believe in Love, Who is there, dwelling in the depths of the soul in order to save it. Many “nights” and weaknesses remain, it is true, but what do the involuntary waverings of a soul that lives in the presence of the Immutable matter? Gradually everything grows quiet and becomes divine.
And so the life of Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity flowed on. In that fervent Carmel, where so many other great souls were living by God and for His glory, it must not be imagined that she was an extraordinary figure, to be pointed out as “the Saint.” It is the normal thing in monasteries to canonize religious only after they have been taken from the community! At Dijon, Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity was merely the ever faithful novice who, like so many others and as a true Carmelite, was wholly “hid with Christ in God.”