Saint of the Day – 18 June – Saint Elisabeth of Schönau (1129-1164) Abbess, Mystic, Ascetic, Writer, Spiritual Adivisor – born in 1126 in Bingen, Germany and died on 18 June 1164 at Bingen, Germany of natural causes.
In the mid 12th century, Elisabeth of Schönau blurred the conventional gender roles of the time, through the dissemination of her astonishing visions. Elisabeth lived during a time when women were viewed as the weaker sex, both mentally and physically. Unless a woman were to join a convent or a religious movement, she would be expected to marry and to bear children. Elisabeth of Schönau, however, was far from powerless, as her visions led her to acquire enough fame to be known far and wide. Elisabeth became, not only a local celebrity as a result of her visions but, gained popularity throughout other parts of Germany, as well as in France and England. This enabled Elisabeth to have her own voice, to be known as an individual and to be sought after in an effort to acquire heavenly advice by high order men, including Bishops and Abbots. For men of such high order to call upon Elisabeth, a mere woman, is extremely significant given the time period in which Elisabeth lived. Elisabeth’s visions, as well as her twenty-two letters to Bishops, Abbots and Abbesses, enabled her to transcend the traditional gender roles of the time by making her widely known and giving her an individual voice.
Elisabeth was born about 1129, of an obscure noble family named Hartwig. At the age of 12 she was given to the nuns for education in the St Florin double abbey founded a few years earlier. At the age of 18 she entered the women’s Congregation. She made her profession as a Benedictine in 1147. In 1157 she became Abbess of the nuns under the supervision of Abbot Hildelin.
Her hagiography describes her as given to works of piety from her youth, much afflicted with bodily and mental suffering, a zealous observer of the Rule of Saint Benedict and of the regulation of her convent and devoted to practices of mortification. In the years 1147 to 1152 Elisabeth suffered recurrent disease, anxiety and depression as a result of her strict asceticism. St Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) Doctor of the Church admonished Elisabeth in letters to be prudent in the ascetic life. St Hildegard here: https://anastpaul.com/2018/09/17/saint-of-the-day-17-september-st-hildegard-von-bingen-osb-1098-1179-doctor-of-the-church/
At Pentecost in 1152, she first had spiritual experiences of a visionary nature, which she and the nuns and monks understood as the authentic message of God. These generally occurred on Sundays and Holy Days at Mass or Divine Office or after hearing or reading the lives of Saints. Christ, the Virgin Mary, an angel, or the special Saint of the day would appear to her and instruct her; or she would see quite realistic representations of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, or other scenes of the Old and New Testaments.
She died on 18 June 1164 at the age of only 35 and was buried in the St Florin Abbey Church. It is extremely remarkable that she was not buried in the Monastery cemetery or in the Chapel of the nuns but in a prominent place in the Abbey Church itself. This was unusual and testifies to absolute acceptance of her mystical life, writings and deep veneration. There has never been a formal Canonisation process (pre-congregation) but every year on the day after her death, that is, on 19 June her memory is celebrated in the Monastery and surrounding towns. It was not until the late 16th century that she was officially included in the list of Saints at the request of the Archbishop of Mainz and the monks of Schönau (Martyrologium Romanum).
What Elisabeth saw and heard she put down on wax tablets. Her Abbot, Hildelin, told her to relate these things to her brother Eckbert, then a cleric at Saint Cassius in Bonn, who acted as an editor. At first she hesitated fearing lest she be deceived or be looked upon as a deceiver but she obeyed. Eckbert (who became a Monk of Schönau in 1155 and eventually succeeded Hildelin as second Abbot) put everything in writing, later arranged the material at leisure and then published all under his sister’s name.
While this relationship between brother and sister allowed for Elisabeth’s wide broadcasting of her visionary experiences, it is evident that Eckbert attempted to have a degree of authority over Elisabeth. Elisabeth’s response to Eckbert’s efforts regarding certain visions is just one example of how Elisabeth’s actions blurred the conventional gender roles. The works are published in English in a Collected Works edition.
Schönau Monastery is a popular place of pilgrimage today. The Franciscan Minor Monastery is picturesquely situated in the Saale Valley in a river arch on the Franconian Saale. Steep mountain slopes flank the Monastery and the small town of Schönau.