A joyfully Franciscan view of Catholic life, inspired by St. Clare (Santa Chiara) of Assisi!

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Chiara Offreduccio (St. Clare) was born in 1194. It is said that when her mother had Chiara in her womb, an angel appeared to her and said, "your child will be a light that will illuminate the world!" Hence, her mother named the child Chiara, which means "light. As G.K. Chesterton put it, St. Clare was a romantic figure just like Juliet was. However, instead of running away from her family in order to be with an earthly man, Clare gave up everything and ran away from her family for the love of her Savior!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

St. Elizabeth of Hungary: A Detailed Overview

Friday is the Feast Day of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who is a Franciscan Saint that is increasingly playing a very important role in my life. The first of my several posts about this beautiful Saint is a detailed overview of her life and times:

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary- by Mary Germaine, MICM

Enriched by the Catholic Faith, Europe rose to new heights of civilization and culture upon the ruins of ancient pagan Rome. A new social order received its vitality from the personal and social virtues fostered by Christian family life. Never was this more apparent than in the Middle Ages when the royal houses of Europe produced rulers who were saints. These valorous and virtuous men and women prized their holiness as the summit of their nobility. Catholic nations either flourished with God's blessing or suffered the consequences for the infidelity to their sacred obligations.

In testimony of the power of God's grace, the warring Magyars, one of the fiercest and most difficult groups of people to subdue, gave Christendom some of its holiest monarchs. This royal line started with the conversion of the Magyar chieftain, Geza, in 975 AD, whose son, the great Saint Stephen, became King of Hungary and reigned from 1000 to 1038 AD. Stephen and his descendants spared nothing in their efforts to spared the sanctifying influence of the Faith throughout their country and all of Europe.

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary shines as one of the brightest stars in this family. In the short span of 24 years she admirably fulfilled the designs of God as princess, wife, mother and widow, teaching her own and succeeding generations the incomparable value of self-denial and charity in His service.

Saint Elizabeth's father, Andreas II, who was the rich and powerful king of Hungary, Galicia and Lodomeria, began to reign in the year 1205. He was described as "valiant, enterprising, pious, and overgenerous with a reckless good nature which never thought of the morrow." To strengthen political ties, he married the German countess, Gertrude of Andechs-Meran, who was a direct descendant of Charlemagne. Queen Gertrude's own sister, Hedwig, wife of the Duke of Silesia, was a canonized saint. Another sister was a Benedictine abbess and two brothers served as cardinals, better titled as princes of the Church.

Elizabeth was born in mid-fall of 1207, in the royal palace at Pozsony, now Bratislava, overlooking the Danube River. Her first three years passed happily with her sister Marie and her brother Bela, who would one day succeed his father as King Bela IV. From her earliest youth Elizabeth loved music, dancing and playing in the beautiful countryside, but her greatest joy was giving alms to relieve the sufferings of the poor.

The child's love for virtue and prayer corresponded perfectly with her name which in Hebrew means "worshipper of God" or "consecrated to God." But there was not even a remote chance of Elizabeth pursuing the path of her maternal aunt, the Benedictine abbess. Following the custom of the time, her father, for political reasons, arranged her marriage while she was still an infant. Elizabeth, he determined, would become the Duchess of Thuringia.
Hermann I, Landgrave or Count of Thuringia, which is a region in eastern Germany, was patron of the arts and one of the richest and most influential rulers in all Europe at the beginning of the 13th Century. He was a cousin to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. The Wartburg, his 100-year-old massive castle, was a center of magnificence and culture. Notwithstanding the glory of his realm, it was rife with turmoil; feudal princes were at war with one another and in conflict with royal and imperial authority. Amicable relations with and support of powerful foreign nations were as important then as ever. Hermann had lost no time gathering information about possible advantageous alliances by way of a suitable wife for his young son, Ludwig.
The happy realization of this intention had come rather unexpectedly. One evening, the great Kingslohr, master of the "minnesingers", or German troubadours, startled everyone at the Wartburg castle with an astounding prophecy: "I see a beautiful star rising in Hungary" - he said in a trance - "the rays of which extend to Marburg, and from Marburg, all over the world. Know that even on this night there is born to my lord, the king or Hungary, a daughter who shall be named Elizabeth. She shall be given in marriage to the son of your prince, she shall become a saint and her sanctity shall rejoice all Christendom."

Landgrave Hermann took King slohr's words seriously and began a diligent inquiry from all who traveled from Hungary, to learn about the princess who had indeed been born that night. Pleased with all he heard concerning her, the Landgrave proceeded to make arrangements for the betrothal of Elizabeth to his son.

Blissfully unaware of all the political strategies surrounding her, Elizabeth's innocent childhood joys came to an abrupt halt when she turned four. That year a cavalcade from far away Thuringia came to pick up the princess and take her to her new home. As was the custom, she would be reared there with her future husband in his family so that she could learn the royal conventions in order to become a good wife for the future ruler.

The embassy arrived with two coaches and a train of Thuringian knights. After three days of entertainment and religious services, they left Hungary with thirteen coaches loaded with Elizabeth's dowry and magnificent gifts for the Thuringian court. As recorded in the ancient chronicles: "Gold and silver vessels, many and wonderful, most precious diadems, rings, necklaces and jeweled belts; a bath of silver, numberless dresses, cushions, pillows and coverlets of purple silk; things of such cost and beauty that had never been seen in Thuringian land."
In addition to all these magnificent things, there were six superb Arabian horses for Elizabeth's use, along with attending squires and knights. A retinue of Hungarian servants accompanied her, as well as her own personal maids in waiting, two of whom remained her faithful friends to the very end and to whom we are indebted for much biographical information about the saint.
Before departing, King Andreas placed his daughter, "the Tight of his eyes and the joy of his life," in the special care of Count Walter de Varila. "Promise me on the faith of a Christian knight that you will ever protect and be a true friend to my little daughter." Varila pledged: "I will protect her and always be faithful to her." Queen Gertrude rather coldly bid her little daughter farewell, saying, "Act like a princess." Little did the child realize that two years later her mother would suffer a tragic death at the hands of insurgents. "Elizabeth and her companions studied German, French, and Latin, the history of the realm, music, literature, and embroidery."

The journey from her native place to her new home, the town of Eisenach, Thuringia, took several months, as the royal entourage was greeted along the way with many festivities. At last they arrived at the Wartburg. Built on top of a mountain surrounded by more than a hundred miles of dark forest, the massive century-old castle served as a fortification for the surrounding villages. The outer walls were ten feet thick and those of the living quarters were six feet.
"These stone walls with heavy gates and watch towers, the drawbridge, the inaccessible parapets, dungeon for captives, narrow, tall keep where precious possessions and extra supplies were stored on many floors, vaulted, dark damp cellars and kitchen and bakery, servant quarters and gardens and stables...."

Upon her arrival the little princess was received by the Landgrave Hermann and his wife, the Landgravine Sophia, who introduced her to her new family: her fiancée, eleven year-old Ludwig, and her other children, Hermann, 10, Agnes, 4, Hermann Raspe, and Conrad. To this immediate family were added six other children of Thuringian nobility, who were assigned to Elizabeth as playmates. Two named Guda and Isentrude remained her closest and life-long friends. The formal engagement of the two children took place in the castle chapel, where the bishop blessed Elizabeth and Ludwig.

It was "love at first sight", if that was possible for mere children. They called each other "brother and sister." Their joy was their companionship and while they were young they spent all the time they could together, but as future rulers of a powerful kingdom, they both had much to learn.

Under the tutelage of Ludwig's mother Sophia, Elizabeth and her companions studied German, French, and Latin, the history of the realm, music, literature, and embroidery as well the care of linens, tapestries and wardrobes. Of paramount importance, however, was the detailed training on being "a future Landgravine."

Meanwhile Ludwig was undergoing his training as a future ruler of Thuringia. As usual with nobility destined for knighthood, he become a page at the age of seven. He learned to serve the lords and ladies with perfect manners. As a squire, he would have his own attendants, suit of armor, and horse. He, too, was taught Latin, French, music, math, equestrian skills and military arts.

It is said that Ludwig was unsurpassed physically and mentally. He was the very picture of a medieval knight; he was "tall, well proportioned, good-looking, attracting all who came near him, kind in speech, brave and daring." It was Elizabeth who would raise these qualities to the level of the supernatural by teaching Ludwig to do all for the love of God.

This is the distinctive characteristic of the saint that Elizabeth would become. She never for one minute wanted anything but to conform to the will of God and felt that her union with Ludwig was the will of God. In loving Ludwig, she was obeying the will of God, therefore, loving God. This automatically placed their love on another plane, and kept it from ever being sullied by mere carnal affection. They were meant to help each other acquire the sanctity intended for them by Almighty God.

It was providential that Ludwig took his training so seriously, since he was called to rule at an early age, due to the death of his father in 1217. The causes of the senior Landgrave's tragic death were his political difficulties and his alliances against the Church, which resulted in his excommunication. Excommunication in the Middle Ages was regarded as the ultimate punishment. This most serious censure was imposed for the correction of the offender and for the spiritual protection of the faithful.

For a ruler this meant exclusion from all divine services, public prayer and the sacraments of the Church, and if he remained obstinate, he would be required to forfeit his office and his subjects would be released from their allegiance to him. This blow combined with the death of his son, Hermann, drove him mad and for some time Ludwig had to act for him. Then one day the Landgrave went riding and never returned.

Elizabeth was greatly affected by her father-in-law's death, for he, more than anyone other than Ludwig, loved her. She prayed constantly for his soul. Together Ludwig and Elizabeth wept over the following prayer that was discovered in Landgravine Sophia's prayer book: "To Thee, Jesus, I commend the soul of Thy servant, Hermann, who although he is entangled in crime and sin, is still Thy creature for whom the Sacred Blood of Christ was shed and who sets his hope in Thee. Deliver him from evil today and always. Render him free from the power, the missiles and force of his foes. Save him from shame of the body and from sudden death. I commend him to Thee in the hope and faith that he may be saved. Hear me, a poor sinner; plead for Thy brother, Hermann."

After a year of mourning, Ludwig was knighted at eighteen, rather than the customary age of twenty-one, and named Landgrave of Thuringia, Ludwig IV. The bishop of Naumberg presided at the elaborate ceremony. According to the feudal system, Ludwig then paid homage to Frederick II as his vassal and at this ceremony received the pledge of fealty from his lesser nobles.

Known for his honesty and true nobility of heart, the young Landgrave was highly regarded by the other rulers. His private chaplain described him as "cheerful, brave, pious, temperate, chaste and just." Elizabeth delighted in Ludwig's pledge: "My soul belongs to God, my life to my sovereign, my heart to my lady, Elizabeth, and my honor to myself." Out of deference to the poor, he ordered the traditional celebrations reduced to a banquet. This irritated the court, which blamed it on Elizabeth's influence.

From the start, Elizabeth despised the vanities of court life. She was often rebuked for her lack of attention to traditional details. But it was not disregard that made her different, but rather her deep spirituality that made the vanities of the world seem insignificant and unimportant. As a sacrifice, she would deliberately not wear signs of rank on holy days. As a princess, she had a wardrobe of exquisite gowns that she only wore to fulfill the duties of her state and to please her husband. Even when she did appear in radiant attire, her ladies in waiting knew that underneath it she wore a penitential hair shirt to keep her from becoming too attached to vanities.
During her childhood in Hungarythe Child Jesus frequently came to play with Elizabeth, according to her life-long companions.
When she was twelve years old, Elizabeth shocked the court by her disregard for pomp and show. On the Feast of the Assumption she was required to go in state to attend the High Mass. "This meant that she and the princesses would be dressed in the full magnificence of their rich silk and velvet clothes, with long embroidered sleeves and surcoats, edged with fur, with magnificent long mantles carried by pages, their gloves sewn with pearls and precious stones, and their persons adorned with golden chains and jewels. The young princesses probably did not wear the customary linen coif but would have loose veils and coronets on their flowing hair. On entering the packed church they knelt before the crucifix, and then instead of moving to her place of honor with the others, Elizabeth took off her crown, laying it before the cross, and remained prostrate on the ground with her face covered."
All eyes turned toward the Landgrave's future bride. When his mother corrected her for this want of protocol, Elizabeth responded: "How can I, a miserable creature, remain wearing a crown of earthly dignity, when I see my King, Jesus Christ, crowned with thorns?"
With all her heart she desired to receive Our Divine Lord in Holy Communion, but she had to wait - as custom demanded - until she was twelve. Only to Guda, her closest friend, did she confide that Jesus showed Himself to her many times in the Eucharist and in the poor. One day when she was distributing food at the castle gate, she saw Jesus among the beggars. He touched those around Him and their faces changed into His, showing her that she must see Him in the poor, sick, deformed and unwanted. No longer could she let her natural fastidiousness keep her at a distance from the poor or be repulsed by their dirt and ugliness. She knew for certain that Our Lord was asking her to care for the afflicted. This caused quite a stir in the court, which already regarded her as a foreigner and called her the "little Hungarian gypsy." lf it hadn't been for her betrothal to Ludwig, who championed her cause, life would have been unbearable.
Elizabeth's piety was so integrated in to her actions that she would even play in the conscious presence of Christ. When she would pass the outside wall of the castle chapel she would reverently kiss the stones. As she grew older her piety irritated the women of the court. It made them uncomfortable and they would grumble that she was too holy, prayed too long, and should have been a nun instead of being betrothed to the prince.
At this point news arrived that things were not well in Hungary. Her father, King Andreas, who had vowed to lead a Crusade, had instead made a peaceful expedition across Jericho and up the Red Sea. There, he retreated after a brief encounter with the Saracens. This humiliation, coupled with his inability to pay back the monies he had borrowed for the trip, was his downfall. Now the Hungarian alliance did not seem so promising to the Thuringian people and they began to reconsider the choice of Elizabeth as a match for the future Landgrave.
It began to be openly discussed and soon Ludwig's mother called a council without his knowledge. The main complaint against Elizabeth was her piety and extravagance to the poor. She could not be trusted with money for the good of the realm. Elizabeth learned about the council and held her own. After her recourse to many hours of prayer, she confided to Walter de Varila, the knight who had been appointed to her by her father, that she feared a conspiracy was about to separate her from her beloved Ludwig.
Varila bypassed the court council and asked Ludwig what his intentions were regarding the fate of Elizabeth. Ludwig, pointing to one of the tallest peaks in Thuringia, said that if the entire mountain were turned into gold he would not exchange it for his Elizabeth. "She is dearer to me than anything on earth and I will have no other for my bride."

Once Ludwig's determination became apparent, the murmuring subsided and Elizabeth was treated more kindly. Other trials began to arise that placed many obstacles to the wedding. The greatest was the false excommunication of Ludwig by an archbishop who attempted to seize his lands. Ludwig refused to surrender his rights to the unjust demands and gathered his troops to fight back, forcing the prelate to admit his error and lift the ban from him and his father.

Finally in the spring of 1221, Elizabeth and Ludwig were married. She was fourteen and he was twenty-one. The entire kingdom, as well as a retinue of Magyar, envoys bearing gifts from the bride's homeland, was present. Elizabeth was now "Landgravine of Thuringia" and "Mistress of Wartburg". After a week of festivities, life returned to normal and the new couple was free to rule the Castle without the interference of Ludwig's mother, who had retired to live as a nun in the Cistercian convent of Saint Catherine, which her husband had built.

Wartburg Castle once again became the center of activity and excitement. It underwent some renovations by the new Landgrave including a larger banquet hall. Troubadours were back and happy times resumed, without the extravagance of the preceding reign. Ludwig was exceedingly proud of his lavishly dressed wife, but he was unaware of the spiritual motives behind her appearance.

"It is not through carna pleasure or vanity that I deck myself thus," she confided, "God is my witness, but only through Christian charity that I may remove from my brother all occasions of discontent or sin, if anything in me should displease him, that he may love me in the Lord, and that God Who has consecrated our lives upon earth may unite us in Heaven." And again: "It is in God that I love my husband; may He Who sanctified marriage grant us eternal life."

The holiness of this young bride is best described by Saint Francis de Sales, who said of her: "She played and danced and was present at assemblies of recreation, without prejudice to her devotion, which was so deeply root ed in her soul. Her devotion increased among the pomp and vanities to which her condition exposed her. Great fires are increased by the wind, while small ones are extinguished, if not screened from it."

Elizabeth "would ride through the village helping her subjects and listeningto their problems..."
The new banquet hall now afforded them new opportunities to entertain. One night a German storyteller made his appearance in the gray habit of the newly founded Friars Minor. He entertained the party with his tales of the "poor little rich man" named Francis and his new Order. Elizabeth was greatly moved by all she heard and desired to became a follower of Saint Francis and help him rebuild the Church. She found her way by helping the poor.
The Poor

When Ludwig was absent she put off her gowns and dressed as a peasant in mourning. Then she would ride through the village helping her subjects and listening to their problems. She saw how they lived, and learned what they really thought of therr rulers; that they hated rich people who grew rich at their expense. The peasants endured hard labor, had to pay heavy taxes, and often suffered cruel treatment from the nobles. Her maids would accompany her on her errands of mercy... until she went to the leper colony, then she went alone. She brought food and clothing, but more importantly she brought love and the consolation of Catholic teachings.

She was a perfect picture of Christian Charity, and she used the many means at her disposal to pay debts, buy food and clothing to clean, nurse and bury the dead. Her charity challenged the entire feudal world. Of course Elizabeth's actions did not increase her popularity at court. Gossip was rife once more.

Elizabeth began to feel a great conflict within her soul and felt as though she were leading a double life. Although she and Ludwig attended Mass everyday, there were many worldly duties to tend to. She feared that her love for her husband competed with her love for God. She began to weep at Mass one day when she found herself staring at Ludwig during the Consecration. Ludwig, unaware of the reasons for her grief, left the chapel, but returned later to find her still crying. He too began to weep, when she explained to him why she was so sad. He was deeply touched by her pure soul.

She would often mortify herself by rising in the middle of the night to pray at the side of the bed. Ludwig would reach out and find her cold hands clasped on the blanket and enveloping them with his, would say: "Spare yourself, little sister." Once he met her hurrying down the street with her apron full of bread for the poor. When he asked her what it was that she carried, she let fall the apron and instead of bread, the apron was full of beautiful, fresh roses…

One time after she had spent the day distributing alms to the poor, Ludwig happened to return with a retinue of Hungarian nobles, coming in the name of King Andreas to inspect his daughter's situation and to invite the new couple to Hungary. Elizabeth had just given away all her beautiful clothes and was wearing a rough woolen smock. Seeing Ludwig's concern, she said, "I have never gloried in what I wore. But I will speak of this with God, and so it may happen that they may never notice my dress." When she entered the great hall, the Hungarians gazed at her in delight, for "her robes were of silk, hyacinthine, and shimmering with the dew of pearls!" Later, when the Landgrave questioned her she sweetly replied: "When it pleases God, He knows the way to do such things."

Ludwig and Elizabeth accepted the invitation to Hungary and stayed at the Pozsony Castle, where she was born. There she was feted and loaded with gifts by her father, whom she would never see again. Despite the happy return home, Elizabeth was distracted by the fact that she knew that the money needed for the extravagant homecoming came from taxes extracted from the poor subjects of the kingdom. She was hearthroken to think that power, comfort and money drove rulers, rather than concern for their fellow men. She yearned to lead a simple life and tried to convince Ludwig to yield to her desires. He gently explained to her that it was their duty to rule and their subjects would not respect them if they lived with less extravagance.
Advancing in Holiness

At this time the Friars Minor arrived in Germany with their appeal to all Christians to practice charity to the poor. They were invited by Elizabeth and Ludwig to their castle, where they pledged to help them any way they could. Elizabeth had a chapel built for the Friars and in gratitude Saint Francis sent his ragged cloak to thank her. It became one of Elizabeth's greatest treasures. In answer to her prayers, one of the Friars became her spiritual director. Under his guidance she grew closer to Our Lord, Whose Passion was her primary devotion and source of her strength.

On March 28, 1222, while Ludwig was away, Elizabeth's first child was born. He was inexpressibly happy at hearing the news. They named the baby Hermann, after his father. As soon as she was able, the young mother took her child to the chapel at Saint Catherine's to present him to God. She carried him in the same silver cradle that had taken her to Thuringia ten years earlier.

Worry now haunted her that her new son would be another tie to earth, keeping her heart from God, but her confessor advised her, "Your duty is now to your son ... It pleases God if each person practices virtue according to his station in life. You are a ruler, wife, and mother. It is very difficult, but not impossible, to practice poverty as a wealthy ruler. But you can practice other virtues like patience, humility, and charity as you now do. It may be God's will that you remain as you are. Your greatest offering would be to give up your own will."

Following this good advice, she became a true follower of Saint Francis. One of her favorite charities was to the lepers and on one occasion her sisterin-law, Agnes, met Ludwig on his return home, to report to him that Elizabeth had gone too far in her charity. They entered his apartment and pulled back the curtains, for Ludwig to see that a leper had been given his bed. As he stayed at the man, the disfigured features changed before their eyes into the face of Christ. Ludwig said gently, "Elizabeth, dear sister, it is Christ Whom you have bathed and fed and cared for. Let us both do what we can to serve Him by serving His suffering poor." And they built a hospital for the lepers.

Ludwig now realized he was dealing with no ordinary woman, and sometimes her miracles frightened him. He wrote to the Pope to request a director for her and Master Conrad was sent. But preceding his arrival another child was born whom they christened Sophia, after Ludwig's mother.

Unlike the Franciscans, Elizabeth's confessor proved to be harsh and severe. With Ludwig's permission and in his presence, Elizabeth promised Father Conrad that she would obey him in all things except those obliged by her marriage vows. She also made a vow to preserve perpetual chastity in case she should ever become a widow.

Conrad revealed, after her death, that the moment she made this vow, God allowed him to see the radiance of her soul in all its beauty. He prayed for light to guide such a soul entrusted to his care. Once he made her promise not to eat any food that came from the peasants unjust labor or that had been grown on land taken by force.

Elizabeth "was a perfect picture of Christian Charity..."
In the winter of 1225, Agnes, Ludwig's sister, left Wartburg to marry. This freed Elizabeth from the long penance of her sister-in-law's presence. However a new trial awaited her. That winter was one of the worst in the history of Europe because of flood, famine, plague and smallpox. Ludwig was away in the service of the Emperor, leaving Elizabeth, who was only 19, in charge of the castles, villages and vassals.

As the winter wore on, the peasants stormed Wartburg castle for grain. The stewards barred the way. When Elizabeth heard this, she wept and went down to the villages and personally distributed as much food as possible. The stewards did not disobey her outright, but were determined that she not give away the store of grain.

Desperate, the Landgravine sold her family jewels to buy food and when that was gone she demanded the granaries to be opened. "We shall not starve if we are generous. We must bave faith," she would say. But the knights and ladies of the court reacted against Elizabeth and joined the stewards and Bailiff in blocking the Landgravine's way. She prayed and finally the Bailiff opened the doors. Elizabeth then had 900 loaves of bread baked each day, soup kitchens were opened and a hospice for children and babies was established.

At last the cruel winter passed but was soon followed by a smallpox epidemic. The dead lay in the streets. Elizabeth brought her own children into their private chapel and prayed, "Lord God, I commit myself, my children, and my whole household to Thee. Watch over me while I go to do Thy will and give me the strength to do it." Then she went out to nurse the sick and bury the dead, making shrouds out of the veils she had worn.

In rural areas, the ladies and their servants helped her and Elizabeth built a small hospital at the foot of the road to the castle. It was the first hospital to be built and staffed by lay people in Germany. Summer came and the beat made the small of disease and death unbearable in the streets. But this did not stop Elizabeth from her works of charity which she continued until the plague was ended.

With the arrival of autumn, a new harvest and the retum of Ludwig heralded the promise of a brighter winter. But as he approached the town, the Marshal and the Bailiff gave their account of the grain distribution and warned him of his losses. After listening to their complaints, he asked them: "Is my wife well? That is all l care to know; the rest matters not. Let her give to the poor what she likes; as long as she loves me, I am content." Then he went with them to the granaries, which when they opened them had been miraculously filled to overflowing. Elizabeth's explanation was, "I bave given God what is God's and He has preserved what is yours and mine."

What Ludwig did not tell his wife on his return was the disastrous political situation of the Emperor. At the time Frederick was being threatened with excommunication for not fulfilling the promise he had made to lead a Crusade once he was crowned Emperor. The Emperor's obligation now forced Ludwig to participate; he readily pledged to follow his lord and take up the Crusader's Cross.

"That winter was one of the worst... because offlood, famine, plague... Elizabeth had 900 loavesof bread baked each day... and a hospice forchildren and babies was established."
He did not want to break the news to his beloved wife, but when she found out by accident, although she somehow suspected this would happen, she almost fainted from grief. Ludwig consoled her by reminding her that when they were young they had talked about being crusaders and that it was a tradition for the Thuringian rulers to defend the Holy Land. His heroic wife replied: "I will not hold you back. It is the will of God. I bave given myself entirely to Him and now I must give you, too."

Before departing, Ludwig assembled the knights and vassals left behind and commanded then to take care of the women and children. "Our country is at peace," he said, "Now I am leaving my peaceful kingdom, my beloved wife, my little children, all that I hold dear, and I am going forth as a pilgrim of Christ. I beg of you to pray for me daily, that if it be the will of God, I may retum safe and sound to my kingdom." Father Conrad was placed in charge over the churches, and monasteries in the kingdom. Ludwig called his mother back to help take care of his family, especially Elizabeth, who was expecting their third child. He left all his business affairs to his brother Henry.

On the vigil of Saint John the Baptist, June 23, 1227, the moment to say goodbye had come. Ludwig kissed his mother and blessed his children, but Elizabeth could not be parted from him. She rode with him for two days to the border of Thuringia, where Ludwig finally told her to return, as he had to take command of all the troops assembled there. As they painfully parted, he showed her his ring and told her to believe any message she may receive from him if the ring accompanied it. "May God in Heaven bless you, little sister. May He bless the child that you are bearing. With His help you will be able to carry out what we have agreed upon. Remember our happy life, our holy love, and forget me not in any of your prayers."

Broken-hearted, she followed him with her eyes till they were out of sight and returning changed into mourning attire. She spent her days awaiting the arrival of her new baby, praying, doing penance and taking care of the poor and sick.

Meanwhile, after a long arduous trip across the Alps, Ludwig and his troops met up with the Emperor in Brindisi, Italy. A fever decimated the troops, but they continued on to Otranto. There, Ludwig, himself, succumbed and was given the Last Rites of the Church. As he lay dying, he gave his ring to a trusted knight, commanding him to give it to his wife with the news of his death. He died September 11, 1227, at the age of twenty-seven, his last wish was to be buried in Thuringia.

The knights arrived after a difficult journey with the sad news of Ludwig's death just after Elizabeth gave birth to their third child, Gertrude. They waited to give her the news.
When she heard she cried out: "Not this! Dead! Dead! My dear brother is dead! Now the world and all its joy is dead to me." She fell unconscious, and was returned to bed. For eight days she mourned in solitude. The entire castle lamented the loss of their beloved ruler, but her grief was beyond all measure. At last, Elizabeth, fortified by prayer, overcame her sorrow and called for the knights to tell the details of her dear husband's last hours.

Before the heavy snows of winter fell in 1227, Elizabeth's brother-in-law took complete authority as heir of the kingdom, officially declaring himself the Landgrave and announcing to the people that he was forced to do this as the Landgravine was incompetent and a great spendthrift. He did not tell them that he had withdrawn all funds from Elizabeth and her children.

Of course, the nobles supported him and went on to speak cruelly of her, now that Ludwig was no longer there to defend her. Finally Elizabeth was forced out of the Wartburg Castle into the streets of the village. Not a soul came to her defense. The village people, so many of whom she had helped, were told to refuse her hospitality.

She spent her first night on a farm where the pigs had been driven out to make room for her and her children. Her faithful maids stayed with her, but her three children were put in the care of Ludwig's friends. For months she endured this harsh treatment, supporting herself by weaving, spinning and living wherever she would be received.

Finally this scandalous situation was rectified at the insistence of Elizabeth's maternal aunt, the Abbess of Kitzingen, and her brother, the Bishop of Bamberg, who sent for her and her children and took them to live at the convent.

After the happy rescue and stay at the convent, which became the lifelong home of little Sophia, Elizabeth's uncle called her to the Castle Pottenstein in the Franconian Mountains. This powerful prelate had hopes of marrying his twenty-one-year-old niece to the newly widowed Emperor Frederick, having no idea of Elizabeth's previous vow. Upon hearing his plans, Elizabeth had recourse to prayer and left her beautiful wedding dress at Our Lady's altar, in a nearby monastery, as a pledge of her determination to keep her vow.

Her prayers were soon answered, for suddenly she was recalled to Thuringia for the interment of her husband's remains. The black, cross-covered coffin was opened and she gazed at the whitened bones of her dear Ludwig. When she regained her speech she prayed aloud:
"Lord, I thank Thee for having consoled me by this long desired sight of my husband's bones. Thou knowest that though I so deeply loved him, I do not regret the sacrifice which my dear one himself offered to Thee, and which I, too have offered Thee. I would give the whole world to have him back, and would willingly beg my bread with him, but I take Thee to witness, that against Thy will I would not recall him to life even if I could do it at the price of a single hair. Now I commend him and myself to Thy mercy. May Thy will be accomplished in us."
Elizabeth was forced out of the Wartburg Castle into the streets of the village...The village people were told to refuse her hospitality...

The Landgravine then summoned Ludwig's vassals and faithful knights who had brought his body back. She thanked them for their fidelity and informed them of all that had gone on since their lord's death. They pledged to defend her rights and the rights of her children, and they forced Henry to restore Elizabeth to her rightful position. She declined life at the Wartburg but retired to the family castle at Marbourg-Hess, with a suitable income and what was left of her dowry, which was negligible.

Father Conrad, her spiritual director, wrote concerning this time, "After the death of her husband, she was tending to the highest perfection and asked me how she could acquire more merit, as a recluse or in a convent or in some other state. Her mind was fixed on her desire to beg from door to door, and with many tears she implored me to let her do this." Instead, he ordered her to keep her possessione and to use them for the poor. She was permitted to join the Third Order of Saint Francis, being the first woman to do so, and her two faithful companions followed her.

At that time the Third Order was known as the "Brothers and Sisters of Penance" and it was much stricter than it is now. The members wore rough habits, recited the canonical hours, fasted most of the year and abstained from meat four days a week. Elizabeth was perfectly comfortable with these penances and she made her vows on Good Friday, renouncing everything. Her children were put in the care of others. Hermann went to Kreuzburg Castle to be trained as Landgrave and the two girls were sent to convents.

It is not surprising that King Andreas sent for his daughter to return to the comfort of Hungary. She sent him this message: "Tell my father that I am happier here than in any castle. Ask him to pray for me and to ask the court to do so also. Tell my good father that I will always pray for him."

Her father attempted a second time to convince her to come by sending his trusted knight, Walter de Varila, who tried to bring her home. As a final act of renunciation, Father Conrad ordered Elizabeth to send away her two faithful maidservants, who had been her only human consolation. He replaced their companionship with a rough ill-mannered peasant girl and an old deaf woman.

In November of 1231, Father Conrad was at the point of death. His main concern was the care of Elizabeth's soul. She assured him with these words: "Dear Father, I shall have no need for protection. It is not you who will die, it is I."
On Pentecost Sunday, 1235, only four yearsafter her death, Elizabeth was canonizedby Pope Grégory IX.

Four days later, Elizabeth was stricken with a fever. When the news got around that she was mortally ill, crowds came to see her. For twelve days there was a steady flow of visitors. Finally she asked that the doors be closed so she could be alone with God to prepare her soul.

Father heard her confession and gave her Viaticum. Guda and Isentrude, her friends, came to say goodbye, and she gave them her most treasured possession, the cloak of Saint Francis. As the midnight hour approached, her joy and happiness increased, and she said:

"At this hour did the Virgin Mary bring into the world its Saviour. Let us speak of God and the Infant Jesus, for it is now midnight, the hour in which Jesus was bom and laid in a manger, and that He created a new star, which had never been seen before; at this hour He came to redeem the world; He will redeem me also; at this hour He rose from the dead, an
d delivered the imprisoned souls; He will also deliver mine from this miserable world."
After a pause she resumed: "O Mary, come to my assistance! The moment has arrived when God summons His friend to the wedding feast. The Bridegroom seeks His spouse... Silence!... Silence!"

This was the night of November 19, 1232; she was not yet twenty-four years old. An old manuscript relates that her daughter, little Gertrude, four years old and far away in Marbourg, said, "I hear the passing bell at Marbourg; at this moment the dear lady, my good mother, is dead." In the tattered robe in which she died, Elizabeth was buried at her own request in the chapel of the hospital that she had founded.

Shortly after her death, Father Conrad drew up a detailed account of Elizabeth's life, her virtues and miracles, to begin the Church's juridical investigation of her holiness.

For death did not terminate Elizabeth's acts of charity to those in need. The miracles she had hidden during her lifetime became manifest to all those who invoked her intercession, especially for those who prayed at her tomb. Reports substantiating 130 miracles attributed to the saint were sent to Rome for her canonization.

Not only were the sick cured and difficulties miraculously resolved but there were also documented resurrection miracles attributed to Saint Elizabeth. They attest to her astonishing intercessory power and her great compassion for bereaved parents whose children have died. On five known occasions, children were restored to life because their parents prayed to this wonderful saint, usually making a vow of almsgiving in her honor.

On Pentecost Sunday, 1235, only four years after her death, Elizabeth was canonized by Pope Grégory IX, in the presence of Ludwig's mother and two brothers, her dear friends Guda, and Isentrude, Walter de Varila, and her own children; Hermann, 14, Sophia, 12, and Gertrude, 8.
As a final touch to this story, at the transferring of her relics in 1236, Emperor Frederick came and laid his crown on her tomb, saying: "Since I could not crown her as Empress in the world, I will at least crown her today, immortal queen in the Kingdom of God."

Saint Elizabeth's life was an example of perfect conformity to the will of God and faithfulness to one's state in life. She was surrounded by riches, yet never let them distract her from love for the poor. She was deeply in love with a man who equally loved her in return, yet she never gave God second place in her heart. She had everything and needed nothing; what she received she freely gave away.

She was never bitter when the tide of fortune turned against her. She accepted the sorrow of her husband's death in a truly Christian manner and she welcomed her own with equal resignation.

Her story is not a legend, but a lesson for all to imitate. Whether you live in a castle or a tenement, Saint Elizabeth beckons you to follow her footsteps to the throne of God by accepting His will in your life. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, pray for us.


Blogger Kelly Joyce Neff said...

thank you for this, Chiara... I am speechless....
I see her image at every visit to St. Boniface, our local Franciscan church, and the National Shrine of St. Francis... and I always think 'what was it like for her, a queen, and a lay Franciscan?' Here is the heart of Elizabeth.
God bless you,

9:56 PM  

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