Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Alien Sainthood

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.


  1. Yes, that is a hard one to understand. Yet I wonder how much, as someone in her station, would have seen of her children to begin with. I don't know a lot of her history other than the short things I've read or heard, but she might not have been with them much. A lot of saints commemorated were never married intentionally, we could understand that as despising marriage. I think there are many poor decisions, teaching etc we could find in every saint we remember.

    I choose to use saints as teaching points in our family, always pointing my children to the goodness of Christ not merely of the particular saint. I can uphold certain works as good examples and I can also show bad theology behind their actions. The disciples of Christ, the patriarchs of the old testament....not great guys, but we remember, teach and honor them.

    You're right to question. I guess I would say discretion and discernment is always to be used when teaching on the saints and of course, thankfully we're free to remember them or not. Just some of my thoughts on the issue.

    1. I really wish I knew why she is in the hymnal when so few other saints are (maybe that Issues, Etc. podcast will help? need to listen to it). As you say, Christians of the past can be approached in the same way as people from the Bible: fellow sinners, saved by grace, who may have belonged to an alien culture.

  2. Alien culture is a good term for it. Our culture can be very "child-centric" which can be ok in certain amounts but also can be detrimental and which I think may be quite alien to cultures of the past. I have wanted to do more research on that topic, children/family/parenting throughout history, would be interesting.

    But the issue of why our Lutheran church commemorates certain saints is one I certainly wonder about but am not qualified to answer but a good question! Tradition maybe? My husband raised an eyebrow over Henry Melchior Muhlenberg being on the calendar because he was a pietist, but as one of the first lutheran pastors to the American coloinies I figured he was worth noting and we could overlook that. :)

  3. I think she is in our calendar for popularity and ethnic reasons, which I don't mind. Here's a little statement from my blog about reasons she might have entered the monastery: "She had suffered a lot in her short life--her mother had been murdered, her oldest child died young, and she was widowed when she was 8 months pregnant. Her father confessor, after her husband died, put pressure on her to enter the convent (and initially her children came with her). This may have partly been for her protection, since many in court resented the royal couple's generosity, and the to-be king was only 5 years old." So the reasons might have been class related/political, not just cultural or religious.

    A Christian fulfilling her vocation as queen I LOVE is Margaret of Scotland, even though she's not in our calendar

    1. Interesting! I heard also that she did not want to be forced into a second marriage by her relatives (although it's hard to say if this was because of a Catholic preference for celibacy or a personal disinclination for the available husbands).


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