Last Friday, March 4, Pope Francis issued a decree approving the healing of Miss Marie-Paul Stevens as a miracle. Both local officials and Pope Francis recognized that a religion teacher afflicted with Sjögren’s Syndrome while on a pilgrimage to Blessed Élisabeth’s convent in Flavignerot, just outside of Dijon, was healed in 2002. Over the summer of 2011, the Archdiocese of Dijon opened the process for the canonization of Blessed Élisabeth of the Trinity, the Carmelite Mystic of Dijon, France (1880-1906). A formal announcement of her canonization date is expected in the next few weeks.
At her beatification in 1984, Saint John Paul II identified her as a strong influence on his spiritual life. Cardinal Albert Decourtray, at the time Bishop of Dijon, attributed his own healing to her intercession at the time. Yet even more wonderful are the many conversions to a deeper life of prayer attributed to her intercession and spiritual mission in the life of the Church. Centennial celebrations throughout France ten years ago indicated that many have discovered devotion to the Blessed Trinity and deeper contemplative prayer through her life, writings and intercession. For many, her canonization would express and deepen their sense of gratitude to this pianist who became a nun at the turn of the last century.
As a child, after the loss of her father and grandfather, Élisabeth Catez struggled with a powerful temper. It was her openness to the grace of Christ in this struggle that allowed God to do something very beautiful in her life. Her love for her mother and her sister gave her additional motivation to gain self-control. It was, however, especially through the help of a good confessor and her love for the Mass that she not only learned self-control but also developed a profound life of prayer. Even at her first Communion, her friends remarked that she was visibly caught up in Christ’s presence.
Sabeth, as she was nicknamed, was very popular and influential with her friends. A natural leader and the source of a lot of fun for everyone around her, she loved to play croquet and many other games. She was also an award-winning pianist who showed remarkable promise in her interpretations of the work of the great composers of her time. Yet in all of this, it was her love for the Lord that most impressed those who knew her.
Her mother vacillated when Blessed Élisabeth revealed her desire to become a Carmelite. As a widow who deeply loved her two daughters, the idea of being separated from her seemed to be too painful. Her little “Sabeth” however did not get discouraged but believed that God was using this to prepare her for a deeper life of prayer. In fact, her desire for Carmel only grew. She declined a perfect match even though this disappointed both the young military officer and her own mother. Through involvement at her parish, she also devoted herself to catechizing children from troubled backgrounds who lived in a neighborhood reform school. Her empathy and charming personality won many of them over. In all of this, she patiently waited for her mother to change her mind and when she did, Élisabeth Catez entered the Carmelite Monastery to become Sister Élisabeth of the Trinity.
As a religious, Sister Élisabeth wrote to her friends and family to encourage them to a deeper devotion to God and openness to His love. She loved the Scriptures and quoted the Bible to help her friends receive the Word of God in a deeper way. To go deep into God’s Word, she spoke of becoming free of ourselves and vulnerable to the immensity of love that the Lord is waiting to impart to us. In fact, the writings of Saint Paul were so alive for her that she believed that God revealed the name she would have in heaven through his Letter to the Ephesians. Where Saint Paul proposed that we are predestined in Christ to become the Praise of God’s glorious grace, Blessed Élisabeth began to sign her letters, “Praise of Glory.”
Although suddenly gripped with Addison’s Disease, at the time untreatable, the encouragement and prayers she was offering others in this life she came to believe would continue in the life to come. Addison’s was incurable and she endured a crucible of physical suffering. There was also a mysterious spiritual suffering, which she interpreted as a total identification with Christ crucified. Somehow her own sufferings, she held, were extending the saving work of Christ in the world. This secret work was something that she invited others to participate in as well. To do so, all they needed to do was allow themselves to be loved by God. She spoke about prayer as “a wholly loving movement” that availed the soul of this amazing grace. She, in fact, believed that she was being consumed by the love of God, and to the very last, she was completely impassioned that this divine love needed to be made known and shared. In the last letter she was able to write, she told a friend that it would actually increase her joy if she was called on from heaven to help. She died at the age of 26 in 1906.
Blessed Élisabeth died as the French government attempted to close down her monastery and confiscate its land. At the time, the local Church was in total chaos and rocked by all kinds of scandals. Her faith in Christ and conviction about her spiritual mission was undaunted, even as she came in and out of a coma. Her friends and family were convinced of her holiness and put her counsels into practice. People’s lives were changed, and even though France would suffer through two World Wars and aggressive secularization throughout the 20th Century, the Church of Dijon remains alive and well.
Today there is a parochial school named after Blessed Élisabeth at her home parish of Saint Michel in Dijon. In a conversation with the pastor there in 2004, he explained that it was in fact many of the descendants of the children that Blessed Élisabeth catechized that helped build the school. The convent also not only survived but flourished. The Carmelite nuns moved out of the city only because Dijon had become too noisy and their buildings too dilapidated. They also moved Blessed Élisabeth’s belongings into their new monastery in the countryside in Flavignerot, where the miracle happened. More importantly, these sisters have collaborated with scholars and hosted an endless stream of pilgrims who are drawn by the witness and teachings of the Mystic of Dijon.
Although her intercession has cured a bishop of cancer and healed a school teacher from Sjögren’s Syndrome, my own studies have lead me to believe that Élisabeth of the Trinity is more passionate about interior miracles—those wonders that can happen in the life of prayer. Just as she discovered in her personal devotion the strength that she needed for a deeper self-control, she wants us to allow the Holy Trinity to establish us in the sacred stillness of love. Her mission from heaven is to help us focus less on our own inadequacies and more on the radiance of Christ’s presence in our lives. If someone desires a deeper life of prayer, Élisabeth of the Trinity is always ready to intercede. Anyone who takes the time to read her writings will soon discover spiritual food that strengthens the effort to pray. She in fact believes in a contemplation that opens the soul “to unexpected horizons.” In the narrow confines of our work-a-day world, we need these horizons, and in the spiritual mission of Blessed Élisabeth of the Trinity, we have a heavenly friend who wants to help us find them.