This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Read part 8 here)
Our new house had a big bedroom for my younger sisters and me with plenty of space, two closets and two sets of windows. I had never had my own room and never thought to ask for one—there was no ‘extra’ room available in the bungalow, anyway, once Dad had claimed the second downstairs bedroom for his office.
But my mom had been thinking, and she saw possibilities in the space upstairs. She knew that with a few walls, I could have a quiet spot of my own. She also knew, more than I did, how much I would need one—we have the same quiet, introverted personality and she had the wisdom to provide a place for me to unfold in the safety of my own small space.
So Grandpa showed up one day, with tools and drywall and determination. With wide eyes I watched him fashion two rooms out of one and before long, with one swipe of a sliding door, I was alone. I spent many hours in that tiny room. I read, wrote, became myself. I learned to pray in that room—it was my humble little cell.
I’ve written before about the sacredness of our spaces, and of my later appreciation for that one in particular:
It is a sacred space – this room, this house, I realized, in the sense that wherever God has worked, has done something marvelous, has mingled with us in our daily lives, eternity puts its stamp on that place.
It is always a wonder that a God unlimited by time and space binds Himself to it in each moment and corner where we encounter Him. And it is a fact that He creates places for us. Since Eden, He carves out spaces and hovers over our chaos to help us make rooms and homes, chapels and churches that speak to us of something holy here, and point to something holy beyond.
Long before she entered the convent, young Elizabeth had a little corner of her room set apart and consecrated by prayer. Joanne Mosley describes it in Elizabeth of the Trinity: the Unfolding of Her Message: “Between the fireplace and her bed, Elizabeth had her prayer corner: an intimate and attractive space containing a prayer stool, covered in a tapestry which Madame Catez had made for her; also, souvenirs of her First Communion: the ivory crucifix which was framed by her blue rosary from Lourdes; and three statues, each with its own stand—the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.”
Even more than the place, though, was the time she had consecrated: the first fruits of her day, long before the household stirred. Not wanting to upset her mother, she would slip out of bed and kneel before Jesus, beginning the day the same way she would continue it: in dialogue with the One she loved. Like the wise virgins, she kept her lamps lit in the hours before dawn. “How many matches I was obliged to hide, to avoid inconvenient questions!” she admitted years later.
Who can guess what conversations went on in that tiny retreat? We know she was already longing for a cell in the convent she could see from the window in that very room, and I’m sure she spent many mornings asking for the gift to make that her home.
But Jesus would give this girl a different grace first, one she needed to know before she could take her place in the convent. This grace is one we all need, and unknown to her at the time, it would become the message of her life.
She became aware that there was a cell in her soul, designed by the Holy Spirit, one where she could hold constant vigil, a staunch little sanctuary lamp with its stake in the ground of her heart. Jesus had made his home there—and with or without Carmel, she could hide away with him even in the midst of the world she longed to leave. “Make yourself a cell in your soul and never leave it,” St. Catherine of Siena said. St. Catherine never lived in a convent—she was a laywoman, a woman very much wrapped up in the world, caring for the destitute, involved in politics, in negotiating family feuds and even religious dissension within the highest ranks of the Church. But she fiercely protected the sacred silent space inside of her.
I believe this was one reason Jesus asked Elizabeth to wait. It was to teach her the truth of something so that she could teach us. He wanted her to experience the reality of His life within her, of their communion in the secret recesses of her interiority, unshakably true and unchanging no matter where she was or what state of life she had to wait within. He wanted her to taste the truth of eternal space in her soul while she was busy with the stuff of daily life so that she could know how to spoon it out to the rest of us.
Yes, finally, she would enter the Carmel down the street—steps away and yet a world apart. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes “When Elizabeth first becomes acquainted with her cell, she has an immediate impression of falling barriers and disappearing bars.” “My Three are present here!” She cried as the door swung open. All of heaven in a stark room, Christ without confines. “My horizon,” she said, “grows larger each day.” Finally her surroundings reflected her interior life, where everything was ordered toward encountering His limitless love.
Still, she had to tell those left in the world what they could have, too. To her young friend Françoise she wrote, “You must build a little cell within your soul as I do. Remember that God is there and enter it from time to time; when you feel nervous or you’re unhappy, quickly seek refuge there and tell the Master all about it.”
Because the reality is, it is in our little spaces, some outside, some inside, where eternity opens up to us. Little portals into immensity itself. And we can no longer clutch at straws—to use a phrase of St. Thérèse— for we have peered into places we cannot describe.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.