Suffering in the Life and Works of Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity

by Fr. Juan DeBono, O.C.D.

Physical and moral suffering is part of our daily life. Even though we are aware that God did not create suffering, and even though we do believe that suffering is a direct consequence of sin, we may think, or else the devil may make us believe, that suffering is a punishment from God for the sin of mankind. The fact is that God can only create good things, and he can never use His power to merely punish us. Suffering therefore entered the world only as a direct consequence of sin.

We can easily understand this with the help of an example. Imagine a young man who takes the decision to go and rent a house for himself; it is true that by doing so, he might be more free than when he was living at his parent’s, but after a month living alone, he starts to understand the implications of his decision. He has to start paying his electricity, water and telephone bills; he has to do his own shopping and prepare his own meals; he has to do the cleaning; and many other day to day errands. When this young man was still living at his parental home, he never had to deal with all these worries. On the other hand, we can never say that such worries were passed on to him by his parents, whose only wish was to have him back home. By choosing to live an independent life, this young man had to suffer some consequences.

The same with sin: we can never say that suffering was bestowed by God as a punishment for the sin of mankind. Suffering entered our system only because we freely accepted to go and live an independent life from our God.

The same with a computer virus: suffering entered our system only because we opened the junk-mail sent to us by the devil. God had more than once invited us to pay attention, and delete any e-mail coming from the devil. God knew that the devil -envious of our joy- was trying to send us this infected mail. Ignoring God’s advice and being deceived by the devil, our forefathers opened the devil’s attachment, and our system was definitely infected by suffering. Even though through Jesus’ intervention in history, and through the Sacraments today, we may heal our computer memory, some pop-up still do come up, and those who continue to mingle with the devil, still have an infinity of viruses that can possibly infect and crush their pc.

Choosing suffering as His preferential path, Jesus showed us first of all, that suffering is not God’s punishment. Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, did not just suffere like anyyone else, but by accepting suffering, Jesus showed us that it is through this means that we can free ourselves from sin and pass on to a new life in Him. In this way, Jesus showed us that suffering can have a meaning. We are still free to dis-activate our computer’s anti-virus program installed by Christ and accept the devil’s suppositions, but when we do so, we will find it more difficult to run our computer, thinking that it was God who ruined our motherboard. In other words, we find it difficult to understand the real meaning of suffering.

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity suffered greatly throughout the span of her short life. In a first moment she was eager to accept suffering, thinking that this will ‘console’ Christ’s heart. Later on – especially after understanding “that sacrifice is only love put into action” (Letter 250) – she started to wish once again to suffer, but this time only because she wished to repay God with her love, doing always His will, walking side by side by her Christ. She writes: “I cannot say I love suffering in itself, but I love it because it conforms me to Him who is my Bridegroom and my Love. Oh, you see, that bestows such sweet peace, such profound joy on the soul, and you end up putting your happiness in everything that is irritating. Little Mama, try to put joy – not the joy you can feel but the joy of your will – into every irritation, every sacrifice, and say to the Master: ‘I am not worthy to suffer that for you, I do not deserve that conformity with you.’ You’ll see” she continues, “that my recipe is excellent, it puts a delightful peace in the depths of the heart and draws you closer to God” (L 317).

Blessed Elizabeth lived 26 years only, yet she encountered suffering from the very beginning of her existence. Just before her birth, being unable to hear her heart beat, the doctors deemed it wise to operate on her mother, Mary Catez, in order to save her mother, not so much at the expense of the mother’s own child, but because they truly believed Elizabeth had died prematurely. Still young, Elizabeth had to suffer due to her grandparent’s death, and later especially due to her father’s death in 1887, who died of a hearth attack in Elizabeth’s hands. These events moved her to try and do her best to win the bad part of her character. She was successful after four years of on-going struggles.

In her youth, Elizabeth had to suffer because her mother was against her vocation to Carmel. From the age of 17, Elizabeth was not only prohibited to speak to her mother about her eventual vocation, but she couldn’t even speak to her confessor, Fr Golmard, since he happened to be her mother’s confessor as well. Neither did her mother wish her to change confessor (cfr. D 5).

Entering Carmel, Elizabeth had to suffer a lot throughout all her thirteen and a half months of novitiate, a time during which her mother, who Elizabeth considered always as God’s will for her, still retained the opinion that her call was not for Carmel. And finally, Elizabeth suffered due to the Addison’s disease she had to endure, an illness that reduced her to ‘a skeleton, covered by a thin layer of skin’, as she was later described, and as we are well aware from her last photos.

Even though Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity suffered so much, she considered suffering a gift of God that purifies her, bringing her to a new reality with a new name, having Mary as a model and living everything with Christian joy.

In the first place, suffering is considered by Blessed Elizabeth as a gift from God. In a long letter written to Francoise de Sourdon, she writes: “Have you ever seen those pictures depicting death reaping with his sickle? Well, that is my condition; I seem to feel myself being destroyed like that. Sometimes it is painful for nature and I can assure you that if I have to remain at that level, I would feel only my cowardice in the face of suffering. But that is looking at things from the human point of view! Very quickly ‘I open the eyes of faith’. And this faith tells me that it is love who is destroying me, who is slowly consuming me; then I feel a tremendous joy, and I surrender myself to Him as His prey” (Complete Works GV 7). Suffering is considered as a gift from God, because it gives us the opportunity to do what we crucially need to do, and yet we are afraid of doing. Through suffering God gives us the opportunity to resemble Him in our undertakings.

Even though suffering – as already remarked – is not God’s punishment but a direct consequence of sin, through suffering God purifies us, helping the soul advance in its spiritual journey. “Suffering” she writes, referring to her mother, “has done God’s work in her soul, and I am filled with thanksgiving and gratitude. What mercy, what love the Master shows His little bride by sending her this illness; sometimes I say to myself that He acts as if He had no one but me to love!” (L 276).

Suffering also has a pedagogical value. It increases the faith of those who “believe in His love. The more” they are “tried, the more” their “faith increases because it passes over all obstacles, as it were, to go rest in the heart of infinite Love who can perform only works of love” (Complete Works, HF 20).

Suffering has also a pedagogical value because it transforms and unites the soul with her Beloved. In this way, Christ, “doesn’t need the Sacrament to come to me!” (Intimate notes 10) because “everything will be a sacrament that will give God to you.”. Suffering helps the soul to live in a “kind of continual communion with the Holy Spirit” (L 252), in “the royal palace where I live with my crucified Bridegroom” (L 323a).

The more the soul is purified, the more it will resemble the Christ and participate in His same mission, living in an existential way the Eucharist. “Your mother’s heart” she writes, “should leap for divine joy in thinking that the Master has designed to choose your daughter, the fruit of your womb, to associate her with His great work of redemption, and that He suffers in her, as it were, an extension of His passion” (L 309). Elizabeth felt that her mission was to be ‘another humanity’ that “becomes like a flame of love spreading into all the members of the body of Christ, the Church” (L 250). Elizabeth thus refers to “the apostolate of suffering” (L 259).

But Blessed Elizabeth profoundly believed that by her suffering, she was partaking of, ‘participating’ in the Eucharistic Mystery. For this reason she calls upon the ordained priests to “consecrate me so completely that I may be no longer myself but Him” (L 294). She requests to be placed “in the chalice so my soul may be wholly bathed in the Blood of my Christ for which I thirst” (L 131). Mother German is deemed by Blessed Elizabeth to be her priest, the one who will offer her to the Father. By the same token, she considers her bed to be her altar. Elizabeth understands and lives this truth in such depth that Fr. Conrad De Meester defines her as ‘Élisabeth de l’Eucharistie’, ‘Elizabeth of the Eucharist’ (Regards du Carmel sur l’Eucharistie, in Revue du Carmel 25 (1982) p. 50).

A soul that accepts suffering with this spirit, will become a ‘praise to His Glory’. As Fr. Philipon underlines, we need to distinguish between the internal glory of God, that is that glory that no human being, or even any creature of God, can add or subtract anything to, and on the other hand the external glory of God, which reveals the greatness of the internal glory of God. By aiming at becoming a saint, Elizabeth “gives glory to her adored Master” (L 299), and by bearing “this state of powerlessness with fidelity, with love”, she felt she would “cover Him with glory” (L 220).

On this path, especially at the foot of the cross, Christ left us His Mother “standing, full of strength and courage…teaching me to suffer as He did, to tell me, to make me hear those last songs of His soul which no one else but she, His Mother, could overhear” (LR 41). This is the reason why Blessed Elizabeth wished to be given again the small statue of Our Lady of Lourdes she had at home, and kept it always close by during her last suffering, calling her ‘Janua Coeli’, ‘Gate of Heaven’.

Those who accept suffering with this spirit live everything with interior joy. “I am tasting, experiencing unknown joys,” she writes, “the joy of pain… before I die, I dream to be transformed into Jesus Crucified, and that gives me so much strength in suffering” (L 324). So the joy in suffering derives not from suffering itself, but from the fact that one is aware of the reason of suffering, knowing the One with whom the given cross is carried. “If you knew how happy I am in the solitude of my little infirmary, my Master is here with me, and we live night and day in a sweet heart-to-heart” (L 267).

In a nutshell one can say that for Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, suffering is a gift from God that purifies the soul, moving it to a new reality, with a new name. On this path, the soul is guided by Mary, and they are called to live every moment imbued with Christian joy.

Baptism itself is a God-given-gift that purifies the soul from original sin and thrusts it forward to receive a new reality, with a new name. Even these souls have Mary as their companion and everything; in their view, it becomes a fountain of interior joy.

Therefore there is not only a certain parallelism between suffering and baptism, but suffering becomes itself God’s gift to live today the baptismal vows. In this way, those who do not have the opportunity to receive baptism, because they never heard of Christ, can reach eternal glory by accepting suffering as a positive gift from a Divine being. Everyone, therefore, as Blessed Elizabeth illustrates in her writings, can be saved by being united to Christ’s death and resurrection, through nothing less than their suffering. It is through suffering that every human being not only can be saved, but will eventually be saved.