SR THÉRÈSE MARIE OCD recalls the life of the recently canonised French saint, Elizabeth of the Trinity.
Elizabeth Catez was a Carmelite nun at Dijon in France, but if God had not called her to Carmel she might well have been a celebrated concert pianist. She had one younger sister Marguerite, known as Guite. When the little girls were aged four and seven, their father died suddenly, as the result of a heart attack, and some time afterwards their mother enrolled them both in the Dijon Conservatoire to study music. Elizabeth began her studies there when she was eight. She practised the piano for several hours each day and was an exceptionally gifted pianist. She often played in concerts and when she was thirteen she won first prize for her playing, having already won first prize for theory of music. The following year she won the much coveted Prize of Excellence for piano, but already her heart was set on God.
However, she was no angel as a small child; she had a fierce temper which she only controlled with great difficulty. Elizabeth realised that she could not expect to receive Holy Communion daily while she reacted so violently, so she turned to God for help. She was eleven-years-old when she received her first Holy Communion, and very soon the Eucharist became the centre of her life.
Later Elizabeth used her experience of overcoming her own impetuous temperament to help others; she especially relied on God to curb her tendency to anger. After she entered Carmel she counselled her fifteen-year-old friend, who was still unable to control her outbursts. Her temperament was very like Elizabeth’s so they understood each other well. Elizabeth wrote, 'We must fix our gaze on God. It requires an effort at first when we are boiling with anger, but gently and with patience and the help of grace, we win through in the end'
Elizabeth had a natural capacity for contemplative prayer. Long before she entered Carmel she had an intense awareness that she was living in God’s presence. People who saw this young woman praying in Church noticed that she seemed ‘lost in God’. She had in fact surrendered herself totally to God, making a vow of virginity when she was just fourteen; she said she felt irresistibly compelled to do this as she had chosen Jesus as her only spouse. One day during her thanksgiving after Holy Communion, soon after making this vow, Elizabeth felt a strong call to Carmel.
Elizabeth’s deep prayer animated her and she became actively involved in various works in her parish. She taught catechism and ran a club for the children of workers in a tobacco factory; she visited the sick and, of course, as a musician, she sang in the parish choir.
Elizabeth took part in all the usual activities common to girls of her age at that time. She dressed in the latest fashions, enjoyed dances and loved walking in the country, where she deeply appreciated the beauty of creation. She had a great gift for friendship and was popular with her peers, but in everything God was at the centre. She said that when she played the piano she forgot all about the audience and played only for him.
Elizabeth spent happy holidays with her mother and sister; the three of them were very close, probably, due to the death of Monsieur Catez at a young age. They all needed each other’s support to cope with the loss of an exceptionally loving father and husband. Due to these close bonds it was particularly difficult for Elizabeth to tell her mother that she had a vocation to Carmel. She waited for two years and when she mentioned it her mother forbade her to speak to the nuns and told her not to think of entering until she was twenty-one.
Ever hopeful that she could persuade Elizabeth to abandon her vocation her mother even procured a marriage proposal for her, only a few days after telling her she could enter Carmel at the age of wenty-one!
Elizabeth was nineteen-years-old at the time and of course she was adamant in her refusal; in fact she was shocked that her mother would do such a thing, when she had so clearly stated her irresistible call to Carmel.
At last, the day came for Elizabeth to enter the Carmel of Dijon. It was 2 August 1901 and only four months later on 8 December – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception - she was clothed in the Carmelite habit.
When Elizabeth first entered Carmel she was full of joy; she found God everywhere, in her work as well as at prayer. She loved the silence of her cell where she liked to ponder the scriptures, discerning what God was saying to her. After she received the religious habit she met with difficulties and struggled with scruples. She had a great desire for perfection and it took her some time to realise that she could not attain it by her own efforts. Mother Germaine, only ten years older than Elizabeth, was her prioress and novice mistress. She understood Elizabeth and emphasised the way of confidence in the merciful love of God as expressed by Thérèse of Lisieux.
Elizabeth is not as well-known as her contemporary St Thérèse, who was born seven years before her and died when Elizabeth was seventeen. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul was published before Elizabeth entered Carmel and the Carmel of Dijon had received a copy, initially as Thérèse‘s obituary. Soon they began to promote Thérèse’s book and sold copies in the monastery. We know that Elizabeth had read it before she entered Carmel, so she was already familiar with Thérèse’s teaching on merciful love. Mother Germaine built on this, encouraging Elizabeth to put all her trust in God. Like Thérèse, Elizabeth turned to scripture for guidance. She was especially influenced by St Paul’s letters, and inspired by his teaching she wanted to be another humanity for Christ.
She gradually found her vocation to be a Praise of his Glory, a phrase she discovered when reading Ephesians 1. Sometimes, she even signed her letters Laudem Gloriae which translates 'Praise of Glory'. It was also from her study of scripture that Elizabeth’s gained deep insights into the mystery of the Trinity. She was extraordinarily aware of the indwelling of the Trinity in her soul and often referred to the Divine Persons as 'My Three'.
Elizabeth wrote some short works and many of her letters are preserved. Her best known composition is her Prayer to the Trinity which was discovered among her papers after she died. It is quoted in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. (No. 260) This prayer sums up Elizabeth’s spirituality.
From July 1905 Elizabeth suffered pain, weakness and exhaustion as a result of the onset of Addison’s disease. She had asked to share in Christ’s suffering and it seemed He was answering her prayer. She even felt the absence of God at times.
Elizabeth died on 9 November 1906 at the age of twenty-six, saying, ‘I am going to Light, to Love, to Life’. When her obituary circular was published it was sent to friends of the community and friends of her family as well as to the French Carmels and soon there was great demand for it from people who had not even known Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s cause for beatification was introduced in 1931 and, on 12 July 1982, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her heroic virtue and declared her ‘Venerable’. On 25 November 1984, having approved the miracle for Elizabeth’s beatification, Pope John Paul II declared her ‘Blessed’ during an apostolic visit to Paris. On 3 March 2016 Pope Francis approved a second healing miracle attributed to Elizabeth’s intercession and opened the way for her canonisation; so she is now Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity and we are encouraged to ask her intercession, especially for the sick. Elizabeth’s feast day is celebrated on 8 November.