The Fury and Glory of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
“May my life be a continual prayer, a long act of love.”
Born in the Septaine district of France, she was the eldest of two daughters. Upon the sudden death of her father, the girls and their mother moved into to a second-story apartment that overlooked the Carmel of Dijon.
Her name was Elizabeth Catez, and her family’s fond nickname for her was not Lizzie or Beth, but Sabeth. In her childhood she was regarded as a brilliant pianist and a very good student, overall. She would have been a most delightful child, in fact, were it not for an instinctive stubbornness, a naturally noisy nature, and a fiery temper. Although she eventually became a Sister-in-Carmel to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a comparison of their early biographies would never suggest it, because Sabeth was what one might kindly call a little ball of fury. So disruptive, obstreperous, and bossy was she—another nickname given her was “The Little Captain”—that her harassed mother declared her intention to send her daughter to a “School for Corrections” run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, and went so far as to pack her daughter’s bags with her own hands.
The threat worked. Elizabeth apologized and made sincere—and repeated—efforts to gain some control over her temper and her high spirits. She received her First Holy Communion at age eleven, and on that very day made her first visit to the Dijon Carmel, where the Prioress informed her that her Christian name meant “House of God.”
She was much struck by that information and resolved that the possession of so beautiful a name could not help but inspire her toward living a more godly and disciplined life. Since she had been named as a House of God, perhaps it was what she was meant to be, Elizabeth reasoned, and a House of God could have no standing with an agent of mischief and chaos in residence.
The idea helped. A little. Enough so that she began to think she might eventually be called to a life lived for Christ alone, perhaps even in Carmel. Still, her youthful spirituality lived uneasily with her nature, developing in fits and starts. After confessing one especially loud and extended temper tantrum to her parish priest, he declared that she would either die a saint or a demon—there could be no other possibilities.
“A soul united to Jesus is a living smile that radiates Him and gives Him.”
Heading into adolescence, Elizabeth decided to work for sainthood over the alternative, but she did it lightly. “By my nature, I am a coquette,” she once wrote for a school assignment. “I am by no means a model of patience, but I have learned to control myself, and I do not hold grudges.”
For a time, she lived as a bit of a coquette too. Elizabeth socialized, crafting lovely dresses, creating hair designs, and traveling with her family, all of which assuaged her mother’s deep fear that the cloister walls a mere 650 feet from their apartment would eventually seal her daughter away from her. So disapproving was Madame Catez of that notion that she begged Elizabeth to put aside all ideas of religious life, at least until her twenty-first birthday. After all, she reasoned, men of means and good character were offering marriage to Elizabeth. If she delayed her entry, perhaps one of them would reach her heart.
That would not happen. Even as she enjoyed parties and participated in musical galas, Elizabeth’s turn toward Carmel progressed. She began to practice contemplative prayer, which greatly helped to tamp down her temper, although her irrepressible nature would still break through. Consulting with a Carmelite chaplain as to whether she did in fact have a vocation, Elizabeth found herself tapping her toes, waiting for him to stop talking as his long-winded approval went on and on. “I just wanted him to confirm I was on the right track,” she groused.
Her mother watched as her daughter continued to meet with the prioress and spent a great deal of time at the parish giving lessons in the Catechism to children and adults. As her twenty-first birthday loomed, Elizabeth’s mother knew her defeat was coming.
“Prayer is a rest, a relaxation...We must look at him all the time; we must keep silent, it is so simple.”
When it came, Elizabeth—with courtesy and real compassion for her mother’s pain—insisted she be permitted to live the life she was called to; in August of 1901, two weeks after turning twenty-one, she claimed her birthday present, walking into Carmel with her mother and her sister and then bidding them a loving adieu as she passed into the cloister.
There Elizabeth, like Thérèse before her, burned through Carmel like a bottle rocket, riding twin fuses of suffering and abandonment to the divine will. She soared—too fast and too bright to remain behind monastic walls—disappearing into Christ as “Laudem Gloriae,” the praise of his glory.
She lived only five years after entering Carmel, succumbing to the ravages of Addison’s Disease at age twenty-six, but she clearly made the most of her time there, advancing in wisdom and becoming an astounding teacher of the ways of love through her published letters.
I’ve written elsewhere about Elizabeth of the Trinity teaching me how to pray with just seven words from Scripture: Lord, the one you love is sick…
“Lord, the one you love is anxious…”
“Lord, the one you love is in danger…”
“Lord, the one you love is unemployed and feels rejected…”
“Lord, the one you love needs you…”
I cannot tell you how many times I have uttered some variation of these words at the start of a petition for a friend, and have later heard that at precisely that moment, there was an easement of suffering and anxiety. Perhaps healing did not come, but something of Christ did. “I felt it,” friends would say. “Suddenly, my wife said she felt upheld and comforted…”
And then I think, “Yes. That Elizabeth of the Trinity—that little Carmelite—she knew what she was doing…”
“Believe that He loves you. He wants to help you Himself in the struggles which you must undergo. Believe in His Love, His exceeding Love.”