Living with the Consuming Fire: Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity

“Who of us can live with the consuming fire?” asks the prophet Isaiah, a question that should resonate with anyone who not only tries to serve God but to grow very close to Him (Is 33:14). Something about closeness to God makes us feel the heat of a consuming fire.

The canonization of Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906), Carmelite nun of Dijon, France, not only answers Isaiah’s question of “Who” but also tells us how and why. “O consuming Fire, Spirit of Love,” she prays in her most famous prayer to the Holy Trinity, [1]

come upon me, and create in my soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that I may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole mystery.

In the spirit of Elijah, she fearlessly calls down heavenly fire upon herself to, as she says in the same prayer, overshadow, overwhelm, prey upon and possess her, so that her life may simply radiate Christ’s own life. If, as St John says, the surest way to know that we are “in union” with Christ is to abide in Him by living as He lived (cf. 1 Jn 3:5-6), then St Elizabeth’s spirituality of interior life guides us to both the union and the abiding.

She takes the Lord’s earnest invitations to union and runs with them—following the bride’s lead in the Song of Songs: “Draw me and we will run after you” (Sg 1:3). What draws her so irresistibly?

Abide in me, and I in you. I am the vine, you are the branches. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (See Jn 15:1-12)

Saint Elizabeth so immersed herself in this relationship of mutual abiding that she called it heaven on earth:

It seems to me that I have found Heaven on earth, since Heaven is God, and God is in my soul. The day I understood that, everything became clear to me. I would like to whisper this secret to those I love so they too might always cling to God through everything.

The “everything” that became “clear” to her was how to live in union with God while also living in an imperfect world. It is to carry your own heaven with you, within you, wherever you go. No spirituality could be more practical: Our interior relationship with God must run deep enough to push back against the scandals, setbacks, and persecutions that Jesus says will confront us in the world.

We must learn to live not only with a sinful world that is clearly not heaven, but also with an imperfect self and equally flawed neighbors. How to accommodate both sin and grace into our worldview? By clinging to God through everything. We easily cling to other things—from our own preferences to fears and prejudices. Elizabeth bravely advises us to cut off all self-centeredness:

…forget self, give up self, ignore self, look at the Master, look only at Him, accept as coming directly from His love both joy and suffering. It is this intimacy with Him “within” that has been the beautiful sun illuminating my life, making it already an anticipated Heaven.

To live on the inside with the Lord does not mean living inside my own head, nor to be introverted, but to encounter the God who says: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:20). “Interior souls,” Elizabeth says, are those who “live unceasingly and through everything ‘hidden with Christ in God’ at the center of themselves.”

Since we fallen people tend to lodge ourselves at the center of things, it’s not surprising to find Elizabeth coupling her most exuberant desires for love and union with self-forgetfulness: “Help me to forget myself entirely” is, significantly, the very first request in her most famous prayer, “O My God, Trinity Whom I Adore.” Before praying for lasting union, she says, in effect: Let me no longer be that self-conscious being who resists, but who receives. Let me no longer be the one who clings to all that the self holds dear, but rather to Him in whom I find my true self. Let me not judge what He wills for me, but surrender to everything, clinging to the Lord all the while.

Forgetting ourselves doesn’t happen by thinking about ourselves having forgotten ourselves. Thinking and concentration don’t unite us to God, nor free us from self. In the end, love alone most naturally diverts self-focus and relocates it squarely onto the beloved. Interior life turns us inward to turn us outward. We necessarily go out of ourselves every time we love. Even going inward to meet the Lord, we must go out of ourselves.

And so love dissolves self-centeredness and replaces it with communion. We can act and speak naturally in the presence of someone whom we need not strain to impress. With the assurance of another’s love, anxiety gives way to ease, unnatural reserve melts in the warmth of friendship. Elizabeth claims as her special mission in heaven to open souls to this friendship:

I think that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them go out of themselves to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence within that will allow God to communicate Himself to them and transform them into Himself.

Clinging to God in a transforming way means, inevitably, clinging to fire. Who among us can live this way? Only those in love. “Isn’t fire love?” St Elizabeth asks, assuring us that “at His touch our soul will become like a flame of love spreading into all the members of the body of Christ, the Church.”

She often spoke of God’s presence as an inner fire or light. Just as the Lord refers to a kind of purity that shines through the eyes and lights up the whole body (cf. Mt 6:22), and St Paul exhorts the Romans to be “aglow with the Spirit” (Rm 12:11), so Elizabeth wanted to be clothed with “the purity, the virginity that allows the soul to be irradiated with the very light of God.”

And why? “I want others to think of God when they look at me,” [2] she once remarked. To be a walking advertisement for what God’s grace can do in the human soul, in the place He makes His home, is to be personally—in St Elizabeth’s inspired language—an incarnate praise of the glory of His grace, even a living flame of love.

That others should praise God on my account is the fruit of a transformative inner union with Him who promises: “We will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23). It is also the result of one who has understood what it means to remain in the Lord’s love, to stay at home with Him, to live with the consuming fire:

Remain in Me, not for a few moments, a few hours which must pass away, but “remain …” permanently, habitually, Remain in Me, pray in Me, adore in Me, love in Me, suffer in Me, work and act in Me. Remain in Me so that you may be able to encounter anyone or anything …”. [3]


FOOTNOTES:

[1] Elizabeth of the Trinity, “O My God, Trinity Whom I Adore.” The Complete Works. Volume One: Major Spiritual Writings. Transl. Sister Aletheia Kane, O.C.D. ICS Publications, 1984. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article come from volumes one and two of her complete works. Volume Two: Letters from Carmel. ICS, 1995.

[2] Elizabeth Still Speaks: Words of the Servant of God Reported by Witnesses. Edited by the Office for the Promotion of Causes, 1980. Published by Carmel of Maria Regina, Eugene, OR, 1982.

[3] Elizabeth of the Trinity, “Heaven in Faith.” The Complete Works. Volume One: Major Spiritual Writings.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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