I called it a hagiography. I almost never use that term.
It was the saints who brought me to the Catholic Church, and I speak reverently of saints’ lives, not of hagiography, a dismissive term that suggests author exaggeration and reader incredulity.
I guess Elizabeth Catez (1880–1906), who became the French Carmelite nun Elizabeth of the Trinity, is simply not a saint I relate too very easily. Her sanctity, in the face of excruciating end-of-life pain, completely unthinkable to me, comes off as too easy in Moorcroft’s telling.
This may be because Moorcroft is a third-order Carmelite herself and takes spiritual things for granted of which I have no personal experience. She quotes ultra-long passages from Blessed Elizabeth’s mystical writings and letters, then lets the passages stand for themselves, without digging into them, line by line.
Of her immersion in the Triune Godhead, which she found dwelling in the recesses of her own heart, Blessed Elizabeth liked to say, “It’s so simple.” Moorcroft ends her book with the same three words. Reading them, I put the book down and said, “Sorry, but it’s not so simple for me.”
A contrast with Thérèse of Lisieux seems useful. Blessed Elizabeth died of Addison’s disease just nine years after “The Little Flower” died of TB in another French Carmelite convent. It is remarkable to learn from Moorcroft’s book that Elizabeth and her sister Carmelites were reading a version of Thérèse’s “Story of a Soul” within two years of her death, and were inspired by it.
Yet the spirituality of the two holy Carmelite women seems so utterly different, at least to my non-Carmelite mind.
Though some find Thérèse too much to handle, I can relate to her “Little Way” because, like her, I struggle daily with the petty aggravations (an annoying sister, an uncomfortable chair) that she turned into a path of self-mortification and sanctity. We also know some unflattering details about Thérèse, both young and old, that humanize her and that are mostly lacking in Blessed Elizabeth’s story. Thérèse was a spoiled brat in childhood. And she suffered a terrible period of despair shortly before her death, when she doubted everything faith had taught her.
After being a bit of a terror herself as a child, Elizabeth seems to have transcended her own humanity and become altogether too perfect, too fast. She is just too grandly mystical for my blood. Hers is not a Little Way, but a Great, Enormous, Beatific, Too Big for Me sort of Way.
I can see myself—maybe someday—learning to live with the annoying behavior of those close to me, as Thérèse did, and saying, “Praise God.” I never, ever expect to see myself (nor do I want to) dying a horrifically painful death, emaciated, skeletal, my tongue so red and enlarged and distended that I cannot even receive communion, and me saying, “But He is my heaven!” And smiling radiantly.
I don’t doubt that any of it happened. The saints never cease to surprise me. But I will study other saints before I come back to this one. Blessed Elizabeth seems way too advanced for me.