Friday, July 08, 2011

St Elizabeth of Portugal

OK, so here's another observance not in the Episcopalians' calendar.

However, unlike Thomas More, I had never before heard of St Elizabeth. How did she make it on to my blog?

This evening I felt a real desire to have evening prayer; whereas I have been feeling fairly disinterested and passionless, even sometimes thinking of the office as a chore, tonight I really felt called to enter into intentional meditation. We are right in the middle of a two-week period nearly unbroken by the observance of any special feast, with the exception of St Benedict of Nursia coming up on Monday. My own made-up discipline calls for music and incense only on feast days, and I was missing that particular vehicle for creating a sense of the immanence of the divine. So I decided to look to the list of proposed new feasts for the calendar (to be approved next year), but nothing for today.

Then I turned to my copy of the 1962 Roman Missal (one of my favorite resources), and saw that the appointed feast in the Catholic tradition is St Elizabeth. "Well, that's odd," I thought, since I was pretty sure that St Elizabeth is in our calendar, too. I turned to Lesser Feasts & Fasts and saw that, yes, St Elizabeth of Hungary is venerated on November 21. So I went back to the Missal for a closer look: ah, this is Elizabeth of Portugal, who was named for her great aunt, Elizabeth of Hungary. "Neat," I thought. As I read further, I saw that, after she was widowed, the queen took the veil and entered the order of the Poor Clares, the Franciscan order for women founded by St Clare of Assisi. That would be the same St Clare of Assisi whose prayer book I am using this week. Whoa.

After all this, I decided I didn't really want to bother with music and incense, so I just settled in and began. The texts were wonderful; I'll touch on them below. But the really weird thing? The "prayer of the saints" in the St Clare Prayer Book for Friday evening was written by...Elizabeth of Hungary. (Cue Twilight Zone music.) Chills.

I have had similar experiences before, when saints just sort of randomly decided to reach out of the ether and catch my attention. I will spend some more time this evening meditating on why I think this happened tonight. It is interesting; before I began evening prayer I remember thinking, I'm so tired of my prayer discipline becoming so rote, I need one of those rare spiritual experiences that keep me coming back. And, voila.

So let's talk about those texts. One of the interesting things about this St Clare Prayer Book is that each section of morning and evening prayer for a seven-day week opens with a form of confession using a portion of Psalm 51, the first half of the psalm for the morning, and the first verse followed by the second half in the evening. I had thought maybe this would be the focus for tonight's meditation, but then the whole double-Elizabeth thing came up and so I've put that off, maybe for tomorrow.

Each section also opens with a brief Gospel sentence, to help us focus our intentions on the given theme for the day. This morning's Gospel sentence ("No one can be the slave of two masters; he will either hate the first and love the second, or be attached to the first and despise the second," Matthew 6:24) was actually taken from the selected Gospel passage for tonight (Matthew 6:22-27), which I don't think happens anywhere else in the book.

The Franciscans, of course, were devoted to holy vocational poverty; that is, they chose it. They rejected the idea of possessions (Francis himself is said to have asked to be allowed to die naked so that he could leave this world possessing absolutely nothing at all, but the brothers persuaded him instead, for modesty's sake, to borrow a brother's habit, and St Clare's rules for her order were initially rejected by the pope for being too severe), and so this theme of the corrupting power of wealth and materialism is naturally recurring in this prayer book.

The idea is not so much to suffer poverty for God's sake, but to embrace poverty in an exercise of trust that God will provide all you really need. In the context of tonight's Gospel reading, that opening sentence from this morning is immediately followed by, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" This is a core principle of Franciscan life.

Of course, Christians throughout history have found this a difficult, even impossible challenge to accept. Fear and doubt keep us worrying about all kinds of things, and hold us hostage. One of the most salient critiques of the biblical literalists is that hardly any of them even acknowledge, let alone obey, Christ's requirement that to follow him we must sell everything we own and give the money to the poor. I freely acknowledge my own fears on this point, which is why I feel it is important for me to come back frequently to St Francis, and confess my failures.

Where I have come in this process is a belief that truthfully I possess nothing. Everything belongs to God, but some things have been entrusted to me, for my benefit and use. However, I should always be mindful that nothing is mine and I should always be willing to part with anything I have for the sake of someone else who needs it. It's not quite living fully into the Gospel life, but it's as far as my fears allow me to go right now.

And so, back to Elizabeth of Portugal. She had an illustrious pedigree, great-great-granddaughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (also known as Red-Beard or "Barbarossa"), and became Queen of Portugal at the tender age of 12. Widowed at 54, she left the royal life and entered a convent, where she lived in voluntary poverty for eleven years, until her death.

This really speaks to me. I am always thinking about money, how my life might be easier or better or more interesting if I had more money. I think God asks us to accept that this is an illusion. A while back I was told I was being promoted and given a significant raise, but then one thing led to another and it all fell through the cracks. For many months I was just angry thinking about the money I should have been making. Eventually it worked itself out and I got my raise and, well, truthfully, I am no happier or less fearful than I was before the raise.

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