Part 29 of This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Start with part 1 here.)
A single action–even the least and most insignificant–done with the view of pleasing God alone, and of glorifying Him, is worth infinitely more, so to speak, than many actions in themselves of the greatest value and worth, but that spring from other motives. -Lorenzo Scupoli
Five years ago, a friend who works for a radio station invited me to an annual luncheon, with an address by our bishop, put on by a prominent Catholic foundation. Since I like my friend, and I like my bishop, and I rather happen to like lunch, I agreed to go. I lined up a sitter, pulled my favorite navy blazer out of the back of the closet, and drove downtown.
We made our way to a round table in the back of the room and I noticed many well-known faces as we wove around all the chairs. As the choir finished singing and we were served salads on tiny glass plates, the women at our table began to introduce themselves. All of a sudden, I had a realization which in my niaveté I had missed until now. This is a lunch for leaders.
Every one of the lovely women had a position of prominence or influence, and as they began exchanging business cards, I fiddled with my napkin. Then the inevitable moment: the board member of Catholic Charities turned to me. “And what do you do?” she asked with a kind smile. “I work part-time at my parish,” I said, feeling the color rise to my cheeks. A few blank stares and nice nods, and they put their cards away. The chicken suddenly tasted even more like cardboard than it had before. “She’s amazing at it!” chirped my friend, trying to save me. But it was too late. I felt so very small. So. very. small.
The rest of the lunch was nice, the conversation pleasant, the bishop wonderful. Gradually my flushed cheeks faded and I got over myself. But as I slid into the car afterward, I sat for a moment to reflect and became emotional again. I was really surprised at the depth of my own shame in that conversation at lunch. I had never wanted to be anyone other than a wife and mom. I had no ambitions to be a leader or have a position of influence. I had just wanted to have lunch. And yet there I was, wanting to hide because I was ‘nobody.’
By God’s great grace, I allowed it to be an opportunity. I decided then and there, sitting in my Suburban, to be the best ‘nobody’ I could be. I remembered how St. Thérèse said that to pick up a pin for love could save a soul. Well, I could do that. I pick up a lot of stuff every day, I figured. And that’s good–I have a lot of souls entrusted to me. I embraced nothingness in that moment. I decided to go home and redouble my efforts at loving Him in the small things. That was all I had, and it was all I could do. I didn’t sit on a board or manage a radio station or run a hospital. I folded socks and wrote a little bit and kissed bumped foreheads and stocked up on ground beef when it was on sale. But I did–or tried to do–all of it because I loved God and the little people He hid within. I pulled out of the parking garage and merged onto the freeway, thinking, that beats a board any day.
Elizabeth of the Trinity, as one of the first followers of St. Thérèse, also tried to do absolutely everything in a spirit of self-forgetfulness and love. Remember, she had started this habit as a young girl, and it had transformed her stubborn temperament. This theme of humility and embracing the little things in life is so important, it is worth revisiting in her adult years.
Now, the convent, she was not only the second (assistant) turn-sister but also, as a talented seamstress, an over-qualified but humble and obedient second habit-sister. “Did I tell you,” she wrote to her aunts, “that I was the habit sister, which means I am responsible for mending the habits of the community under the direction of the Sister in charge of that office, she furnishes me with work and explains it to me, and I do it in the solitude of our dear cell. You would be edified if you saw the poverty of our clothes. After twenty or thirty years, you can guess they have a few patches…I love to sew this dear serge, which I so desired to wear and in which it is so good to live in Carmel.” (Letter 258) While she worked at her lowly task, she prayed, grateful to have busy hands but a heart free to silently bury itself in the love of Christ. St. Thérèse picked up a pin, and she delicately plied a needle. But, again, the motive was the same: tiny actions, great love.
These two young Carmelites have a complementary mission to the laity today—you too, they both seem to say, have a life filled with opportunities to turn nothings into treasures. Look beyond the apparent smallness of the stuff of your life. See beneath it. It is weighted with eternity. It is infused with grace. It is only waiting for your ‘yes’ for its real power to be unleashed. And you will feel the tremendous force of love when the dam breaks in your soul and you are carried by the current of your hidden acts straight into the Heart of Jesus — when “all the rivers of the soul, which are so immense they already resemble seas, go to lose themselves in the Ocean of divine love.” (L 293).
One day, while Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity was hurrying to complete a task in the convent, one of the older sisters stopped her to ask what she was doing. “Oh, my mother,” she answered, “I am loving.”
I am loving.
Whatever that errand was, probably some insignificant task, it didn’t matter. It had been made invaluable. It had been turned into an act of pure love.
Everything is made infinite when it is infused with love for God.
Suddenly, what is before us we see as His will and an opportunity to love Him. Let’s pray for that purity of intention with each little thing we do.
Sometimes, it is all we have.
My every act is love. -St. John of the Cross