The Anglo-Portuguese Alliance is the oldest in the world still in force, dating back to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373. Over the centuries England and Portugal have enjoyed a close, though not always easy, relationship. This morning I found myself wondering whether St Elizabeth of Portugal (1271–1336), also known as Elizabeth of Aragon, whose feastday this is, may have something to teach us here in the U.K. that we badly need to learn.
It is fashionable nowadays to decry privilege. The mere fact of having gone to Oxford or Cambridge, for example, is often cited as a reason for distrusting people or heaping abuse upon their heads as a privileged elite, somehow remote from the struggles of ordinary life. It is even worse if one’s parents sent one to Eton. Then one is by definition a bully and a boor (which cannot be true of every Etonian, surely?). Elizabeth quietly reminds us that holiness is to be found among the rich and privileged as well as among the poor and disadvantaged. Her family produced a number of saints and was renowned for its religious fervour. She herself was named for her great-aunt, St Elizabeth of Hungary, whose charity was legendary. Of course, in the Middle Ages, it was much easier to become a saint if one had the right connections, so to say, although, statistically, even a queen was at a disadvantage compared with men, who became saints in much greater number. Elizabeth’s holiness was of the painful, often rather dreary variety. She put up with her husband’s endless infidelities and devoted herself to the service of the sick and the poor — not the nice, sanitized sick and poor of Victorian imagination but the smelly, dreadful reality of her times. She was faithful in her attendance at Mass and the celebration of the Divine Office. But it is as a peace-maker that she stands out.
The complicated politics of the day were made yet more difficult by the fact that the parties involved were often closely related by ties of blood. During the civil war between her husband, Denis, and their son, Afonso, Elizabeth acted as intermediary. It is said that at one point in 1324, she climbed onto a mule and stood between their opposing armies to prevent their killing one another. That took courage of a high order. It wan’t to be the last time she intervened between feuding family members. Her granddaughter, Maria, was married to Alfonso XI of Castile, who proved a brutal and negligent husband. (It seems to have been something of a trait in royal husbands of the time.) The marriage which had been intended to ease tensions between the two kingdoms simply added fuel to the fire and Afonso IV marched against Alfonso XI. Elizabeth, already ailing, rose from her sick-bed and travelled to Estremoz where she succeeded in making peace. The effort is widely credited with having killed her, for she died shortly afterwards, still in Estremoz.
So, what we can learn from this? First, I think it is good to be reminded that privilege is not a barrier to holiness. All of us in the West are immensely privileged, not only the wealthy or well-educated. But we mustn’t be complacent. We are stewards of the gifts we have been given and one day will have to give account of them, just as the Benedictine must give an account of the tools of good works exercised in the monastery (cf RB 4). Then there is the fact that prayer and charity go hand in hand. Elizabeth’s service of the sick and poor stemmed from her daily practice of prayer and reception of the sacraments. ‘Doing good’ wasn’t a substitute for prayer, a kind of holy social service. No, prayer was the well-spring of her action. It provided both the impetus and the focus she needed to serve Christ in the person of the needy. Finally, and most importantly, there is her engagement in politics and her actions as peace-maker.
When a saint takes to politics, things tend to change. Perspective are altered; enemies begin to talk to one another; tensions are defused. There can be very few who do not think that that is ugently needed in the world today. It isn’t wimpish to talk about the need for peace and reconciliation. Even here in the U.K. we have seen enough divisiveness to last a lifetime. In the end we all have to have the courage to sacrifice something, or at least be prepared to sacrifice something, for a greater good. During these days when we remember the terrible carnage of the Somme, the long shadow cast by the Holocaust and the late Elie Wiesel’s relentless attempts to ensure we never forget, we would do well to spend a little time thinking about our own role in history, be it little or large. We are not mere cyphers. When St Elizabeth of Portugal rode out between those opposing armies she must have wondered whether she would be their first target. To make peace, one must be prepared to be broken, to fail, to have one’s name covered with ignominy. When Jesus Christ made peace by the blood of his cross, was he really as confident of his ultimate triumph as we often assume? Wasn’t there a huge risk, but one he was prepared to take for our sakes?