I certainly would never compare my life to that of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity. The memories I have of my childhood are of a little girl who always wanted to be a nun and who was—by my own standards at least—well-behaved. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, however, had a will of steel and a temper that raged into violent outbursts even at the age of four. She was impossible to control. Family and friends recalled how she would lock herself in a room in a rage when she didn’t get what she wanted, kicking the door in her fury. Only when she had spent all her energies and was exhausted could her mother sit down with her and attempt to teach her gentleness and charity.
Though my childhood personality, at least as I remember it, was pretty calm, I have a distinct memory at twenty-one of raging against God. Just a month after suffering a stroke, and a year after my first profession of vows, I was silently before Jesus in the Eucharist one day in the chapel and from somewhere deep inside came words which surprised me, even shocked me. “I hate you,” I said to him. I had lost dreams and ambitions and physical abilities and, what seemed to me as a young adult, my future. And from somewhere within me, this anger and hatred at the one I felt was to blame came raging out. It took me by surprise, for, after all, I had been “well behaved” up to that point. Day after day, in a struggle that stretched to weeks and months and years, I submitted my heart to the transforming action of the Spirit at work in the Eucharist. Each day after receiving Jesus in Communion I prayed, “Help me, for I see now how poor I am, how in need I am of you, Jesus.”
In her diary, Elizabeth herself recorded how her first encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist was a moment of transformation. In fact, she said that it was decisive for the rest of her life. She began to take on from that moment the gentle self-control that would characterize her as an adult.
“In the depths of her soul, she heard his voice…. [The] Master took possession of her heart so completely that thenceforth her one desire was to give her life to Him” (The Spiritual Doctrine of Sister Elizabeth, pg 2).
I learned in a new way in those days after my stroke, in that period of heart-raging when the strength of my heart’s hurt and fury surprised me with its force, that I was a sinner and that Jesus had known that all along, that he had known me all along. He had come to me on the amazing day of my First Communion and had not given up on me. He continued, again and again, to join his life to mine, even when I struggled to accept what had happened in my life and to believe in his love for me, Jesus still gave himself to me in Communion.
Go to Jesus in the Eucharist with your struggles
Writing in the 4th century, St. Cyril of Alexandria recognized that the Eucharist was the place Christians needed to go with their struggles. Here is what he wrote:
If the poison of pride is swelling up in you, turn to the Eucharist; and that Bread, Which is your God humbling and disguising Himself, will teach you humility. If the fever of selfish greed rages in you, feed on this Bread; and you will learn generosity. If the cold wind of coveting withers you, hasten to the Bread of Angels; and charity will come to blossom in your heart. If you feel the itch of intemperance, nourish yourself with the Flesh and Blood of Christ, Who practiced heroic self-control during His earthly life; and you will become temperate. If you are lazy and sluggish about spiritual things, strengthen yourself with this heavenly Food; and you will grow fervent. Lastly, if you feel scorched by the fever of impurity, go to the banquet of the Angels; and the spotless Flesh of Christ will make you pure and chaste.
In those raging days as I struggled to align my dreams with God’s dreams for me, I learned that Jesus wants us to share our weaknesses and struggles with him, not hide them. It became clear to me that Jesus is not afraid of the mess we try to conceal from others and even ourselves. Jesus is the doctor who can heal us when we are unable to help ourselves when our lives or relationships are riddled with the consequences of our passionate outbursts or resentments at what our life has become. I learned that even when we think we are “well behaved,” we are still not so holy that we are transformed in Christ. We still fall short of the glory of God (cf. Rom 3:23).
In his Angelus message on June 6, 2021, Pope Francis encouraged us all with these words:
“Each time we receive the Bread of Life, Jesus comes to give new meaning to our fragilities. He reminds us that in his eyes we are more precious than we think. He tells us he is pleased if we share our fragilities with him. He repeats to us that his mercy is not afraid of our miseries. The mercy of Jesus is not afraid of our miseries. And above all, he heals us from those fragilities that we cannot heal on our own, with love. What fragilities? Let’s think. That of feeling resentment toward those who have done us harm — we cannot heal from this on our own; that of distancing ourselves from others and closing off within ourselves — we cannot heal from that on our own; that of feeling sorry for ourselves and complaining without finding peace; from this too, we cannot heal on our own. It is He who heals us with his presence, with his bread, with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is an effective medicine for these closures. The Bread of Life, in fact, heals rigidity and transforms it into docility.”
Be docile to the action of the Spirit
No matter how well-behaved we think we may be, we cannot transform ourselves into Christ which is the goal of every Christian life. That is the work of the Holy Spirit who is at work in the Eucharist. But how does this happen we might ask. In the recently released document Desiderio desideravi, I found this amazing passage:
“Liturgy is about praise, about rendering thanks for the Passover of the Son whose power reaches our lives. The celebration concerns the reality of our being docile to the action of the Spirit who operates through it until Christ be formed in us (cf. Gal 4:19). The full extent of our formation is our conformation to Christ…[our] becoming Him.” (n. 40).
To become Christ begin by sharing with Jesus your fragilities, your weakness, even your raging hearts. Show him your struggles, your resentments, your deceit, your discouragement in the desert of life. In the Eucharist, “Jesus tells us he is pleased if we share our fragilities with him. He repeats to us that his mercy is not afraid of our miseries. The mercy of Jesus is not afraid of our miseries. And above all, he heals us from those fragilities that we cannot heal on our own, with love” (Pope Francis).
We are in Christ and Christ is in us
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem described our being united with Jesus through the reception of Communion with this beautiful image: “Just as by melting two candles together you get one piece of wax, so, I think, one who receives the Flesh and Blood of Jesus is fused together with him. And the soul finds that he is in Christ and Christ is in him.”
It is clear, then, that Christ “infuses himself into us,” using a phrase dear to Nicholas Cabasillas, in his book Life in Christ. Jesus transforms us into himself as a small drop of water is changed when it is poured into a great vase of ointment. That small drop of simple water is infused with the fragrance of the ointment. The two could no longer be divided from each other, even if we tried to do so. Just like that drop of water, we ourselves are poured in a vase of ointment so to speak, when we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, and we become the sweet-smelling fragrance of Christ whose very life was poured out for us (2 Cor. 2:15).
Blessed James Alberione, founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, often used the image of the olive tree to express the power of Jesus that in the Eucharist at Mass unites our life to his own. It is the power that we see active in the young life of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity who remarkably began to mature in her Christian life after her First Communion. Alberione explained that in Communion it is like this: Jesus is like the good olive tree and we are wild, uncultivated olive trees that left to themselves would only bear fruit of inferior quality. However, when the wild olive tree is grafted into the cultivated olive tree of greater quality, the wild tree no longer bears its own fruit but begins to bear the fruit of the good olive tree itself.
In the same way, when you and I consent to allow ourselves to be grafted into Jesus through receiving his Body and Blood in Holy Communion, we no longer bear the fruits of our own weakness and sinfulness. Instead, by being united to Christ’s Flesh and Blood through partaking of them in Communion, we begin to bear the fruit of Jesus’ own life. Gradually, through the work of the Spirit, we become the Body of Christ and bear the fruits of Christ in our lives.
Image credit: Photo by Gary Barnes: https://www.pexels.com/photo/crop-faceless-gardener-touching-olives-on-tree-in-garden-6231906/; Photo by amorsanto: https://www.cathopic.com/photo/3655-bendito-alabado-sea-siempre-jesus; Photo by cottonbro: https://www.pexels.com/photo/bench-light-man-people-6284260/