Feast Day: November 17th | Patron of Bakers, Brides, Charities, Hospitals, the Homeless, Widows, Third Order of St. Francis, those Falsely Accused.
Two Hundred years after the saintly King Stephen led Hungary towards Christ, we find another canonized saint about a dozen generations down the line. The daughter of King Andrew II (a descendent of Stephen, though the line is nowhere near a straight one) and his wife Gertrude (a princess from a noble family in Bavaria), Elizabeth was going to endure in her life a concentrated dose of the ruckus that was always erupting between kings, dukes, nobles, and everybody else that wanted power. By the age of four, she was already arranged to marry Louis IV, the future Landgrave of Thuringia.
Now, in case you haven’t met any landgraves recently, that title means that he was technically at the level of a count in the feudal hierarchy but, unlike a typical count,a landgrave did not have a duke, bishop, or count palatine above him before the King, and ruled over a larger swath of land than a typical count. Basically, this meant that such a nobleman was treated at if he were at the rank of a duke, though was not at all part of the royal family. So, off the 4-year-old Elizabeth goes to Bavaria to be raised in the court of Hermann I of Thuringia, learning the language and culture of her future-husband’s people. Just two years later, Elizabeth’s mother back in Hungary was assassinated. Whether from political jealousy (she may have been inclined toward her German ancestry) or revenge (some member of her family had slighted, attacked, or raped someone in a Hungarian noble family), Gertrude’s death prompted Elizabeth to deepen her life of prayer.
At the age of 14, when Louis was 20, they were married. Now, I think anyone living in our day would raise an eyebrow at the thought of a 14-year-old getting married, as well as to a man 6 years her senior, and, just the thought of arranged marriages themselves. But,we should recall the basic requirements for a valid marriage: free consent to a faithful and permanent union with your spouse, and sufficient maturity to offer yourself to your spouse in such a way that you can bear children. None of that is necessarily impeded by the arrangement that Elizabeth’s father made with Louis’ father. Both young people were asked to commit their own futures to each other, and both agreed to that commitment. Furthermore, at 14 and 20, thought they were both young, especially Elizabeth, they lived in an age of less complexity, younger responsibility, greater cultural/familial reinforcement, and a higher likelihood of an early death, so on that count too they were both able to marry.
So, in 1221, they were married and Louis was enthroned as the Landgrave since his elder brother had died. From all accounts their marriage was a happy one. They deeply loved and respected each other. It was at this time that the Franciscans first arrived in the area, and Elizabeth quickly took upon herself the virtues of the man from Assisi especially simplicity, charity, and obedience. Before St. Francis died in 1226, he is said to have wrote her a letter of thanks for her support of his friars there. Elizabeth dedicated herself to the care of the poor around her area, distributing alms, food, even state robes and ornaments to those who needed them. Louis defended her in those acts, even entrusting her with responsibility for their lands and property when he left to join the sixth crusade.
And then her life changed again, because Louis died from the plague on his way to that crusade. They had only been married for 6 years, and their third child had been born only days before. Now Elizabeth had no authority in the court, and was at the whim of Louis’ brother, the regent for her 5-year-old son. Furthermore, Elizabeth had come to trust a Fr. Konrad of Marburg, who she had chosen as her spiritual director, and had promised to obey. Unfortunately, though learned and ascetical, his zeal led to harshness, even brutality especially towards anyone accused of heresy, for whom he had little mercy, but also for Elizabeth and others who tried to follow his spiritual counsel. Elizabeth would take the money she did get from her dowry to build a hospital in Marburg, where, caring for the sick, she died in 1231 only having reached the age of 24. She would be canonized quickly, especially with so many stories of her love for the poor from her close companions as well as Fr. Konrad.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin will have to return to the topic of obedience next week. In Elizabeth’s life, we see obedience at play both in her arranged marriage, and in her faithfulness to Fr. Konrad’s direction. What of that was the authentic virtue of obedience, to which we are all called, and what of it was a distortion of obedience? Our world prizes freedom above all else, with much damage and trauma being the result, but how did Elizabeth’s world elevate authority and subservience to too high of a position? What is Christian obedience, Christ-like obedience?