Some writers of the lives of women saints have assumed that their husbands were always among their greatest crosses. This suggests a rather dim view of God’s wisdom in creating male and female, and of the cooperative nature of the state of marriage that He instituted. At all events, we have a fine historical example of a saint’s husband who was himself a saint. Blessed Louis of Thuringia was the mate of one of the greatest of lay women saints, Elizabeth of Hungary.
Louis (Ludwig) was born in 1200, the eldest son of Count Herman I of Thuringia. As was customary among rulers, great or small, in those days, Herman arranged a political betrothal between Louis (aged 11) and Elizabeth, daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary (aged 4), without in any way consulting the little fiancé and fiancée. The two were brought up together at court and their marriage was ratified in 1221, when both were of age. Despite the fact that neither had been asked about the match, the union proved to be ideal. Elizabeth bore Ludwig one son and two daughters. Having succeeded his father the year of their marriage, he proved to be an excellent ruler, ever careful to vindicate the rights of his subjects and to cooperate with the Emperor in upholding the common good of the Germanic peoples. Meanwhile, seeing that his wife was engaged in promoting good works at home, he approved her piety and her charity.
Elizabeth’s charities were anything but half-hearted, and sometimes they surprised even her husband. One day when he came home he found that she had put a poor leper in their bed. Naturally, Count Louis was a bit startled and uncomfortable. But he quickly countered any impatience by reminding himself that Christ lay there in the person of the sick man. Then he hit on a resourceful solution: he built a hospice for lepers elsewhere on the estate where his castle, the Wartburg, was located. On other occasions, too, he took his wife’s zeal with good humor. A devotee of Franciscan poverty, St. Elizabeth once told him that she thought that they could both serve God better if they gave up their fine castle and domain, and contented themselves with land enough for one plow to cultivate it, and with no more livestock than a couple hundred sheep. Louis laughed. With great common sense, he replied, “If we had that much land and that many sheep, we would hardly be poor. Some people would say we were still too well off.” Nevertheless, when one of his treasurers complained that the Countess was giving away too much of their property to the needed, Louis answered, “Let her do good and give to God whatever she will, as long as she leaves me Wartburg and Neuenburg” (his two properties).
Even though they had not chosen each other, Elizabeth and Louis had become deeply in love. In 1226 the Count had to spend the whole winter away from home. When he returned, his wife “kissed him with her heart and mouth a thousand times and more.” In 1227 he volunteered to accompany Emperor Frederick II to the Holy Land on a crusade. Apparently Elizabeth learned of this only when she discovered the woolen crusader cross in his purse. Their parting was emotional and ominous. Louis had got no farther than Otranto, Italy, when he was stricken with a mortal fever. After he received the last rites, it seemed to him that his room was filled with white doves. “I must fly away with these white doves,” he said, and so he did. When Elizabeth, still only 20 years old, learned of his death, she almost lost her reason. “The world,” she said, “is dead to me and all that was pleasant in it.”
She would live four years more, ever increasing in holiness. But one of the principal factors in making a saint out of Elizabeth of Hungary had been the holiness of her husband. We see in this couple an image of how Adam and Eve would have been had they not disobeyed God in the garden: mutual saint-makers.
–Father Robert F. McNamara