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Homily of Fr Eugene McCaffrey given at St Teresa's Church Clarendon St at a mass celebrating St Elizabeth of the Trinity's canonization on the 16th Oct 2016

I remember once I was giving a talk on Elizabeth of the Trinity in our Retreat Centre in Preston when three ladies arrived at the last minute having come all the way from Manchester. I presumed they had a special devotion to Elizabeth and were already very familiar with her life and teaching. Afterwards I spoke to them: they told me they knew absolutely nothing about her but had seen her photograph on a poster in the parish church and said to themselves, ‘That’s a face that speaks about God, we must find out more about her.’  

St Elizabeth of the Trinity I imagine many of you this morning may be in the same position as the ladies from Manchester.  And so I invite you to look at the photographs here on the altar this morning, to look into the face of Elizabeth and let her speak to you; her words are more important than anything I will say.

I’m not going to try to cover all the details of her life but I think it’s important to have a few dates just to place her in some historical context.

She was born Elizabeth Catez in 1880 and lived for the first twenty-one years of her life within the confines of her own family until she entered the Carmelite convent in Dijon where she died of Addison’s disease five years later at the age twenty-six.  

During her life she was unknown to the world at large, highly conditioned by her French cultural background, hidden away for last five years of her life practically unrecognised even within her own community. Yet today she is seen as one of the great spiritual writers of twentieth century and her influence is increasing and expanding all the time, and this morning, even as I speak, thousands have gathered in Rome for her canonisation.

St Elizabeth of the Trinity Elizabeth was not a born saint and we do her no favours if we think of her as some kind of spiritual icon. If anything she was a born rebel; she had, as we say in Ireland, ‘a fierce temper’, and sometimes boiled with rage and fury, so much so that her mother threatened to pack her off to a ‘house of correction’ for unruly children! But she gradually learned to overcome her ‘tears of rage’ and soon blossomed into a bright, intelligent, lively girl who made friends easily, loved music, dancing and was very fond of hiking and travel.   

Elizabeth was a gifted pianist; she often spent four or five hours a day practising at the piano and at an early age began to play at public concerts. She won many prizes for her piano-playing, including first prize in the Dijon Conservatory of Music when she just thirteen. She obviously had a great future ahead of her if she wished to pursue it. But Elizabeth had other thoughts:  already she was tuning into a different voice and a deeper kind of music.

From an early age Elizabeth felt a personal call to prayer and become more and more aware of God’s presence in her life. When she was nine years old she made her First Communion and was given a picture card which explained to her the meaning of her name: Elizabeth ‘house of God’. A small gesture indeed yet one that had a profound effect on her. From that moment she was determined to make that house a ‘home’, a place where God would be welcomed, honoured and loved, where she would always try to be attentive and aware of his presence, a presence that, she gradually realised, was nothing less than the indwelling presence of the Trinity.    

From the age of fourteen Elizabeth wanted to become a Carmelite but her mother strenuously opposed the idea and even forbade her to visit the convent. Though disappointed she accepted the decision and waited another seven years before her mother relented and she was able to fulfil her dream.

Her five years in Carmel were indistinguishable from that of the other sisters, apart from the unseen workings of grace and the action of the Spirit in her heart. In 1904, she composed her beautiful Prayer to the Trinity, one the best-known and best-loved prayers of contemporary spirituality, which has even made its way into the Church’s Catechism.   In spring of 1906 she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease and began a long nine-month descent into suffering, her frail body ravaged with pain and exhaustion, her spirit plunged into darkness and turmoil, and her life distilled drop by drop, sharing, as she had longed to do, in the passion of the one who loved her even to the folly of the cross.

 

Such, in broad outline, is the life of St Elizabeth of the Trinity. But what we may ask is her message and the significance of her life? Has she any relevance for us today, living in the postmodern world of twentieth-first century? 

Elizabeth was born in one century and died in another. Yet in some ways she belongs to neither. Like every saint, she transcends time: she belongs to every age and her message is universal.  Saints do not grow old; they are never just figures of the past; they speak to every age and witness to the world to come.  Elizabeth is no exception. 

It has been said that her message is not always be easy to grasp – if so, it is not because it is difficult but because it is so utterly simple.  Elizabeth is a simplifier, just as Jesus was. Simplicity must be intuited whole, it cannot be taken piecemeal.  The contemplative gaze sees things in their fullness. It offers a vision of the greater reality and of the essential truths that give meaning and purpose to our lives.   Elizabeth’s spirituality, like the musical compositions she played so well, revolves around one major theme: her passionate love for and her joyful surrender to, the Triune God hidden in her soul: ‘God in me and I in Him’, she exclaimed, even before she entered the convent, ‘that is my life.’

 Elizabeth saw all life flowing from and returning to God. For her the Trinity was not a ‘mystery’, a dry dogmatic statement but a truth to be lived and shared, a free gift, a loving presence that we receive at baptism. For her, God was a Lover, a Friend and a Companion.

John Paul II said of her that she speaks ‘with a prophetic force’ and that she is ‘a brilliant witness to the joy of being rooted and grounded in love’. She reminds us of the greatest truth of all: the reality of God and the centrality of love.  One of the last words Elizabeth spoke to her sisters was, ‘Everything passes... in the evening of life love alone remains’.

During the week there was is a large gathering here in Dublin, focusing mostly on the development and wellbeing of young people. It was called Zeminar because, in case you don’t know, we now live in what’s called generation Z!  In a world of ever increasing noise and activity Zeminar acknowledges the stress, anxiety, tension, cyber bullying and the increasing risk of suicide under which so many of us – young and not so young – live out of our fragile lives. Many contemporary movements and concepts were explored: meditation, mindfulness, awareness, the power of the now – all very worthwhile ideas and helpful supports as we try to hold a balance and cope with the pressure and confusions of the world about us.  

Yet, there are other voices we should not ignore: the saints and spiritual guides of every age that carry a wisdom and a sacred tradition as old as time. The   reality is we live in a world where God seems so often to be absent or ignored, a world, in fact, where God is not only missing but not even missed. And then the God of surprises, who so often writes straight with crooked lines, sends us someone like Elizabeth, someone who speaks from her own experience, reminding us that God is eminently present in the world, and his love is real, personal and intimate, despite all appearances. 

We carry within ourselves a rich treasure that cannot be accessed through iPad, Face book or Twitter or from the vast overload of social media that surrounds us. We need to stop and listen. We need silence, we need stillness, time to stand back and open ourselves to the still small voice of the Spirit within. Success isn’t about being rich or famous, but about finding meaning, peace and a sense of who I really am. Peace of heart, true peace is the one thing that can never be counterfeited. It comes from within. And what lies within is much more important and precious than what lies without.

To our disconnected, lonely world, desperately seeking love and friendship, Elizabeth invites us to discover the companionship of God, a God who dwells within each human heart and loves each of us with what she called ‘an exceeding great love’. We carry within ourselves a little heaven where the God of love has fixed his home: ‘I have found my heaven on earth’ she tells us, ‘since heaven is God and God is in my soul’.

Her message is clear and simple, as simple as the Gospel itself: believe in love, a love that is a free gift of the Beloved, given before the world was made. Shortly before she died Elizabeth wrote a short farewell letter to her Prioress. ‘If you only knew’, she said, ‘how much he loves you and how every passing moment he wants to give himself to you’. Six times in that brief letter she repeats the same phrase ‘Let yourself be loved’. I feel she is saying the same thing to us this morning.

Elizabeth was a contemporary of Thérèse of Lisieux, ‘Sisters in the Spirit’, they have been called. Shortly after Elizabeth entered the convent in Dijon they sent a photograph of the community to Lisieux. The Prioress added a few lines: ‘you’ll notice, she said, we have a new novice; her name is Elizabeth of the Trinity. I have no doubt that she is a saint’.

Today that prophecy has been fulfilled. The child with fire in her eyes, the virtuoso pianist with rhythm in her head, the teenager who lived life to the full, the lay contemplative at ease in a world of travel, parties and dance, the nun wrapped in silence, the lover of Christ pouring out her life for the Church and the world, now belongs to all of us – a sure and trusted guide and perhaps, most of all, a friend, a friend who whispers to each of us today: God is love: He loves you today as He loved you yesterday and will love you tomorrow. Receive the free gift of his love: Let yourself be loved.