Feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary
The spinning wheel is, for us, a cultural artifact from a time before the Industrial Revolution. But for much of history in many parts of the world, spinning wheels were not only necessary household tools but carried significant symbolic meaning. In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, heroines are commanded to spin straw into gold or unwittingly prick their fingers on enchanted spindles. In India, Gandhi mobilized the already rich cultural associations between the spinning wheel and the manufacture of homespun cloth, transforming spinning into a spiritual practice and an act of Indian resistance to British rule. And in Byzantine icons of the Annunciation, the blessed Virgin Mary is often depicted holding a spindle and distaff – the ancient equivalent of the spinning wheel. Legend holds that she was one of the young women privileged with the task of spinning the yarn that would be woven into the great veil of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The solitary act of spinning was a small but crucial component in an interdependent, pre-Industrial economy, linking the inner room, the domestic sphere, with the public marketplace. Raw sheep’s wool or flax fiber cannot be woven, dyed, tailored or worn as clothing without the slow and steady hand of the spinner at her wheel. It was lowly, tedious work, overwhelmingly relegated to the female poor.
Princess Elizabeth of Hungary is known to have spent considerable time at a spinning wheel – not at the command of a wicked king or evil stepmother, but out of humble solidarity with the poor and a passion for that characterized her brief, beautiful life. She died on this day in 1231, at the age of 24.
A moment in that brief life is imagined by the Austrian painter Marianne Stokes.In Stokes’painting we see a very young Elizabeth, probably not yet fourteen, the age at which she was married to her betrothed Prince Ludwig of Thuringia. She is seated in a room in his family castle at Wartburg, where she has lived since the age of four. Before her three children were born, before she came into contact with Franciscan missionaries, or became a widow by the age of 20, before she gave away her dowry building hospitals in which she personally cared for the sick, before she died of exhaustion at the age of 24, there was this simple girl – seated humbly at a spinning wheel. To my eye, the painting seems to depict a moment of personal decision and resolve. Elizabeth’s vibrant red and green dress, embroidered with gold, stands in stark contrast to the large heap of black wool she has loaded onto her wheel. Her head is bent in quiet, prayerful concentration and perhaps contrition, perhaps a recognition of the great wealth and opportunity she has been given, and a burning desire to make a small difference rather than succumb to the cynical materialism of her social milieu. She slowly draws out the first thread: the thread of a life, spun on the wheel of Christ’s self-spending love.
A collect from our Prayer Book reminds us that “our common life depends upon each other’s toil.” That toil is distributed and mechanized in such a way that we rarely know or even come into contact with the individuals who grow our food, build our housing, assemble our tools, or spin the threads from which our coats are made. Even charitable giving is often subject to this mechanization, as our generous impulses lead us to input our credit card information on a screen.
That kind of generosity is noble, necessary, and often makes a significant impact. But equally necessary is the kind of giving which led Elizabeth to give her life away putting home-spun yarn into the hands of the naked, or home-baked bread into the hands of the hungry. The gift itself is a labor of love filled with the energy of prayer, and the interaction between the one who gives and the one who receives has the potential to change both. So I ask: What’s your spinning wheel? What’s your spool of thread? What painstaking work of your hands and heart does someone need? How can you make that work itself a prayer, and how can you humbly spend yourself in giving it?
Below: St. Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for The Poor, by Marianne Stokes. c.1895, oil on canvas.
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