When It Came to the Faith, St. Elizabeth of Hungary Could Not Stand Compromise

“Elizabeth saw the contradictions between the faith professed and Christian practice,” said Benedict XVI. “She could not bear compromise.”

Francisco de Zurbarán, “St. Elizabeth of Thuringia,” ca. 1635-1640
Francisco de Zurbarán, “St. Elizabeth of Thuringia,” ca. 1635-1640 (photo: Public Domain)

Recently my garbage disposal decided to pursue its dream of being a geyser. Alas, this is not hyperbole, as evidenced by my plumber’s immediate response of “holy smokes” when I sent him a video of the pipes under my sink doing their best Old Faithful impression.

Sopping up water from the floor while my toddlers helpfully narrated the evening’s events from the counter, I had a prime chance to offer up my small misfortunes. I let the opportunity pass me right by. Instead, as often happens when an unexpected inconvenience pops up, the brunt of my thoughts went to calculating the potential cost of the repair, grumbling as I mentally moved items around in our budget. Fortunately, after a few moments of bemoaning the expense, I did regain my perspective, even if it took a bit longer than I’d like to admit.

Christ himself said that it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. I may not be in the higher echelons of income brackets, but the fact that my great dilemma was which holiday luxuries I may have to ease back on in order to repair a appliance that millennia of humans survived without, is telling. I am surrounded by material blessing upon blessing and yet the slightest blip was enough to render me annoyed and ungrateful, even if only for a few moments.

Perhaps this is why I find canonized monarchs to be such a miraculous gift. These holy men and women had all the odds of sanctity stacked against them and yet somehow they fixed their eyes on Christ, ignoring the mammon, and made it to Heaven.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary, whose feast day we celebrate Nov. 17, stands as a witness of this cohort in the Communion of Saints. Wed to King Ludwig of Thuringia as a teenager, St. Elizabeth grew up in the very center of European wealth in the 13th century. Although she was surrounded by money and influence, St. Elizabeth lived a life dedicated to serving the poor, often ignoring her own comfort, and even incurring the criticism of the court and the wrath of her in-laws, who disapproved of her altruism. When her beloved husband died in 1227, leaving her a 20-year-old widow and mother of three young children, she found herself impoverished and in exile. Despite her misfortunes, she never turned from her faith, instead gathering her remaining worldly possessions and using them to build a hospital, serving the poor and invalid until her death at the age of 24.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote of St. Elizabeth:

Elizabeth saw the contradictions between the faith professed and Christian practice. She could not bear compromise. Once, on entering a church on the Feast of the Assumption, she took off her crown, laid it before the Crucifix and, covering her face, lay prostrate on the ground. When her mother-in-law reprimanded her for this gesture, Elizabeth answered: ‘How can I, a wretched creature, continue to wear a crown of earthly dignity, when I see my King Jesus Christ crowned with thorns?’

I realize that being “uncompromising” is not in vogue these days. We live in an age where we are constantly told to “tolerate,” “be open,” and the list goes on. Compromise is indeed important, anyone who is married can attest to that, but in our time its meaning and importance have become distorted. We are not meant to compromise with our faith. We are not created to compromise the True or the Good. We are meant to seek it no matter how our circumstances seek to distract and discourage us. 

St. Elizabeth understood that it is total surrender to God, not compromise with the world, for which we should strive. Faced with the overwhelming grief of her husband’s death and the loss of her position, she entrusted all to God. Ignoring the judgment and mocking of her peers, St. Elizabeth lived a life of radical charity and hope.

I doubt there is much that St. Elizabeth would comprehend about the mechanisms of the 21st century. Garbage disposals would likely flummox her. But I can guarantee that regardless of her environment, her eyes would remain on her Creator, her mouth always praising him, and her hands never ceasing in doing the work for which he called her out of eternity to do. 

May we all strive to do the same.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary, pray for us!