On Wednesday the 7th of November, Sr Paula Moroney OCDM conducted a Carmelite Conversation in the Library on Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity. Sr Paula used Elizabeth’s Prayer to the Trinity both as the means to spiritual reflection and as access to Elizabeth’s own spiritual life.
PRAYER TO THE TRINITY
O My God, Trinity who I adore, help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. May nothing trouble my peace or make me leave You, O my unchanging One, but may each minute carry me further into the depths of Your mystery. Give peace to my soul, make it Your heaven, Your beloved dwelling and Your resting place. May I never leave You there alone but be wholly present, my faith wholly vigilant, wholly adoring, and wholly surrendered to your creative action.
O my beloved Christ, crucified by love, I wish to be a bride for Your heart; I wish to cover You with glory; I wish to love You even till I die of love! But I feel my weakness and I ask You to "clothe me with Yourself," to identify my soul with all the movements of Your soul, to overwhelm me, to possess me, to substitute Yourself for me that my life may be but a radiance of Your life. Come into me as Adorer, as Restorer, as Saviour. O Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life in listening to You, to become wholly teachable that I may learn all from You. Then, through all nights, all voids, all helplessness, I want to gaze on You always and remain in Your great light. O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.
O Consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, "come upon me," and 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. And You, O 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."
O my Three, my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in which I lose myself, I surrender myself to You as Your prey. Bury Yourself in me that I may bury myself in You until I depart to contemplate in Your light the abyss of Your greatness.
Elizabeth of the Trinity, 21st November, 1904
When we come to know Elizabeth, this ever-young Carmelite, we are struck by her "living smile that radiates Jesus and gives Him to others." (L.252) She was animated by a sublime mystery which filled her life, the mystery of the Divine Indwelling, and hence her inner joy in communion with her Three ever present in the Trinity and her happiness in living and sharing that love.
The centre point of her spirituality is the PRAYER to the TRINITY containing the essence of her holiness and beauty, her love and faith. The unfolding of her vocation came with the knowledge that "There is a Being who is love." Captivated by the mystery of the Trinity of self-giving love, she was drawn into a deepening relationship with this God who called her to the fullness of being.
St Elizabeth of the Trinity may not have a ' high profile', nor did she leave a vast quantity of writing. She was still young, only 26, when she died in 1906. Being a close contemporary of St Therese, she remains somewhat in the shadows, for Therese was already on the way to sainthood and her "Story of a Soul" was into its 6th edition. Elizabeth's life was no less heroic and her message no less profound, far-reaching and soundly based on scripture. Neither was she a theologian but a contemplative prayerfully pondering the sacred texts, especially the Letters of St Paul and St John's Gospel and taking to heart the instruction she received.
WHO WAS SHE
She was someone with a message to share at whatever stage of life we may be. Growing up Elizabeth was far from angelic but a 'true devil' who could fly into tantrums. Photos show her little face, dark eyes blazing, holding her doll Jeannette - the doll she recognized as hers when it was borrowed to be the Infant in the crib. She was furious. "Give me back my Jeannette!" she yelled. This little girl had fire in her veins. She had a mind of her own and flared up when her will was crossed, almost every day. Once she had learned to control her temper she became sensitive and considerate. Her great prayer has fire too - and fervent desire.
Obviously this child had strength of character but we can scarcely imagine how much she suffered when as a 7 year-old her beloved father died in her arms. With her mother and her younger sister, Guite, the family settled into a new routine. They moved to a smaller apartment which happened to be just around the corner from the Carmel of Dijon.
Gradually she tamed her unruly spirit and is much more in control at the age of 10 when she made her First Communion. A longing for Carmel soon possessed her but there were years of waiting and obstacles since her Mother refused permission and then became seriously ill so Elizabeth could not leave her. In these years Elizabeth found a new apostolate, teaching catechism to groups of workers' children from the local tobacco factory. She had a gift for communication and found them an original patron, "Our Lady of Tobacco".
Elizabeth had music in her soul. Her piano gave expression to her gifts and at 13 she won First Prize at the Dijon Conservatorium for her performance of Mendelsohn's Cappriccio. She played with talent beyond her years, interpreting with feeling the lyrical lines which alternated with flowing rhythm in the refrain and tumbling chords in the virtuoso coda. The romantic strains of this music unleased a beauty she felt deep within.
Again the following year she won distinction with her brilliant performance of Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. With its haunting theme gathering momentum as it dances with vitality, it suited Elizabeth's fiery temperament. She was versatile, sensitive and passionate, with a power of concentration enabling her to acquire skill and ease in performing.
Music was her prayer and she forgot herself at the piano, expressing her deepest desires and feelings; she could communicate shades of life, perceptions of understanding, both exquisite and painful, sensitive changes of rhythm and tone which delicately coloured the texture of notes. Her human heart was touched by the divine and grace entered in. Open to the spiritual world of music she became more human and more tender-hearted.
During these years life was a round of social events as the Trio, Mme Catez, Sabeth and Guite, set off each year for 3 months vacation, travels and visits with music, dancing and reunions. Elizabeth's charm and her attractive personality won many friends. She had an eye for fashion and was a skilled seamstress who revelled in buying 'ravishing materials' to make her creations, (we notice the stylish blouses and hats in her photos). She probably broke some hearts by turning down offers of marriage.
A deeper love continued to grow in her heart nurtured through her spirit of prayer. While life was lived to the fullest, mystic graces flowed from her unselfish giving and fidelity. She was a young lady who could become anyone she wanted to be. "When you feel loved you are open to any thing," she wrote later to Guite.
TO CARMEL AT LAST
Finally when she was 21 her Mother relented and Carmel, which she had often looked upon from her balcony, became her home. She knew Mother Germaine well and was comfortable with her new Sisters. Her inner soul radiated with love and one of her companions at Dijon Carmel, Sr Marie-Odile, was to say that when you asked her for a favour no matter how much the cost, you had the impression that you were giving her happiness. She might be doing the same things as everyone else and yet differently, infusing them with "something of greatness. You feel in her the presence of Our Lord". (Mosley, Elizabeth of the Trinity Vol 1 p. 453)
Everyone felt loved by Elizabeth, even the Sister who was known to be difficult. She was the one who later remarked, "How she loved me!" We talked of music, she recalled, and she drew me to God through that. We see from her correspondence and writings that she had a way of imparting her knowledge and understanding, making it attractive and accessible. She liked to share her insights and her many letters to family and friends are testimony of this. A few days before her death she made the effort to write and thank Dr Barbier, the physician who had been tending her, a non-believer, leaving for him her book of the Letters of St Paul.
HER PRAYER AT THE HEART OF LIFE
The essence of Elizabeth's desires and holiness is distilled in her Prayer to the Trinity. In four clear paragraphs she has given us rich theology with a vast and broad sweep reaching above and beyond the human element to the timelessness of eternity. It is at once unselfish and personal, composed with the clarity of mature vision. As she prays she steps aside and asks, not for obvious tangible benefits but to entirely forget herself, to lose herself in God's mystery. The language of love and intimacy takes on the grandeur of infinity, entering into realms of transforming union.
The prayer is the intimate expression of her soul and she never ever spoke about writing it although she herself must have returned to it often. Only after her death was it discovered in her little writing box of personal papers. Of her few private possessions this folded sheet on thin ruled paper torn from a notebook is most precious. It is dated 21st November 1904, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, the day the community renewed their vows at the conclusion of their annual retreat.
How Elizabeth longed to belong wholly to God, to be transformed in God! She had entered into the spirit of the retreat with Fr Fages on the theme of the Incarnation and offered herself totally, like Mary, disposed to be another humanity for the Word to renew His Mysteries.
PREPARING THE HEART
Here she is captured by the sublime truth and begins by addressing the Trinity: O MY GOD, TRINITY WHOM I ADORE. With solemn reverence, as St Therese began her Act of Oblation and St Catherine of Siena once prayed, so Elizabeth addresses her prayer to the Trinity. Yet there is peacefulness in her soul set in the stillness of contemplation, and she enters completely into this new dimension. To look within is to gaze on the Indwelling God, so that the loving soul becomes one in spirit. In that single gaze she remains present, vigilant, adoring, surrendered to the divine creative action.
A TRINITARIAN EXCHANGE
Christ is her Beloved, crucified by love, and it is love that gives meaning to His death. She longs to show her own Bridal love and identify herself with her Beloved, to 'cover Him with glory', reflecting her chosen vocation to be the 'Praise of Glory'. St Paul is her constant inspiration now. Conscious of her weakness she begs that Christ substitute for her and then she will take on new radiance reflecting that light. May Christ come 'as Adorer, as Restorer, as Saviour' in her - that is her positive hope, and her silent praise.
The next words are full of power and personal inspiration showing she has absorbed the profound theology of the Incarnation, the Word living in our midst as one of us.
We notice that she has used 2 different nouns in the original French, 'O Verbe Eternel', and 'Parole de mon Dieu', the first having reference to the Word in the Prologue of St John's Gospel, as the visible thought and action of the eternal God; the second as the Word which is spoken and heard in human language - the divine and human. She had already asked to be able to "spend her life listening to You, (God's Eternal Word) to become wholly teachable, to learn all from You", and then to remain in that light, fascinated by the radiance of the "Beloved Star", but it is no ordinary star, (etoile). She chooses another word 'Astre', in French to denote an unusually bright beautiful night light. Her Star will shine through all nights, voids, helplessness and she senses it will be her guide. In the dark night, it is her Christ, crucified by love, pouring out his love, who is her light and draws her onwards with courage. "Let nothing disturb you", was St Teresa's refrain; "God alone is sufficient."
The third paragraph begins "O consuming Fire, Spirit of Love", echoing St John of the Cross in the Living Flame. She alludes to the Spirit, hovering over creation at the beginning, present and life-giving at the Annunciation. "And You O Father", she prays, "bend lovingly over your poor little creature; cover her with your shadow". This mystery of the Incarnation and Mary's willing consent was her ideal. She had always loved to dwell on the scene of the Annunciation, of Christ united with the soul of the Virgin. (L 246) Here she saw the Trinity in action, a mutual surrender, and it followed that a Carmelite must live within this embrace. (L246)
We are aware that Elizabeth wrote her Prayer as the community completed their retreat on the theme of the Incarnation when Fr Fages had invited the Sisters to pray in the following words: "Spirit of God, come upon me as you came upon the chaos of the world, as you came upon the Virgin Mary to create in her Our Lord." This obviously meant a great deal to Elizabeth who must have reflected upon it at length and made it her own.
Then she sees further to the manifestation of the Three in the glory of the Transfiguration and she dares to pray that she would be seen with Christ, the 'Beloved in whom the Father is well pleased.'
Returning to the full tableau in the concluding lines she sums up the whole mystery as she addresses her Three, gathering together the richness she has assimilated, "my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in which I lose myself" - she longs to contemplate in the Light of eternity "the abyss of ...greatness."
Her conclusion carries the unexpected:- "I surrender myself to You as Your prey". This is her 'fiat', allowing God to take her and use her as He willed, giving free consent as Mary did at the Annunciation. There is nothing of roughness but all of generosity, a free offering, keeping nothing back until nothing is left, lost in something greater. These ideas are reminiscent of St Therese in her ardour when she wrote her Act of Oblation, or St Paul's phrase, "Hidden with Christ in God" (Col.3:3), Crucified with Christ. (Gal 3:19)
THE INSPIRATION OF THE ARTIST
There is a certain progression from one paragraph to the next. At the beginning she creates a setting of peace, praying for stillness to be established and so enter into the depths of the Godhead. Then looking upon Christ, her Beloved, she is held in that gaze, reflecting His radiance. She will go further and herself become another humanity for him to live His mysteries. The Spirit and the Father accomplish for her what she cannot do herself in fulfilling a relationship where all is transformed in the greatness of infinite love.
Ultimately in eternity we are destined to contemplate unceasingly this abyss of grandeur, described by St Paul as love in its height and depth, length and breadth. (Rom. 8:5) The radiant Star of the second paragraph becomes her light, her Radiance, and Creation is included and caught up in the action until Elizabeth is lost in this abyss of immensity.
Such is her faith reflecting a deep understanding of sublime mysteries, absorbed as she was in the mind of St Paul, St John the Evangelist, St John of the Cross, in the mystical language of St Catherine of Siena and Ruysbroek, and in the spirit of St Teresa and Therese - they are all friends who speak to her and connect spiritually. They influenced her writing and intermingled in her thoughts, open as she was to receive grace and share glory.
Elizabeth read and reread passages of Scripture, particularly St Paul's Letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, until she was immersed in them and they lived on in her. This is the way she would have practised her piano repertoire, repeating a theme and listening to its overtones as it developed and flowed under her fingers.
The Prayer evolves is an artwork too. What is contemplated in prayer is now painted and captured in words. Elizabeth is writing her icon, first the setting in the opening paragraph showing careful preparation and prayerful study; then the composition, drawing up the theme and blending colours to show the movement of the Three in One. Here the artist is plying fresh layers of colour till she achieves tones of richest hues. In the final section the finishing touches seal and preserve the whole. One is reminded of the timeless icon of Andrei Rublev where interaction bespeaks unity in one sensitive movement, the offering of mutual tenderness.
Without doubt Elizabeth, so young herself, greatly admired her 'Sister', Therese, 7 years ahead of her, sharing the same spirit of loving confidence and surrender. At Dijon Carmel they kept the anniversary of Therese's death and when she was 18 Elizabeth had read the "Story of a Soul", already being circulated among the Carmels only a year after Therese's death. She found the Act of Oblation where Therese expressed what she held dear in her heart, so it is not surprising that later Elizabeth was moved to write her Prayer with its distinct, individual spirit. Hers was another exchange of love with the Trinity in contemplative silence and adoration, receptive to every movement of grace, knowing that her mission was to offer others an awareness of Presence, living the prayer of love which is a most active and vital calling.
Like Therese, Elizabeth lived by love in her encounters in daily life no matter who she met, so that her Sisters noticed that even in her illness and extreme weakness she never lost her peace. In fact through months of enduring suffering in darkness and agonizing pain she still accomplished "a thousand little services to those around her." Real love flowed from her prayer.
THE PRAYER STILL SPEAKS
The Prayer once discovered had its own profound influence on the community as it does today. There is the instance of the Chinese Jesuit who studied in Rome and on returning to China was arrested and held in solitary confinement for almost 2 decades, without visits or contacts, not even books. However he kept in his memory certain passages from St John's Gospel and a Prayer beginning "O my God, Trinity whom I adore..." This he had learnt from a young French priest when they were students together and this young priest told him how he spent 20 minutes daily slowly pondering a phrase from the prayer and relating it to his own life.
Eighteen years later when released from prison the Chinese Jesuit said that this is what enabled him to survive. The incident is related in the life of Cardinal Albert Decourtray.
There is a message for us too. Elizabeth longs to share the conviction of her prayer, at once simple and profound because so direct; no intermediaries or conditions block the way to loving union. She prayed in deep silence; she prayed in the intensity of her desires, in the fullness of her heart. She opened herself to the presence of her Three and they would live, love and act in her. She made her very person a place for God's pleasure, his Bethany where she remained in contemplative stillness, focussed and attentive, listening to the Word. In the last months of her life this was her sole desire. As Mother Germaine remembered her saying:
"Everything passes! at the evening of life love alone remains...We must do everything out of love, we must forget ourselves unceasingly. The good God so loves it when we are forgetful of ourselves..." (Souvenirs 1)
This world of time and space exists within the eternity of the spiritual where God is revealed in truth and goodness, in human relationships and in the language of creation.
Elizabeth understood her mission was to draw souls into interior recollection in inner silence so that God can give Himself to them and transform them in an exchange of love. Through her example she would lead others to prayer and stillness in this age of incessant activity. Her secret was to find the Divine presence here, where we are now, in the present moment, filling it with love, gently, in the unseen grace where silence can speak and we come into the light of truth.
Wherever she was, at each stage of her journey, growing up and blossoming into an attractive and fashionable, intelligent and gifted young woman of society, constantly enjoying the charms of music, friends and travels, she found God in tranquillity of heart. As a simple Carmelite novice emerging in community she gave herself generously to others and finally in accepting the ravages of a painful incurable illness, she was able to draw peace and strength. It was this conviction of the reality of Divine love she longed to share because "Time is eternity already begun and still in progress."