We remember Elizabeth of Hungary today. I must admit that I am not aware of the history of why Lutherans have selected this particular medieval woman for such official recognition. All I know is that she is admired for her self-sacrificing charity and generosity to others, and is one of the relatively few individuals commemorated in our Lutheran hymnal. You can find a brief text about her life here.
However, I was struck by one brief sentence (see the above link). After she was made a widow at the age of twenty, she "made provisions for her children and entered into an austere life as a nun in the Order of Saint Francis." Wow. Because she was married at the age of fourteen, the eldest of her three children could not have been any older than five or six. Yet she gave them into the care of someone else so that she could pursue austerity in a convent. Sorry, kids, Daddy is dead and Mommy is leaving. To top all that off, "Her self-denial led to failing health and an early death in 1231 at the age of 24."
To modern ears, Elizabeth's choices sound quite dreadful. They fly in the face of the priorities that we consider moral. As a mother myself, I find it hard to understand why she didn't wait until her little ones were grown.
The fact that Elizabeth's actions are considered proof of inspiring, saintly virtue shows that a cultural divide lies between her day and ours. The sanctity of the nuclear family was not a medieval value. Furthermore, the (Victorian?) idea that any decent woman would put her children first was not "obvious" to Elizabeth and her contemporaries. Nor did they recoil at a self-denial that we moderns would probably diagnose as dysfunctional or even a sign of mental illness (since it led to death).
There are, of course, many reasons for these differences, including the simple one that the nuclear family was not a sustainable unit in an era when death frequently winnowed out both parents and children. Besides, long-term life goals (such as a plan of entering a convent once one's youngest kid graduated from high school) would have been far more tenuous.
Despite all of my intellectual willingness to understand the values of Elizabeth's day, my emotions still balk at her choices (I can't help being from Twenty-First Century America). However, the beautiful thing is that Christians need not all belong to the same culture, live in the same way, or agree with each other's actions. It is good to be reminded sometimes that the many things I mentally categorize as being part of the "Christian life" are not perhaps ultimately important. What matters is not us and our culture and our Christian lifestyles, but Christ and the cross.
I am going to listen to this Issues, Etc. episode about her. Perhaps it will help me understand.
|St. Elizabeth of Hungary bringing food for|
the inmates of Wellcome.