The Word Among Us

Easter 2024 Issue

Finding God in Our Hearts

Lessons in Contemplative Living From St. Elizabeth of the Trinity

By: Laura Loker

Finding God in Our Hearts: Lessons in Contemplative Living From St. Elizabeth of the Trinity by Laura Loker

As a mother of three young children, I often find that my days are chaotic. Between the noise and the messes and the school pickups, hours can pass by without a minute of true quiet. And the peaceful moments I do enjoy rarely last longer than my kitchen is clean.

But whether we have small children or not, most of us can probably relate. There are always more bills to pay, more dishes to clean, more errands to run. Silence, and even prayer, can feel like luxuries for which we don’t have time or space.

Given all the chaos, we can be tempted to consider that the prayer-filled life of a contemplative saint is out of our reach. This is especially true when we think about those saints who lived a cloistered life. Surely they don’t have anything to offer those of us who deal with traffic jams or sticky toddler fingerprints!

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Carmelite who lived in France at the turn of the twentieth century, would disagree. She entered the monastery at the age of twenty-one, and she died only five years later. But even though she lived a short, secluded life, her practical wisdom might surprise you. She can teach everyone—from tired moms like me to busy professionals to retirees—how to live a contemplative, prayerful life in the midst of our responsibilities.

Called to Carmel. Elizabeth was born in 1880 near Bourges, France, to Joseph and Marie Catez. Her sister, Marguerite, came along three years later, by which point the family had settled in Dijon.

By all accounts, “Sabeth” was a handful of a child. Her mother described her as having a lively temperament, a mischievous nature, and a quick temper. As Elizabeth grew older, she became quite social and was beloved by her friends and family members. She also developed a deep faith. She often spoke of meeting Jesus in prayer, and her First Communion filled her with overwhelming joy. “I am not hungry,” she told her childhood friend that day. “Jesus has fed me.”

Several years later, the call to religious life that she had been discerning from a young age grew more specific: Jesus was inviting her to join a Carmelite monastery near her home. Once Elizabeth entered in 1901, taking the name Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity, she felt a deep, abiding joy.

“Everything is delightful in Carmel; we find God at the wash just as at prayer,” Elizabeth wrote to her sister soon after entering. “Everywhere there is only him. We live him, breathe him. If you knew how happy I am! My horizon grows larger each day.”

So what kind of everyday, concrete wisdom can a cloistered young woman like Elizabeth offer us? The same advice she offered her own family and friends. Elizabeth taught that whether we live in a monastery or a bustling home, we can build our “inner cell” and we can clean out our hearts to make room for the Lord.

Build Your Inner Cell. “You must build a little cell within your soul as I do,” Elizabeth wrote to a young woman for whom she had a motherly regard. “Remember that God is there and enter it from time to time; when you feel nervous or you’re unhappy, quickly seek refuge there and tell the Master all about it.”

According to Elizabeth, we can build this “little cell” by recognizing that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have made each of us their holy dwelling at our Baptisms. Calling their presence to mind as we go about our days, and bringing them our difficulties, can break down the barrier we often create between our spiritual lives and our “regular” lives.

“Everything lies in the intention,” she wrote to her mother, “how we can sanctify the smallest things, transform the most ordinary actions of life into divine actions! A soul who lives in union with God does nothing that is not supernatural, and the most common actions . . . draw [us] ever nearer.” In other words, everything we do, from answering emails to wiping down the kitchen counter, is holy, even “divine,” when we try to stay aware of God’s presence within us!

To help her sister—who at this point had married and had two daughters—build her own inner cell, Elizabeth wrote a simple ten-day “retreat” for her that consisted of two short reflections per day. One reflection begins, “‘Remain in me.’ It is the Word of God who gives this order, expresses this wish. Remain in me, not for a few moments, a few hours which must pass away, but ‘remain . . .’ permanently, habitually. Remain in me, pray in me, adore in me, love in me, suffer in me, work and act in me.”

Clean Out Your Heart. This recognition that God dwells within us is also a call to action. Just as we tidy our homes before a guest comes to visit, so must we consider the state of our hearts. Elizabeth reminds us how easy it can be to fill in the gaps in our days with distraction: turning to our phones or television, checking our work email at all hours of the day. Only when we reduce the noise can we begin to quiet our hearts.

To walk in Jesus Christ seems to me to mean to leave self, lose sight of self, give up self, in order to enter more deeply into him with every passing moment, so deeply that one is rooted there,” she wrote. “And to every event, to every circumstance we can fling this beautiful challenge: ‘Who will separate me from the love of Jesus Christ?’”

The circumstances that most threaten to tear us from our Lord are often our trials. At such moments, he asks us to keep our eyes on eternity, to remember that he is always with us, within us: “Look at the Master, look only at him, accept as coming directly from his love both joy and suffering; this places the soul on such serene heights!” she wrote to a friend.

Elizabeth’s suffering came in the form of Addison’s disease, which had no cure at the time. “In the light of eternity the soul sees things as they really are,” she wrote to a friend several weeks before she died. “Oh! How empty is all that has not been done for God and with God! I beg you, oh, mark everything with the seal of love! It alone endures.”

A Heavenly Mission. Elizabeth died on November 9, 1906, at the age of twenty-six. Mother Germaine of Jesus, her Mother Superior, recalled that Elizabeth anticipated her life in heaven. “If God grants my request,” Elizabeth told her, “I think that in heaven my mission will be to draw souls into interior recollection.”

One weekend last year, I packed a small bag and headed off to a silent retreat. It was the first I’d attended since having children, and I looked forward to the quiet even more than an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Yet when I arrived, I was surprised. The retreat house was more peaceful than my house, but the quiet felt familiar. When I returned home, it became clear that even amid the chaos of my days, God had always been—and continues to be—present in my heart. It was just as Elizabeth had said! “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.”

Laura Loker writes from Northern Virginia.