Before we begin, let me preface all that follows of Bl. Elizabeth’s spirituality with what Monsigneur du Vauroux writes of her in the preface of the book, The Spiritual Doctrine of Sister Elizabeth, by Father M. M. Philipon: “Like St. Teresa, the dear little sister loved above all else true, strong, beautiful doctrine” [Doctrine xix]. She drew her understanding principally from Sacred Scripture, especially from the Epistles of St. Paul, and from St. John of the Cross.
Rev. Philipon admits frankly that his purpose is to study not only her doctrine, but also her soul. Chapter 1, “Spiritual Journey,” details her interior life in the world, before she entered Carmel, which includes a description of her fiery temperament, her normal social experiences, being surrounded by children and young people who loved her, travels and dances through which she guarded her heart—above all, her desire to enter Carmel from the age of 14, and her decision to wait patiently on her mother, a widow, who was intensely opposed to losing her oldest daughter to the cloister. She was drawn to prayer.
Father reports in this first chapter that “when Elizabeth was shown into her Carmelite cell she was heard to murmur, ‘The Trinity is there!’” When asked a week after she arrived at Carmel to fill out a questionnaire, “What point of the Rule do you like best?” her response: “Silence.”
Father Philipon explains: “In accordance with her special grace, it was in the very depths that she lived her Carmelite ideal. She went straight to the essentials: solitude, the life of continual prayer, the consummation in love….On the mountain of Carmel, in silence, in solitude, in a prayer that never ceases because it continues through all else, the Carmelite lives as though already in heaven, by God alone….so she hungers for silence in order to be always listening, to penetrate ever more deeply into His infinite being” [Doctrine 13-14].
What Elizabeth longed for with all her soul was to seek the Trinity dwelling in the deepest sanctuary of her heart, to listen to that Mystery, the very essence of which is Divine Silence. For that she entered the cloister of Carmel, entered the exterior cloister of the walls. Once inside, she entered more deeply into the inner cloister of her heart to seek the indwelling Trinity which invaded her soul from the first moment of baptism. She declared: “I am Elizabeth of the Trinity, that is, Elizabeth who disappears, who is lost, who lets herself be invaded by the Three.”[Doctrine 49]. One of her favorite Carmelite mottos was this one: “Alone with the great Alone.”
On the day of her profession, she said: “Who could describe the joy of my soul when, on contemplating the crucifix which I received after my profession and which our Reverend Mother placed ‘as a seal on my heart,’ I could say to myself: ‘At last He is all mine and I am all His. I have nothing else but Him. He is my All!’ And now, I have only one desire, to love Him, to love Him all the time, to be zealous for His honor as a true bride, to give Him joy, to make Him happy by preparing a dwelling and a refuge for Him in my soul, so that there He may forget, by the strength of my love, all the abominations of the wicked!” [Doctrine 65]
Her powers of recollection were intense: “She passed through the cloister silent and absorbed, and nothing could distract her from Christ.” This goal of abiding deep in silence with her Beloved in the indwelling Trinity would be the guiding focus of her entire spirituality as she sought to fulfill the true meaning of her name Elizabeth—which means “House of God.”
Beginning with Chapter 2, Father Philipon reveals “The Ascesis of Silence,” telling us that she had a special devotion to the prophet Elias, “who was the first to lead the eremetical [hermit or solitary] life and whom God had commanded to flee from the dwellings of men and to hide himself, far from the multitude, in the desert: ‘Get thee hence…and hide thyself by the torrent of Carith.’” The ideal of Carmel was not to form a community of contemplatives, but to form a collection of hermits, solitary contemplatives. The walls of Carmel offer practical protection and living essentials, but is not meant to dissipate the solitude. This is the life of which Elizabeth dreamed and into which she poured her whole soul. This was also the dearest wish of St. Teresa of Avila, as she says, “Let us call to mind our holy Fathers, those hermits of other days, whose life we seek to copy. What sufferings did they not have to bear, and in what loneliness!” [Doctrine 35].
Father Philipon explains that Bl. Elizabeth distinguishes three kinds of silence: “exterior and interior silence and, finally, a wholly divine silence,” sacred silence or God’s silence [Doctrine 36]. Outward or exterior silence helps to foster and maintain interior silence. Only from interior silence can the soul enter the sacred silence which is the true silence of the Trinity. Elizabeth rigorously protected her exterior silence, ruthlessly pursued interior silence because in her heart of hearts she longed for the true silence of the Mystery of the Trinity. “She loved the silence of her cell…’It is full of God and I spend such happy hours there, alone with the Bridegroom. I keep silence; I listen to Him; it is so good to hear everything from Him…and then, I love Him!” [Doctrine 36].
Elizabeth loved St. Catherine of Siena, the third order Dominican saint, who in her necessary travels, learned to enter her “interior cell” where she found constant refuge in the midst of bustling activity. This is an example of interior silence.
Father Philipon explains: “This is teaching straight from the Gospels: whoever desires to be lifted up to God in prayer must reduce to silence in himself both the empty tumult without and the din within, and retire into the depths of his soul and there in secret, ‘having shut the door,’ recollect himself in his Father’s presence” [Doctrine 39]. Indeed, this was the practice of Christ himself.
This interior silence includes silence of the imagination and other faculties of the soul, a whole interior world of sensations and impressions within us which threatens to take possession of us at any moment. The understanding, too must hush all human commotion within itself. Not all thoughts, thinking, and reflection lead to the sacred silence of the Mystery of God. Father Philipon gives us such a beautiful explanation of Elizabeth’s practice here: “Like her master, St. John of the Cross, Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity was ruthless in this respect. ‘We must extinguish every other light,’ and attain to God by nakedness of spirit, and not by building a learned structure of beautiful thoughts” [Doctrine 40].
It seems to me that this one sentence of Father Philipon may be worth the entire post. I have been chewing on this substantial truth for several days now—and will be for days to come.
Father Philipon also reveals: “Above all, there must be silence in the will. The whole drama of our sanctification takes place there; the will is the faculty of love. Rightly does St. John of the Cross assign to the will the final purifications that prepare the way for transforming union. ‘Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, on the way; and on the Mountain, nothing’” [Doctrine 40].
What we will, the object of our will, the focus of our will must be completely purified—“We must extinguish every other light” as Elizabeth puts it—except that of the indwelling Trinity. “’To know nothing….’ To be resolute in passing everything by in order that, in complete self-forgetfulness and abnegation, the soul may be united to God alone….not a material separation from external things, but a solitude of spirit, a detachment from all that is not God” [Doctrine 41].
Near the end of her life, in her last retreat, Sister Elizabeth devotes an entire chapter to the freedom of the soul set free by interior silence: “My Rule tells me: ‘In silence shall be your strength.’ To keep our strength for the Lord is to keep our whole being in unity by interior silence; to collect all our powers, to occupy them in the one work of love, to have the ‘single eye’ which allows the light of God to enlighten us…” Doctrine 42].
To conclude, let us reflect on a beautiful interpretation of scripture by Elizabeth herself: “’Hearken, O daughter…incline thy ear; forget thy people and thy father’s house. And the King shall greatly desire thy beauty.’ This injunction is, I feel, a call to silence. ‘Hearken…incline thy ear.’ But in order to listen, we must forget our ‘father’s house,’ that is, whatever pertains to the natural life, of which the Apostle says: ‘If you live according to the flesh you will die.’ To forget our people is more difficult, for this ‘people’ is that world which is, as it were, a part of ourselves. It includes our feelings, memories, impressions, etc. In a word, it is self. We must forget it, give it up. Then when the soul has broken with it and is wholly delivered from all it means, ‘the King shall greatly desire’ its beauty, for beauty—at least God’s beauty—is unity.”
“The Creator, seeing the beautiful silence that reigns within His creature, who is deeply recollected in her interior solitude, greatly desires her beauty. He leads her into that immense and infinite solitude, into that ‘large place’ of which the Psalmist sings, which is His very self.” Thus, this supreme solitude establishes the soul in the very silence of the Trinity [Doctrine 44-45].