St. Elizabeth touched so many hearts by her generosity and holiness of life that she was canonized four years after her death. She was only 24 years old when she died in 1231. She was born in 1207, a daughter of the King of Hungary. When Elizabeth was 14 she was married to Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia. When she was 16 and two years into her marriage, she was deeply inspired by some Franciscan friars who had appeared on the scene (St. Francis was still living at the time). With the encouragement of her husband she took up charitable work and some of the disciplines of the religious life.
Louis of Thuringia died on his way to the Crusades when Elizabeth was 20. She then became even more ascetic and devoted to her work among the poor, spending money from her dowry and selling royal jewels to build a hospital. Along with St. Louis of France, she is a patron saint of the Third Order of Franciscans. And many hospitals have been named for St. Elizabeth: I can see one from my window.
We love to hear the stories of the saints, especially those like Francis and Elizabeth who worked among the poor and vulnerable. Vincent de Paul, Jeanne Jugan, Mother Teresa–a few of the famous ones. But there have been countless others who have given themselves over to good works, especially among the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the outcast.
Stories of goodness, of kindness and generosity can be quite moving—our eyes may tear up, we may get a lump in the throat, we may feel a tingling sensation. It can be stories about the lives of the saints; it can be stories in the newspaper; it can be something we experience ourselves. Something can come over us even in reading about or hearing about deeds of goodness and compassion.
I think that the something that comes over us is awareness, awareness of the presence of Christ. Christ is always present, but deeds of kindness and compassion have a way of making Christ’s presence seem more vibrant, somehow. Christ being the source of all compassion, when we enter the (how shall we put it?) force field of deeds of compassion, Christ’s presence becomes somehow more vibrant, more fragrant, more luminous.
These force fields of compassion (that is, Christ’s force field) can catch us off guard. I found myself getting teary a few days ago reading in the Boston Globe about a Christmas tree. Each year the people of Halifax, Nova Scotia send a large Christmas tree to the people of Boston. In 1917 there was an explosion in the harbor of Halifax that killed over 2000 people. The city of Boston responded by sending doctors, nurses and medical supplies by train, through a blizzard, to the devastated city. So, in gratitude, the citizens of Halifax began sending a Christmas tree to the city of Boston. After a break of some years, they began sending trees again in 1971 and have done so ever since. This year, as a tribute to victims of the Marathon bombing, a group of Nova Scotia marathon runners ran in front of the truck carrying the tree out of Halifax and, I believe, were to ride in a convoy to Boston and then run in front of it again as it entered the city.
Or, maybe you read the very touching story about the now famous Miles Scott: the five year old kid with leukemia in San Francisco who got to be Batkid for a day, thanks to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the cooperation of the police department, the local television station, actors, accomplices and thousands of spectators. Batkid and Batman spent the day going around the city rescuing people—even President Obama sent words of encouragement for the bravery of rescuing people from the Riddler and the Penguin and other evildoers.
Now the sheer goodness of all this has not just settled on one very happy little boy, but on the thousands who participated, and now the millions who have read about it or seen it on YouTube. This event, so full of goodness and grace, has generated a tremendous force field of compassion.
We celebrate the lives of the saints for good reason: they remind us of the possibility of goodness in this world. And the compassion of otherwise ordinary people reminds us of the possibility of goodness. People pretty much like us can make goodness real in the world—the goodness settles on us all, even in just hearing of things. And aren’t we desperate some days to hear about the possibility of goodness? And that this goodness is not only something of God, but something of our humanity?
Christ so often goes about his work in this world incognito, without the halo of a saint. “Where love is, God himself is there…” we sing in an ancient hymn. Ubi caritas… Christ’s works of compassion and goodness in this world are not limited to the saints and heroes of the faith. Christ’s work in this world is not limited even to those who are Christian. “Where love is, God himself is there…” Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms…” Give alms. Or send doctors and nurses and medical supplies to Nova Scotia. Or send a Christmas tree to Boston. Or give a little boy a Batkid suit. Or send doctors and nurses and medical supplies to the Philippines—that was in yesterday’s Globe. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” [Luke 12:32-34]
We may have the dowry of a king’s daughter or royal jewels to sell—or maybe not. Whatever our means, there is treasure waiting for us. We can get so caught up in our own concerns, we can become so self-absorbed, even in the most trivial things, that we can overlook it: but there is treasure waiting for us. There is treasure waiting for us just outside the door of our preoccupations; there is a force field of enormous power just beyond the door of our self-absorption. Christ, our treasure; our true treasure, Christ himself, bids us join him there in acts of kindness and generosity—great or small. He bids us meet him again in love made flesh.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. “Where true love and charity dwell, God himself is there…” [Hymnal 1982 #606; tr. Joyce Glover]
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