Part 30 of This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Start with part 1 here.)
My very dear Mama,
Our Reverend Mother must have told you that because of recent events we are taking a few precautionary measures in case we should have to leave our dear cloister. I’d be very grateful if you’d give me your skirt pattern right away…(Letter 148).
Elizabeth had chosen to enter religious life at a tumultuous time for the Catholic Church in France. The nuns may have been set apart from the world, but they were not unaware that tensions were high between the Church and the aggressively anti-Catholic French government. Determined to wipe out the Church’s influence on society, the secular government at the time outlawed Catholic education in the name of ‘freedom’, forcing the closure of thousands of Catholic schools. Tens of thousands of religious who had given their lives to teaching and sharing the faith had no choice but to leave.
Church property everywhere was being confiscated. In all, thirty-eight Carmelite congregations had to leave France, including the first French Carmel established there. In this time of uncertainty, the Dijon community prepared for the worst. They prudently secured a farmhouse in Belgium and the nuns made street clothes so that they could slip away at a moment’s notice, ready if necessary to disappear from their homeland in their own little diaspora.
It never did come to that. But the Carmelites in Dijon were forced to close their chapel to the public by government order, and the nuns lived in a period of great uncertainty—how long would they be allowed to remain?
The convent was prepared but trusting and tranquil. Elizabeth was not apathetic or indifferent–but she was calm and accepted the fact that she could once again be asked to live as “a Carmelite in the world” if the walls of their beloved convent were breached by the persecutors of the Church. In fact, the idea of suffering for the sake of Christ brought her consolation, which she shared with her aunts:
“Thank (God) for having called your little Elizabeth to Carmel for the persecution; I do not know what awaits us, and this perspective of having to suffer because I am His delights my soul. I love my dear cloister so much, and sometimes I have wondered if I don’t love this dear little cell too much, where it is good to be “alone with the Alone.” Perhaps one day He will ask me to sacrifice it. I am ready to follow Him everywhere, and my soul will say with St. Paul: ‘Who will separate me from the love of Christ?’ I have within me a solitude where He dwells, and nothing can take that away from me!” (L 162)
We may not anticipate becoming refugees, forced to leave our homes in order to practice our faith. We may very well find, however, that practicing our faith–which we do everywhere–will become harder and harder. We Catholics do not worship only on Sundays during Mass but we worship with our very lives. We worship in the workplace, the classroom, the doctor’s office–and it may be that even in those places we find ourselves defending our religious freedoms more and more. We may find a swirl of persecution every time we open our front doors or turn on our televisions or engage in conversation. We may find our words hijacked: gender, love, choice, privacy. Our churches burned, our statues defaced, our objections silenced. We may be told to be tolerant of wrongs–or even to cooperate with them–because others think them right. But we know we can’t separate prayer from actions. To expect us to do so and to penalize us and censure us when we do not is a violation of our religious freedom. Even more fundamentally, it is a violation of our dignity as persons and our right to seek and live the truth. Such coercion is a violation of both divine and natural law.
“For the first time in Western Christian civilization, the kingdom of anti-God has acquired political form and social substance and stands over and against Christianity as a counter-Church with its own dogmas, its own scriptures, its own infallibility, its own hierarchy, its own missionaries, and its own invisible head—too terrible to be named,” Archbishop Fulton Sheen warned us decades ago. “Yes,” Elizabeth predicted, even long before that. “The future is very dark.” (L 160)
But still–there’s so much hope. Because there’s a way that the Lord loves to breathe new life into His Church even when forces outside seek to tear down and confiscate and plant twisted stakes into what is sacred: our homes, our churches, our schools, our laws, our courtrooms. There’s a secret weapon He never fails to bring out: He brings forth holiness. He makes martyrs. He grows saints in hidden places.
At the turn of the Century, it looked like the earthly forces were winning a decisive victory in France, and that Catholicism was being humiliated and beaten back. However, a little nun in Dijon was saying ‘yes’ to God. In her every prayer, her every smile and tender letter, every movement of surrender and accepted suffering and every act of worship, St. Elizabeth was battling and defeating a great darkness. Through her (and other small, hidden saints of the time), God was invisibly but surely renewing His Church—and the world—through the graces of their lives and the legacy of their simple but powerful teaching. What the world sought to stamp out, God, in His great and unrelenting love, raised right back up.
We can be the hidden saints of our time, too. It’s a fact, actually—we are called to nothing less. Earthly kingdoms may rise up or crumble around us, but what really matters is that—as Elizabeth pointed out—the one real Kingdom has been established in our soul. Our interior lives spill out over the spiritual landscape of our countries and transform the world through hidden wells. We may never know the effect that our prayers and sacrifices have. But we can be sure they are joining with Christ to “work all things for good” (Rom 8:28). We may feel powerless against faltering freedoms or a culture war that seems all but lost, but besides being promised the ultimate victory, we’ve also been well equipped for every battle and skirmish. We drive back darkness with every act of charity or humility and every Hail Mary and every moment we forget ourselves for the sake of another. We will win by laying down our lives one day at a time.
That’s why Archbishop Sheen can give this message of hope: “But whatever be the reason for these trying days, of this we may be certain: the Christ Who suffered under Pontius Pilate signed Pilate’s death warrant; it was not Pilate who signed Christ’s. Christ’s Church will be attacked, scorned, and ridiculed, but it will never be destroyed. The enemies of God will never be able to dethrone the heavens of God, nor to empty the tabernacles of their Eucharistic Lord, nor to cut off all absolving hands, but they may devastate the earth.” (Characters of the Passion)
In the end, my Immaculate Heart will Triumph.
Our Lady of Fatima, message of July 13, 1917
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.