Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity

Address given by Christopher O'Donnell, O.Carm., at the Closing of Centenary Year Celebration of the Irish Carmelites (O.Carm and OCD) at the Church of St. Columcille, Knocklyon, on Pentecost Sunday, 27 May, 2007.

It is just a year since the centenary year for Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity was opened in Clarendon Street Carmelite Church, Dublin. The year has been marked internationally by many publications especially by a critical biography by the leading expert on Elizabeth, Fr. Conrad De Meester, OCD, called simply, Élizabeth de la Trinité: Biographie.[1] We hope that it will be available in English within a year or two. As this is the feast of Pentecost, we can consider the life of Blessed Elizabeth as a work of art of the Holy Spirit and recognise what the same Spirit would wish to do in our lives.
The main facts of her life can be easily outlined: she was born in 1880 the first of two children of a French army officer, Captain Joseph Catez and Marie Rolland the daughter of an army officer too. When Elizabeth was seven, her father died. Within a year she was talking about a religious vocation and at the same time she began her highly successful piano studies at the Dijon conservatoire. Her mother would not let her enter Camel until she was twenty-one. Elizabeth Catez was a Carmelite nun for just five years; she died in 1906—hence our centenary year. So we are invited to be interested in a Carmelite nun dying at the age of twenty-six, having spent only five years in the convent—at least St. Thérèse was nine years in the Lisieux Carmel, though she died at the age of twenty-four.
For over a quarter of a century Fr. Conrad has been making the point that the early life of Elizabeth is essential for understanding her. The first major study in 1938 by the Dominican, Fr. Marie-Michel Philipon[2] wrote eleven pages on her life before she entered Carmel and two-hundred and one pages on her five years as a nun. Fr. De Meester divides his massive book into 400 pages for her life before she entered Carmel and 329 pages to her Carmelite life. If we follow Fr. Conrad, we shall find that she has an important, urgent and relevant message for our times. I would like to put before you her family life, then her spiritual journey, before concluding with some thoughts on her life in Carmel.
Elizabeth was very devoted to her parents. When evidence was being gathered for her beatification witnesses described her father as an excellent Christian, and her mother as a very good Christian. Tributes at his funeral spoke most warmly about his leadership qualities in the army; he was well liked and respected by both his superiors and his subordinates. He was also active in the local church. After his death at the age of fifty-four from heart problems, Mde Catez moved to a smaller home, an apartment within 200 metres of the Dijon Carmel and quite close to the conservatory where Elizabeth would study music. That was the only school she went to; all her non musical education was at home with tutors. Her Mother was a widow of forty-one and on a reduced pension, helped out by better-off relatives and friends.
Whereas Elizabeth’s father was rather easy-going, her mother was quite tense, anxious and with some traces of Jansenism in her service of God She wrote to her husband when he was away on military duties: “Don’t forget my advice; take care of yourself; do not drink too much beer, or smoke too many cigars; take care of your health and think of us.” Fr. Conrad notes five orders in two lines. Mde Catez was bitten by as snake around the time Elizabeth was born. She recovered, but after that people said she always looked at least fifteen years older than she really was. Elizabeth loved her mother deeply; she recalled her as loving and severe.
A major problem was Elizabeth’s quite terrible temper tantrums. When she was nearly two, a religious sister borrowed Elizabeth’s doll for the Christmas crib. She said that it would be so dressed up with a starry dress as to be unrecognisable. But when Elizabeth saw the doll, she screamed in a rage, “Give me back my Jeannette.” She had to be removed from the church. Her mother had two main punishments: a hard smack on the face, or neglecting to give Elizabeth a goodnight kiss. Mde Catez continued to have a flexible arm; when Elizabeth was eighteen she spilled ink on a new dress. Before she knew what, her mother had delivered a heavy blow to her face.
Still Elizabeth’s temper made it very difficult. Her mother in despair used to pack a small case for Elizabeth, threatening to send her as boarder to the local borstal or correction school in Dijon This critical issue of her temper would last until her First Communion at the age of ten, when Elizabeth realized how much suffering it was causing her mother and how it was displeasing to Jesus; she then very quickly reduced and eliminated this behaviour Until she entered Carmel at the age of twenty-one she remained a bit like an active volcano, that did not erupt and whose lava no longer flowed. She constantly prayed about this as her predominant fault. Even at eighteen she spoke of the blood boiling in her veins at some injustice done to her; but by then she had come to know the strength of Jesus supporting her: “But Jesus was with me, I heard his voice in the depths of my heart, and then I was ready to put up with anything out of love for him.” (Journal 1)
The most serious difficulty was however Elizabeth’s desire to be a religious. When she was barely eight, her mother overheard her telling a priest that she wanted to be a religious. Her mother was concerned enough to have consulted another priest who told her that with her temperament Elizabeth would be an angel or a demon.
By the age of fourteen determined to belong only to Jesus, she made a vow of virginity. She recounts the event:
I was fourteen, when one day during my thanksgiving after Communion, I felt myself irresistibly drawn to choose [Jesus] as my one spouse. Without delay I made a vow of virginity. We didn’t say anything to one another, but we gave ourselves, one to another, in a mutual love that was so strong that the resolution to belong to him became still more definitive.
This major spiritual experience was the result of God’s initiative; she already had proved her great fidelity to God. She was aware that she had been given a great ability to love, a huge thirst for the infinite. Her compass was now set; she was fascinated by God so that nothing counted but loving him. A few months later she would remark: “When one loves, nothing is costly.”
At about the same time, again after Holy Communion she felt the word “Carmel” spoken deeply within her, so that afterwards she thought only of burying herself behind the grille. From then on, nothing else mattered to her. A few months later she was defrauded of the highest award in the conservatoire. This unjust conspiracy on the part of some teachers at the conservatoire seems not to have affected her very deeply. She now had an all-consuming vision of Carmel.
These years from her vow at the age of fourteen until her entry into Carmel at the age of twenty-one are crucial if we are to understand her importance for us and for the Church today. Her mother was absolutely determined that Elizabeth would not be a religious. The reasons are complex: there may have been jealously, as her mother had contemplated a religious vocation earlier in her own life; she wanted Elizabeth to marry and present her with grandchildren; she was seriously possessive; she became quite ill for a while, and that allowed her to insist that Elizabeth look after her—to leave a sick mother would be unthinkable. She forbade Elizabeth from going near the Carmel. It could not be spoken about. She arranged that Elizabeth would have a busy social life. Her mother tried every way possible to have Elizabeth change her mind.
A major spiritual event took place in 1899. . There was a huge mission for all the parishes of Dijon given by nineteen Redemptorists; there were three instructions each day at 6 and 9 a.m. and at 8 p.m.; people came an hour early to get a seat. It lasted a month from 5 March until Easter Sunday 2 April. The pair who gave the mission in Elizabeth’s parish, St. Michael’s did not have very apt names: one was Père Lion, who was a gentle soul; the other was a tough cookie, Fr. Mouton, translated as Fr. Sheep. On the 26 March Mde Catez finally gave in and told Elizabeth that she could enter Carmel when she was twenty-one—two years more to wait. But only five days after this capitulation she tried to have her engaged to a young doctor whom Elizabeth apparently did not know. Mde Catez sought help from the parish priest, who was rather uncooperative.
So we can see the dilemma of Elizabeth: she loved her mother very deeply; she wanted to be obedient; yet she felt that God really wanted her in Carmel; she did not want to hurt her mother. These seven years were the prime occasion for her spiritual growth. Up to the age of fourteen one might say with quite an amount of truth that there was nothing terribly remarkable about Elizabeth’s spiritual life. She was indeed a seriously religious girl, with a passionate love for Holy Communion, which she was allowed to receive about three times per week.
Elizabeth had to lead a double life. She took part in a whirl of social events: parties, lunches, tennis, musical evenings, plenty of jewellery and dressing up. She was very popular and was constantly being invited out. But deep down she experienced another level of being in her total love of Jesus to whom she had been irrevocably wed through her vow at the age of fourteen.
It is these seven years, from the age of fourteen to twenty-one that need particular attention from us today. Many people today find it extremely difficult to find spiritual growth in the midst of the stresses and pressures of modern living. Elizabeth’s double life shows how it can be done. A close examination of her writings, especially her poetry, allows us to see her spiritual development. There are several themes that are important to her.
At the feast of Mary’s Nativity, 8 September 1897, she began to speak of the divine will and about the inner dwelling of God or Jesus in her heart. She was being dragged in two directions: the social circuit that her mother wanted and her total dedication to Jesus. She now knew that the divine will could overcome all particularity and remain a permanent compass point no matter where she was, or what she was doing. The theme of inner dwelling continually deepened. She used language like allowing herself to be taken by Jesus, to be absorbed by him, to enter into him. Later she would speak of the cell in her heart, the interior dwelling, the heaven of her soul.
In a very important letter to her mother’s friend, Mde de Sourdon, whom Elizabeth regarded as a second mother, she wrote:
We possess our Heaven within us, since He who satisfies the hunger of the glorified in the light of vision gives Himself to us in faith and mystery, it is the Same One! It seems to me that I have found my heaven on earth, since Heaven is God, and God is in my soul. The day I understood that, everything became clear to me. I would like to whisper this secret to those I love so they too might always cling to God through everything (Letter 122).
The doctrine of the divine indwelling of Jesus, of God, of the Trinity in our hearts is well developed by Elizabeth before she entered Carmel. Fr. Conrad calls this her lay gift to the Church.
A gift of deep contemplative, mystical prayer, technically called infused passive prayer, had begun before she was nineteen and she read St. Teresa of Avila’s Way of Perfection.
On the feast of the Immaculate Conception when she was seventeen (1897), she obtained deep insight into the meaning of “thy will be done.” She realised that there was a difference between wanting to be a Carmelite out of love for the Lord, and loving the Lord completely and leaving him to decide when, or if, she might enter Carmel. On that feast also we find her for the first time speaking of the interior dwelling. Six months later, Pentecost 1898, she speaks of the Trinity and of her being a spouse of the Trinity (P47). Around that time too she was writing about union with God: a life completely in God realised in Jesus alone.
When she was seventeen she began to speak of sharing the Cross with Jesus (partager).
Again at nineteen we find her putting two words together: for and with Jesus (pour, avec). She can only do things for Jesus, if she does them with him (J. 34). Then at nineteen she realises that the Cross is the supreme treasure that Jesus gives to those he most loves (P 59). Later she will more boldly express her desire to be a perfect image of Jesus and to suffer with Jesus (P 55 and 57). When she was nineteen she realised that suffering was a way that God purified her: he broke her self-will; humbled her pride; and gave her great detachment (J 119).
Over this period she gained the certainty of the presence of Jesus, a friend within, to whom she could always turn. She experiences being heart to heart with him (P 67) Elizabeth saw the Virgin Mary as a guide and an icon whom she loved to contemplate (P. 59).
I will only say a few words about her time in Carmel which was marked by much suffering. For her profession she had her crucifix inscribed with a verse of Paul, “I live, but it is no longer that I live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). In Carmel she would come to her culminating insight of living for the “Praise of his glory,” a phrase from Eph 1:12. (January 1904). In these four words Elizabeth disappears and the masterpiece of the Holy Spirit emerges. She has been transformed to reflect totally the glory of God; her whole life has dissolved into praise.
When we look at these seven years before she entered Carmel, we see her struggles. She speaks of her faults as anger, and she fears pride and selfishness. She is often in darkness, but she continually look within to find God dwelling there and supporting her. Jesus, as we have see, did not rake the Cross away, but he enabled her to carry it.
Elizabeth has often been compared with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I might not want to push the comparison very far. St. Thérèse gave the Church her “Little Way.” Elizabeth has given another, equally important gift. Whatever our circumstances, whatever we are doing, we can reach down within ourselves to where God is dwelling. Like Elizabeth we can live a double life, or, if you prefer we can live at two levels. The outside where we struggle, the inner core of our being where there is peace.

[1] Conrad De Meester, Élisabeth de la Trinité. Biographie. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 2006—ISBN 2-7509-0082-4, pp. 742.
[2] The Spiritual Doctrine of Elizabeth of the Trinity