St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 21 (16.10.2016) Tony Dickinson

This evening at All Saints we will be celebrating the confirmation of four members of our congregation, completing their baptism, owning their Christian faith. Today in the city of Dijon they will also be celebrating, especially at the church of St Michael in the city centre. It isn’t often, after all, that an ordinary urban parish sees a member of its congregation recognised officially as a saint with a capital S – even if they have had to wait more than a century from her death in November 1906.

Today in Rome five people are being granted that recognition. Four of them are men: a French priest who suffered death at the time of the Revolution and three, more modern, founders of religious orders, two of them Italian and one a Spaniard. But it’s the fifth who is the cause of rejoicing in the heart of Burgundy.

Élisabeth Catez, known to her family and friends as “Sabeth”, was born in an army camp near Bourges and baptised in the camp’s chapel. Her father Joseph was an officer. Her mother also came from an army family. Like most military families they were regularly on the move, until the dreadful Sunday morning in October 1887 when Joseph Catez suffered a fatal heart attack. Sabeth was seven years old.

The family was by now living in Dijon, in a house not far from the Carmelite Convent in the city, although the family worshipped at St Michael’s church, where Élisabeth, aged eleven, made her first Communion. The priest who prepared her commented that she would become “either an angel or a devil”, because one facet of her character was a ferocious temper. The story is told how, a few weeks before her second birthday, her mother had loaned a favourite doll, named Jeanette, to be the baby Jesus in a crib scene at a special children’s service. It wasn’t until towards the end of the service that Sabeth noticed the doll – and when she did, she was furious. She toddled to the front of the church, her eyes blazing, and yelling “Wicked priest! Give me back my Jeanette!” until her embarrassed nurse-maid picked her up and carried her out.

But Sabeth also had a serious side. Not long after her father’s death she confided to a priest friend of her mother’s family that she was going to be a religious. Her mother, who overheard the conversation, was horrified, especially when the priest told her that he thought Sabeth’s call was genuine.

Despite that, Élisabeth carried on the normal life of the eldest daughter of a moderately well-off French family. She enjoyed fashion and friendships, holidays and (above all) music. She was a brilliant pianist, winning the first prize at the conservatoire in Dijon barely a week after her 13th birthday. It was later in the same year, while she was praying, that Élisabeth felt herself, as she wrote later, “irresistibly pushed into choosing Jesus as my only spouse, and without delay I bound myself to him by the vow of virginity. We didn’t say anything, but we gave ourselves the one to the other, loving each other so strongly that the resolve to be entirely his became, on my part, still more definite.”

Élisabeth was still living, with her mother and her younger sister Marguerite, near the Carmelite convent. That seemed the obvious place for her to explore this calling, but her mother was still very reluctant. Élisabeth had become a lively, out-going and very good-looking young woman, and her furies were now under control. Young men were queuing up to ask for her hand in marriage – including one on whom her mother looked very favourably. It was, Élisabeth noted in her diary, “a superb offer, which I shall never find again.” But she also noted “My heart is not free, I have given it to the King of kings, I can no longer dispose of it.”

Eventually her mother gave way, and two weeks after her 21st birthday Élisabeth entered the Carmel as a postulant, someone asking to test her vocation. It was not an easy time. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel in our first reading, she found herself struggling in the darkness, even doubting her suitability for the community and her vocation to the religious life, but dawn came with her final vows on 11th January, 1903. Sabeth Catez became Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity. The way was open to her to discover what it meant to be “the praise of God’s glory”.

Those words, from the letter to the Ephesians, were the key to Élisabeth’s understanding of her vocation, lived deeply in God’s love. Like Timothy in our second reading, she continued in what she had learned and firmly believed. She was naturally drawn to the contemplative way, nourished by Scripture, especially St Paul and St John, and by the classic writings of the Carmelite tradition, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. “God in me and me in him,” she wrote. “That is my life!” But, even within the enclosed life of Carmel, with its rhythms of silence, study and prayer, she maintained her friendships and the strong links with her mother and sister which had sustained the three of them through the dark years after her father’s sudden death. Writing to her sister in the summer of 1905, she remarked “I have just read in St Paul some splendid things about the mystery of divine adoption. I thought of you, of course, it would have been extraordinary if it were otherwise: you who are a mother and who know what depths of love God has put in your heart for your children, you can grasp the greatness of this mystery; children of God, dear Guite, doesn’t that make you jump for joy?” Elsewhere she wrote, “God loves you today as he loved you yesterday as he will love you tomorrow.” “God is an immensity of love who overflows us on all sides.” “God is love and gives me his love in order to love you.”

At the end of 1905, the intensity of Élisabeth’s sense of God’s loving presence was severely tested. She developed Addison’s disease, which in those days was incurable. From the end of March 1906 until her death in November she was in the convent infirmary, growing ever weaker – and ever more aware of her dependence on God, even in the midst of great pain. Shortly before she died she wrote, “Life is a serious business: each minute is given us in order to “root” us more in God, as St Paul says, so that the resemblance with our divine Model may be more striking, the union more intimate.” Her last words were “I am going to light, to love, to life.”

As we hold in prayer those to be confirmed, asking that they may be “the praise of God’s glory” let us, in Élisabeth’s words “be silent, in order to listen to him who has so much to say to us.”