Mother Elisabetta’s Spirituality
If some of the sayings of Mother Elisabetta collected in this volume seem to be “hard words” for us today, it is because it is sometimes hard for us to see them in context. Mother Elisabetta, like all of us, was molded by her time and by her own life experiences, and both of these lie deeply embedded in all she says.
Every age has a spiritual climate or atmosphere which is so pervasive that it is hardly noticed by those who live in it, but which can seem very alien to those who live in succeeding ages, with their own characteristic attitudes. The Church at the time of Mother Elisabetta was reacting against the cold rationalism of the preceding age, and awakening to a more affective spirituality, a spirituality of the heart rather than of the intellect. There was a renewed emphasis on the Eucharist as a channel of grace, putting the individual in intimate, loving contact with God. Connected with this growing desire for intimacy with God, there was a new flowering of devotion to the humanity of Christ, focused on his Passion, the place where his humanity shows itself most vulnerable, where it most intensely shows his love, and most urgently calls forth ours. There was also a renewal of Marian devotion, which so often goes hand in hand with a devotion to Christ’s humanity. All of these were key elements, not just of nineteenth century spirituality, but in the spirituality and devotional practices of Mother Elisabetta herself.
Mother Elisabetta’s own experience could, in a way, be said to have validated this spirituality. When, as a young woman, she longed only to give herself wholly to God in contemplative religious life, the convents were suddenly closed and she was sent home to pass years in an ambivalent situation, trying to live a deeply spiritual life amid all the distractions imposed on her by the ordinary social life of her noble and wealthy family. Here she meditated often on the cross, and came to see her own sufferings as a share in the passion of Christ, to be offered in union with his own; it is not the suffering itself she came to love, but the suffering as an experience of intimate, loving union with Jesus. Her life after she went to Coriano was marked by illness, disappointments, and struggle against many who opposed her good work for one reason or another, and she saw all these sufferings as a continuing participation in the passion of Christ, who also suffered physical pain, opposition to his work, and rejection.
Living her suffering in this way, in union with that of Christ, made it a source of great spiritual joy, for as she said, “It is gratifying to give when you love.” Mother Elisabetta’s attitude toward suffering was then not a matter of exalting suffering for its own sake, as might seem to be the case from some of her expressions, but was a spirituality of absolute, all-consuming love, that gives everything, without reserve, not because it is demanded as a duty, but because that is what love does. That is the way the saints suffer, and not to see that is to miss seeing what Elisabetta is really saying, not just with her words, but with her whole life.
The Church can never set aside either the cross or the resurrection, but it looks more intently first at one, then at the other. In Mother Elisabetta’s time, the Church was looking at the cross; it lived, as it were, the Passion present with the glory of resurrection yet to come, or, as Mother Elisabetta expressed it, “The ‘Alleluia’ dwells beyond Calvary.” Between her time and ours, the Church has turned its gaze the other way, toward the other side of the mystery; we live in an ambiance of resurrection present, with the Passion in the background of the past. The slogan of Mother Elisabetta’s age was St. Paul’s “I am crucified with Christ”. Our slogan would more nearly be the one that was popular not so long ago: “We are a resurrection people”. The Church, however, from its long experience of God and of human life, affirms that both spiritualities, that of the cross and that of the resurrection, are valid and can be paths to holiness. For us to reject one of them out of hand as incompatible with our “modern enlightened age” is to shut our hands to half of the spiritual wealth of our faith; it is, instead, our responsibility to be open to it and to learn from it, even if we cannot fully enter into it.