Today, more than ever, we need navigators of the spiritual life who can teach us to pray. The contemporary soul is not just spiritually empty—it suffers a ferocious vacuum as unrelenting winds of change and undercurrents of uncertainty threaten. Here the contemporary Catholic attempts to swim, but with little confidence that Church doctrine can fill this painful emptiness.
What we face today is not very different from what Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, a young Carmelite nun, faced in early twentieth-century France. From the cloister, she helped her religious community and close friends navigate a hurricane of anti-religious bigotry and Church scandals even as she suffered the final stages of Addison’s disease. To this day, she still draws souls out of themselves to help them to find those fair winds and following seas that lead to the bosom of Infinite Love.
The Carmelite family has been a special guardian of this mystery in the heart of the Church, providing no less than three Doctors of the Church and countless saints. Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity is perhaps the most influential of the twentieth-century voices to join this chorus. The only twentieth-century saint whose spiritual writings are quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, she has impacted devotion to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Her writings and prayers have helped countless faithful to ponder the ultimate end of the Divine Economy: perfect unity with the Trinity. She helps us to see unity with God not as a future accomplishment but as a mystery that continually breaks into our lives in the present moment (see CCC #260).
By holding up Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity as a teacher of prayer, Father Jean Lafrance, a renowned priest of the diocese of Lille, effectively re-proposes the Catholic mystical tradition. Drawing from Saint Thomas Aquinas, Romano Guardini, Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Carmelite tradition, and many other spiritual writers, he provides the doctrinal context and practical advice in which Saint Elizabeth’s clarion call to silence resounds. He draws us into her mission so that she might draw us into the shadow of the Holy Trinity.
When I was a student at the Angelicum in Rome, on a friend’s recommendation I searched the Pauline Books and Media store near Saint Peter’s for Father Jean LaFrance’s classic work on Elizabeth of the Trinity. When I found it, the first few pages told me that Father LaFrance was just what I needed: a sure guide into Saint Elizabeth’s wisdom and the mystery of living a contemplative life in the world. LaFrance’s interpretation of Saint Elizabeth puts front and center the general loving awareness of the Lord’s saving presence that our tradition calls mystical wisdom—a wisdom that animates all of the apostolic activity that the world needs today.
Years before, during lectures at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr. Mark Miravalle had revealed that then-recently-beatified Elizabeth of the Trinity, the mystic of Dijon, was an important influence on the spirituality of Saint John Paul II. That summer, while visiting the New Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur, I began to read her for the first time. When I first tasted her writings, I immediately hungered for more. Salted with the Sacred Scriptures and peppered with passages from the spiritual genius of the saints, real spiritual food is offered in her every sentence. A sense of validation shook my soul. At the same time, I also felt confounded and mystified.
The words were beautiful and compelling, but difficult to chew. My mind savored only a very small morsel of the feast being offered. To benefit from her message, I needed an introduction. Elizabeth of the Trinity invites one to dive into deep waters, but I needed someone to teach me to swim. She connects into a single whole the most sublime teachings, but without someone already acquainted with these truths, I struggled to apply them to life in a practical way.
That is why a fellow student in Rome recommended Father Jean LaFrance. His work was like a key that unlocked the door of my heart to friendship with Saint Elizabeth. In each chapter, he faithfully makes her focus his own: that of a transforming friendship with Christ, an immersion in the life of the Trinity, a fruitful union that heals, purifies, and intensifies human existence. For anyone who wants to grow in union with God and learn about this beloved saint, I highly recommend this classic work.
Originally published in 1963, Apprendre a Prier avec Soeur Elisabeth de la Trinite represents, arguably, among the first truly successful efforts to popularize Elizabeth’s life and teachings beyond the Carmelite world. The work presents Saint Elizabeth within an accessible spiritual catechesis. This present edition offers a very readable and reliable translation. I truly hope that this work will continue to immerse those hungry for contemplative prayer in the spiritual mission of Elizabeth of the Trinity.
Anthony Lilles, S.T.D.
Saint John’s Seminary, Camarillo
May 29, 2018
From the Foreword of Give Peace to My Soul by Jean Lafrance, just released by Pauline Books and Media.