Book Review: Elizabeth of the Trinity: A most beautiful young woman

By J.E. Helm
The Sooner Catholic

Elizabeth Catez was one of two daughters of a French military officer and his wife. Born in 1880, she was truly beautiful and elegant and well-dressed and artistic and a gifted musician. Her father died when she was 7, and her mother’s ambition was that Elizabeth would pursue a career as a classical pianist.

“And yet,” as Sister Giovanna Della Croce, O.C.D., writes, “She was ready to sacrifice everything for a greater calling.”

Sister Giovanna has drawn the life of this beautiful saint in her book, “Elizabeth of the Trinity: A Life of Praise to God.”

Elizabeth set aside everything that the world had to offer her, writing in a letter, “I never thought of anything besides Carmel. And, I would willingly sacrifice my piano.”

Elizabeth first began to think of becoming a Carmelite nun when she was 14. Her mother strongly opposed the idea but eventually relented. When Elizabeth was almost 19, her mother agreed to let her enter Carmel – if she would wait until she was 21.

Elizabeth waited, but she did not postpone her spiritual development. She read Teresa of Avila’s “Way of Perfection” and Theresa of Lisieux’s “The Story of a Soul.”

She consecrated herself to Mary and “began making small sacrifices,” Sister Giovanna writes. Elizabeth attended retreats and participated in the Jesuit spiritual exercises. She met with a Dominican priest who was highly regarded by the Carmelite nuns of Dijon, Elizabeth’s home town. The Carmelite prioress gave Elizabeth copies of the homilies father had presented to the nuns.

All of this is set against a background of political and religious upheaval in France at the time. Laws were passed that were hostile toward the Catholic Church. Sister Giovanna notes “the government decreed the closing of 261 men’s monasteries.” Catholic schools were secularized; male and female religious were forbidden to teach there. Gone were religious symbols “in hospitals and public buildings.”

Fearful of being expelled from France, the superior of the Dijon Carmel travelled to Switzerland where the nuns “were thinking of taking refuge.” The chapel where Elizabeth received the Carmelite habit “was closed to visitors by state decree,” sister explains.

Elizabeth had troubles of her own. “Five or six months after her profession (of vows as a Carmelite),” she began to experience the first symptoms of what was eventually known to be Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder that causes severe stomach pains, migraines, exhaustion and weight loss. Addison’s was unknown by the medical community at that time, and no treatment was available. Elizabeth died of it when she was 26.

Sister Giovanna’s book does not dwell on the details of Elizabeth’s day-to-day life. Instead, it is a biography of her soul’s ascent to union with God. Sister is able to draw on information provided by the nuns who knew her, but she mainly uses a great deal of what Elizabeth herself revealed in her writings such as her diaries, her letters and her astonishing poetry.

Even before entering Carmel, Elizabeth displayed talent as a poet. She wrote she wanted to resemble “a walled garden where Jesus loves to stay.”

Elizabeth, especially in her writing, displayed a level of spiritual understanding that only can be described as mystical.

“There are no ecstasies;” Sister Giovanna writes, no “revelations or heavenly messages,” and yet Elizabeth astonishes her readers with explaining that the contemplative “lives under the brilliance of the face of Christ,” with praying “my heart becomes your lowly sacrament,” and with seeing Mary as a “creature who was light itself.”

The back cover of “Elizabeth of the Trinity” says that this young woman “profoundly influenced Saint John Paul II’s spiritual life” and that he considered her “to be one of the most influential mystics in his spiritual life.”

In the book’s “Foreward” by Anthony Lilles, he reflects on the ideal that in our contemporary culture, “we amuse ourselves to death with cold and lifeless technology only to discover how disconnected we have become.” 

In the concluding chapter of “Elizabeth of the Trinity,” Sister Giovanna offers Elizabeth as a balm for this ennui, as a “guide for the Trinitarian orientation of our lives and for Christian prayer.”

Elizabeth of the Trinity was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1984, and, on Oct. 16, 2016, Pope Francis canonized her as a saint whose feast day is celebrated Nov. 9.

J.E. Helm is a freelance writer for the Sooner Catholic.