Part 35 of This Present Paradise: A Series of Reflections on St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
(Start with part 1 here.)
“The evening of my life has arrived, the evening that precedes the eternal day.”
Elizabeth of the Trinity
My Dad’s oldest brother was a beloved uncle, hardworking mechanic, heroic Catholic, and devotee of St. Joseph. A tattered book about his favorite saint bounced on the dashboard of his car, a constant reminder to the rest of us how much St. Joseph was loved by Uncle Dick.
Years ago, at the end of a long and painful battle with stomach cancer, my uncle lay dying. He had been unable to move for some time, so my Dad was startled to see him suddenly sit up. He pointed to the foot of the bed, and his voice, long silenced by his sickness, said clearly: “There’s St. Joseph!”
Just in time to take him home. St. Joseph, you see, is not only patron of workers—what my Uncle loved him most for, I think—but also of a happy death.
New Year’s, 1906. It was a Carmelite tradition to draw a patron saint for the year and Elizabeth pulled out her slip of paper to see “St. Joseph.” She was visibly moved. The community wondered at her reaction: “St. Joseph,” she said, “is patron of a happy death, he will come to lead me to the Father.”
And before the year was over, her prediction would come true.
Because she never drew attention to herself, no one had really noticed that Elizabeth’s health had been deteriorating, but for months, she had been increasingly tired and struggled to fulfill her duties. She suffered from headaches, stomaches, and then it became more obvious: Elizabeth was basically unable to eat. Around March 19, 1909 (St. Joseph’s feast day!) she was moved to the convent infirmary where she spent the final eight months of her life.
Elizabeth was suffering from Addison’s disease, a disease of the adrenal glands which was relatively unheard of then and thus went undiagnosed. It didn’t matter, though; at the time there was no cure. All the community and the doctors could do was try to make her as comfortable as possible.
She was so weak she was unable to walk for a while, until a miraculous prayer to St. Thérèse strengthened her legs and allowed her to participate in community prayer and adoration from a narrow grilled window on the second floor which overlooked the chapel. Other than that, and a visit every other week from her family in the infirmary parlor, she would spend the rest of her life in her new, simple room. On the walls hung a plain wooden cross and a painting of Our Lady, Mary Magdalene, and St. John at the foot of the Cross. Nearby was a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, named by Elizabeth “Janua Coeli” (Gate of Heaven) and a tiny cupboard where she kept all of her writing. Elizabeth had special permission to write a letter a day during her long illness, and so many of the letters she left behind, as well as her spiritual masterpieces, were written in those last painful months.
She survived on minuscule amounts of chocolate, cheese, and ices, slowly starving to death in a long crucifixion. What should have taken her life in three months tortured—tortured—Elizabeth for over a year before she died. But really, she had already died, long before, not only to the world but to herself. Her life had been a long but thorough purgation and in such a pure and empty soul, the illness became an occasion of tremendous fruitfulness.
For someone of faith, sickness is never just sickness. Joined with Christ, it becomes redemptive suffering, which carries the additional spiritual weight of such words as cross, love, surrender, transformation, sanctification, union, and even joy.
“Life is a succession of sufferings,” points out Elizabeth, and yet we are taught by the world to avoid suffering at all costs—even if the result is sin. Running from sacrifice. Hiding from responsibility. Numbing ourselves, entertaining ourselves into oblivion. Ending life before it can experience the painful but beautiful pressing weight of the cross.
And while she admitted that at times she was anguished and afraid, Elizabeth saw suffering as something precious, sweet, and to be savored in the achingly transparent way it revealed Christ to the soul. She did not pray for her suffering to end, only that she could bear it. She chose to embrace the cross and yes, to find deep joy in it. In fact, she named her room in the infirmary, “The Palace of Pain and Bliss.”
How is that possible? It was the fruit of her life of prayer. In other words, a life of drawing near to Christ naturally culminates in willing conformity to His cruciform self-surrender. “Love must end in sacrifice,” she said. And ultimately, suffering is always sent or allowed by God as a sign of His love. It’s a paradox shrouded in mystery and one the world will never understand.
But the gift of faith allows us to see, as Elizabeth did, that suffering is two things.
First of all, it is purifying. It strips us of ourselves. “Oh, if you only knew how necessary suffering is so God’s work can be done in the soul!” Elizabeth begs us to understand. Christ gave our suffering power and meaning when He died on the cross. United with Him (and that is absolutely the key) our suffering is stripped of its blackness and becomes instead our very salvation. A soul hollowed out—carved, scraped to the bottom—by suffering has immense capacity for grace, for God Himself to come flooding in and accomplish what we were created for: holiness, that is, likeness to Jesus.
And then it becomes redemptive, a participation in the saving work of Christ. What He accomplished on the cross mysteriously lives on and continues in us by way of union with Him. “Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering.” (Salvifici Doloris, 24)
When we open ourselves to the power of the cross (and Elizabeth did more than that, she saw the cross as the crown of her life) our suffering becomes a vehicle to offer to the world the salvific power of Christ. “He wants me to be another humanity for Him in which He can still suffer for the glory of His Father,” she said, and “He wants to associate His Bride in the work of redemption.” To be a ‘redemptrix” with her beloved Christ would be the sign and seal of His love.
If Elizabeth saw her life as a “prolongation of his humanity” (in her prayer to the Trinity) and sought to repeat with St. Paul: “It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), then it was natural that she would become a prolongation of the passion. Christ on the Cross, living again in her: “I make up in my flesh that which is lacking in the passion of Christ for his body which is the Church.” (Col 1:24)
It became her mission. In fact, she refused pain relief, not because it was wrong, but because she felt that suffering for the sake of the Church was the very ‘work’ left for her to do—her apostolate of suffering. And she would do it to the full.
And it is amazing and humbling, but it is the desire of God for all of us that we participatein the salvation of the world through our little crosses. God doesn’t have to do it that way, but He chooses to implicate us in the work of redemption.
Our children ‘help’ me in the kitchen, splashing and spilling and stirring up a storm, causing a lot of mess but totally invested in the pancakes we create together. It would be easier, quicker—and a lot cleaner—to do it myself. But I know better than they do how important it is for them to be a part of the process. And the process of making a meal—or making a sacrificial offering, in the case of Elizabeth—is also making a relationship of love which has a breathtaking power.
The power of Christ crucified within the suffering person is unleashed upon the world when that soul unites their sufferings with Jesus.
Elizabeth’s sickness and suffering progressed relentlessly, and in need of a mother’s comfort, she began to carry her little statue of Mary with her wherever she went. Sometimes it was all you could see as she knelt in adoration, doubled over in pain.
As her illness intensified, she found tremendous consolation in the phrase from St. Angela de Foligno: “Where then did He dwell but in suffering?” To someone who was so focused on the indwelling of the Trinity, the idea of Christ literally living within suffering and our meeting Him there was incredibly moving.
It marked a turning point in her final passion. Could she really be even more transformed by love? The answer is yes, when love is limitless.
Just weeks before she died, she wrote to her mother: ..“More and more I am drawn to suffering; this desire almost surpasses the one for Heaven, though that is very strong. Never has God made me understand so well that suffering is the greatest pledge of love He can give His creature… (St. Angela of Foligno) says that the sign by which we recognize that God is in us and His love possesses us is that we receive not only patiently but gratefully whatever wounds us and makes us suffer. To reach that state, we must contemplate God crucified by love, and that contemplation, if it is true, never fails to end in the love of suffering.”
As a surprise for her prioress, Mother Germaine, she created a little cardboard cutout of a fortress and named it the “Citadel of Suffering and Holy Recollection” the “Dwelling of Laudem Gloriae while waiting for the Father’s House.” The door to this little interior castle was closed, but Janua Coeli, Mary, the Gate of Heaven, stood guard outside. She wrote a poem on the fortress, which began with these words: “Where then did He dwell but in suffering?”
She so often had invited others to meet her in prayer; here was her “rendezvous” with Jesus, now a constant meeting at the cross.
Still, Elizabeth was human, and at times temptation found a way into her fortress as the disease relentlessly consumed her from the inside out. “I’m suffering so much,” she admitted to Mother Germaine, “that I now understand suicide,” and she looked meaningfully at the second-story window near her bed. But she immediately reassured her spiritual mother, saying that, “God is there, and He protects me.”
She found that there was a certain sweetness at the bottom of the cup and that she was mysteriously strengthened with each new demand, each new spoonful of pain, carefully measured out by the Father’s hand. “I did not suspect that just such sweetness was hidden at the bottom of the chalice for the one who drank it to the dregs,” she said.
Of course, she was speaking of heavenly cups, and probably dreaming of them, too. Her tongue was shockingly red and inflamed, her insides burned, but as the end neared, she could not tolerate even a drop of water. On fire with thirst but unable to drink, she referred to suffering literally and figuratively as a ‘consuming fire.’
“My Mother,” she told the Prioress, “It is very bad, but I believe the first thing I will do when I get to Heaven is drink.”
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on SpiritualDirection.com and is reprinted here with kind permission.