By Barbara Hughes, OCDS
Upon reading Story of A Soul for the first time, many have found the language of St. Therese of Lisieux too sanguine for their taste. But like any great work, more than one reading is needed to appreciate the depth of meaning behind the words. When reading the works of the saints, placing their words within the context of the times, culture, and psychological issues that contributed to their emotional and spiritual formation adds clarity and perspective, which makes setting aside first impressions a reading imperative.
Case in point for me is St. Elizabeth of the Trinity. I confess that when I first read an account of her early years, I found her longing for God at so young an age a deterrent. I couldn’t relate to her longing to receive Jesus in the Eucharist eighteen months prior to her making her First Communion. Her words, “I’m not hungry, Jesus has fed me” spoken at the age of seven convinced me that Elizabeth was in a category all her own. She was one of those privileged souls who was gifted very early in life with an extraordinary desire to devote her life to God, causing me to wonder what I could possibly learn from one so highly favored. I decided she was too spiritually advanced to be relevant, and so I set her writings aside. The truth was: I wasn’t ready to receive what she had to offer.
Several years later, my curiosity sent me back to the writings of this Carmelite saint, but what captured my imagination was not what I had expected. In re-reading her life and works, I was intrigued by how often St. Elizabeth of the Trinity referred to Mary Magdalene. What was it about the woman from whom the evangelists identified as the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven devils that appealed to this young Carmelite nun? Their lives couldn’t have been more different. Though little is known about Mary Magdalene, her name appears frequently in the letters, reflections and prayers of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, a fact that merits unpacking.
Long before the Da Vinci Code wrongly portended that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus, there was no absence of myths and speculation about her. One account claimed she ended up in France after being set adrift at sea in a boat without benefit of oars or sails. Some theorized she was the victim of a few jealous disciples, others thought her voyage was devised by those who persecuted the early Christians. She has been associated with the town of Magdala, a bustling pagan seaport in Galilee during the time of Jesus, which could account for her wealth. The gospels of Luke and Mark refer to her as one of the women who followed Jesus and provided for the needs of the Master and his disciples during his public ministry. In the fifth century Mary Magdalene was identified as the penitent woman who washed the feet of Jesus at the home of a pharisee, and until recently she was viewed as a prostitute. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, on the other hand gave her heart to Jesus early in life, and after years of pleading with her mother was given permission to enter Carmel at the age of 19. With such diverse backgrounds it’s difficult to imagine what she had in common with the mysterious woman of first century Palestine.
A closer look at the references of the Carmelite nun regarding Mary Magdalene give the impression that she also had some misconceptions about the person of Mary Magdalene. In several of her letters, Elizabeth of the Trinity confused Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany. In her “Last Retreat” speaking of the beauty of interior union, the Carmelite nun wrote: “It seems to me the Master had that in mind when he spoke to Mary Magdalen of the “Unum necessarium”. These words seem to be associated more with the words that Jesus spoke to Martha after she complained that Mary was leaving her to do all the work. “Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it” (Luke10; 42). Later she cites the same reference when writing to her friend Framboise de Sourdon about the blessedness of being free from self and all things. “Everything .is reduced to unity, to that ‘one thing necessary’, of which the Master spoke to Magdalene.” In the same letter writing about the sin of pride, the would-be saint wrote, “And yet, if you find yourself doing either of these, you must not become discouraged for again it is pride which is irritated. You must display your misery like Magdalene at the Master’s feet and ask him to set you free. He so loves to see a soul recognize its weakness.” Recall it was Mary of Bethany that sat at the Master’s feet while her sister Martha was busy with household tasks. Elizabeth’s reference to the sin of pride also raises the question if she could have been referring to a common line of thinking that the seven demons exorcised from Mary Magdalene were in fact the seven deadly sins, one of which is pride.
In a letter written to a seminarian, Andre Chevignard about a burning desire to listen to Christ, Elizabeth wrote, “Sometimes it [the need to be silent] is so strong that one would like to know how to do nothing but remain like Magdalene, that beautiful model for the contemplative soul, at the feet of the Master, eager to hear everything, to penetrate ever deeper into the mystery of Charity that he came to reveal to us.” . (L. 158)
It’s a well-known fact that Elizabeth’s formal education was directed primarily toward her studies at the music conservatory, where she was a gifted pianist. This resulted in such poor spelling and writing skills that upon entering Carmel, she received instruction in penmanship because hers was difficult to read. Given her limited education, one might justifiably wonder about her proficiency in reading. It seems much of her knowledge of Scripture came from her careful attentiveness and reflecting on the homilies and conferences that were preached by priests before and during her time in Carmel. She absorbed what was at the heart of the teachings, primarily those of St. Paul and St. John. More than focusing on the actual wording of a passage from Scripture, Elizabeth was more concerned with the spirit of the verse that she referenced, which could lead to the tendency to overlook references that blur distinctions between Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany.
However, confusion about the two Marys is not unique to Elizabeth of the Trinity. Similar references blending the two also occurs in the works of Teresa of Avila. Even educated clergy such as John of the Cross and Francis de Sales confused the two women. During medieval times it was customary for Christians to see their own sins more clearly through the disposition of saints who approached the Lord honestly and in a spirit of repentance. In the account of her life, St. Teresa of Avila encouraged devotion to two great repentant saints whom she identified as St. Mary Magdalene and St. Augustine.
It wasn’t until 1969 that the Catholic Church identified Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany as two different people. The church calendar celebrates the feast of Mary Magdalene on July 22nd and the feast of Martha and Mary of Bethany on July 29th. And yet, blending the two as a matter of literary artistry rather than historical accuracy is not without merit. Rather than merging the two women into one person, we might consider how each was transformed, each incorporating the best practices of the other while remaining distinct persons. Within the context of the gospels, Mary of Bethany, the contemplative who sat at the feet of Jesus became the anointer of Jesus, sending him forth to the cross with the unction of love. Mary Magdalene who provided for Jesus’ needs became the contemplative who remained with Jesus on Calvary during his crucifixion. And in the garden on Easter morning, she bore the fragrance of love in the spices that she brought to anoint Jesus’ body as she silently wept beside the empty tomb.
After so many years of confusing the two, returning to former misconceptions is neither likely nor intended. However, the transformation each woman experienced as a result of their intimate relationship with Jesus is worth noting as a prerequisite to union with God. The contemplative became servant and proclaimer and the servant and provider became a contemplative. Their love for the master led them to boldly proclaim what they heard in secret. In this matter, the transformation of Elizabeth of the Trinity bears a likeness to the transformative experience of the two women.
We know from accounts by her mother that as a young girl Elizabeth of the Trinity had a volatile temper that could erupt with little provocation. She fought mightily to control her anger when she realized that it was an impediment to her relationship with God.. Eventually, with the grace of God, she was able to overcome this fault, but her determination reminds us that every person, no matter how spiritually privileged, must overcome personal demons as they travel the road to sanctity. Such feats are accomplished best by placing oneself at the feet of Jesus and by listening to his voice within the context of life’s challenges. This was the advice that Elizabeth passed on to friends and family members with whom she corresponded and was a practice to which she remained faithful for the rest of her life.
Drawing Elizabeth to himself early in life may have been God’s way of preparing her for the passion that awaited her, and for the role she would play in Carmelite spirituality. In her love and devotion to Jesus, she was not so different from Mary Magdalene. During the final days of her life, like Mary of Bethany, she longed to remain at the feet of Jesus. As the young Carmelite nun entered Jesus’ passion by way of her own suffering, she looked to the example of these holy women to lead the way.
One of the gifts that Elizabeth received from the Lord was the name “Laudem Gloriae”. Just as Abram became Abraham, Isaac became Jacob and Simon became Peter, Elizabeth of the Trinity became Praise of Glory. She understood she was being sent on a mission, just as Mary Magdalene was sent as the “Apostle to the Apostles” with the words: “Go tell the others what you have seen.” (Jn 20; 17-18).
During the final stages of her illness, Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote that she sensed she was being sent into exile while she awaited the eternal Sanctus. The deep union with God that Elizabeth enjoyed during the last vestiges of her life, highlight her suffering, even as she remained free from the cares of this world. In a letter to Framboise, describing the simplicity of her life in Jesus, she wrote, “Oh! How life is simplified, how it resembles the life of the blessed, how it is freed from self and all things.” Her words echo the sentiments in the apocryphal gospel of Mary Magdalene. “In a world I am freed from another world. In an image I was freed through a heavenly image. The fetter of oblivion is temporary. From now on I’ll rest through the time of this age in silence”.
The more we learn about St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, the more we understand that how we begin the journey is less important than the way we end it. Perhaps nothing reveals this more clearly than what the saint wrote in a letter to Canon Angles. “Elizabeth does such foolish things to her Master; but like a tender Father, he forgives her. His divine glance purifies her, and like St. Paul, she tries to forget what lies behind and presses on toward what lies ahead.”
Barbara Hughes is a wife, the mother of five children and six grandchildren, and has been a Secular Carmelite for almost 30 years. In 1994, after working as a registered nurse for 25 years, primarily in the field of psychiatry, she earned a master’s degree in Formative Spirituality from Duquesne University. Upon graduation, she was employed by Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia as Director of Student Assistance and later as Director of Family Life Education.
Mrs. Hughes has served in ministry for the Catholic Church on the parish and diocesan level for more than 30 years. Her column “In Light of Faith” has been published in the The Catholic Virginian since 2000, and in 2018 she was contracted by Liguori Publications as a columnist for “Just Live It”, which appears regularly in the Liguorian. Her works on prayer and spirituality have been published in Spiritual Life, St. Anthony Messenger, Liguorian, The WAY of St. Francis, Living Prayer, and the National Parish Catechetical Directory. In 2009, a lecture she presented on interreligious dialogue was published in Theological Journal by the University of Yonsei in Seoul Korea, and the account of her cultural emersion tour of Turkey was published by the Rumi Forum in 2010. Her book, Ministry and the Mystical Path: Formation Guide for Lay Ministers was released by the National Catholic Education Association in 2009. An experienced spiritual director and retreat facilitator, Mrs. Hughes continues to present conferences on spirituality, prayer and Scripture.