This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Start with part 1 here.)
This Advent, I vowed, would be different. I would live it as a season of preparation, my heart watchful and as still as an empty manger. I would be prayerful and patient, keeping my lamps lit and my ways straight. I would bypass commercialism and materialism and keep my head bowed and my eyes fixed on the coming Christ Child. I was ready.
And then I went to the mall.
There I found the crush of the crowds, the signs screaming sales, the blaring music, the confusion in my mind as I sifted through piles of sweaters and socks, swiped credit cards, and tried to keep my eyes off those distractingly adorable shoes that would look so good with that dress…
Soon I was as crumpled as the tattered list in my hand, both interiorly and exteriorly. I was unraveled and disheveled and curiously empty even though my bags were full. I slumped home, defeated for the moment—but determined to recapture some peace.
I scooped up the kids who ran to me for a quick hug, stashed the bags, and started dinner. As the chicken simmered, I thought about one of the books my daughter had been assigned in school this fall: Black Beauty. While we had read together, snuggled on the couch, one scene had struck me particularly.
Black Beauty, in telling about his training, remembered one thing that was “a very great advantage.” His wise and experienced master intentionally brought him to a neighbor’s farm, which was bordered on one side by a railway.
The young horse innocently began to graze with the other animals when, all of a sudden, a train flew by—the first one he’d seen—noisy, clattering, filling the air with unfamiliar smoke. He ran to the other side of the field, stunned and frightened. As the days went by, he could find no peace in the constant threat of such commotion but then noticed that the cows, used to the shrieking and groaning of the engines, barely raised their heads as the trains rushed by. And soon, he found that he could ignore them, too. For the rest of his life, he said he could be “as fearless at railway stations as in my own stable.”
“Now if anyone wants to break in a young horse well,” he reflected, “that is the way.”
Maybe that is how we should look at the distractions, advertisements, and chaos of the world. Maybe these are opportunities allowed for practicing self-mastery and recollection. To keep our center in Christ even as the noise surrounds us, beckoning us away from Him and closer to the edge of self-indulgence.
It is easy—well, easier—to say focused when in a candle-lit Church or tucked away in a prayer corner. But taking Christ with us when we enter the store or the office or the party? That is the challenge. And it is one that can only be conquered with practice—and grace.
But if we’re not called to the cloister, then we’re called to practice recollection in the middle of a noisy and scattering life and pray that we perfect it. It is one of the keys to holiness in a world that would love to claim us for itself and leaves shiny things everywhere in a tricky little path away from God. That sings a siren song through the internet or the radio or the podcast or the empty conversations. That is a not-so-subtle tactic of the enemy of our souls: “Noise,” says the demon in the Screwtape Letters, “the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile…We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth.” That roars past us with the chaos and force of a steam engine. That pulls and drags us away from the Prince of Peace because it does not know Him. But we do. And we want to stay with Him, always.
We also have a wise and experienced Master who will allow us to be in very distracting and even scary places where He seems far way—precisely so we have the opportunity to discover and remember Him in the center of our souls, to resist the lesser magnetic forces drawing us into distraction and find a deeper weight holding us anchored in our being to something lasting. Eventually we won’t even look up when the world comes calling with its wares.
We’ll realize that what is outside of us can have no hold on us when we are firmly present to God within. Spiritual blinders keep our internal eyes on the one thing necessary.
Why do you look around you, if you carry “your world” within you?-St. Josemaría Escrivá
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity could do it beautifully. Before she entered the convent, she was obligated to attend dances and parties. She did so willingly, knowing how much it meant to her mother. She mortified her own desire for silence out of charity and obedience. But she kept an inner silence and took God within her even into the swirl of society.
“Now the parties have begun again,” she wrote in the year before she entered Carmel, “you know how little I care for them. However, I offer them to the good God, and nothing seems able to distract my mind from Him. When all one’s actions are done for Him, in His holy presence, beneath the divine gaze which penetrates the soul, one hears Him still in the silence of the heart which longs to be His alone.”
Remaining with Jesus deep within—it wasn’t always easy. She admitted in her diary that “I often leave Thee as lonely as if Thou were in the desert!” But she prayed for the grace to be wholly His, without any piece of her heart scattering itself in any worldly distractions: “May my life be a continual prayer, a long act of love. May nothing distract me from You, neither noise nor diversions, O my Master, I would so love to live with you in silence. But what I love above all is to do Your will, and since You want me to still remain in the world, I submit with all my heart for love of You. I offer You the cell of my heart; may it be Your little Bethany. Come rest there, I love you so.”
It was obvious to others that there was something different in our saint. A woman noticed an other-worldly look in her eyes, even as dancers whirled around them at one party.
“Elizabeth,” she said, “you see God.”
Read part 16 here.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.