Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity was a talented, passionate, and vivacious young woman who lived in France from 1880 to 1906. At age 21 she left behind a life of music, parties, and travel to enter the silence of a Carmelite convent. When she entered Carmel, Elizabeth found that everything about her new life delighted her. From her very first day she fell in love with her cell, which is what the Carmelite nuns called their small rooms.
Oh, how good is our dear cell. For me, the cell is something sacred, it is his intimate sanctuary, just for him and his little bride. We are so much ‘together,’ I am silent, I listen to him… it is so good to hear everything he has to say.
We find in these words a good deal about the spirituality of Elizabeth of the Trinity. First, her love for the cell flows from her love of the bridegroom whom she finds there, but in the “cell” within her soul. And why does she find him in her cell? She finds him there because she is alone when in her cell. There is nothing to distract her from his presence. She needs this silence in order to listen and hear his voice. Silence is for the sake of listening to her Master when he speaks.
It was this silence that was one of the main things about Carmel that attracted Elizabeth so much. “The life of a Carmelite is silence,” she writes, “so she loves that above all! Oh, how good Carmel is; I can’t find words to say this enough.” This silence she saw as the atmosphere in which one lives one’s life with God. “The life of a Carmelite is a communion with God from morning to evening, and from evening to morning. If God did not fill our cells and our cloisters, ah how empty they would be!” It was God and God alone who made her happy in Carmel.
As for me, I have found my heaven on earth in my dear solitude in Carmel, where I am alone with God alone. I do everything with him, so I go to everything with a divine joy, whether I’m sweeping, working, or at prayer, I find everything good and delightful since it is my Master whom I see everywhere.
Silence suggests the practice of the cessation of speech for the sake of prayer and greater attentiveness to God. We see this in the monastic life, the life of Carmel, but above all in the life of Elizabeth of the Trinity. Now it is true that through words we can communicate with others and be present to them as persons. But the fact is that our speech may be degraded into a flight from self, others, and God. One may observe many forms of speech that amount to a diversion from reality and a literal waste of time: compulsive talking for the sake of talking, whether or not one has anything to say; gossiping and small talk.
The world in which we proclaim God’s Word now is a secularized world. In the secular world, religion is reduced to one of many small departments of life, under the headings “Society” and “Science” in the contents of Time magazine. It is then further reduced to what can be empirically observed of this department of life. In a secular world, religion is somewhere in life, not vice versa. God is an ingredient in my life rather than I an ingredient in God’s life. The sacred may be allowed to exist, but it is defined by the secular rather than the secular being defined by the sacred, as in the rest of the Bible.
The Bible is the story of God’s search for us. Jesus is the high point of the Bible; in him all the rest finds its full meaning. He is the plentitude of all God has to say to us. The only perfectly satisfying, but never satiating sound. But do we hear; are we listening? “The Father spoke one Word,’ St. John of the Cross said, “this Word He speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.” Kierkegaard wrote, “If I could prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, no one would hear it; there is too much noise.”
We must teach people about silence and prayer. They have to take off their headphones that keep them so filled with artificial noise that they do not hear the deafening silence at the heart of it all. We can be terrified by the sounds of silence. But this is the first step to find where our heart ought to be, a great hole, a black spot. In prayer we learn to let Jesus enter here and give us life and fill that hole, to let His word sound in the silence.
We may not be called to enter the silence as deeply as Elizabeth of the Trinity did, but we can be inspired by her and ask her for her help.
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.