If you ever have the opportunity to read Kathleen Norris’s book, The Cloister Walk, I highly recommend you skip directly to the chapter on the Virgin Martyrs. I know, sounds gloomy and pointless, but trust me. Ever since Norris got me to understand that the women of late antiquity who devoted themselves to celibacy and good works for the sake of Christ, were, by that very action, opting out of being baby-makers for the Roman Empire—saying “no” to fulfilling their societally prescribed destinies as wives and producers of laborers and soldiers—I have been filled with respect for these courageous women.
Like the Suffragettes after them, the Virgin Martyrs were singled out for the most brutal retaliations the state could concoct, which were often of a sexual nature—for instance, torturing, or even cutting off, their breasts. While the extra-judicial horrors visited upon the Suffragettes were administered out of the public eye, the Virgin Martyrs were tortured and killed in the Roman arena, “a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals” (1 Corinthians 4:9b).
This spirit of defiance of the social order continued amongst a number of wealthy, and often noble, women of the Middle Ages. Clare of Assisi defied her father, the Count of Sasso-Rosso, by following Saint Francis in the way of poverty and renunciation. Her protégé, Agnes of Prague, had the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II among her suitors, but rejected them all in favor of the monastic life. Among her many other works of mercy, Agnes founded a hospital—staffed by Third Order Franciscan men—for the poor and indigent of her city.
Elizabeth, daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, was married at the age of 14 to Ludwig IV, Landgrave of Thuringia and widowed at 20. Although the match was made for the political advantage of both families, Elizabeth and Ludwig seemed to have been of one mind about Elizabeth’s philanthropy and service to the poor. After Ludwig’s death, Elizabeth regained her dowry, and used the money to build a hospital where she herself served the sick.
During a famine and epidemic in 1226, Elizabeth sold her jewels and established a hospital where she nursed the sick, and opened the royal granaries to feed the hungry. After her husband’s death in 1227, his family, offended by what they called her “extravagances,” had her expelled from the city. Ultimately, they made an arrangement that gave her a stipend. Devoting the remainder of her life to nursing and charity, she was no “cut them a check” philanthropist; she made clothing for the poor with her own hands, and went fishing to feed them.
Following her death at the age of 24, Elizabeth became an icon of Christian charity. Canonized on 25 May 1235, she was an early member of the Third Order of St. Francis, (a fully independent and autonomous religious order and not, as some hagiographers have it, an organization of “lay associates”), and is today honored, along with King St. Louis IX of France, as its patroness.
If you’re looking for hands-on service opportunities, many cities have already posted a list online for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2023. My family regularly participated in MLK Day of Service when my children were growing up. One year, my six-year-old elder daughter and I signed up to play board games with kids at a homeless shelter in the city. It warmed my heart to see my girl bounce around the room, introduce herself, and say, “Can I play?” A couple years later, both my girls and I filled up our car with groceries from a local food collection site, and drove them in and unloaded them at the central agency in North Philadelphia. Check mlkdayofservice.org for listings of local opportunities.
Church youth groups, as we are discovering here at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Philadelphia, often attract more kids with service projects than they used to. In a time when kids are under so much pressure at school, and to excel at sports or other things that will look attractive to college admissions teams, church-based projects can give them a visible record of how what they’re doing with their spare time is affecting other peoples’ lives. My younger daughter even brought am eager-for-service high school friend who was eager to help at a local food bank on the day our parish youth group was scheduled to staff it. Even with all the pressure kids are under to do flashy things that will “look good on a college application,” it seems as though the coming generation is more interest-able in making the world a more just place for its own sake than even the most cynical amongst us might have ever believed.
Almighty God, by your grace your servant Elizabeth of Hungary recognized and honored Jesus in the poor of this world: Grant that we, following her example, may with love and gladness serve those in any need or trouble, in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[Collect for the Commemoration of Elizabeth of Hungary used with permission from Church Publishing.]