Part 33 of This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Start with part 1 here.)
When I was a little girl, my parents had a secret language they would use to converse about things in their private grown-up world. Well, actually, it was Spanish—Dad had been a Spanish teacher and mom knew enough to get by (and often it was just about whether there was ice cream in the freezer) but to us kids, it was totally foreign and their conversations felt frustratingly impenetrable.
Then I started high school, and I began to study Spanish myself. And word by word I began to make sense of their ‘secret’ language, learning sounds and accents, verb tenses and pronouns. As I became more comfortable, I could be drawn into their inner circle, too. I was often clumsy and tangled in the words, but after several years I would even sometimes find myself thinking in Spanish.
This is sort of similar to learning the language of prayer: the words of the Holy Spirit, the language of the Word Himself—the inner language of divine, Trinitarian love. It does not come at once but with a little practice and a lot of grace, we can find ourselves fluent in what is really our ‘mother tongue.’
What is prayer?
The Catechism begins its section on prayer with a quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy. (2558)
Elizabeth would say, “Think that you are with Him, and act as you would with Someone you love; it’s so simple, there is no need for beautiful thoughts, only an outpouring of your heart.” (L 273) Foundational for true, deep prayer—the kind that Thérèse knew, the kind that St. Elizabeth knew—is the understanding that by virtue of our baptism, God Himself is present in our souls. Pope John Paul II would, in fact, say of St. Elizabeth that she was “a witness to the grace of baptism.” The journey into the depths of our hearts, the journey to Him waiting in the silence of our ‘inner garden’—that is the journey of prayer. And mystical prayer, prayer of deep and intimate communion with God, is in actually an ordinary–meaning for everyone–development of baptismal grace.
Prayer begins where it must begin: it begins with words, learned as children or new Christians, recited and memorized: Our Fathers and Hail Marys and Acts of Contrition—hopefully made meaningful and internalized as they carve out the beginnings of the path of total union to a Father who finds our fumbling adolescent efforts irresistible.
It begins with the Bible, with the words of Christ, with an encounter with His promises and His reality and His love. With a breaking open of the story that holds within it our own salvation and a ‘yes’ to following Jesus into the story as it is played out in our own lives. It begins with reading, reflecting on, and talking to God freely and tenderly and intimately about His holy mysteries and the new reality He is unveiling in our hearts. And in so doing, moving—sometimes imperceptibly—closer and closer to Him.
And then something shifts. Our souls become dissatisfied with the paleness of human words and sense a need for stillness. A need for quiet. If we surrender to it, prayer becomes a falling silent within an immensity of love, an awareness of being under the great and beautiful weight of God’s gaze. We feel terribly inadequate to meet that gaze, aware of our smallness (our ‘abyss of nothingness’ Elizabeth would call it) and the sheer wonder of being able to participate in the prayer of Christ Himself: a hymn of love to the Father, in the Spirit.
We find ourselves instinctively taking a posture of receptivity, of openness to a movement that renews and waters and rolls the soil of our ‘inner garden’ into soft ground for grace to take hold and grow impossibly deep roots. And we realize that we now think more with the mind of God and yet at the same time we feel our hearts expanding and becoming more human, we discover that we are becoming more fully ourselves—recovering the authentic, whole ’self’ God intended from the beginning when He first spoke us into being. The closer we get to God, the more we come home to ourselves—“habitare secum” as St. Benedict called it: “dwelling with oneself.”
The sure sign that this homecoming kind of prayer is having an effect on the soul: it cascades out into life. It translates very naturally into love and virtue in the activity of our day, maybe without our even noticing. The fruit of the silence ripens into a peaceful living below the rush and noise of the modern world, of total openness and availability and being wholly present to the things of God, including His living image in the other souls we come in contact with.
Elizabeth had long been drawn to this kind of prayer. It was the charism that first attracted her to the Carmelite order, and there in the convent, it had blossomed, transforming her more and more into a reflection of her Beloved. She habitually presented herself to God in a movement that was simple and pure. She lived for the liturgy and the hours of formal prayer her order dedicated themselves to, but when they were over, she was more inclined to set words aside and sit at His feet—or bury herself in the Trinity, in the true spirit of her religious name.
Discovering the spiritual masters of the Carmelite order only reinforced her inner experience. She wrote to her seminarian friend, full of enthusiasm after reading St. John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticle: “To think that God calls us by our vocation to live in this holy light! What an adorable mystery of charity! I would like to respond to it by living on earth as the Blessed Virgin did, ‘keeping all those things in my heart,’ burying myself, so to speak, in the depths of my soul to lose myself in the Trinity who dwells in it in order to transform me into itself. Then my motto, my ‘luminous ideal,’ as you said, will be accomplished: it will really be Elizabeth of the Trinity!” (L 185)
After Elizabeth died, a folded piece of paper torn from a notebook was found tucked among her things. It revealed a treasure: an untitled prayer Elizabeth had written after a retreat given in November of 1904. This eight-day retreat on the theme of the Incarnation was given by Fr. Fages, a Dominican, who spoke powerfully about the Holy Spirit. He invited the nuns to extend the mystery of the Annunciation in their own lives by asking the Holy Spirit to come upon them: “Spirit of God, come upon me as you came upon the chaos of the world, as you came upon the Virgin Mary to create in her Our Lord.” (Joanne Mosely, Elizabeth of the Trinity: The Unfolding of Her Message)
When you read her prayer to the Trinity, you don’t doubt Elizabeth had asked for the Holy Spirit’s descent. You don’t doubt she had an ‘upper room’ experience. Because her personal prayer gives us a breathtaking glimpse into the flowing, reciprocal love she experienced in her soul. She makes the life and prayer of Jesus her own; it is her deep desire for God to renew his mystery within her. She prays to be ‘lost’ in the Trinity even—no, especially—amid the darkness of this life.
This prayer she had kept to herself, but she would spend her last years teaching others what she was learning in her life of listening to God. As an apostle of prayer, she was a gentle but insistent guide. She deeply wished to awaken the desire for God in others and draw them to discover what she had experienced: that the Trinity was within. The Trinity was waiting. Sensitive to each soul in her small sphere of influence, she always adapted her words to their specific vocations and circumstances. Yet underneath the message was the same: to seek and dwell in the presence of s God who makes our souls His paradise. “Live in His intimacy as you would live with One you love,” she urged her mother (L 170), and helped her craft a simple practice of “three prayers, five minutes each,” during each day as a way to begin to learn this ‘intimacy.’ To a friend in the world: “The entire Trinity rests within us, this whole mystery that will be ours in Heaven: let this be your cloister.” (L172)
And who would have guessed—certainly not Elizabeth—that her private prayer would end up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the final words in its section on the Trinity. The Catechism reads: “The ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity. But even now we are called to be a dwelling for the Most Holy Trinity: ‘If a man loves me,’ says the Lord, “he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.” ( CCC 260)
And then follows, remarkably, the opening paragraph of her now-famous prayer, making St. Elizabeth of the Trinity the only twentieth-century female mystic quoted in the Catechism:
O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me forget myself entirely so to establish myself in you, unmovable and peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. May nothing be able to trouble my peace or make me leave you, O my unchanging God, but may each minute bring me more deeply into your mystery! Grant my soul peace. Make it your heaven, your beloved dwelling and the place of your rest. May I never abandon you there, but may I be there, whole and entire, completely vigilant in my faith, entirely adoring, and wholly given over to your creative action.
And so, if Elizabeth’s calling could be summed up in a sentence, if I had to reduce her life’s mission to a single phrase in the Gospel, a way her life truly became an “effusion” of the Eternal Word, I am certain it would be this:
Teach us to pray.
Image courtesy of Unsplash, modified.