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St Elisabeth of Schonau

Feast day: 18 June

St Elisabeth of Schonau was born about 1129 of a family called Hartwig of the Middle Rhine. She was educated at the double monastery of Schonau in Nassau and made her profession as a Benedictine in 1147. In 1157 she became abbess of the nuns under the supervision of Abbot Hidelin. Ferdinand Wilhelm Emil Roth points out that only women of noble birth were promoted to spiritual offices in the Benedictine order, so it is likely Elisabeth was of high rank. She had performed works of piety from her youth and seems to have suffered both bodily and mentally. Her practices of mortification seem to have led to illness, depression and anxiety. Hildegard of Bingen admonished her in letters to be sensible about her asceticism.

In 1152 Elisabeth began to experience visions of various kinds. This was a year after Hildegard had published her first book of visions, the Scivias, a work which seemed to have influenced Elisabeth. Her visions generally occurred on Sundays and Holydays at mass or Divine Office, or after hearing or reading the lives of the Saints. Christ, Mary, an angel or the saint of the day would appear to her and instruct her, or she would see realistic scenes of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension or scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

Elisabeth put down what she saw on wax tablets. Her abbot, Hidelin, told her to relate these to her brother Eckebert, then a cleric at St Cassius in Bonn, who acted as editor. Elisabeth was reluctant, fearing she would be seen as a fraud, but she obeyed. Eckebert became a monk at Schonau Abbey and eventually succeeded Hidelin as second abbot. He arranged his sister’s material, putting three books entitled Visions. The first is written in very simple language and an unaffected style. The other two are more elaborate and contain a lot of theological terminology, so show more of the work of Eckebert.

In 1106, an old Roman cemetery was discovered outside Cologne and was believed to contain the remains of St Ursula and her 11,000 legendary companions. The discovery that the cemetery contained the bodies of men and children, as well as inscriptions on the tombstones, raised questions about the authenticity of the story of St Ursula. Elisabeth was asked to consult saints and angels, the results of which were compiled in a book entitled Book of Revelations on the Company of the Martyrs of Cologne. This work, which appears to be “...full of fantastic exaggerations and anachronisms” (Catholic Encyclopaedia), became the foundation of subsequent St Ursula legends. In spite of this St Ursula became a very popular saint and St Angela Merici called the Ursuline Order after her.

The Resurrection of the Blessed Virgin contains Elisabeth’s revelations about the Virgin Mary. On an occasion when she was full of frustration and fear, she wrote down an experience she had at mass, where Mary was being celebrated. She saw in the heavens “an image of a regal woman, standing on high, clothed in white vestments and wrapped with a purple mantle.” The lady then came close to Elisabeth and reassured her that she would not be harmed by the things that frightened her. After communion she went into a trance and declared: “I saw my Lady standing beside the altar, in a garment like a priest’s chasuble, and she had on her head a glorious crown.” She also saw Mary acting as intercessor with her Son to hold back his anger.

The Book of the Ways of God seems to be an imitation of the Scivias of her friend Hildegard. It contained admonitions to priests who are unfaithful to their flocks, to monks who are avaricious and worldly, and to church leaders who are undutiful. She condemns the heresy of the Cathars and supports the anti-Pope Victor IV against Pope Alexander III.

One vision puzzled Elisabeth’s brother Eckebert. She saw the virgin emerging with the sun surrounding her on all sides, her brilliance illuminating the whole earth. A dark cloud appeared which Elisabeth said was “extremely dark and horrible to see”. Elisabeth’s interpretation, coming from the angel who often accompanied the vision, was that the virgin represented Christ’s humanity and that the cloud was the anger of God. The brightness indicated that he had not stopped watching over the earth. Eckebert was confused about the Lord’s humanity being represented by a female figure but Elisabeth did not change her view of the apparition. It is interesting that a later visionary, Julian of Norwich, talked about Christ as our Mother.

Elisabeth also had a vision of the Assumption of Our Lady. She saw a tomb surrounded by a bright light, with a woman inside and angels surrounding it. After some time the woman rose with the multitude and was met by a glorious man descending from Heaven. The angel told her that this was Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into heaven. While this vision was never accepted by the Catholic Church, it confirmed in many people’s minds what had already been written about in many languages, concerning what happened to the Mother of God at her death. The doctrine of the Assumption was only defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

There is a great diversity of opinion about Elisabeth of Schonau’s revelations. Elisabeth herself was convinced of their supernatural character and so was her brother. Others, including her biographer FWE Roth, did not believe in them, though he admired Elisabeth. He felt the cloistered environment, in which she lived under a strict rule, could contribute to an overactive imagination. The church never passed any ruling on Elisabeth’s visions or even examined them.

Elisabeth died in 1164. She was buried in the abbey church of St Florin but because she was venerated as a saint her bones were reburied in 1420 and 1430 in a special chapel. The chapel was destroyed in the great fire of the Schonau Abbey in 1723 and was not rebuilt. During the Thirty Years War (1619-1648) Swedish and Hessian soldiers attacked Schonau monastery, broke into Elisabeth’s grave and scattered the bones. Only the skull was saved, which is preserved in a reliquary on the right side of the altar of the church. The parish of St Florin Schonau Monastery celebrates the traditional Elisabethenfest ("Elizabrth-feast") each year on 18 June.

Elisabeth was consulted by a wide variety of people, including learned men. One monk from Busendorf came to meet with her in order to have a better understanding of her visions and came away deeply impressed by what God was doing with this abbess. Her asked her for a letter and she duly responded, giving the abbot of Busendorf advice about governing his monks and living one’s life for God, rather than being sidetracked by worldly affairs. Elisabeth also wrote to powerful men, for example the Archbishop of Trier to chide him for not passing on her divine message of condemnation to the people of Rome. She threatened him with retribution on the final judgement day. She obviously believed herself to be communicating God’s will through her mystical experiences.

“Do not delay serving your God. Walk in the way of his contemplation, like a beloved daughter with every humility and love and obedience; without murmuring, without detraction, without envy and similar things but like young lambs pleasing to the living God." (Elisabeth of Schonau)

St Elisabeth of Schonau, pray for us.