‘Be a soul of silence that remains like a lyre under the mysterious touch of the Holy Spirit, so that He may draw from it divine harmonies.' - Elizabeth of the Trinity
The feast day of St Elizabeth of the Trinity (8th November) fell on a Tuesday this year, and I promised myself that I would spend some of that morning listening to the piano masterpieces of the great composers, to Frederic Chopin, to Ludwig van Beethoven, and to Elizabeth’s French contemporary Claude Debussy, so as to recall something of the early life, the sensitivities and the vocation of the young, highly gifted, Elisabeth Catez.
There has undoubtedly been a resurgence of interest across religious traditions in Elizabeth’s ideas and writings in recent decades, since her beatification by Pope John Paul II in 1984, and we might speculate here a little as to why. There is a profound simplicity and optimism found in the teachings of Elizabeth, alongside a firm but gentle call for us to open ourselves to the creative and joyous dimensions of God's Love. Perhaps it is her very poetic style of writing, her references to music, her awareness of another language, the heartfelt language of sound and longing, that truly resonates with people.
In ‘The Last Retreat’ of 1906, a series of personal reflections written just three months before her death, she elaborates further with her musical analogy, detailing the delicate interplay between our soul and the touch of the divine:
‘A soul that debates with itself, that is taken up with its feelings, and pursues useless thoughts and desires, scatters it forces, for it is not wholly directed toward God. Its lyre does not vibrate in unison and when the Master plays it, He cannot draw from its divine harmonies, for it is still too human and discordant.’
How we so often feel that combination of human preoccupation and distraction on the one hand and discordance and lack of direction (even lack of self-worth) on the other! For Elizabeth, prone to outbursts of frustration and to the noise of a turbulent childhood herself, silence is the authentic means by which we unlock our relationship with God, and grow an interior commitment to the springs of harmony and unity that God so wishes for us to discover and to serenely dwell within.
The challenge is hard, for our very socio-economic climate suggests that there are comparable promises and truths in wealth, in possessions, in power, ambition, emotional highs. The ego can move in swiftly, constantly, playing its own tune! Yet all this is merely a greater noise in an already noisy realm. In alerting us to the gift of silence Elizabeth takes hold of our spiritual state – its ‘scattered forces’ - and gives us encouraging words of wisdom, a clear and confident direction around how we might shape a closer affinity with the healing, transforming, ever enduring Spirit of God:
‘A constancy of Love I’ve come to you to show … simply look and see the Mystery’
This all very much highlights the strong emphasis in her writings on a guided or piloted spiritual energy or ‘movement’, itself a word within the musical lexicon, that Elizabeth traces in the life of Jesus Christ and throughout her own vocation (the word in French being ‘mouvement’ which has been applied across a wide field of human activity, think French resistance!). To experience the inner dwelling place of the Trinity - her ‘heaven in faith’ - requires a determined level of vigilance, strength and direction, an honest assessment of our restless nature before the mercy of God.
This emotional and volatile human state contrasts sharply with the unchanging and steadfast nature of the divine. And much of this flux and fluctuation we experience, Elizabeth suggests, is in fact born from restlessness and attachment rather than of simplicity, love and understanding. It is only through a sense of the Trinity within, where there is flow and balance, with complementary forces at work, that we experience freedom from intensity and a fear of the future. ‘Trinity whom I adore, help me to forget myself entirely, so that I may abide in You,’ she writes. It is in our silence, our humility and forgetfulness of ‘the Self’, that we are being informed by the Presence of God. A listening heart before all else should lead the way of travel.
This is the 'movement' that Elisabeth wants to encourage within all of our lives. The 'movement' that allows real transformation to become possible , a holistic and radical shift in how we see ourselves, from old 'form' to new 'form', so that our daily life (...our very existence!) is a prayer or petition in itself, sharpened by the consistency of word, of understanding and of behaviour. The soul moves purposefully, embodying the human dimension, emanating a love of God. And the soul takes all such delicate steps with ‘the Master’ on its journey, letting the good, the restorative eternal qualities rise within. To extend the music analogy further, ‘the Master’ might reflect something of ‘the Conductor’ before the orchestra!
In summary Elizabeth seems to highlight five distinct segments to this journey or ‘movement’ of the human soul. Naturally the soul suffers and one carries one’s own wounds through the harsh experience of life. For Elizabeth, this stage however can give way to an expansion of the soul (she uses the image of a chisel being used as in a work of sculpture). Then there is the rediscovery of belonging as one deepens in stillness and detachment from the world, with the soul then finding a genuine sense of rest or peace as its foundation, and finally, an uplifting and powerful sense of harmony, balance and wonder that can seize us.
For Elizabeth we can become 'instruments of wonder' before God, we can overcome trials and tribulations, we can forge new life with a sweet embrace of the touch and scope of 'the kingdom of God', to unite our inner resources and so be strong in the call to ‘love God and to love neighbour’.
It seems to me, therefore, that to keep one’s strength for the Lord is to unify one’s whole being by means of interior silence, to collect all one’s powers in order to “employ” them in “the one work of love”’
Any friendship reborn, or any shared moment between old friends might well include reference to particular songs and to dances, to music and to melody, to lyric and to poetry. Within every Carmelite group there could indeed lie a hidden musical and poetical heritage! We too can imitate a magical, a musical sound, a fresh perspective on empathy, on power and on powerlessness in our divided world, by running a little with this beautiful imagery of Elizabeth.
She seems to understand how the human mind can 'scatter' its life force and direction. She affirms how we are able to grow and become open to the 'light' once again. We come to recognise and identify with the simple and humble ways of Christ. Her ‘Beloved Star’ moves continually across the backdrop of our lives.
Free the soul where possible, urges Elizabeth, from the constant debate with itself! As the New Year approaches we might reflect on how language can so often be overused and misused, leaving us tired and confused, communication driven by devices, by demands and by delusion.
On these forthcoming feast days, after hearing what we want to hear (…. in my case those piano masterpieces!) we might try again to let interior silence transform and to shape us, so as 'Unity' is not just a vague word on our lips, but a reality safe within our hearts, soothing our restlessness, puling us back to the lyre, the piano, to the gentle sound and rhythm of eternal Presence.
Simon Monaghan (Distance Member of Northumberland Carmelite Spirituality Group)