A Primer on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity’s Eucharistic Spirituality
Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906) sets the standard for contemplative prayer. Her many letters and spiritual writings offer spiritual food for those who long to go deep into the mystery of God’s heart.
Born Élisabeth Catez in central France in 1880, the future St. Elizabeth had been drawn to the Carmelite order since childhood. She entered the discalced Carmel in Dijon at the age of 21, just four years after the death of another French Carmelite, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). Her day-to-day praise of the Trinity, her Eucharistic spirituality, and her reliance on silent contemplative prayer make her a model for anyone wishing to foster a true liturgical spirituality. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity was canonized by Pope Francis on October 16, 2016, and her feast day falls on November 8.
Given St. Elizabeth’s life, anyone who reads her writings knows that there are silences that await us in the depths of God’s heart that can utterly transform our existence, an impact of divinity and humanity that raises up our lives even as the world falls apart around us. To this end, St. Elizabeth does not advocate any complex techniques or psychological tricks. Instead, she offers a very humble and simple movement of love, a surrender with confidence into the saving dynamism of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at work in the soul. In this work, the soul becomes completely identified with the life of the Holy Trinity, a life opened up through the passion and death of Christ.
Surrender to Life
There is more to this surrender into the Word’s surrender than the silence of death. When it descends into this deep silence of Christ’s total offering of himself for our sake, the soul through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ even becomes the “prey” of the Trinity. This mutual surrender, far from morbid, allows the Source of all Life to contemplate his glory anew in the most fruitful and powerful ways. A new generative power is unleashed. St. Elizabeth believed her friends and her whole society profoundly needed this power. This was why she dedicated herself to contemplative prayer and brought it to bear in her liturgical devotion. She was convinced that her spiritual mission from heaven would be to lead her friends out of their preoccupations with “self” and into the splendor of this meeting of the soul with God. Utterly consumed by the love of the Trinity, she understood that the person of prayer becomes most fully himself—he or she becomes the praise of glory.
While some contrast this simple movement of heart as private, emotive, and perhaps even esoteric, this is not the case for this Carmelite saint. If von Balthasar identifies her as “the mystic of Dijon,” her mysticism was liturgical, an act of public worship in the fullest and most existential ways. True, what she has to say about the liturgy itself is limited. Yet, her writings direct our gaze upon the Eucharist as the source and summit of contemplative prayer, the means by which we can become the praise of glory of the Trinity. We see this in her conviction that the Word of the Father speaks to us in Eucharistic adoration: “In the silence of adoration, we listen to Him, the One who is from the ‘Beginning’, who speaks into our interiority, and does He not say to us, ‘The One who has sent me is true and all that I have heard from Him, I tell to you’?” (John 8:25-26).
The silence of adoration allows the words of the Word to echo in the soul. St. Elizabeth is convinced that the Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament is a dynamic presence, one in which God speaks to us and evokes a response—a response in adoration and obedience. To obey means to listen with the heart to the words of another and to allow these words to influence how we see the world and how we act in it. It implies a letting go of our own agendas and surrendering to the plans of someone else. Placing ourselves before the Blessed Sacrament, we are invited to surrender to the Father through Jesus’ real presence.
This surrender, of course, is always a challenge in the spiritual life, but it is especially daunting in our own time when a crisis of fatherhood presents a serious obstacle to such surrender. There is no denying that our culture holds God the Father in hostile suspicion—but the Blessed Sacrament shines forth as a threshold, a mystery of encounter where Jesus puts us face to face with the immensity of love that the Father yearns for us to know, “Whoever sees me sees the Father” (John 14:9).
Devotion to Liturgy
St. Elizabeth roots her Eucharistic devotion in the most sacred moment of the Mass—thus, we also see that this kind of communal praise is not an individualistic or private pursuit, but one that involves the whole body of Christ. The surrender that she aims for coincides with the ministry of the priest in the words of consecration. As she enters into a prolonged period of intense mental prayer, she asks for the priest’s help: “When you consecrate the host where Jesus, ‘who alone is Holy,’ will be incarnate,” the saint says, “consecrate me with Him ‘as the victim of the praise of glory’ until all my aspirations, all my movements, all my actions pay homage to the Holy One” (L 244, October 1905).
The context for this request is her contemplative life and an immediate opportunity, which her community has given her, to withdraw for a period into deep prayer. Rather than an accomplishment for herself and by herself, she reckons contemplative prayer as an activity geared to the praise of God’s glory and reliant on the ministry of a priest.
Elsewhere in her writings, St. Elizabeth develops the theme of identification with Christ, a theme which coincides with her vision of becoming the praise of glory. The incarnate Christ is present through the ministry of the priest anew—thus the priest is intimately identified with Christ—and it is this mystery with which she too wants to be completely identified. Such an intimate union allows her to become the praise of God’s glory just as Christ glorified the Father through the offering of his own life on the cross. St. Elizabeth sees the personal mystery of her own life as utterly caught up in what the Lord has done for her. It is the only response she can make in the face of the immensity of love that he unveils to offer her own imperfect love in return.
But this union is not something that she believes she can do on her own. She needs the ministry of a priest. She needs the Mass. In the Mass, at the moment of consecration, she is convinced that a power is unleashed by which she might realize this noble dream. Through the Mass and the ministry of a priest, her desire for becoming the praise of glory is realized.
Identity in Christ
The Mass also helps St. Elizabeth realize another dimension of not only practicing but becoming the praise of glory. This dimension is once again connected to her desire to be totally identified with Christ—even to the point that she becomes another humanity for him by which he might renew his whole saving ministry. Such an offering of self, she describes as “annihilation.” If the humanity of Christ was annihilated for love of her on the Cross, she wants his annihilation to be extended through her own humanity that his saving work might be increased through the life of the Church. Here is the power that overcomes our hostility toward God and brings to birth the fire of a new love in the human heart.
As she approached her own death, she realized that it was through the ministry of the priest and the moment of consecration that this grace was to be realized for her. Among the last letters she wrote as she suffered a prolonged agony in the final stages of Addison’s disease, she writes to a priest who has mentored her since childhood.
“As a child might ask her father,” she writes, “I ask you at Mass, to consecrate me as a ‘host’ of praise of God’s glory. Oh, consecrate me until I were no longer me by Him. Would that the Father could, in looking upon me, recognize Him. Would that I would be conformed to His death, that I would suffer in myself whatever is lacking in His passion for his body, which is the Church. Thus bathe me in the Blood of Christ until I be made strong with His strength. I feel so little…so weak…” (L 294, July 1906).
In her humble request for the priest to remember her at Mass, she assumes an intrinsic link between her efforts at prayer in death to the liturgy and to the life of the Church. Contemplative prayer is not the attainment of the psyche or the achievement of a state of consciousness, but instead a humble surrender to the Father’s saving gaze. Mental prayer is not an accomplishment of the spiritually elite, but the refuge of the spiritually weak and poor. Such prayer, raised up in the Eucharist, is not therapeutic in the sense that such a conversation with God is merely a method for managing life’s problems—rather, it confers a strength that even at the moment of death can never be overcome.
A Saintly Path for All
For Catholics who want to deepen their devotion to Christ, this beautiful vision of contemplative prayer can become an avenue for deeper participation in the liturgy. Not only by understanding the liturgical rites, but also by believing in God’s action in these rites and sacraments, each Catholic can understand that something is unleashed into our lives, something that this world is not big enough to hold. This is a mystery of superabundant love so rich that, no matter what we suffer, this love can infuse it with meaning and transform the whole world around us.
As the life and words of St. Elizabeth attest, when contemplative prayer flows from and is directed toward the Eucharist, we become capable of uttering—and becoming—a praise of glory that offers hope where hope is most needed.
Anthony Lilles is married to Agnes Lilles, and is a specialist in the mystical tradition of the Church and an expert in the spiritual doctrine of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity. The academic dean of St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, CA, he podcasts at DiscerningHearts.com and blogs at SpiritualDirection.com. With Dan Burke, he co-founded the Avila Institute of Spiritual Formation. He has also founded the Saint John Paul II Center for Contemplative Culture.