Elizabeth the New Martyr vs. Hildegard of Bingen

In case you lost track (again?), today is FRIDAY. The only thing that really means is that this is the final Lent Madness battle of the week! We finish things up with Elizabeth the New Martyr facing Hildegard of Bingen for a shot at Brother Lawrence, one of the Cinderellas of Lent Madness 2020.

Yesterday, Joanna the Myrrhbearer slipped past Bartimaeus 65% to 35% She'll face Joseph in the Elate Eight.

We'll be back first thing Monday morning for the last matchup of the Saintly Sixteen as Elizabeth Fry and Clare of Assisi vie for the final spot in the Elate Eight. Stay safe out there, everyone, and go vote!

Elizabeth the New Martyr

Elizabeth Fyodorovna was no stranger to tragedy. In tragedy she bears witness.

In the wake of her husband’s assassination, it is reported that she requested to the Czar that the murderer not be condemned to death. When the Czar refused, Elizabeth went to visit and pray with the man in prison where he awaited his sentence. This gesture of forgiveness is also seen in the cross she set up as a memorial to her husband. Taking a cue from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, the cross was inscribed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

After her husband’s death, she divested herself entirely of her wealth, with much of it going to charities. She did not even keep her wedding ring. After his death the only jewelry she ever wore was a simple wooden cross suspended by a white ribbon. She abandoned a life of wealth and prestige to go, in her words, “into the greater world, the world of the poor and afflicted.”

She established the Mary and Martha Home because the two women together embodied faithful discipleship. Attention and devotion to Christ would always be accompanied by service to the community, especially to those who are most vulnerable. She described the work of the convent as follows: “We read the newspapers here, we keep track of events and we receive and consult with people in active life. We are Marys, but we are Marthas as well.”

Elizabeth worked tirelessly. In addition to the duties of running the convent, she would regularly visit the houses that she founded for people sick with tuberculosis and be present with those who were ill. One of her biographers wrote that “she never once flinched from their embraces.”

When the revolution started, Elizabeth hoped it would refine her family and bring them nearer to God. When the revolutionaries came to arrest her in her convent she is reported to have calmly replied, “If you want to arrest me I shall have to go with you, of course. But I have a rule that before I leave the convent for any purpose I always go into the church and pray. Come with me into the church, and after I have prayed I will go with you.”

Elizabeth was ultimately exiled and then murdered with other members of the royal family. Buried alive in an abandoned mineshaft, until the end she continued as Mary, singing hymns to God and as Martha, tending to the wounds of those with her.

David Creech

Hildegard of Bingen

Terra viriditatem sudat / The earth sweats greenness. -- Hildegard of Bingen

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, and as many of us self isolate in our homes and apartments for fear of catching and spreading this virus, I’m struck by the relevance of Hildegard of Bignen’s writings in science and medicine. Primarily across two works, Physica and Causae et Curae, Hildegard drew from her experience shuttling between her monastery’s herbal garden and infirmary, ultimately sharing insights on human health and flourishing that continue to fascinate medievalists and even a few medical doctors today. 

One of Hildegard’s unique contributions to medicine and theology is her use of the term ‘viriditas’ which is roughly translated as greenness, vitality, freshness and new life. For Hildegard, this was both a medical and theological term. Observing the way that the land around her couldn’t help but ‘sweat greeness’ and new life, she connected this to the ‘new life’ of human health and flourishing that was to be found in Christ. There is a medieval inevitability to this vision. For Hildegard, it’s clear that God desires all creation to flourish, and the sending of God’s Son is part of this greening of all creation. Human health and vitality -- our own version of greenness -- is an outcome of reconnecting to God’s desire for all creation. 

As exalted as this theological vision is, Hildegard was also practical in laying out her medical insights. Famously, Hildegard drew a connection between gardening and medicine, arguing in Causae et Curae that one could attend to and manipulate the humors of the body in the same way an excellent gardener might manipulate elements of a garden to achieve a vibrant row of herbs. Again, Hildegard was linking the garden to the infirmary, connecting human flourishing to the flourishing of the medicinal herbs she and her fellow nuns in the monastery were growing. And while today we’d likely object to cures based in humoral theory, Hildegard is credited with observing how human health is the outcome of many elements that exist in complex, dynamic relationships with one another.

And it’s these dynamic relationships that I am thinking about today as many of us ‘shelter in place’ so as to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For the first time in over a century, love of neighbor demands that as many of us self isolate as possible so as to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19. For me this has resulted in a unique opportunity to reflect on what I need for flourishing. Not much in the way of things, as it turns out, except that I’m finding I do need as much nature as possible. 

With her constant shuttling between the garden and infirmary, I suspect Hildegard of Bignen wouldn’t be surprised to hear that my health is requiring me to take long, socially-distant walks in the park with my dog. I suspect she also wouldn’t be very surprised by my recent insistence on cooking all meals because of the way it puts me in physical contact with the colors and scents of fresh vegetables. ‘The earth sweats greenness’ Hildegard observed, and I’m more keenly aware now than ever how our spiritual and physical flourishing requires us to reconnect with that.

--Miguel Escobar

[poll id="292"]


* indicates required

Recent Posts



83 comments on “Elizabeth the New Martyr vs. Hildegard of Bingen”

  1. Had to vote for Elizabeth, the world needs more care from the wealthy so hold up her example!

  2. Another difficult choice today, but that's how Lent Madness goes. I voted for Elizabeth and her "both-and" view of Mary and Martha.
    I was confused a bit, though, about her singing in a mine shaft--was this before or after being murdered? Or was murdered by being thrown into the mine shaft to die???

    1. They viciously threw them in the mine shaft and threw some grenades after them I think? Elizabeth was able to help nurse some of the others who landed on a little ledge, so didn't fall all the way down the shaft. According to the biographies and Saint stories I read, the captors were frightened to hear the voices. I vote for Elizabeth, but is this how we vote or is there another link to vote?

    2. According to the first round bio, "she and her companions were cast into an abandoned mine shaft and grenades were thrown in after them. Witnesses reported hearing them sing hymns as they died." So presumably she was mortally wounded but not killed outright.

  3. Although Hildegard has been a mentor to me for years, I cast my vote for Elizabeth. In these times of greed and violence, she gave up her entitlement. In these times of pandemic, she nursed the sick. In these times of secular arrogance, she met the Bolsheviks in prayer. And like Bonhoeffer, she died for who she was. Elizabeth, even if you don’t win today. I bow before you in awe.

  4. I'm deeply moved by Elizabeth the New Martyr's compassion, forgiveness and faith, but I had to vote for the great Hildegard of Bingen--gardener, herbalist, abbess, scientist, physician, composer, theologian and more--a truly extraordinary woman and saint!

  5. David and Miguel did magnificent jobs expressing the nature of these extraordinary, brilliant, and courageous women. Exemplary votes either way. Make your choice.

  6. Starting with today's Saints choices this is the first time that I have decided to not vote to eliminate anyone.
    Simply, because in daily seeing the world's tragedies, health professional's sacrifices, political blunders, my heart isn't in moving one saint over another, voting for the one who in my opinion shines brighter. Over the years it has been great fun to make those decisions as it will continue to be for many. Maybe, I will be back in with you next year. Happy Lent. Hjalmer

  7. My vote is for this beautiful woman who gave up her royal luxuries for Christ.
    Such a tragic end to her story too. I love gardening but this Elizabeth is my saint.

  8. I will keep to my promise and vote for the Elizabeth whenever I can even though my original bracket with all 4 of them is kaput.

    1. I’ve also had that thought; but, like many folk etymologies, the derivation from “vir” adds a dimension nonetheless.

    2. Well, now you force me to actually check the etymology. According to etymologeek, the word is from "vireo," the greenfinch, a European bird not native to north America. The English word is "verdant," so ver, not vir. Whenever I see a "vir" word in Latin, I assume that is the root. Drat these stubborn facts. Still, language is multivalent. I call upon Nietzsche as my warrant for all etymologies however divergent from banal accuracy. (Thank you for the new information though!)

  9. Are either of these saints pictured on the scorecard printout? I'm trying to put the names underneath them as I recognize them.

    1. I don't believe so. The scorecard printout picture is some of the Dancing Saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa (San Francisco, CA) and neither of today's saints are listed as being pictured.

      Although many of the names on the list will be familiar from past Lent Madness matchups, the only Dancing Saint on the bracket this year is Patrick, I believe, and he got KO'd in the first round.

  10. As the mother of a trans son, I can't vote for Hildegard because of her attitude toward queer people. I hadn't known of this before the original vote, and I'm saddened because I had always admired her, but it sullies her legacy for me.

    1. Wendi, as the mother of a bisexual son, I can understand how discomfiting it is when one discovers that heretofore-admired saints held views that I find unpalatable in this day and age. However, in my 82+years I have learned not to expect 21st century understandings, enlightenment, and attitudes from people who lived in the first one-and-a-half millenia.

  11. I like Hildegard for the "Greening" aspect during this time of climate change [plus I love growing herbs and learning of their medicinal qualities] but ironically though the writer on Hildegard specifically mentioned COVID19 it was the note on Elizabeth that caught my attention: she would embrace patients with tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease . In this time of social distancing, I, as an emergency physician, must touch my patients, even those suspected of having COVID19, [with gloves and mask of course!] Elizabeth gets my vote

  12. This was a difficult one for me to vote on but as a pharmacist I went with Hildegard.
    However, Elizabeth’s Mary Martha Houses spoke to me as well as her emulation of Christ with regards to her husband’s murderer, her use of her wealth & the way she continue to care for others even unto death.