This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Read part 4 here)
The day had barely begun, and we were completely spent.
Morning Mass with preschoolers. The small crowd of mothers slumped back into the cry room after Holy Communion, looking at each other with weary camaraderie. What spirit had entered our children today, turning them into unusually wild creatures, shocking the pious elderly in the pews? The mom whose child had made a break for the altar hung her head and wondered if she could ever show her face there again.
My 3-year-old hadn’t behaved too badly that day, but I could sympathize. Not that long ago he’d started belting “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the cavernous, silent church’s Communion line.
We were trying, we really were. But this was one of those days when we wondered if we really knew what we were doing.
Then our pastor stood. “I’d like to say something,” he said. He was about to speak a prophetic word that would burn into our hearts like a brand of truth.
Looking into the congregation, he spoke. “I’ve never been at a church before where so many mothers come to daily Mass with their young children. This is a great blessing to a parish.” Then he turned to us. “Never stop coming,” he told us emphatically, and then his voice took on a tone of conviction. “It is from your families that our future vocations will come.”
I thought of this powerful moment when I read a story about little Elizabeth in Joanne Mosley’s book, “Elizabeth of the Trinity: The Unfolding of Her Message.” When she was less than two years old, her mother took her to the south of France to visit her sick grandmother. While there, a children’s Benediction service was held in the village church. Elizabeth’s mother brought her for the prayer service, along with her favorite golden-haired doll, Jeannette. As they entered the church, a nun asked if they could borrow the doll as a prop to be dressed as baby Jesus and placed in a crib near the altar. I’m sure Elizabeth’s mother, knowing her daughter’s choleric personality, hesitated to hand Jeannette over, but the nun promised that the little girl wouldn’t recognize her ‘baby’ in the crib. So she stealthily slipped the doll to the nun and they took their place in the front row.
And yes, you can guess what happened.
The moment the priest began the service, Elizabeth caught sight of her beloved doll, dressed up and on the altar. It was too much. She screamed at the top of her voice, “Wicked priest! Give me back my Jeannette!”
Oh, the humility. We can almost see the color rise in her mother’s cheeks as she was carried out, followed by the stares of the congregation. Nothing can mortify our pride like parenting.
But as exasperating as Elizabeth could be, her mother never gave up on her. And in her case, the words of our wise and patient pastor (who would later be named a bishop the day before he gave that same singing three-year-old his First Holy Communion) came true. There was a beautiful vocation buried within that shrieking toddler.
Her mother would fight that vocation, but at the same time, her careful attention to Elizabeth’s religious education would also, in a way, help to form it. Years later, she would write to her mother from Carmel, thanking her for, first of all, introducing her to the great Carmelite saint and reformer, Teresa of Avila, a favorite of Madame Catez, and in so doing no doubt unknowingly planting a Carmelite seed. She thanked her also for “directing the heart of your little one toward Him.” Her mother had pointed to the way to Jesus, and Elizabeth was forever grateful. She remembered how her mother had prepared her for her First Holy Communion, “the first encounter, that great day when we gave ourselves to each other completely!” (letter 178)
It had been hard for her mother to let her go, harder than most, maybe, after suffering so much loss. But in the end, she was like Abraham in Moriah, prepared to give what she loved most back to God.
“I am happy,” Elizabeth reassured her mother shortly after entering, “He has chosen the better part for me. Oh! Thank our great St. Teresa, whom you love so much, for the happiness of your Elizabeth.”
(Read part 6 here.)
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