I first ‘met’ Elizabeth when, as a young convert, I attended a retreat day at my local convent. I picked up a copy of Praise of Glory by the Benedictines of Stanbrook Abbey and, from that moment, she became my favourite spiritual guide.
That being about the only work in English about Elizabeth, and with no copy of my own, I was lucky enough to find a copy of the original Souvenirs, from which Praise of Glory was translated, and spent many hours pounding away on an ancient typewriter using my schoolgirl French to do some translation myself.
What drew me to Elizabeth? As a convert to the Catholic Faith, it pains me when, in popular culture, there is so much negativity in its portrayal. In my writings I have wanted to tell the stories of saints and other holy people, of their radiant love of God and the attractiveness of their faith and their lives.
Elizabeth is a prime example. Her parish priest said that with her temperament she would become either a devil or a saint. By co-operating with the grace of God she became a saint.
He transformed not only the beauty of her personality into holiness, but also the traits which, if unchecked, could have made her self-centred, domineering and with a ferocious temper. With his grace, Elizabeth transformed the fieriness of her character into total and undivided love of God, she became patient, selfless and humble.
As to her spirituality, there were so many aspects which resonated with me. When she discovered that the Trinity dwelt within her and she could take his divine presence with her wherever she was, she discovered that her heaven had begun on earth, since God is heaven and he dwelt within her. Life on earth is heaven on earth and ever in progress. Life is an anticipated heaven.
The corollary to that is that we must start living, here on earth, the life that will be ours in heaven, that is as a ‘Praise of Glory’. We have to acclimatise ourselves for heaven, as it were, in order to be able to breathe its air when we get there.
I was drawn to the Carmelite contemplative and apostolic tradition because I was acutely aware that we best served others by becoming as close to Christ in holiness as possible, so that all our actions could have divine worth if done in love; Elizabeth expressed that perfectly for me when she wrote that
‘Since Our Lord dwells in our souls, His prayer belongs to us. I wish to communicate with it unceasingly, keeping myself like a little vase at the Source, at the Fountain of life, so that later I can communicate Him to souls by letting its floods of infinite charity overflow’.
Recently, I have been exploring another vital aspect of her spirituality which is her love of silence. I am at the moment reading The Power of Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah. I don’t think that so far he has discovered Elizabeth, but I hope he will, for it seems to me that Elizabeth could be called the Saint of Silence, a saint who is desperately needed in our times. With Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, iPads, 24/7 news coverage, the need to be continually in contact with others, and the noise of daily living; we all need to discover silence.
Elizabeth loved the silence of Carmel’s cloisters, but this external silence was only the beginning. She ‘hungered for silence that she may always listen, always penetrate further His infinite Being’. Rather than listening to the opinions of the outside world where responses can be often instantaneous and ill-informed, Elizabeth teaches us the quiet receptivity of prayer, where we do less speaking and much more listening to what God wishes to tell us.
It is to cease listening to that inner chatter, our needs and problems so that we can discern God’s answer to them. So often this can feel like the silence of God, that he is not there, and this is where Cardinal Sarah begins meditating on silence – the Silence of God – where his work in the soul seems so intangible and yet so profoundly real.
Elizabeth loved those times of silence before the tabernacle where, she said simply, ‘we love each other.’ In her writings, especially in ‘Last Retreat’ she goes into detail as to what she means by silence. There has to be an interior silence, ‘a going out of oneself’ in order to enter into God. In her profound Prayer to the Trinity she said she wanted to ‘remain in your great light, O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance’.
I can’t help contrasting this attitude with that of the current craze for taking selfies, whereby, when we take photos of places we are visiting, people we are with, we have to include ourselves, right at the centre. We have to prove our importance by showing the photo of us being with this or that celebrity. Elizabeth, on the other hand, wanted to lose herself in the vision of God, so that her life ‘may be but a radiance of Your life’.
Is there not a paradox, a contradiction, here, though? Cardinal Sarah writes a whole book on silence, Elizabeth’s letters and other works fill three volumes. Could not all this verbiage negate silence? No.
Rather, it is from Elizabeth’s profound interior silence, and in the silence of Cardinal Sarah’s own experience of events in his life, that their words flow out and are powerful. I feel that they reflect the very movement of God’s action flowing from the infinite silence of love given and received in the heart of the Trinity. Yet within the Trinity is the Word, and that Word is uttered and things happen. The universe is brought into existence by his Word; the Word becomes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, but that great mystery takes place in the silence of conception.
He is born and the heavenly host sings its exultation, but is heard by only by a few shepherds; the divine reality of it all takes place in silence. Jesus dies on the Cross, but the redemption of the world can only be grasped in the silence of prayer and transformed lives. At Pentecost there is wind and fire and tongues, but the reality takes place within the silence of the heart.
Elizabeth gently teaches us from the first baby steps of setting aside a few minutes within the day to draw apart to be in silence before God and seek him within ourselves, to increasing our union with God perhaps even the depths of her union with God during the last months of her life, because we can put no limit on the action of God’s love within us.
Towards the end of her life Elizabeth wrote that ‘I think that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them to go out of themselves in order to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence within which will allow God to communicate Himself to them and to transform them into Himself’.