November 8th is the feast day of one of the saints closest to my heart, responsible for a number of graces in my life.
Elizabeth Catez was born in 1880 in a French military camp. Twenty-six years later, she lay dead in a Carmelite convent in Dijon, her body so ravaged by Addison’s disease it seemed a skeleton. Most remarkable about this girl was not so much that she had invited such suffering into her life by asking that Christ “fulfill a second humanity” in her; or that she accepted her internal devouring with equanimity (“God is a consuming fire, it is to His action that I submit.”); or that in the midst of her torments she asked, not that her pains would cease, but that God would increase her capacity for suffering. What was most remarkable about Elizabeth of the Trinity is that she was a most ordinary girl from a most ordinary background. Although an intelligent and popular child, she was burdened with a strong will and a fierce temperament. She would go into fits when she did not get her way. In one case, a favorite doll had been borrowed (unbeknownst to her) for use in the parish mission. When she spotted it, she stood up in the middle of the theatre and shouted, “You wicked priest! Give me back my Jeanette!” Other such instances prompted the curate to tell her mother, “With such a temperament, she will be either a demon or an angel.”
She enjoyed clothes and the latest fashions, dressing up to go dancing, and excelled at classical piano. At one point she was nearly engaged to be married. She gave it all up at twenty-one, however, to become the spouse of Christ in the Carmel of Dijon. Three days after entry, a sister wrote a letter to Sr. Geneviève of Lisieux (sibling of St. Thérèse): “a postulant of three days but one who has desired Carmel since the age of seven, Sr. Elizabeth of the Trinity, who will turn out to be a Saint, for she already has remarkable dispositions for that.”
The Dijon Carmel was founded in 1605 by a companion to St. Teresa of Avila and spiritual daughter of St. John of the Cross. After changes from several different locales, it was the monastery on 4 boulevard Carnot, established in 1868, that became Elizabeth’s home for five short years. (In 1979, according to their website “de multiples problèmes et contraintes”, the sisters moved to a more modern edifice some eight miles outside of Dijon, whose architecture serves to be slightly less inspiring than that of Elizabeth’s convent.)
The prioress described the last eight and a half months of Elizabeth’s life as “a true ascent of Calvary.” Addison’s disease, a then-incurable sickness, attacks the adrenal glands, which then cease to function. The results are gastrointestinal pains, inability to eat, vomiting, and emaciation, until one dies of exhaustion and starvation. Toward the end of her illness, she ate less and less, until her last week, during which she ate and drank nothing at all.
The following description of her last days is taken from Elizabeth of the Trinity: The Complete Works (edited by Conrad de Meester):
On October 30, 1906, Elizabeth pressed her profession crucifix to her heart and said, “We have loved each other so much.” Her exhausted body resisted no longer. She was permanently confined to her bed. In the evening, a great trembling shook her.
The next day she received Extreme Unction and Viaticum for the second time.
On All Saints Day she received Communion for the last time. Around ten o’clock in the morning, they thought the hour of her death had arrived. The community gathered around her and recited the prayers for the dying. Elizabeth regained enough strength to ask pardon of her Sisters in moving words. Invited by them to say more, she replied: “Everything passes away! At the evening of life, love alone remains…. We must do everything by love; we must forget ourselves at all times. The good God so loves us to forget ourselves…. Ah! if I had always done so!…”
She remained lucid in the days that followed, but her eyes, which were bloodshot, were nearly always closed. She suffered greatly. Sometimes she spoke again, to make others happy or give last testimonies of her union with God and her desire to offer Him everything. She could no longer receive Communion but said: “I find Him on the Cross; it is there He gives me His life.”
After a violent attack, she cried out: “O love, Love! You know if I love you, if I desire to contemplate you; you know, too, if I suffer; yet, thirty, forty years more if you wish, I am ready. Consume my substance for your glory; let it distill drop by drop for your Church.”
On the 7th and 8th of November, she kept almost constant silence. Yet these words could still be heard: “I am going to Light, to Love, to Life!…”
The night of the 8th to the 9th of November was very painful. Asphyxiation was added to her other sufferings. Toward morning, her acute pains abated. The alteration of her features showed she was on the point of dying. The community was called. Elizabeth’s eyes were now wide open and luminous. Almost without anyone noticing, she stopped breathing. It was around 6:15 in the morning.
Prophet of god, Elizabeth of the Trinity belonged henceforth to the entire Church.
Upon her death, the prioress described her body “like a skeleton,” and a close friend wrote that the sight of her body “was frightening. You had the sense of a creature who had been ravaged, consumed.” Even so, Elizabeth was able to pen a handful of letters (with the help of the prioress) to loved ones. An excerpt from perhaps her most famous one, written to her prioress, can speak to us all:
[God] rejoices to build you up by His love and for His glory, and it is He alone who wants to work in you, even though you will have done nothing to attract this grace except that which a creature can do: works of sin and misery…He loves you like that….He will do everything in you. He will go to the end: for when a soul is loved by Him to this extent, in this way, loved by an unchanging and creative love, a free love which transforms as it pleases Him, oh, how far this soul will go! …. the fidelity that the Master asks of you is to remain in communion with Love, flow into, be rooted in this Love …. You will never be commonplace if you are vigilant in love! But in the hours when you feel only oppression and lassitude, you will please Him even more if you faithfully believe that He is still working, that He is loving you just the same, and even more: because His love is free and that is how He wants to be magnified in you; and you will let yourself be loved more than these…. You are called … to magnify the power of His Love. Believe … and read these lines as if coming from Him.
Elisabeth de la Trinité, priez pour nous!