By Denise Trull
I claim St. Elizabeth as one of my own patrons, as she was a special favorite of my maternal great grandmother, Elizabeth King, after whom I am named. I have a real and wonderful bond with my great grandmother, even though I never knew her in the flesh, because I received the wonderful blessing of inheriting her wedding ring.
She was a lovely, cultured woman by all my mother’s accounts. She was very Victorian in her sensibilities. When her daughter, my Grandmother Flossie, allowed my mom and her sisters to play loudly in the parlor, Grandmama Elizabeth would say, "Flossie, you are raising savages." But she couldn’t help smiling quietly as she shook her Victorian head and clucked her tongue over her knitting. She was an expert with an embroidery needle -- a master of the French knot. She baked wonderful cakes with inch high frosting, she cleaned and swept, and never had idle hands. She truly believed that idle hands were the devil’s workshop and she made sure to always have some little project for my mom and her sisters to work on. She was kind and affable company for my grandmother, who had been tragically widowed quite early in life. Grandmama Elizabeth understood. She too was a widow. Together they kept a happy home for three little girls.
One of her greatest joys was making exquisite paper roses of every color all year long -- hundreds of them -- to adorn the platform on which the Blessed Sacrament sat as it was carried through Quebec City on the feast of Corpus Christi. She was always there if the priests or the parish needed something done. She cooked food for the poor. She was, in short, that helpful, busy-handed lady who dwells in every parish.
By all accounts, she was an expert gardener. Her actual, real roses were enormous and smelled like heaven -- they were famous in the neighborhood. My mom remembered the smell. This is the very rose garden where my wedding ring received its distinctive ‘history.’ I like to remember the story as I spin the ring around my finger, through long habit, while thinking or praying.
Elizabeth was gardening one summer day and she lost her ring in the dirt. She looked all over and it was no where to be found. Then came the Quebec winter with all its snow and ice and wind and rain. She despaired of ever finding the ring again and put it out of her mind. Early the next spring as she was tilling the dirt around her rose bushes there it appeared -- plain as day -- under a bush gleaming in the sun as though it was just waiting there for her. She was overjoyed, as she had sadly lost her husband, my great grandfather, many years before and the ring was her greatest reminder that he was still there with her helping her navigate her sometimes lonely days and the uncertainties of old age. The ring was her link to his love. It is the best of stories and I tried my mother’s patience on many an occasion, begging her to tell me the tale “just one more time.”
Grandmama Flossie placed the ring into the safe-keeping of my mother when she died. And my mother gave the ring to me when I got engaged to my husband. It was slipped onto my finger on my wedding day, and I wear it with great joy. I added our own wedding date with the words "Cor Unum" on the inside of the band.
The outside is full of scratches and rub marks, now. I love them and would never polish them away. They carry the physical history of where I have been with my husband and children. Cooking, cleaning, pulling out laundry from the dryer, doing dishes at the sink -- all those myriad, busy, daily things. I like to think that some of the scratches belong to my Great Grandmother and maybe even a few from the ring's time in the dirt under the rose bushes.
I always think of this ring on the feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. My Grandmother seemed so very much like her. St Elizabeth, too, was to have a beautiful marriage and a loving, kind husband who was taken far too early. I like to imagine her having a golden ring upon her own finger as a reminder of his presence always. For although she was born into royalty, hers was far from a life of ease and comfort and company. She was a saint who carried the heavy cross of loneliness on her young shoulders.
When I was a girl I was enchanted by her. I was attracted by all the lovely pictures of her in beautiful, queenly attire with roses falling from her robes. She seemed the stuff of fairy tales to me. However, in later years, as I got to know her better, I began to see the reality of her sufferings but also the strength found in marriage to carry them.
Elizabeth was taken from her homeland Hungary, in 1211, at the very young age of four and brought, all alone, to a strange new court in Thuringia with completely different customs and ways of doing things. There she was left by her parents King Andrew II and his wife Gertrude. She would never see her mother again. To form an alliance between the two countries, Elizabeth was to marry the King’s son, and would be educated accordingly until she came of age.
When Elizabeth was six, she was told her mother had been murdered in one of the many intrigues surrounding the courts of kings. This affected her deeply and she began to pray and offer sacrifices for her mother’s soul. She also sought solace in her prayers, especially the consolation of Our Lady, her new mother, for she was deeply alone. All the ladies at court found her odd and they resented her foreign presence among them. As a very young and open hearted child, she had to endure feelings of being thought "other" and "strange" by this envious group of women who had been entrusted with her care. They laughed at her clothes, her simple ways, and most of all her attraction to prayer and sacrifice. They could not endure the thought that this odd little girl was one day to be their queen. It became a great weight of sorrow, especially for one as young and loving as she was to be shut out of their company. However, Elizabeth persevered in prayer and good works despite their constant smirks and caustic words. This kind of perseverance takes a will of iron and that she most certainly had under her sweet, very young ways.
Her one, shining consolation was the king’s son, Ludwig. Marriages of alliance never end up happily ever after -- or at least in most cases. But in His gentle graciousness, God was to give Elizabeth the strength and love she needed through the Sacrament of Marriage. From a very young age, Ludwig and Elizabeth were soul mates. They played together and talked quite comfortably about beautiful things. She grew stronger and more confident because of Ludwig’s love and friendship. They finally married in 1221, and their first days were filled with the romance of long rides in the woods, travels to towns, and wonderful parties in their honor, where young Elizabeth was a joyful, dancing presence to her people. Elizabeth grew happy and content in Ludwig’s love and they bore three lovely children together. This truly was the fairytale at last.
When Franciscan Friars eventually settled in the city, Elizabeth became intrigued. They told her the story of St. Francis and his love of poverty. Elizabeth was inspired by their stories to dress simply and to give away her jewels. She often went down into the town to feed bread to the poor she found there. She would secretly allow sick peasants to sleep in her bed and she tenderly took care of them. She prayed long hours and fasted most of the time. This soon annoyed and embarrassed the ladies at court. No queen should ever act in this outlandish, overwrought manner. Praying countless Rosaries was one thing, but acting like a peasant woman was another. They began to complain to Ludwig and to make fun of her.=
The women tried to get her in trouble once by accusing her of stealing things from the castle and giving them to the poor. Elizabeth did sell her own personal items, but never stole from the castle. One day the Ladies sent Ludwig down to the town to see for himself whether Elizabeth had stolen anything. Reluctantly, Ludwig went and asked to see what was in Elizabeth’s cloak. Instead of the loaves of bread she had taken from the kitchen to feed the poor, out flowed myriad of roses as a sign that God was pleased with her charity. Ludwig then knew that his wife was called to something greater than both of them.
This is where the glories of marriage shine through. By the specific graces of the Sacrament of Marriage, Ludwig became Elizabeth’s sword and shield even when confronted by his own court’s disdain and distrust. He defended her works of charity and joined in them when he could. It was said that during many a night, when he awoke, he found Elizabeth kneeling by the bed praying. He would reach out and hold her hands gently in his and join her there. He gave much of his money to help the poor of his kingdom and he defended Elizabeth’s simplicity with staunch loyalty. Her growth in sanctity was protected by his love. One could say she became a great saint because he championed her as a husband and did not get in the way of the graces God was sending to her. He was there to get her to heaven. And he knew she was doing the same for him.
I always like to glory in the fact that the Catechism proclaims marriage the greatest Sacrament of signification. No other Sacrament (except the Holy Eucharist) can top its signification -- Christ's love for His Bride the Church and the Church's love for her Bridegroom Christ. Ludwig and Elizabeth were visible signs of this strong and lasting love. They became saints through the working graces of marriage. Ludwig was Christ to Elizabeth, Elizabeth was his devoted Bride in return. They were beautiful signs to the world that marriage is powerful and efficacious. We might not have had SAINT Elizabeth without the love and loyalty of Ludwig as husband.
Sadly, in 1227, Ludwig died of illness on a military campaign far from his kingdom. Elizabeth was heard to say, “He is dead. He is dead. It is to me as if the whole world died today.” She left the castle after this, vowing never to remarry. She was to use her dowry to found hospitals and to take care of the sick with her own hands. In 1228, she became a member of the Third Order Franciscans and was free to live among the poor she loved. I can't help but wonder if that is where she found a true home at last in this strange land -- among the poor and simple. They had always loved her as Queen. Now they loved her more as one of their own.
It was Ludwig’s loyalty and help that had gotten her thus far. I can’t help but think that it was Ludwig’s prayers for her after his death that continued to give her strength to be who she was. I wonder sometimes if she did not turn her wedding ring around her own finger when she prayed by her bed at night, hoping Ludwig was there gently praying beside her in her lonely vigil. Elizabeth was to die at the young age of twenty-four. I cannot help but think Ludwig was there to escort his queen and wife to the never ending marriage feast of the Bride and her Champion Christ.
If we are ever tempted to think marriage is second best to greater vocations, that we are ‘just a mom’ or ‘just a dad’, then we can remember marriage makes saints, and great ones. We wives and husbands are signs of Christ’s love and loyalty working in the world -- the way we treat each other, the way we pray for each other and champion the things that make each other holy. It is a good practice to look down at our wedding rings once in a while to see all the nicks and wear of our years together. The joys, the sorrows, the challenges, the sadness sometimes -- all these being carried one for the other with grace through long years of life and even after death. The world sees it even though it will never tell us, and I think the world marvels at it. Marriage is indeed a magnificent Sacrament. Let us rejoice in it!
St. Elizabeth of Hungary and kind, holy Ludwig, pray for all married couples!