It’s always something of a relief to me when I learn a saint struggled with a behavior or an inclination because it makes them more human, more approachable, even more understandable. The saints were real people, of course, but many of them seem to have lived so perfectly that it's discouraging to even try to emulate them. So when I read about a saint struggling to overcome human weaknesses—just as the rest of us struggle—I’m more inclined to view that person as a role model.
Elizabeth of the Trinity is one of those saints. She was, throughout her childhood and adolescence, strong-willed to the point of flying into rages—some of them violent—whenever anyone opposed her, carrying tantrums to a new level altogether. Apparently, she was even once described as being a “pure devil.”
That changed, of course. We know the rest of the story. She entered a Carmelite monastery when she was twenty-one and died five short years later of Addison’s Disease, and she became known as the saint of the divine indwelling. The way of living in an imperfect world, she learned, was to carry the light of God within you. In fact, the very beginning of her most famous prayer is an entreaty to God to help her forget herself. It’s a tremendous step away from the child who had tantrums when she didn’t get her way.
But that step wasn’t accomplished all at once; it was, like most of the changes we make in our lives, composed of a series of smaller steps. Elizabeth decided to change after she first received the sacrament of penance, assuring her mother that she was trying to become the model of a sweet and patient daughter. It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it was four years later, when she made her First Communion, that she was really able to overcome her expressions of anger and control her temper.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took work. And I love that about her. She prayed and worked her way into becoming the young woman who entered Carmel and inspired not only her sisters but generations of people after her. Seven years after that First Communion and her determination to become the person God was calling her to be, Elizabeth wrote,
When Jesus made in me his dwelling place,
When God took possession of my heart,
So well that since that hour,
Since that mysterious colloquy,
That divine and delicious meeting,
I have aspired to nothing else but to give my life
In order to return a bit of his great love
To the Beloved of the Eucharist
Who reposed in my feeble heart,
Inundating it with all of his favors.
Jesus came to live in her heart, and it changed everything. She didn’t become perfect overnight, but she worked to change the things that weren’t consistent with God living within her. It’s no surprise, then, that she lived and taught a spirituality that was immensely practical.
And that’s where we can meet Elizabeth of the Trinity now, because she teaches us how to navigate the perils and promises of a confusing and often frightening world. She teaches us, writes John Henry Hanson, O. Praem,
...to carry your own heaven with you, within you, wherever you go. No spirituality could be more practical: Our interior relationship with God must run deep enough to push back against the scandals, setbacks, and persecutions that Jesus says will confront us in the world. We must learn to live not only with a sinful world that is clearly not heaven, but also with an imperfect self and equally flawed neighbors. How to accommodate both sin and grace into our worldview? By clinging to God through everything. We easily cling to other things—from our own preferences to fears and prejudices.
God works in his own way and his own time, and perhaps Elizabeth was meant to be a saint from the start. But I cannot help but wonder if her steadfast understanding of a fire burning inside, of Christ indwelling in our hearts and lives, wasn’t in some way influenced by her own struggles to subdue those parts of herself that would have made her inhospitable to him.
And it makes me look at my own life and see what I’m struggling with that's keeping me from being completely open to God. And to try to do something about it!