Part 37 of This Present Paradise
A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Start with part 1 here.)
“Here comes Sabeth at last to sit down by her dearest Framboise and visit—with her pencil! I say pencil for the heart-to-heart communion was established long ago, and we are now as one.”
So wrote Elizabeth to her young friend Françoise de Sourdon, affectionately called “Framboise” (Raspberry) who was nineteen at the time of Elizabeth’s death.
Elizabeth had been a sort of spiritual mother to her for a long time, exchanging many letters during her five years in the convent. This would be one of her longest and come to be known as “The Greatness of Our Vocation”: pages long, written over days and in a state of constant pain and exhaustion, addressing topics troubling Françoise’s heart. Apparently, she had asked Elizabeth about overcoming her natural inclination to pride (not unlike the younger Elizabeth herself).
So Elizabeth, well aware that her death was near, settled in and took the opportunity to gently explore the beautiful interplay of humility and magnanimity, two virtues which may at first glance seem contradictory but necessarily need each other.
Humility comes from the Latin word “humulis” and means “low.” It is to understand who we are before others, but most of all before God, to know our ‘creatureliness” and our total dependency on Him and our great need for His mercy. To know that we have done nothing to deserve the outpouring of God’s grace in our lives, to be utterly amazed at the power and providence He shows to us at every turn. To desire be little because Christ himself was humble: “Learn from me, because I am meek and humble of heart.” (Matt 11: 29) Elizabeth says to Françoise that “the humble person finds his greatest pleasure in life feeling his own weakness before God.” (GV 2)
To be magnanimous is to be great-hearted, to be willing to take the harder route, to face danger, to do noble things, and to have high ideals. As a virtue, it is to do all of these things and more for the glory of God. Think of St. Teresa of Avila working tirelessly to reform the Carmelite order and establish new convents or St. Ignatius having the vision and perseverance to found the Society of Jesus, or think of hidden saints who courageously embraced their own crucifixions and bravely climbed the mountain of holiness without looking back.
Elizabeth wants for her friend what she wants for all of us: to know that humility allows us to move aside so that God can begin His great work in us: our transformation in Christ. Recreated in Him, our likeness to the divine restored, He is free to work in us, to move beyond the limitations of our nature and to enter the world in great and glorious ways through our ‘yes.’ Humility allows for magnanimity.
As part of her spiritual inheritance, Elizabeth desired to free us not from thinking that we are small, but that we are only capable of small things. On our own, that is true, but we are not alone. We have the life of the Trinity within us. “My three,” Elizabeth would say.
Is it ok—is it humble—to desire the heights of holiness and to wish that God would use us to draw others up with us?
After all, it was St. Thérèse who felt confident she would be a great saint — not because she was great but because God was. She in particular–and remember, Elizabeth was one of her first followers–was a living image of a union of virtues which might seem exclusive of each other. She synthesized them perfectly. She was humble but aspired to magnificent heights. Thérèse, was, however, certainly not the first Carmelite to do so.
Fr. Marie-Eugène, O.C.D. comments on the interplay of humility and magnanimity in his Carmelite classic I Want to See God: “Great desires are the hallmark of the great soul. Great desires alone can inspire courage necessary to surmount the obstacles that beset its way. They are the wind that carries the soul high and far. To convince us, Saint Teresa (of Avila) gives us the testimony of her own experience:
‘We must have great confidence, for it is most important that we should not cramp our good desires, but should believe that, with God’s help, if we make continual efforts to do so, so shall attain, though perhaps not at once, to that which many saints have reached through his favor. If they had never resolved to desire to attain this and to carry their desires continually into effect, they would never have risen to as high a state as they did. His Majesty desires and loves courageous souls if they have no confidence in themselves but walk in humility, and I have never seen any such person hanging back on this road, nor any soul that, under the guise of humility, acted like a coward, go as far in many years as the courageous soul can go in a few.’ (Life, XIII)”
Fr. Marie-Eugène continues: “Great desires and humility can go hand in hand, answering for one another, and mutually benefitting themselves. Humility alone can sustain the great desires and keep them fixed on their goal amid the vicissitudes of the spiritual life. One the other hand, it would be a false humility that would induce the soul to renounce its great desires and become a victim to tepidity or mere respectable mediocrity.”
In other words, we are not aiming for purgatory, hoping to slip someday under the gate of heaven by the skin of our teeth. We were not created and redeemed and baptized into Christ to circle the drain and pray to make it out alive. Rather, we are all called to go far beyond what we in our ourselves are capable of and to live as if God lives and moves and breathes in us. Because He does.
“I believe,” writes Elizabeth, “we must live on the supernatural level, that is, we must never act ‘naturally.’ We must become aware that God dwells within us and do everything with Him, then we are never commonplace, even when performing the most ordinary tasks, for we do not live in those things, we go beyond them!” (GV 8)
Of course, this isn’t easy. The great battle in every human heart since the fall has been our natural, overwhelming tendency to pride. Elizabeth knew this, and probably thinking of her own struggles, admitted that “pride is not something that is destroyed with one good blow of the sword!” (GV 2) It takes a lifetime of daily deaths to self to sever the strong string pride wraps around our souls to keep us fastened to ourselves and to keep us complacent and “commonplace” in the spiritual level.
We must die to ourselves to live for God and to be open and available when He does call us to do great things for the kingdom.
And we should expect to be summoned.
The call may be hidden but it will always be great; it will always be salvific. In God’s mind, to be small is only to remain captive to all the earthly things—and not least of all to that magnetic force that we seem to want everything to revolve around: me. But once freed from self, the miracle is that we aren’t limited by our own brokenness anymore.
The Holy Spirit has plans for us; we just need to open the door to Him. We have to open it wide with confidence and the anticipation that we are being called for a purpose. We have to believe that the measure of our call is undoubtedly higher than we are and then get out of the way enough for Christ to glorify the Father through our transparent souls.
The struggle is always to swat away not only pride but also the lying humility the enemy of our souls feeds us in our lowest moments: Who do you think you are, anyway? he says. You are nothing. (Which, by the way, he wouldn’t bother with saying if we really were not a threat to him, would he?)
The truth needs to be louder than the lies. Elizabeth’s voice rises above the din of sin and says we must be aware of the greatness of the human soul in grace and that by baptism, we’ve already been anointed for a mission. And we’ve been equipped for it. So yes, we must be humble and know that without Christ, we really cannot bear any lasting fruit—but with Him, there will absolutely be basketfuls left over.
We need to safeguard this identity, to protect God’s gifts and graces, to say ‘no’ to anything less than living our personal vocation to holiness and the particular brand of love we bring to the world.
We are very dangerous to the enemy of our souls when we know exactly who we are.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next…I have a part in a great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
-Cardinal John Henry Newman
Image courtesy of Unsplash.