St. Elizabeth of Hungary/VIth Sunday after Epiphany (resumed)
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, as well as commemorating the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. St. Elizabeth was born in the kingdom of Hungary in 1207. She was brought up in the court of the rulers of Thuringia in central Germany to be betrothed to Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia. At the age of fourteen in 1221 she married Louis. Though the marriage was a political arrangement a genuine bond does appear to have been formed between them. When the first Franciscan friars arrived in 1223 St. Elizabeth was inspired by them to imitate the Franciscan way of life. She is an early example of a Third Order Franciscan, someone who took upon themselves the Franciscan way of life, but without full vows. Her husband shared her ideals of living a life of service to others, and was therefore not opposed to the distribution of their wealth to the poor. He died suddenly in 1227 and his brother assumed the regency on behalf of Elizabeth’s eldest child. There seems to have been some controversy about St. Elizabeth’s indifference to the conventions of royal life and she left the court and moved to Marburg in Hesse. It has traditionally been held that she was forcibly driven out by her brother in law, though it has sometimes been argued that she left voluntarily. It is clear that she undertook never to marry again and to live a life of celibacy even though this hindered the political ambitions of her family. Instead she used the money from her dowry to build a hospital for the poor and sick, whom she personally cared for. She died in 1231 at the age of twenty four.
The short life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary provides us with the supreme example of one who was born to a life of privilege and luxury, but instead chose a more excellent way, the life of charity and service to others. The Christian life has always stood in opposition to the false standards of the world. The first centuries of Christian history were in a hostile pagan environment. There was little opportunity for Christian living, only for Christian dying. It was the blood of the martyrs, as Tertullian put it, that were the seed of the Church. After the Empire became Christian there were now opportunities to use the privileged position of the Church, her resources and endowments to help others. It was no longer necessary to be a martyr to be a saint. There were now confessors who were venerated as saints who had given powerful examples of Christian living, even though they had not died as martyrs. The process of Christianisation was inevitably often more superficial than real, for worldliness is a permanent condition and if the Church is true to her vocation she can never be truly at home in this world, even among the parts of the world that are nominally Christian. At one level Europe was Christianised, but at another level the Christian life was secularised as the Church accepted many merely nominal adherents. There was a disastrous feudalisation of the leadership of the Church. It came to be understood in terms of procedures and protocols and the possession of temporal endowments, rather than of service to others. Consequently those few who seriously lived out their faith tended to arouse opposition from the mass of nominal Christians.
The life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary is to be understood in this context. She was born in a so called age of faith in which Europe was Christendom and (at least in theory) Christianity was not seriously questioned. But the fact that she took her faith so seriously that she actually lived by it aroused misunderstanding and opposition. She was not interested in the privileges and power politics of the life to which she was brought up. Instead she tried to use the resources and privileges that she had to help others. Though her marriage was designed to further the political ambitions of her family she sought to use the opportunity to serve others. She was fortunate in that her husband seems to have to some extent shared her ideals and supported her charitable endeavours. Sadly, the same could not be said of other members of her family who looked down on her because she did not conform to their corrupt worldly ways. It was a major problem for them that she refused to marry again and so did nothing to further the political ambitions of her family. Instead she followed the example of the newly formed Franciscan order and devoted the rest of her life to the service of the poor and sick. Though despised by those who sought fame and success in this world her legacy lives on after that of her opponents is forgotten. Their names are now forgotten, but hers has been remembered ever since as an example of one who used the privileges of her birth to serve others.
The older religious orders were for those living an enclosed life apart from the world, but the Franciscan friars sought to live by the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, not by withdrawal from the world, but through service to those in need in this world. The Third Order was instituted for those who did not themselves take full vows, but none the less sought to live by the ideals of the Franciscan way of life. St. Elizabeth is rightly held as the first great example of one who sought to do this and lived by that most excellent gift of charity.
We might be tempted to think that the age of feudalism, of conservatism and deference is long past and today someone who sought to renounce the privileges of their upbringing to serve others would not arouse such opposition. Sadly, this is not the case. If anything our situation today is worse rather than better. It is not merely that the practical living out of the Christian life is rejected, but it is still nominally adhered to by the majority. Even the theoretical acceptance of the Christian faith is now openly scorned. People are taught not to care about others, but only about themselves, to cultivate their own sense of self worth and self esteem. In many ways this is still an age of feudalism, but without the charitable endeavours that marked out the middle ages. Church leaders may no longer see themselves as feudal lords, but now often conduct themselves like leaders of multinational corporations. Someone like St. Elizabeth of Hungary would probably be treated with even greater disdain now than then. At least in her own time she was soon venerated as a saint, as the supreme example of one who actually lived by the faith that most only nominally adhered to. Now the ideals of service and charity are openly scorned in theory as well as in practice.
While recognising the gravity of the present situation we must not fall into the error of nostalgia for a lost age but rather focus on what we can do now. We may not usually find ourselves with all the privileges that St. Elizabeth of Hungary was born to, but we can still seek to use the resources that we have been given to live in service to God and neighbour.
Let us pray for grace that we may be enabled to follow the example of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and seek to serve those in need around us in our own time and place.