Elizabeth of Hungary:
For Everything There Is a Season
WILLIAM HART McNichols
Did you know that when her husband Louis left the castle for some journey or necessary business, Elizabeth of Hungary would wear black, in mourning, until his return? And when he returned she ordered trumpets to be sounded and she herself would sail down the castle stairs and was said to have "covered him with a hundred kisses."
Elizabeth, daughter of King Andrew of Hungary, was born in the year 1207 and betrothed to the son of Hermann of Thuringia, whose name was Louis. The children grew up together and were practically married as children-she was thirteen, and he was twenty. All accounts say that he worshipped the ground she walked on, as we say, and she loved him intensely and worshipped God alone.
Like Clare or Therese of Lisieux, or Aloysius Gonazga, and a handful of others, Elizabeth was one of those people smitten with the love of God from earliest childhood. She was often taken to ceremonies of great opulence and instructed on how to behave, how to dress, and the rest of court etiquette. On one memorable feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother, Elizabeth was taken to the great church of Mary in Eisenach and was to parade into the church in her regal costume and crown of jewels. The event was a display of the Church Militant in the form of a Mass for the Teutonic Knights. As the child entered the church her eyes immediately located the Cross, and she stepped forward, removed the crown, and laid it before the image of the crucified King, saying she would wear no crown as long as Jesus wore only thorns. Her relatives were furious and humiliated; the others thought she was simply showing off-ostentatious piety. This was the beginning of a long and devastating misunderstanding between Elizabeth and the world that would increase and finally explode into violence later in her life.
J. Janda, that master of a kind of "Christian-Haiku Poetry," begins his poem on Elizabeth with these words: "She was known for mismanagement . . . ." Now, this could mean simply a lack of the managerial or administrative skills expected of her as the wife of the Landgrave of Thuringia, but in this case she was giving away her own jewels, clothes, and anything else that wasn't nailed down, in the extravagant manner of blessed Brother Juniper. This created extreme anger and resentment in her own castle, and put Louis in the awkward position of always having to defend her (because he let her do anything she wanted to do) and of trying to protect her from the rising anger of the court; either she was passing out baskets of bread or baskets of blankets. Elizabeth was a victim of that infectious joy Jan Ruysbroeck describes in his Spiritual Espousals. It seems that on the way to union of the soul with God, one experiences a kind of euphoria that appears crazy to those around, and in this state one abandons concern for what people think. Imagine the Apostles after Pentecost, or Francis shedding his father's clothes. This was Elizabeth of Hungary, deliriously happy in her charity.
Franz Liszt, in his musical oratorio about Elizabeth, includes one of the legends of this period of her life. Apparently Elizabeth once put a man infected with leprosy into hers and Louis' bed. A chamber maid found the man and flew into an hysterical fit. Finding Louis, she dragged the beleaguered husband up the stairs and flung open the door of the master bedroom, only to find the naked and bleeding crucified Christ in the bed.
There is another story about the marriage of Louis and Elizabeth which is of particular significance for this sad age of ours which has learned to separate human sexuality and the love of God. Instead of experiencing a synthesis we have been put in the dangerous position of choosing one or the other, and this false dichotomy is a scandal or a stumbling block to those people whose vocation it is to find God via the way of human love. Lift this story, then, from the whole and place it before your imagination as a profound icon of human sexual love in harmony with love of God. We see Elizabeth quietly trying to leave her husband's arms and bed in the middle of the night to go off to pray alone. Louis, knowing his wife's soul as well as his own, takes her hand and holds it tightly for a sustained moment, fearing to have her leave him even for a brief time. At other times it is said he would let her go, pretending to be asleep, and the two souls would pray together in a trinity of love with the Lord.
The most famous sign from God concerning Elizabeth's ministry to the poor is, of course, the legend of the roses. It seems that once Louis did get overworn by the nagging and complaints of his court about his "impractical and fanatical wife," and he succumbed to pressure. So he forbade Elizabeth to give out any baskets of food for a short time. Within days of the order a vagrant woman and her children came to the castle looking for the "mad princess of charity." The woman told Elizabeth that if she and her children were not fed she was going to commit suicide. The girl dashed off to the kitchen for some bread and was carrying it through the door to the woman outside just as Louis was coming up the pathway. He was exasperated and sad as he looked at his wife and then at the covered basket. He asked her, hoping against hope, what was in the basket. Elizabeth's only answer was, "Louis, see for yourself," and in mid-winter out tumbled plump summer roses. He broke into tears, promising never to doubt her vocation again; and he never did.
Louis died young, and it is difficult to describe Elizabeth's grief. This was no case of stoic acceptance or ascetic serenity. She literally went through the halls and rooms of the castle sobbing in disbelief. She refused to accept the death, and it was absolutely the most difficult trial of faith in her life. She loved the man so much that there seemed to be no hope for comfort. Her cries remind us of those of the grieving and abandoned Poor Clares at the death of Francis. They were entirely sure that no one could replace him in their lives, and it was true. It was true, too, for Elizabeth with Louis.
In some ways this death of her husband freed her, after a lengthy trial of grief, to discover an expansion of her vocation through the Secular Franciscan Order. She had been well aware of a new spiritual revival, far away in Italy, which centered around a man who had a reputation like her own for madness and mismanagement. In 1221, the same year Francis gave a rule to his "Third" Order, Elizabeth opened a convent for the Franciscans in Eisenach. Everything she heard about Francis thrilled her; she felt an immediate kinship and could not get enough news about him from the Franciscan missionaries. Francis, for his part, had heard about the Hungarian princess from Cardinal Hugolino, who encouraged him to send Elizabeth some gift of love which would foster her vocation because he knew that at times she was quite alone. He suggested that Francis send his own poor mantle, and Francis spontaneously agreed. One could say Elizabeth received it, cherished it, and was comforted by the presence of Francis in a way one could imagine, but which doesn't need description. Whenever she had something very important to ask of God, she wrapped herself in the poor man's mantle and received whatever she asked for. In this way Elizabeth becomes all of us who love Francis from afar. And in a way, too, this is a simple way of defining the Secular Franciscan Order: we come to God wrapped in Francis' presence, amazed at what God can do in one person. Yet, like Elizabeth, we remain ourselves, knowing Francis always leads to Jesus.
After Louis' death, the home situation deteriorated. Without the protection of her husband, all the resentment and jealousy of years were free to boil high and explode. Louis' own brother, Henry, evicted her and her three children from the castle on a moment's notice. An order followed her that no one else in the kingdom was to take them in, either. The little group went homeless, begging from the very people Elizabeth had fed and clothed, until finally a man put them in his tool shed and pig sty for the night. The next day Elizabeth and the children stumbled into the convent at Eisenach, and she told the Franciscans there to sing the "Te Deum," for she had experienced "perfect joy."
The final part of Elizabeth's short twenty-three years is probably the most difficult to understand today. It is impossible to grasp with reason or the mind unless you keep envisaging the "narrow door" Jesus told us about. Elizabeth put herself at the mercy and whim of a rather demanding and highly ascetical spiritual director named Master Conrad of Marburg. It is doubtless true, as one old sage put it, that "anyone who attempts to direct himself in the spiritual life has a fool for a director." But why did Elizabeth pick so severe a director? Stories abound about the strange and repugnant penances and inane tasks to which she submitted during this time. Some sense can be made of it, perhaps, if you travel just a bit to another religious tradition of ancient asceticism: that of the Zen Master and pupil. The pupil purposely submits to a master whose purpose is to break the student's self-will through seemingly absurd tasks in order for the student to be enlightened-a goal which is reached only when one is, so to speak, "not looking," whereas the self is always looking!
Toward the end of her life one of the most poignant and beautiful of the Elizabeth stories occurs. She found a little waif of a boy who had scurvy. This skin disease brought on swollen spots and sores and had also caused the boy's hair to fall out, leaving only patches of it here and there. Elizabeth swaddled the boy in her arms and nursed him back to health in her own room. This child alone was allowed to sit by her side as she lay dying. Elizabeth died on the night of November 17, 1231, not yet twenty-four years of age. Elizabeth, the Hungarian princess, is patron along with a king, St. Louis of France, of the Secular Order of the Little Poor Man. Canonized in 1235, she is also the patroness of widows.
The Cord. November 1985. Vol. 35, No. 10, p.297-302.
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