Elizabeth of the Trinity: ‘May My Life Be a Continual Prayer’
Lessons From a Carmelite
Born on July 18, 1880, Elizabeth grew up in Dijon, France. Lively and vociferous from birth, at age 19 months, upon recognizing her favorite doll dressed up as the Baby Jesus during a Christmas service, Elizabeth reached out, her dark eyes flashing, and wailed for all to hear, “Give me back my Jeanette! You naughty priest, you!” As Elizabeth grew older and her outbursts continued, her sister, Guite, recalled a particularly explosive episode, when her intractable sibling was denied her own way and locked herself in her bedroom, where she screamed and kicked behind the door. Guite wrote, “She was a real little devil!” Among the highlights of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, on Oct. 16, the Church will celebrate the canonization of Elizabeth of the Trinity, the French Carmelite and mystic best known for her teachings on the indwelling presence of God. The divine mystery was revealed to her not by a sudden infusion of grace, but through experiences and lessons that she learned along the challenging journey of her brief 26 years on earth. The first lesson for the future saint was how to control her unruly temperament.
Not without virtue, Elizabeth was loving and playful, as well. But at age 7, after suffering the sudden death of her father, a military officer, her rages compounded. It was not until her first confession later that year that Elizabeth experienced what she called a “conversion” and penned her childlike resolve in a poem: “I will be well behaved, and I will pray to God to make me even better.”
As if a musical answer to her prayer, piano studies offered Elizabeth new lessons in self-mastery. At age 8, she was enrolled at the Conservatory of Music in Dijon and was soon steeped in the discipline of daily practice, acquiescence to an instructor and humble acceptance of criticism. She developed a refined sense of beauty and self-expression, and at age 13, she won first prize in the school’s annual competition. Inspired, an audience member commented afterward on her poised performance, writing, “Her whole body was moved by her soul, but without exaggeration. All seemed measured as if she was guided by some inner music.”
For Elizabeth, the “inner music” was the reciprocity of prayer. Convinced that she was called to a life of contemplative prayer, in 1901, she set aside her music career and many social activities and entered the Carmelite monastery in Dijon.
There, in the solitude and silence of her tiny cell, she poured out her heart in a letter to her mother:
“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.”
Through letters, Elizabeth began to “whisper this secret” to family and friends and taught them her method of adoration. She wrote, “It is so simple. The Divine Adorer is within us, so we have his prayer; let us offer it, commune with it and pray with his soul.” The Virgin Mary, she taught, is the model of adoration. “Even in the most trivial things,” Elizabeth continued, “she never let the ineffable vision that she contemplated within herself in any way diminish her outward charity.”
Following Mary’s example, Elizabeth practiced interior adoration augmented by charity, to a particularly poignant degree during the final agonizing months of her life. As her body withered away from Addison’s disease — a hormonal disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol — she never succumbed to self-pity, but maintained interior recollection as she reached out in charity to others.
One morning, looking up from her infirmary bed into the eyes of her distraught prioress, she said, “O, Mother, don’t worry about me. The good God has given me such grace. This morning he spoke this word deep within me: ‘If anyone loves me, my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our home within him.’ At that very moment, I experienced the truth of it. I cannot describe how the three divine Persons revealed themselves, but I saw them holding loving converse within me, and I still seem to see them. How great God is and how he loves us.”
During her life on earth, Elizabeth learned to “cling to God through everything”; now, she continues to share her lessons from heaven. If we could offer one prayer in imitation of her spirituality, the perfect prayer is the one she composed for herself: “May my life be a continual prayer, a long act of love.”
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, pray for us!