Part 23 of This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Start with part 1 here.)
When Elizabeth stepped into the convent and entered into religious life as a postulant, she left behind her close-knit family, friends and confidants, stylish clothes, fashionable hairstyles, accomplished piano-playing, and scenic summer vacations. She gave up the entire world and slipped into a simple dark dress and veil and began to dissolve into Carmel. And she couldn’t have been happier. So many long-held desires were finally fulfilled, and she was not disappointed as her dreams became her daily life.
The separation itself was difficult, but her joy? It was immense. For months, she was flooded with light. Joyous, luminous. The Lord had led her to Himself and allowed her to feel His presence and unspeakable tenderness. The veil between them was almost transparent.
“I have found what I was searching for,” she said to her sister. “Oh my darling, how good God is!” (Letter 86)
Everything, no matter how menial, felt divine: “Since you like me to tell you lots of things, here is something very interesting: we’ve done the wash. For the occasion I put on my nightcap, my brown dress all turned up, a large apron over that, and, to complete the outfit, our wooden shoes. I went down to the laundry room where they were scrubbing for all they were worth, and I tried to do like the others. I splashed and soaked myself all over, but that didn’t matter, I was thrilled! Oh, you see, everything is delightful in Carmel, we find God at the wash just as at prayer. Everywhere there is only Him. We live Him, breathe Him. If you knew how happy I am, my horizon grows larger each day.” (L 89)
“We find Him in our sleep just as we do in prayer since He is in everything, everywhere, and always!” (L111)
So conscious was she of God’s love that nothing on the outside could touch her, and everything tasted of God.
This blissful state is called “consolation” and as Dan Burke explains in his book Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits that it is “an interior movement to God, toward faith, hope, and love, that is caused by the good spirits.” When we are in consolation, we find that we may experience:
- An increase of hope, or faith, or love, or all three
- My heart inflamed with love of God and goodness
- Shedding of tears for love of God, sorrow for my sins, or gratitude
- A clear draw to heavenly things
- Quiet and peace in the Lord**
These tangible times are sacred for a soul. These are the harvest times, the storehouse filling times, the soak-it-up and savor it kind of times. When God is around every corner, palpable and able to be touched. When you close your eyes to pray and make immediate contact. You can feel Him everywhere, flooding into every crevice of your thirsty soul. And you drink. Deeply.
The well was full for the entire time of her postulancy, about four months, and continued to bubble over through the clothing ceremony which marked her transition into a novice.
This ‘betrothal’ ceremony is a beautiful tradition—the bride of Christ wears a wedding dress before receiving the habit, her forever sign of being set apart for Him.
For Elizabeth, it took place on December 8, 1901—the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and four years to the day when she had laid down her will accepted God’s, even if it meant she must give up Carmel forever. Her mother and sister Guite were there, along with some friends, one of whom, Baron Auguste d’Avout, led her down the aisle, since she had long ago lost her father and grandfathers. At the point in the ceremony when she received the habit, she seemed utterly carried away with emotion, swept up into the foyer of heaven. She appeared unaware of everyone around her.
But feelings like these are, in the end, just feelings. They are a gift, but they cannot last—they must give way in order for us to grow in the holy virtue of faith. Faith is an entirely free gift of God–but it is something to be asked for, assented to, nourished, and practiced. Or else we can find ourselves “shipwrecked.” (I Timothy 1:19)
Elizabeth came down from her spiritual high, and she came down hard. It began immediately after the ceremony as a period of dryness, commonly called “aridity.” In these desert times, prayer feels like sand in the mouth, a scratching in the soil for a bit of water, usually coming up empty. Living the Southwest, I can think of it as the expanses of desolate emptiness, just a few resilient, scraggly shrubs popping up miraculously out of bone-dry crevices. Of hot breezes that bake you like clay into something almost lifeless.
In the spiritual life, you have to hang on to belief in those times like a piece of driftwood floating by in the wreck of your feelings. You cling to your knowledge that God is unchanging and the same Father who watered you with joy and peace and a deep sense of His love is the same yesterday, today, and forever—regardless of whether you feel Him and experience Him that way, or not. When you give God a pure love which is completely removed from how you feel, even when the veil darkens into a heavy iron curtain.
“Nothing should keep you from going to Him. Don’t pay too much attention to whether you are fervent or discouraged; it is the law of our exile to pass from one state to the other like that. Believe that He never changes, that in His goodness He is always bending over you to carry you away and keep you safe in Him,” Elizabeth was able to reflect later. (L 249) Before she died, her language was even stronger: “What does it matter to the soul…whether it feels or does not feel, whether it is in darkness or light, whether it enjoys or does not enjoy. It feels a kind of embarrassment in making any distinction between these things; and when it still feels affected by them, it holds itself in deep contempt for its lack of love and quickly looks to its Master that He might set it free.” (Last Retreat, 11)
If you’ve taken a child development or psychology class you may have learned that a baby learns ‘object permanence’ which is fundamental to their cognitive growth: when a child through experience and development realizes that something they cannot see still exists and is not dependent on their perception of it. They come to understand that Daddy has not disappeared but is in the other room when he walks through the door, and they crawl eagerly after to find him.
And likewise what we may not realize is that in our spiritual scan of the barren horizon, God is leading us further up the mountain to Him, while He remains just out of reach. It feels futile and dusty. But we can make out footprints in the arid, ashy heat and with grace, keep climbing.
Oh my God, let me never forget that seasons of consolation are refreshments here, and nothing more; not our abiding state. They will not remain with us, except in heaven. Here they are only intended to prepare us for doing and suffering. I pray Thee, O my God, to give them to me from time to time. Shed over me the sweetness of Thy Presence, lest I faint by the way…Give me Thy Divine consolations from time to time; but let me not rest in them. Let me use them for the purpose for which Thou givest them. Let me not think it grievous, let me not be downcast, if they go. Let them carry me forward to the thought and the desire of heaven.
(John Henry Newman, Prayers, Poems, Meditations)
We can thank God for this experience of Elizabeth’s because it began a new understanding in her which would develop over the following years and even become one of her major works: Heaven in Faith. The ‘heaven’ she experienced in her spiritual high now took on a different dimension—heaven was still there, but it was held by faith. “The secret of happiness,” she wrote her sister while in this desert, “consists in union, in love!…No longer being anything but ‘one’ with Him, that is to have one’s Heaven in faith while awaiting the vision face to face!” (L 104)
In other words, one could still be united to God, but in this life, it is a union that must be grasped purely by belief, without seeing. And by holding on to faith, the muscles of our soul develop strength and stamina…something God knew she would need in the coming year.
These times can be tempting, honestly. When prayer leaves you more thirsty than before, when you white-knuckle it through—and yet it is so necessary. “I love you too much to give you candy for breakfast,” I’ve been known to say to a hungry child who’s been caught sticky-fingered and rummaging for marshmallows in the kitchen as I brew my coffee. What they need is oatmeal. Not tasty, but far more filling.
And that’s exactly it. When the desert sky opens and rain pours over parched and arid hearts, we will stand slack-jawed at the sudden blooms—which had been kept alive from secret, unseen wells within all along.
“Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.” Jn 20:29
Read part 24 here.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.
**From Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits, which can be ordered here.