Sunday, November 8, 2009

For All the Saints: Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity

Anyone who has struggled with anger, as I have, could do worse than read about Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a French Carmelite remembered on November 8. Can one person experience both fits of rage and a certainty of God's presence in her own heart? Yes, apparently, and thank the Lord.

Born in 1880, Elizabeth was just younger than Thérèse of Lisieux, who suffered from her own inner demons. Until she was fourteen, Thérèse was a spoiled brat, doted on by her father. Elizabeth lost her father suddenly when she was seven, exacerbating a character trait she already displayed: terrible outbursts of anger. She struggled with this for four years, until her first communion at age eleven. A Carmelite prioress told her that afternoon that her name, Elizabeth, meant the place where God dwells. She entered Carmel at age nineteen and lived only seven more years, dying of Addison's disease, a painful endocrine condition. Near the end of her life, she began calling herself Laudem Gloriae, "Praise of Glory." Until her death, she retained the certainty that God was dwelling in her heart. Her final words were, "I am going to light, to love, to life!"

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity reminds me of another French religious, also a Carmelite but of the 17th century, who felt the presence of God, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. In One Hundred Great Catholic Books by Don Brophy (a treasure for any convert), the author gives Lawrence's simple back story:

From the little we know of him, he was born Nicholas Herman to a poor family in the Lorraine region of France. As a young man he served in the Thirty Years War, was taken prisoner once, and later wounded fighting the Swedes. He took a position as a footman to a Parisian banker but lost it for being a clumsy oaf. At loose ends, he became a Carmelite lay brother like his uncle, taking the name Lawrence of the Resurrection. At the Paris Carmel he was put into the kitchen and stayed there for thirty years. If you saw him, you would not think much of him: a large, ungraceful man who walked with a limp, doing menial work.

Like Blessed Elizabeth, Brother Lawrence knew with a certainty the presence of God. In fact, he developed a particular way of talking with and gazing internally upon God. You can read about it at this Web link. "My most usual method," he said, "is simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God, to whom I often feel united with more happiness and gratification than a baby at its mother's breast. . . . Indeed . . . I would willingly call this state 'the breasts of God.'"

Blessed Elizabeth wrote something similar in a letter to a friend shortly before she died:

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.

The clincher for me is Blessed Elizabeth's temper. I have seen in my own life how anger, which seems to come on in particular seasons of my life like storm cells across my landscape, can harm everything precious to me, both internally and externally. As a husband, as a parent, as a friend, I have sinned in anger. Of course, afterward I feel terrible remorse—along with an emptiness. The good that was in my heart seems to have been swept away with the raging storm winds.

But the promise of Blessed Elizabeth, and it is the promise of the Catholic Church too, is that we can always return home. This applies externally, as we can always return to prayer, to Mass, and especially to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But the experience of Blessed Elizabeth suggests, and certain moments of personal grace suggest to me, that we can always return internally as well, where we will find, quite miraculously, something far better than our mean selves waiting in our hearts.