This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Read part 10 here)
And God saw that it was good.
If the doorbell rang with wild abandon on a weekend morning, we all knew who was there. Flying downstairs, we’d find our beloved bachelor uncle, grinning through his beard with an invitation to join him on an excursion into nature. Any given Sunday could find us watching Canadian geese gather at the marsh, following a hiking trail in a state forest, biking along Lake Michigan, fishing, or skating on a frozen pond.
Usually, I was up for it, whatever it was, although the bookworm in me was known to choose to stay behind with a good read now and then. But I treasure the memories of those childhood adventures: crunching through the leaves at the trailhead, hiking the golden hills of the moraine, watching the sun set over the lake, gazing at hundreds of wild geese swimming through the cattails.
Words alone cannot make a writer. Beauty makes a writer, impressing lovely things like warm wax on a child’s heart, and from the overflowing wonder, words can’t keep from pouring out.
My first childish attempts at writing tried to capture a liitle bit of nature’s radiance:
Just as the sun was about to be swallowed by the evening sky
it spilled across the horizon
and splashed across our surprised faces
our last lick, dripping us in
blood-red mercy before
down the throat of the star-freckled night.
Sometimes our outings would end with a stop to visit the pinnacle of creation: we would find a chapel and kneel before a transcendent wafer of wheat, Jesus hidden in the Host.
The Word Himself, who, spoken over the world, had unfurled the light, poured forth the waters, rolled out the hills, separated seasons, swiped them with color, and painted the forests. This was the center of everything, I knew even as a little girl. The glories of nature exist to reveal and glorify Him, and we can see His imprint everywhere.
Elizabeth knew this, too. The early summers of her life included long stretches of travel, allowing her to gaze at gorgeous views that mirrored the expanse opening in her heart. Her earliest poems reflect inner and outer vistas:
How great, how beautiful,
This nature is, O my God!
So how good it is, in the midst of nature,
To raise one’s soul to heaven!
When on the welcoming shores
Dashing at my feet
The blue waves come
It is nice to dream and pray!
In the mountains she wrote that she ‘was in ecstasy’ over the rushing ‘diamonds’ of a waterfall, she relished the beauty of the peaks, the trees, the moonlight. Her first look at the Atlantic Ocean thrilled her. “It’s wonderful, and I can’t tell you what a superb sight it is,” she wrote. “I love that boundless, limitless horizon! Mother and Guite couldn’t drag me away from my contemplation of it…” “I love the countryside,” she said.
It was in part her growing faith that made even the stuff of the earth seem more lovely. Prayer makes us more alive. It makes life richer, color more vivid, sounds more clear, light brighter, joy deeper, sorrow sweeter. It is not compartmentalized into a spiritual square, stacked away in a closet to be pulled out in a quiet time but is much messier, in a beautiful way, spilling out over life like sunshine. And Elizabeth was wholly alive, embracing the world with true joy.
But if her mother hoped that the taste of all the freshness and beauty of the world could entice her to remain in it, she would be disappointed. Even her stanzas end with contemplating higher things. Elizabeth loved the created world, but she loved its Creator and Redeemer more. Her inner world was beautiful too, and she just wanted to live alone with Jesus in that hidden, radiant place.
Still, it must have been refreshment for her soul, in those years of waiting before the convent doors opened to her, to be able to absorb all of God’s goodness in the open expanses of the country. Locked in and limited by her mother’s resistance, something of God’s peace and providential care must have washed over her when she looked out over all that He had made.
He ordered all things in His care to Himself, and she knew she was no different. The God who set light apart from dark and water apart from land—He had set her apart for Himself. He was not sleeping, He was moving over her life just He had hovered over the waters of creation. And He would gather her up into the sea of His love exactly when she was ready.
When she entered Carmel, her window to the world would constrict, but she still admired its beauty in thin slivers: “The sky is beautiful, all clear and starry;” she wrote one winter. “the moonlight is flooding our cell through the frosted window panes, it’s ravishing….”
My home is no longer the landscape of Wisconsin, with its alternating seasons of white and green and the riot of colored leaves. God has drawn me into the desert of the Southwest now, with a starker kind of beauty: a single lush, fragile bloom on the tip of a thorny cactus, a red mountain dusted with brush, the drifting scent of orange blossoms in the spring. No one rings my doorbell anymore to call me out of myself, but now and then Jesus lifts me out of my worries and sticky to-do lists to marvel at His magnificence. Looking up, I can’t help but feel secure in His hugeness. God is God and He is doing mighty things, in the world and in my life. In your life. Because your soul is more valuable than all the mountains and forests and seas and all the life teeming within them. Infinitely so, because it bears His image.
And God saw that it was very good.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the lily it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
the glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)
(Read part 12 here.)
Image courtesy of Pixabay.