The Saint of the Divine Indwellingby Fr. Gregory Ross, O.C.D., S.T.L.
Fr. Gregory Ross O. C. D. is a Discalced Carmelite of the Province of St. Therese. Currently he is Student Master and Rector of St. John of the Cross House of Studies in New Orleans Louisiana.
In a letter written just a few weeks before her death in the year 1906, a young Carmelite nun declared to a friend: “My beloved Antoinette, I leave you my faith in the presence of God, of the God who is all Love dwelling in our souls. I confide to you: it is this intimacy with Him ‘within’ that has been the beautiful sun illuminating my life, making it already an anticipated Heaven: it is what sustains me today in my suffering.’ This young nun, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, has since been given such titles as “the prophet of the presence of God,””the saint of the divine indwelling,” or “the saint of one idea,” because of her strong experience of the indwelling of God in her soul. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites a prayer that she composed and addressed to the Trinity whom she knew dwelled in her soul. The Catechism cites Blessed Elizabeth’s prayer to illustrate the truth that Even now we are called to be a dwelling for the Most Holy Trinity: “If a man loves me,” says the Lord, “he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.” (Jn 14,23)
Blessed Elizabeth had a profound and living experience of this great truth of our faith. also expressed in St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians: -Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (1 Cor 3.16) She cites these words as she writes to a friend of hers. I am going to give you my ‘secret’: think about this God who dwells within you, whose temple you are; St. Paul speaks in this way, and we can believe it.
This young mystic understood God’s constant presence within her as a sign of his great love for her. She writes to her mother: “Oh, may the Master reveal to you His divine presence, it is so pleasant and sweet, it gives so much strength to the soul; to believe that God loves us to the point of living in us, to become the Companion of our exile, our Confidant, our Friend at every moment.” How did Blessed Elizabeth arrive at this profound awareness of the loving God who dwelled within her and within the souls of all the baptized? Let us look briefly at her life to see how God’s grace was active and effective in her spiritual development.
Blessed Elizabeth was born in July of 1880 into a military environment. Her father, Joseph. had been raised in a poor, agricultural family. At the age of twenty-one, he had enlisted in the French army. In September of 1873, Catez had married Marie Rolland. herself the daughter of a successful military man. After a career marked by combat as well as by many promotions, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1881. Spending her earliest years in this military environment Elizabeth was naturally formed in such virtues as courage and forthrightness.
The year 1887 marked a great change in seven-year-old Elizabeth’s life. The year began with the death of her maternal grandfather in January. In October of that same year. her father. Joseph, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of fifty-five. Madame Catez and her two children (Elizabeth’s sister, Marguerite, who had been born in 1883) soon moved from their former house to an apartment in what could be called the suburbs of Dijon. From the window of her room in her new home, Elizabeth could see the monastery of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns.
After the death of her father, Elizabeth’s outbursts of anger increased both in number and in violence. During the course of the same year, though, the child experienced for the first time the sacrament of Penance, “which brought about what she styled her ‘conversion’.” She henceforth began to struggle noticeably against her violent temper, promising her mother that she would strive to be the very model of a “sweet. patient, and obedient” daughter.
However, it was only four years later that the future Blessed would manage finally to conquer her difficult temperament. In the spring of 1891, when she was almost eleven years old. Elizabeth made her First Communion. Sensitive by nature, especially to things sacred, she was profoundly affected by her first reception of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Tears of joy were seen to run down the young girl’s face after her Communion. Upon leaving the church, she said to a close friend, “I’m no longer hungry. Jesus has fed me.”
On the afternoon of her First Communion, Elizabeth also encountered the prioress of the Carmel of Dijon for the first time. The prioress, upon learning the name of the child, explained to her that “Elizabeth-means “house of God.” A few days later, she would send this same message to Elizabeth, writing on the back of a holy card: “Your blessed name hides a mystery, accomplished on this great day. Child, your heart is the House of God on earth, of the God of love.”
This theme of being the “house of God,” then, was at first closely associated with the mystery of the Eucharist in the mind of Elizabeth. In a poem that she would later write to commemorate the seventh anniversary of her First Communion, she meditates upon the day:
When Jesus made in me His dwelling place,
When God took possession of my heart,
So well that since that hour,
Since that mysterious colloquy,
That divine and delicious meeting,
I have aspired to nothing else but to give my life
In order to return a bit of His great love
To the Beloved of the Eucharist
Who reposed in my feeble heart,
Inundating it with all of his favors.
Likewise, Elizabeth once wrote the following words to a friend who had just made her First Communion: “If He came this morning into your little heart, it was not to pass through it and go away, but to remain there always.” It seems that the future Blessed understood that by
giving himself to her in the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus had come to dwell within her in a new way.
Elizabeth lived out her desire ‘to return some of His great love to the Beloved of the Eucharist” by conquering her tempestuous nature. Her mother later testified, “From that day (of her First Communion) and afterwards, no more fits of anger.” This victory did not come easily to the young girl, however, but rather cost her a considerable amount of effort and struggle. Yet. Elizabeth desired to return love for love, and to show her love for the loving God by becoming herself more loving towards others. She drew strength for this struggle from “the Beloved of the Eucharist who had made in her His dwelling place.
Elizabeth first discerned her vocation to Carmel after having received Communion one day when she was fourteen years old, but her mother was opposed to the idea. Eventually, when Elizabeth was nineteen years old, Madame Catez agreed to her daughter’s entry into Carmel, but required her to wait until her twenty-first birthday. In the years before she entered the cloister, Elizabeth studied St. Teresa of Jesus’ Way of Perfection. She also read the first edition of Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, and quickly became an enthusiastic follower of the -Little Way.” The soon-to-be Carmelite was also greatly enamored of “Little Therese”‘s “Act of Offering to Merciful Love.” Furthermore, in February of 1900, the young aspirant to the Carmel of Dijon was introduced to a Dominican friar, a friend of the nuns. Elizabeth asked for help in understanding her interior experience – her need for silence and recollection, and her sense –of an inexplicable presence in the depth of her soul. This Dominican proceeded to deepen her awareness of the truth of the indwelling of the Trinity in the soul of the baptized: that not just Christ, but that “all three of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit – were present in love in her soul. This graced meeting greatly reassured Elizabeth and aided her in her spiritual progress.
In the midst of her active social life. Elizabeth sought to live as “a Carmelite on the inside” while she awaited the day of her entrance into the cloister, She sought to live in constant communion with the loving God whom she knew was always present within her. When she was twenty years old, Elizabeth addressed the following words to Jesus: ‘May my life be a continual prayer, one long act of love. May nothing be able to distract me from you […]. I would like so much, O my Master, to live with you in silence. But what I love above all is to do your will, and since you still want me to be in the world. I submit with all my heart for love of you. I offer to you the cell of my heart; may it be your little Bethany, come to rest there, I love you so”.
Finally, in 1901, Elizabeth entered her beloved Carmel, receiving the name “Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity.” Her awareness and experience of the Triune God dwelling within her continued to grow. Through her communion with Christ in the Eucharist and in the Scriptures, the young Carmelite’s spiritual life deepened even more. She drew nourishment from the teachings of the great saints of Carmel – St. Teresa of Jesus and St, John of the Cross, as well as from her contemporary, Therese of Lisieux. Above all, though, Elizabeth names as “the father of her soul” St. Paul. who preached to her “nothing but this mystery of the charity of Christ.”In St. Paul, Elizabeth found teaching that both echoed her own experience of the love of God and helped her to interpret this experience. Paul spoke to her of the “exceeding love” of Christ, who “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2,20) According to Elizabeth. this last Pauline expression summed up everything about the love of Christ, a love that was true and strong.As a child, Elizabeth had found the strength to conquer her fiery temper only after having received the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist for the first time. As a Carmelite, she would read in St. Paul that it was Christ who made peace through the blood of his Cross (Col 1,20), making “peace in my little heaven,” so that it may truly be the repose of the Three.” Elizabeth had experienced for herself the way in which the blood of the Eucharistic Christ had brought peace to her tempestuous soul, and later found the words in St. Paul to affirm her experience. Also, as seen above, Elizabeth found in the words of St. Paul the scriptural foundation for the doctrine of the indwelling of God in the soul of the Christian. Likewise, Elizabeth found in St. Paul the words to confirm her experience that it is through Jesus that “we have access to the Father” (cf Eph 2,18). As Elizabeth writes in a poem that she composed for Christmas of 1901: He comes to reveal the mystery, To give all of the Father’s secrets To lead from glory to glory Even unto the bosom of the Trinity.Elizabeth, then, experienced Christ as the one who comes to reveal to us the Father’s love and to lead us to share in the divine life of Trinitarian love.Finally, the young Carmelite found many passages in St Paul that helped her discover the great dignity of this vocation of the Christian to share in the life of the Trinity through union with Christ. She was especially drawn to the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which the great saint writes: “For those he foreknow he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8.29-30). Likewise, she drew great riches from the first chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, in which Paul writes: “He chose us in (Christ), before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ. In accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in his beloved” (Eph 1.4-6)Further on in this passage from Ephesians, Elizabeth discovered a type of “personal vocation” to live as a “Praise of Glory” of the Father, just as Jesus himself was the definitive Praise of the Father’s Glory. This call to praise the glory of God also Included the call to share in the redemptive sufferings of Christ, to be able to say like St Paul, “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Col 1,24).Elizabeth realized that all people are created in order to be united to Jesus, to be made like him, even in his sufferings, in order to share in the relationship of love that the risen Jesus shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. She explains this great plan of God in one of her meditations:
God bends lovingly over this soul, His adopted daughter, who is so conformed to the image of His Son, the ‘ first born among all creatures,’ and recognizes her as one of those whom He has ‘predestined, called, justified.’ And His fatherly heart thrills as He thinks of consummating His work, that is, of ‘glorifying’ her by bringing her into His kingdom, there to sing for ages unending ‘ the praise of His glory’. All of this great work is an action of the God of Love. God creates us in order to lead us to communion with Himself, the God who is Love itself.
In response to this loving plan of God, Elizabeth desired to live fully her Christian and Carmelite vocation. On November 21, 1904. the feast of the Presentation of Mary, Elizabeth composed her famous prayer to the Trinity. This prayer is like an offering of herself to the God who is Love. It marks out the program of life which Elizabeth desired to follow. In it we see her desire to be united to Christ, conformed to him, in order to please the Father and to enter profoundly into the dynamic and infinite love of the Trinity. Elizabeth begs the Holy Spirit to “create in my soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that I may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery.” She entreats the Father: “Bend lovingly over Your poor little creature; ‘cover her with Your shadow.’ seeing in her only the ‘Beloved in whom You are well pleased.” She concludes by surrendering herself to the Trinity, begging God: “Bury yourself in me that I may bury myself in You until I depart to contemplate in Your light the abyss of Your greatness. ”
It was only two years after composing this prayer that Elizabeth of the Trinity finally did depart this life in order to contemplate the abyss of God’s great love for all eternity. The young Carmelite died after many months of suffering from Addison’s Disease, a malady of the kidneys which at that time was incurable. As a result of this illness, Elizabeth suffered great fatigue, an inability to digest food, intense abdominal pains and great thirst. She wrote that she felt as though tiny beasts were devouring her insides, and said that one of the first things she would do in heaven was to have a drink of water. Her community noted the great patience, courage, and joy with which Elizabeth suffered.
The young Carmelite viewed her suffering as a way of being conformed to Jesus, as a way of sharing in the redemptive suffering of her divine Bridegroom for the good of the Church. As such, Elizabeth even came to view this suffering as a gift, She explains to her mother in a letter written from her sickbed: ‘I rejoice,’ said St. Paul, ‘to make up in my flesh what is lacking in the passion of Jesus Christ for the sake of His body the Church.’ Oh. how your mothers heart should leap for divine joy in thinking that the Master has deigned to choose your daughter, the fruit of your womb, to associate her with His great work of redemption, and that He suffers in her. as it were, an extension of His passion. The bride belongs to the Bridegroom, and mine has taken me. He wants me to be another humanity for Him in which He can still suffer for the glory of His Father, to help the needs of His Church: this thought has done me so much good.”
Elizabeth’s last audible words before her death were, “I am going to Light, to Love, to Life.” She died on November 9, 1906, at the age of 26, after having lived in Carmel for only five years. When asked if she would spend her heaven doing good on earth like “Little Therese,” Elizabeth responded that she would not, but that she would shoot “like a rocket” deeper and deeper into the abyss of the Trinity. Nevertheless, she did intuit that she would exercise a particular mission within the Church from her place in heaven. From her sick bed, Elizabeth wrote to a fellow Carmelite “I think, that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them go out of themselves to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence within that will allow God to communicate Himself to them and transform them into Himself”.
On November 25, 1984, Pope John Paul II beatified Elizabeth of the Trinity. In his homily at the beatification, the Pope presented Elizabeth of the Trinity to the Church as one “who led a life ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3,3),” and as “a brilliant witness to the joy of being ‘rooted and grounded in love’ (Eph 3,17).” We can turn to Elizabeth of the Trinity today as a witness to the impact that the presence of the loving God within the soul can have in a human life. She proclaims to us with St. Paul the great dignity of the Christian Vocation: the call to be conformed to Christ — crucified, risen, and present in the Eucharist – to become “temples of the Spirit,” all to the praise of the Father’s glory. She reminds us that the Trinity is “our home,” that God has created us in order to be united to Christ, to live as his adopted sons and daughters, dwelling in his love and remaining there always in this life and in the next.