MYSTICISM: Elizabeth Of The Trinity, An Introduction by Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Elizabeth Of The Trinity, An Introduction by Hans Urs Von Balthasar

From Elizabeth of Dijon, An Interpretation of Her Spiritual Mission

The Carmelite Order seems to have been specially entrusted, in recent years, with the function of proclaiming to the church and the world certain truths strongly opposed to the spirit of the age.  We allow ourselves to be absorbed in external action, and measure values according to its visible effect; the Carmelite reminds us that contemplation is the “one thing necessary,” and that its effects are not to be measured by even the churchly statistician.  We are strongly influenced by the theories of the psychologist with his insistence on the untrammeled development of personality.  The Carmelite shows us where individual difference is of small account, in the life of the cloister, in liturgical worship.  Even in the domain of religion, we continue to lay exaggerated stress on the individual and his needs.  To the Carmelite a supernatural vocation implies a readiness to discard merely natural inclinations and gifts; at best these are but instruments in the service of a higher end.

The contemplative life is the source and the mainstay of the various activities of the church in the world.  It demands, therefore, from those who lead it a high degree of purity and disinterestedness.  Examples of this were Thérèsa of Lisieux and Charles de Foucauld; and, more recently, we have those great women of prayer, Antoinette de Geuser, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Josefa Menendez, and Edith Stein.  Those who were Carmelites had a double function, directed, in the first instance, to their order, and, secondly, to the church in general.  For the Carmelite Order is the sanctuary of pure worship, and demands an absolute surrender of self, however eminent or distinguished the individual concerned, even were she a Teresa of Ávila.  Thérèsa of Lisieux and the three younger Carmelites, in contrast with writers on mysticism outside the order, all tend to bypass the personality of the great reformer of Carmel in order to concentrate on her teaching, and so they avoid that preoccupation with the psychological and personal aspects of religion which is the greatest danger of the Carmelite today.  Antoinette, as she was unable to enter the order, was restricted in her development as a contemplative.  Edith Stein, a contemplative in the highest sense, was yet too much bound up in the domain of analytical thought.  Elizabeth of the Trinity was the only one of the three able to pursue her course as perfectly as Thérèsa of Lisieux.

Various writers have brought out the similarities and the contrasts between Elizabeth of Dijon and Thérèsa of Lisieux.  Elizabeth, younger by seven years than Thérèsa and outliving her by nine, was fully conversant with the details of her life and teaching.  This latter she assimilated and made her own, but molded it in her characteristic way, with a firm perception and a vital grasp of its essential features.  Elizabeth was far from being a mere copy or imitation of Thérèsa.  She simply used the writings of the older nun to make more precise what she already knew in general terms.  In fact, she brought out explicitly features latent only in Thérèsa, and gave an authentic Carmelite form to certain traits reminiscent of Saint Francis, such as the shower of roses as a symbol of the outpouring of grace.

Thérèsa’s personality was an expansive, warm-hearted one.  Everything she treated, Christian or merely human, kindles our emotions.  The world of Elizabeth, however, is a narrow one, though sublime.  Her nature is less warm and colorful, and so makes a slighter impression on the reader, but this has the advantage of focusing attention on the ideas expressed with such utter conviction.  Her style is much more conventional than Thérèsa’s; it lacks her profusion of images and similes.  Her language rather suggests a shadow melting away before the splendor of the words of scripture, which alone are adequate to express her vision.  Her manner of expression may be imperfect, but, even so, it cannot conceal the force and power of her thought, which, in its theological structure and content, is highly charged and compacted.

A conception such as Elizabeth’s, sublime in its object and narrow in its range, implies a strict asceticism of thought.  She follows out the one essential idea which comprises all, and, to keep it undiluted, relentlessly passes over all that is not directly relevant, which includes considerable parts of the gospel teaching.  Her concern is with the mystery of the Logos as made known in the epistles of Saint Paul and the Apocalypse of Saint John; the Old Testament and the synoptic gospels are presupposed rather than explicitly considered.  We are reminded of Joachim of Flora’s theory of a “Gospel of the Spirit”; for Elizabeth’s thought centers not so much on the Trinity as on the Holy Ghost, in whose light we are able to penetrate the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption, and even the Trinity itself.  But, though she bases her teaching on Saint Paul, her view is not co-extensive with his.  She ignores all the practical side of his life and writings, that taken up with the needs of the various churches, in order to devote herself exclusively to his central vision.  She had chosen to be a Carmelite, and so she took up the position of Mary of Bethany, motionless and still at the feet of the Lord.  Yet her devotion was not so much to the Incarnate Lord on Earth – like that of Saint Francis or the great Thérèsa listening to his words – as to the risen and glorified Lord, of whom Saint Paul speaks when he says he wished to know him no more according to the flesh, and that the Lord is a spirit.  Her whole attention was directed to what Saint Paul calls the “great mystery,” and so she was able to view it with the utmost clarity and in the sharpest outline.  None the less, it remained a mystery and so ultimately incomprehensible, and Elizabeth accepted it as such, without expecting to see its complete coherence.  That insight would only come in the next life.

Elizabeth did not think of herself as a theologian.  She was not concerned with speculative thought, or with drawing conclusions from the premises of revelation.  Her life was ordered to contemplation, to the direct intuitive gaze on the mystery expressed in the words of revelation, a mystery whose depths were impossible to sound.  At the most she juxtaposed passages of scripture to show their connection, or else expressed the sense of the Old Testament, the psalms in particular, in the language of the New.  Her exegesis was hesitant and rudimentary; prayer, not theology, was her concern.  But her prayer was the adoration of the Word as made known by revelation, and this implied reflection on the words of scripture, and that “sense for the things of God” imparted by the gift of faith.  Her mission was not merely a doctrinal one; it was to be fulfilled by her life as a Carmelite, a life of silence, suffering, and prayer.  As such, it is not to be estimated by its visible results, any more than other contemplative vocations.  Their fruit is entirely supernatural, known only to God.  But, in addition to the contemplative function common to herself and others, Elizabeth’s vocation was to make explicit in external form the mystery contained in the words of revelation.  This part of her vocation it is possible to perceive and appraise.

Against this view of her mission it might be urged that she had nothing really original to say, so closely were her views related to those of previous writers.  Such an objection is not conclusive.  However dependent on others, her own thought has its unique characteristic resonance.  Its originality lies in the combination of a loftiness of conception with a spareness, an asceticism of treatment; and this latter is due, not to any narrowness of mind, but to her intense concentration on the end in view.  The result is a work of very high rank, both spiritually and theologically, an organic and vital growth from a single germinating idea.  It pulsates with a vigor and confidence which are not to be found in any of her predecessors, in spite of their eminence as theologians.  Admittedly it is narrow in range, but this makes for a magnificent simplicity and concentration of force.  The “one thing necessary” is held steadily in view, until we are convinced that this is all that matters, the treasure for the sake of which all else is to be left.  Her subject-matter she may have drawn from Père Vallée – his writings are as yet mostly unpublished – but her treatment is unique.  It points to the reality of her true, underived doctrinal mission.

There are, we willingly admit, certain imperfections in the execution, just as there were with Thérèsa of Lisieux.  One senses a certain artificiality of pose, betrayed by a “sentimentality” in the expression.  In Thérèsa’s case, this was the inevitable result of certain earlier happenings, but not in the case of Elizabeth.  Her youth was perfectly normal; no unfortunate saying of a confessor or director deflected her path.  Her chief danger was sensibilité, as she herself admits; and it not only troubled her in her inner life, but made itself felt in the way she fulfilled her outer mission.  However, she did in the end succeed in overcoming it for the most part; the action of grace through prayer and suffering eliminated it almost completely.

Sensibilité meant, in her case, a frailty and unprotectedness of soul in regard to the world.  It involved two kinds of danger – first, a kind of overwrought feeling, a striving towards the sublime, an exaggerated intensity; second, a consequence of this, an undue vulnerability, an almost passionate revulsion against the world.  She felt herself drawn to the Beyond, she wanted hardly to tread the Earth, to stay suspended above it.  This desire was not primarily due to grace; it stemmed from her very nature, and may have been even an obstacle to grace and its working.

Christianity does not involve complete withdrawal from the world.  It is possible to overdo the attempt to live on a purely spiritual plane.  The Son of God himself, his mother, the apostles, applied themselves to the temporal sphere, accepted completely their divine mission to the world; their “otherworldliness” was lived out definitely on this Earth.  In the same way, the two persons who influenced Elizabeth most, molded her whole outlook, Mary of Jesus and Père Vallée, both exhibited a perfect balance of nature and grace, the practical and the ideal.

Her writings show Mary of Jesus a woman of character, drawing her strength from the gospel and the liturgy, yet judicious and good-natured.  Her teaching, in general coinciding with Elizabeth’s, was superior in its breadth and balance, qualities appropriate to one who held the offices of novice-mistress and prioress.  However, although it was she who admitted Elizabeth to the monastery and remained in contact with her up to three months of Elizabeth’s death, in their interior life they differed considerably.

Père Vallée had a talk with Elizabeth in the spring of 1900, before she entered the convent, and made her aware of the nature of her vocation.  He explained, too, the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Trinity by grace in the soul; and later on, in the retreat of October 1902, when she was already a nun, gave her a course of instructions.  At this time she was in a state of inner distress which he was unable to understand, and their only other meeting was a few days before her death.  He was himself an eloquent preacher, a strong protagonist of the contemplative ideal, a man of prayer, but not exceptional as a thinker.  His published discourses on the soul of Christ show his skill in combining the day-to-day picture of Christ in the synoptic gospels with that painted by Saint Paul and Saint John.  What he did was to take in turn a subject from the Earthly life of Christ and one from speculative Christology, and relate them to each other.  The theological part of his work evidently influenced Elizabeth strongly; from the other, the synoptic sections, she took scarcely anything.

There is, however, one point where Vallée’s thought differs markedly from Elizabeth’s.  His is centered firmly on Christ, the Word Incarnate, the source of all grace.  He treats of the relations between the divine and human natures in Christ, and on their union bases the idea of “life in the presence of God.”  He considers the origin of the Word from the Father, examines his working in us and in the various members of his body, the church.  For him, as for Saint Thomas Aquinas, Christ’s humanity was the focal point of creation.

Now there is nothing corresponding to this in Elizabeth’s thought.  She is, of course, fully Roman Catholic in her love for Christ, Mary and the saints, the church, and the sacraments, but her central point lies elsewhere.  Aspects of the Christian life which are only treated cursorily by Vallée receive from her the main emphasis.  What he barely mentions or only hints at receives at her hands a complete exposition.  This it is which constitutes her originality, and justifies the claim of a specific vocation.  Obviously, all spiritual teachings must coincide at various points; we must not exaggerate distinctions.  They share common elements; it is by the arrangement or pattern that they differ.

These considerations help to throw light on Elizabeth’s sensibilité and the quality of “otherworldliness” to which it gave rise, the characteristic which so sharply differentiates her from her teachers and guides.  To assess how far this quality is due to her particular mission and how far it is to be attributed to her personal temperament is a delicate matter.  It remained with her to the very end, and, in her last illness, she found the practice of perfect indifference much more difficult than did Thérèsa of Lisieux.  She had an ardent desire for death.  With all her being she longed to be dissolved and to be with Christ, to cast herself into the infinite abyss of God.  She always considered herself called to instill into others her own great longing for the Infinite God.  What part of this was due to nature as opposed to grace we cannot always say with certainty.  What we can affirm is that, in the last stage of her life, the genuineness of her mission was completely vindicated.  Any discordant elements of character or feeling were drawn up into it and finally resolved as if in the closing bars of the triumphant fugue which was her life.

The same may be said of another of her sensibilité, namely, her insight into the minds of other writers and receptiveness of their ideas; it enabled her to make their thought her own and to develop it on her own lines.  In this she differed from Thérèsa of Lisieux, whose reading was practically confined to the Bible.  Elizabeth had evidently read widely; she quotes from Teresa of Ávila, Saint John of the Cross, Angela of Foligno, Ruysbroek, Lacordaire, the Areopagite, Saint Augustine, Saint Francis Xavier, Mgr. Gay, and numerous others, chiefly Thérèsa of Lisieux and Père Vallée.  In her early days as a Carmelite, her thought was rather superficial.  It often seems as if she used a kind of rhetoric of the sublime in order to impress her correspondents, mostly simple people, her mother, sister, friends, and acquaintances, priests among them.  It is all rather unconvincing, this exploring of the summits; she is like a person dressed in borrowed finery, and walking stiltedly.  Not infrequently, then, she becomes merely banal, “sentimental.”  Still, we must make allowances for her immaturity, and bear in mind that a person who has an important mission to fulfill must grow into it by degrees.  A supernatural calling does not, like a natural one, presuppose an already developed talent congenial to it.  Rather it is a mold or framework imposed from without, and the individual has to adjust himself to it by degrees.  The process, even with the help of grace, is irksome, and the effort entailed gives an impression of unnaturalness.

Another kind of danger which Elizabeth did not completely elude, that of attending not so much to her mission itself as to her own discharging of it – in other words, self-complacency – was not necessarily culpable or even conscious.  So it is that her mission, objective and impersonal though it was, became so colored by her own individuality.  In her prayer, O mon Dieu, Trinité que j’adore, the words “I” and “mine” occur forty-three times.  It is not so much a prayer of adoration, as she intended it, as a petition for the power to adore, an act concerning God and her alone, without any reference to the church or the world at large.  Admittedly, her thought and prayer gradually fit themselves to the whole plan of redemption, but, even so, we look in vain for an explicit mention of the church.

We have pointed out certain weaknesses in Elizabeth, but they are not meant to imply any doubt about the reality of her mission.  Under the action of grace they were gradually resolved.  Her thought became more and more impregnated with that of the Bible, until, at the end, it was completely dominated by it; so it was that she was able to discard all the superficial.  Her Last Retreat and Heaven on Earth, her spiritual testament, show no trace of weakness or banality; she had attained a complete assurance, clearly the effect of grace purifying her through suffering.  The flame burnt within her purely to the glory of God and his grace and it was to enkindle many others.  The point she finally reached is the vindication of her whole life and teaching.

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