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​In the world to bring divine light

A painting by Pietro Nelli (1365)

A parlour in a Benedictine monastery on a weekday morning. The bright light of the mountain sun shone on a few sheets of paper that the Mother Prioress had just put in to my hands to accompany me on a special journey. I could not resist and started reading them immediately, making a discovery: on 28 January 1932 in Zurich a 41-year-old woman, Edith Stein, was preparing to speak of another woman, Elizabeth of Hungary, who had died seven centuries earlier at the age of only 27; and she did so moreover with an intelligence and depth that takes today’s reader into another world, into the timeless dimension of God’s grace at work. “The deeper one is drawn into God”, she wrote to Sr Callista Kopf, the young German philosopher baptized a few years previously, “the more one must ‘go out of oneself’”, in a certain sense, “that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it”. It is perhaps because of this ‘coming out’ of self that the two saints, separated by centuries, find themselves working side by side in the darkness of the world. The dust and wind of Westerbork, awaiting the death of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as a daughter of the Jewish people snatched from the Carmel of Echt; poverty and sickness without remedy for the very young Elizabeth, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary.

A descendent of Charlemagne on her mother’s side, the princess seemed to be destined for a life at court. Born in 1207, having moved from Hungary to Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, the young Hungarian was betrothed to Ludvig iv of Thuringia, a descendent of a very noble family. Edith Stein wrote, “All the facts reported about St Elizabeth, all her words that have come down to us reveal only one thing: she had a burning heart, a heart which through her faithful, tender and delicate love, ravished everyone’s heart. A heart overflowing with love”. Indeed, the Holy Spirit had other plans for this young woman. Intolerant of the injustices she saw perpetrated at the expense of the poorest, incapable of conforming to the false etiquette of a noble life but above all completely enflamed with love for the Eucharist, Elizabeth, by then the mother of three children and a very young widow, left Wartburg Castle and on Good Friday in 1228, at the age of 21, “placed her hands on the bare altar of the Franciscan church of Marburg” and began to live according to the ideal of St Francis. An “ardent and merciful love that was open to all the wretched and all the afflicted”, infecting all who approached her, and a spontaneous, almost childlike joy were the two traits that never left her during her life on earth. She would offer the poorest children a few simple toys, Edith Stein tells us, and then stay to play with them. In a short time they were all calling her ‘mamma’ and she would repeat: “I always told you, we only need to make the poor happy!”.

  St Elizabeth of Hungary in a portrait by the Flemish painter Jan Provoost;

In Elizabeth, the foundress of a hospital for the most wretched, according to Stein a natural “spontaneity” and a “ruthless struggle against her own temperament” seemed to coexist: in other words “a lovable saint of the freshest happiness, so seductive by her nature, and at the same time an austere ascetic”. Under the spiritual direction of Corrado of Marburg, to whom she was obedient until her death, Elizabeth learned little by little to dominate her own nature and to temper, at least in part, her will. In the last three years of her life she was to stay in her hospital beside the sick and the poor, seeing to the humblest tasks and remaining until late at night with those “who were too weak and tired to go home”. It is difficult not to take a forward leap through the centuries to reread the valuable testimony of a certain Mr Marcan who was imprisoned with Edith Stein in Westerbork in 1942: “Sr Benedicta passed among the women like an angel of consolation, lifting some, treating others. Many mothers”, the eye-witness continues, “seemed to have fallen into a state of prostration bordering on madness: they lay there moaning, as if dazed, abandoning their children. Sr Benedicta immediately took care of the smallest children, washed them, combed them, found them food and the necessary care”.

It was Edith Stein herself who revealed to her spiritual director an impressive detail about the obedience of the young Hungarian princess: “On one point only she never completely yielded: to keep with her, in addition to her service in the hospital, a little boy affected by a particularly horrible disease and to be the only one to take care of him”. Corrado of Marburg reported personally to Pope Gregory IX that at Elizabeth’s death a boy sick with scabies “was still there, sitting at her bedside”. Edith Stein concludes that Elizabeth of Hungary, “raised to this complete humanity, a pure expression of liberated nature and transfigured by the force of grace”, was to become a saint, canonized in 1235, only two years after her death.

Ferdinando Cancelli



Ferdinando Cancelli

Born in Turin in 1969, after classical studies he hesitated between letters, history and medicine. Having become a doctor, he obtained a post graduate diploma in palliative medicine at the Claude Bernard University in Lyon, France and a preparation in bio-ethics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. After spending a period as Chef de clinique at the Hôpital de Bellerive, Geneva, he became a palliative doctor in Turin for the non-profit f.a.r.o. Foundation. Married to Clara in 1997, he shared with her the path to becoming a secular oblate of the Mater Ecclesiae Abbey on the island of San Giulio and owes much to his monastic family. For women church world he wrote the history of Julian of Norwich (November 2015).




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