translated, with an introductory essay, by Alexandra Barratt
University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand
Although today virtually unknown, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Revelations of St. Elizabeth of Hungary circulated in two Latin and two Middle English versions, as well as in French, Italian, Spanish and Catalan.2 Elsewhere I have discussed the problems of their authorship, date, and original language and have argued that the original text was written in Middle High German, probably by the Dominican nun Elsbet Stagel, Suso’s spiritual daughter and biographer, and then translated (twice) into Latin. Further, I have suggested that the “Elizabeth of Hungary” with whom it claims to originate is not the popular St. Elizabeth of Thuringia (d. 1231) but her obscure great-niece, Elizabeth of Töß (d. 1336), like her aunt the daughter of a king of Hungary, who spent her short life as an enclosed Dominican nun in the convent of Töß, near Wintertur in Switzerland.3 In this introduction I propose to examine some aspects of this neglected text itself and certain general questions that it raises about the nature of mediaeval women’s visionary writings.
Although I have argued elsewhere that the text of the Revelations was written down, edited, or redacted by Elsbet Stagel, I would still wish to apply the term “author” to the eponymous visionary Elizabeth. The Revelations are written in the third person throughout, and the authoritative voice of the narrator appears to emanate from a detached position separate from the visionary herself. But as the text records a series of mystical encounters, almost all of which involve dialogue, between Elizabeth and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Elizabeth and St. John the Evangelist, and Elizabeth and Christ, it must, if it is any more than an edifying fabrication, logically originate with the visionary, for none of the events recorded have any reality outside her own subjectivity. The text must be the written record on an originally oral authentic first.person narration. This is made clear at the conclusion: in the words of the later of the two Middle English versions:
All thyse thinges before sayde: Saynt Elysabeth aboute the endynge of her lyff … affermyd that she hadde seyn and herde / as it is above wryton: And she sayde that she hadde so grete certaynte off theym all / that she wolde rather suffre deth thenne to doubte ony lytyll part of theim that they were not trewe / (f. 96ra-b).4
This is the basis for the text’s claim to authenticity.
Perhaps the best term for this phenomenon is “pseudo-third person narrative.” It is not uncommon, for an analogous situation prevails in a number of other mediaeval visionary texts. Especially in Germany for some reason, the written version of the text, the editing, and the imposition of a literary form, was often the work of a fellow-nun. In the thirteenth century, Gertrud the Great recorded the experiences of Mechthild of Helfta as the Liber spiritualis gratiae which was based on Mechthild’s confidences. Unaware at first that her accounts were being written down, she was horrified to discover what Gertrud was doing and had to be reassured by Christ himself in a vision. Gertrud wrote an account of her own spiritual experiences in what is now Book II of The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness,5 boldly and unequivocally using the first-person; but much more material that derives from her was recorded in the third person by another, anonymous, nun of Helfta as Book III of The Herald. Elsbet Stagel, possibly the redactor of Elizabeth’s revelations, certainly wrote the lives of her fellow-nuns, past and present, in her Lives of the Sisters of Töß6 and probably wrote the Life of Elizabeth of Töß7 which is always found in the same manuscripts. She also composed much of Suso’s The Life of the Servant, which is part spiritual autobiography, part hagiography.
There are interesting parallels with Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, and Margery Kempe, though in all three cases the scribe, or editor (the choice of term depends on how important the status we assign him), is a male with the priestly authority of a confessor and spiritual advisor. As such he might well have been less willing than a woman to play a merely ancillary role. Such men, however, were not always easy to come by, as Margery Kempe found, though she might not have had so much trouble in finding someone to write down her experiences if she had been either an influential noblewoman (like Bridget) or a member of a religious order (like Catherine). Margery herself, as is well known, could neither read nor write and her Book is consistently narrated in the third person. She (or her scribe) usually refers to herself as “this creature,” though on a few, very rare, occasions she refers to both herself and her husband as “we.”
Bridget of Sweden dictated the account of her visions in Old Swedish to her confessor, who wrote them down in a Latin version which Bridget subsequently checked, as she could read (though not write) that language. Most of her revelations take the form of a third-person narrative, with Christ or the Virgin addressing the visionary. The text regularly refers to Bridget in the third person (as “the spouse” in the Middle English translation of the Liber celestis).8 Catherine of Siena, who learned to read though not to write in the vernacular, dictated her mystical treatise Il Libro while in ecstasy to a series of amanuenses, both men and women, who wrote it down in Italian. It is in dialogue form though most of the speaking is done by Christ, and any references to the visionary herself are, again, in the third person.
There is an interesting contrast with Marguerite Porete in the thirteenth century and Julian of Norwich in the late fourteenth. Marguerite writes of herself in the first person, though aspects of herself, in particular the Soul, assume an independent existence and are spoken of in the third person. Like Elizabeth, Catherine of Siena, and Bridget, she, too, uses the dialogue form, which facilitates what some modern literary theorists call “the decentering of the subject-position.” Julian, in so many ways unlike other mediaeval women visionaries, speaks to us directly, without intermediary and with a minimum of apology.
There are also parallels with women’s religious writing of a later period, and some recent remarks about English prophetic writings by women of the mid-seventeenth century are surprisingly apposite. Referring to the writings of the “eccentric genius” Lady Eleanor Audley (1590–1652), A Biographical Dictionary of English Women Writers 1580-1720 observes: “The first person has disappeared completely, and when the writer describes herself it is as ‘her’ and ‘She,’ observed externally by herself as writer. Her ‘real self’ remains, for the most part, unspoken yet insistent.”9 The editors make the general point that
The apparent instability of the figure of the narrator or writer is not confined to prophetic writing. Other women’s texts display shifts from first to third person, for example … It may be that the styles of speaking and writing used by [seventeenth-century] prophets are throwbacks to earlier modes (254–255).
Certainly the evidence suggests that something similar took place in the writings of mediaeval women visionaries.10
Though the visionary herself must have been the point of origin for the Revelations of St. Elizabeth, the arrangement of material shows considerable literary skill for which the redactor should take the credit. The text consists of thirteen revelations of unequal length. The first nine are conversations between the Virgin and the visionary, in which the Virgin gives some account of her life in the temple, her desire to see the “maiden” prophesied by Isaiah, and her mystical experiences both before and during the annunciation This section also contains teaching on prayer attributed to the Virgin. The tenth revelation, which has a transitional function, is unique as it is the only one that does not take the form of a dialogue. Rather, it is a typically hagiographic narrative of how God granted Elizabeth the special privilege of St. John the Evangelist as confessor. In the last three revelations, Christ himself appears and speaks to Elizabeth.
The individual revelations seem deliberately structured to demonstrate the saint’s progress in the spiritual life. Firstly, the modes of vision are carefully recorded, and seem to be progressive. In the earlier revelations it is stressed that the visionary experiences are not dreams but either corporeal or imaginative visions (no clear distinction is made between the two): we are told that the Virgin “appearid to her [Elizabeth] not in slepe but wakyng,” and that “vysybly the blessyd mayden apperyd to her.” In the eleventh revelation, however, the first time that the visionary has an experience of Christ himself, she enjoys a locution rather than a vision: “a voyce sodenly so[u]ned (insonuit) to her erys … the voyce sayd to her I am he at whos feet mary magdalene came & went awaye clensyd of all synnes” (f. 95rb). In the next revelation Christ appears visibly (“our lorde Jhesu Cryste … sayde to her apperyng” f 95va); while in the thirteenth and last revelation Elizabeth experiences an imaginative or even intellectual vision: she “sawe wyth her ghostely eyen (mentalibus oculis) a full fayre honde,” the pierced hand of the Crucified Christ, and finally Christ “apperyd to her all openlye” (f. 95vb).
Elizabeth also grows in grace in the course of the revelations. The fifth revelation opens with Elizabeth’s anger at the unthinking behaviour of one of her companions, for which she is rebuked by the Virgin; this contrasts with the eleventh revelation, in which she is injured far more seriously by another woman, but reacts with greater maturity:
Thenne sodenly she lyghtned wyth a feruent spyryte off charyte gaue her to prayer / And wyth passyng mornynge and flowynge of teres devoutly prayenge: she besought god [for] that forsayde woman and for all other of whiche she had taken ony wronge (f. 95rb).
The spiritually dynamic nature of the text is established at the very beginning. In the first of the revelations, the Virgin invites Elizabeth to enter her service and promises her:
If thou wylt be my doughter dyscyple and servaunt: I wolde be thy moder ladye and maystresse / and when thou art of me suffycyently enfor[m]ed and taught / I wolde lede the to th[y] lovyd spouse my sone / whiche wol receyue the in to hys hondes / As I now have receyued the / (f. 91va-b).
The revelations do indeed fulfill this promise. The Virgin, though so prominent in the early stages, can only do so much, especially as the theme of Elizabeth’s need for a personal assurance that her sins are forgiven becomes more insistent. Although the Virgin can indeed be “mistress, lady, and mother,” she cannot exercise the sacerdotal function of absolution. In her place, first the figure of St. John the Evangelist is introduced, as a confessor far superior to any priest. But eventually Christ intervenes, as promised in the first revelation. In each of the last three revelations he himself delivers an assurance to the visionary that her sins are forgiven. The Virgin’s function is ostensibly educational and disciplinary, a role which she carries out in two interconnected ways: through her account of her own early life and through the teaching on prayer with which it is interwoven. It is interesting to see how mediaeval women visionaries, themselves engaged in the activity of spiritual autobiography, are so ready to construct the Virgin as engaged in a similar activity. Indeed, throughout, it is noticeable that the text models the Virgin on Elizabeth rather than vice versa, so that the Virgin, like Elizabeth, is constructed as an ecstatic visionary communicating her spiritual experiences to a third person.
For instance, just as Elizabeth takes the Virgin as her mother at the beginning of the text, so the Virgin, according to her own account in the fourth revelation, took God as her father. She explains to the visionary:
I am come to teche thee the prayer that I mayde whan I was yonge and beyng in the temple. I purposed wyth avysement in myn herte that I wolde have god my fader” (f. 92ra).
Furthermore, the picture of the life the Virgin leads in the temple is clearly based on Elizabeth’s own life as a nun. She rises at night to pray, and (probably superfluously) urges Elizabeth to imitate her:
doo as I dyde in the temple in the begynynge of my yon[g]hede / For I rose at mydnyght and stonding before the aulte[r] with all besynesse of my thought I asked off god his grace … And in prayer byfore the aulter / I made vij askynges by ordre (f. 92rb).
In the sixth revelation the Virgin, like a mediaeval religious, studies the scriptures, in the Latin of the Vulgate, of course:
I rose up and went to a book / and beganne to rede in it. And [in] the fyrst openyng of the book came before my syght the worde of Esaye the prophete Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium etc. (f 93rb).
As a result of her reading, she dedicates herself to virginity, and, like Elizabeth who has taken the Virgin as her “mistress,” to the service of the virgin who, according to Isaiah, is to conceive God’s Son:
And as I bethought me / thynkyng that maydenhode pleased moche to god. Sythen he wolde hys sonne sholde be born of a mayde / thenne I purposed in my herte for the reverence of hym to kepe maydenhode / & yf it befyll me to see hyr / for to serve hyr in maydenhede all my lyf tyme. And yf it nedyd for to goo wyth hyr thorugh all the worlde (f. 93rb).
This desire, here ironically imputed to the Virgin herself, to follow and serve the virgo of Isaiah, in other mediaeval women visionaries such as Margery Kempe and Bridget of Sweden develops into fantasies of witnessing and participating in the birth of the infant Christ. The Virgin also draws an explicit parallel between her own and the visionary’s spiritual development:
I helde me that tyme as vyle and wretchidde and unworthy the grace of god / as thou holdest the now: And moche more vnworthy / And therfore I asked ay of hym that he wolde vouchsafe to sende in to me his grace and his vertue / (f. 92va).
In an interesting passage in the fifth revelation she digresses to warn Elizabeth about the dangers of false modesty, offering herself as a model:
Therfore doughter on that same maner / whan god wolde gyve the ony grace or comforte: thou shalt take it mekely / and suffre hym to doo of the what soo be pleseyng to hym / And saye lord why doost thou thyse thynges to me[:] I am not worthy an suche odyr / For though thou be altherwysest (Ipse enim sicut sapientissimus) / he knoweth better what is to doo of the / than thy owne self: And yf he worketh in the ony wounderful thynge / the ioye is his and not thyn (f.92vb).
An even more striking similarity, however, is to be found in the ecstatic spirituality that the Virgin is depicted as practising. In the fifth revelation the Virgin recounts how God prepared her, unwittingly, for her future role, and rhapsodically describes her experiences as a totally passive instrument (literally) of his will:
Of me my lovely doughter god wrought: as he that kan touche the harpe or the fydele / For why fyrst he temperyth it that it maketh a swete sown / and acordyng sowne / and afterward ledyng and touchyng he synget[h] somme thynge wyth the sowne of it: Ryght soo god the fader first he ordeyned and tempered in me all my st[e]ringes (omnes motus) and all my wyttes as well of the soule as of the body: After that he [touched] and ordeyned with the fynger of his ghost all my [sawes] (dicta) & my werkes to the plesaunce of him and ofte sythes he reysed me wyth companye of angels to be holde the courte of heven / Wherfore I founde soo moche comforte and echeing of grete and of ghostely swetenesse that after whan I come agayn to my self I was soo fulfylled (ita inebrea) in love of that contree that I desyred for to halse stones trees bestys and other creatures for love of hym that them formyd /(f. 92vb).
This is the language of rapture, trance and ecstasy, a style of spirituality clearly that of the visionary Elizabeth herself.
In the sixth revelation, the episode in which the Virgin reads Isaiah’s prophesy and is informed by God of her future destiny, her reading of scripture is preceded by a trance and a strong desire for a continuation of the union with God which she experienced within it:
on a daye whan I hadde comforte of god so wonderfull / that unto that tyme I was not experte of none suche / and came ageyne to my self. I beganne to thynke and desyre wyth wylfull brennyng herte / yf I myght doo ony thyng / or have in me / for the whiche god wolde lette me never parte from hym (f. 93ra-b).
On the following night, after she has studied Isaiah and dedicated herself to virginity, she experiences (like Elizabeth) a corporeal vision, a locution and a rapture:
sodeynly whan I was in derkenes soo moche bryghtenesse apperyd to me before my syght / that in comparyson of it the sonne was as nought / and fro that shynyng I herde a voyce clerely seyeng to me. Mayden of Davyd kynred thou shalt bere my sonne (f. 93rb) … And whanne I herde this wordes / I was ravysshed of my self for moche drede and wonderyng / and I fylle doun prostrate on my face as dede / for I myghte not holde up my self / but sodenly the Aungeles of god stood by me reysyng me fro the erthe and comforted me (f. 94vb).
In the seventh revelation the Virgin explains that such special graces come only through prayer and mortification, “deuoute prayer of soule and sharpe bodely traueyll” (f. 93vb). But in return for the commitment of the body and the soul to God’s service:
our lorde god of hys hyghe graces begynneth to gladde that mannes sowle in soo moche that he may not bere it / but for swetnes and for wondryng it fareth as it were in hit self / as a man that were dronke of swete wyne and myghty / putte out of hym selfe that [he] may not bere it for [febylnes] of hede (f.93vb–94va).
It was in such a state of spiritual inebriation, which generally induces increased humility and a conviction on the part of the soul that “hyr dwellyng is in heuen wyth god / and not in erthe wyth men here,” that, the Virgin tells Elizabeth, the annunciation took place: “I was alle brennyng in goddes love / and felyd soo moche swetenes in hym / that for hym alle the worlde was vyle to me” (f. 94ra). By her own account, the Virgin responded to Gabriel’s salutation in a way we can now see as characteristic of Elizabeth’s construction of the Virgin: “I fyll to the erthe.” When she had given her consent, the incarnation took place while she was in ecstasy:
The whiche worde sayd anone I was ravysshed (in extasi facta) I and in soo grete fulnesse of goddes grace enbasshed me that I neuer felte soo moche swetenesse and comforte in my soule. And in that ravysshyng goddes sonne took flesshe of my puryst blood / wyth oute ony wem of me / or flesshely delyt (f. 94rb).
Clearly, the Virgin’s paramystical piety of rapture, tears, visions, and locutions is close to that of Elizabeth herself. The Revelations, read throughout Europe from the early fourteenth century, and partially incorporated into the even more popular pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi, may well have played an important part in promoting such a characteristically female form of spirituality, by implying that it had the most exalted of models: not merely the saints but the Blessed Virgin herself.
In this connection the Virgin’s teaching on prayer is relevant. Elizabeth’s own style of prayer seems to have been vocal and strongly affective, judging by the description in the fourth revelation: “she was prayeng wyth ententyve mynde and sayde the salutacion of oure goode lady wyth hye voyce and moche devocion and shedyng of teres” (f. 92ra). But the Virgin appears to teach her the prayer she herself had composed when she was a young girl in the temple. This prayer (like the Pater Noster) is divided into seven petitions: three for grace to keep the first commandment (“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God”), the second commandment (“Love thy neighbour as thyself”), and a third, to hate the devil. The fourth petition is for the virtues, specifically “mekenesse pacience myldnes,” and the fifth a request that she may see that maiden who is to bear God’s son, and serve her with all her limbs. The sixth and seventh petitions, though imputed to the Virgin, again seem to relate particularly to Elizabeth’s own situation as a religious, vowed to obedience:
The vj / was that he wolde gyve me grace: by the whiche I myght kepe all the byddyngis of the bisshoppes and the ordeynaunce (statuta) of the temple: The vij: and the laste was / that he wolde vouchesaf to kepe his holy temple / And all his owne people ever to fulfille his owne servyce / (f. 92va).
The sixth revelation contains the account of a second prayer, which the Virgin used to prepare herself to be the mother of the Messiah. Based on Isaiah 11:2, it is a prayer for the seven gifts of the spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, pity, and the fear of the Lord, all with specific reference to her future maternal role. But it is the ninth revelation that contains the most extended treatment of this topic. As Elizabeth meditates on what she has learned so far, the Virgin appears and describes her own practice with an elaborate and beautiful extended simile; her prayer is like a man constructing a well of drinking water:
I dyde as he that wyll newe make a fayre well / fyrst he gothe to the roote of the hyll under whiche the water spryngeth / and herkeneth besyly under what syde the veynes of water gothe...thenne he begynneth to delve in that syde of the hylle tyll he fynde an able begynnyng of a welstede...and afterward he dressyth water in to the well stede...and in the myddes of the well a stone pylar fastned in it pypes (canales) all aboute thorugh the whiche the water may passe out of eche half / more prophetably to the use of men (f. 94vb).
She explains how the devotions she described earlier correspond to these stages. Studying the law of Moses and the Decalogue corresponds to visiting the hill in search of the source. She found the source of prayer when she learned, “in redyng thynkyng and prayeng” (the monastic practices of lectio, meditatio and oratio), that the love of God is “the wellhede and begynnynge of all good.” Uniting her will with God’s by desiring “to love all thinges that god loveth / & hate all that he hateth” leads the water to the well, while the water was kept pure by her zeal to preserve her will “& the affeccion of the sensualyte vnhurted from all fylth of synne.” By cultivating the virtues she built a protective wall around the well and by giving herself to the world as a model she “reised the peler & fastned in it pypes,” becoming the only channel of God’s grace: “he that loveth me not may finde noo grace of my sone: and as it foloweth therby nother of the fader ne of holi ghost” (f. 95ra). Finally she exhorts Elizabeth to pray not only for her own salvation but for that of others, “For ther by shall grace bee encresyd to the and to other: And thy prayers shall be fruytfull.”
The Revelations, then, model a form of piety that is in many ways distinctively female. Also characteristic of women’s writing is its attitude towards authority. Mediaeval women, consciously or unconsciously, could circumvent the patriarchal authority of the Church on earth by claiming direct access, through visionary and mystical experience, to a higher authority, God himself or Christ.11 The Revelations are paradigmatic of the range of strategies adopted. When the text opens, Elizabeth is in a state of spiritual dryness and “style dysposed her to goo to somme spyrytualle brother for to haue counseylle therof” (f. 91va). It is this intention, apparently, that prompts the appearance of the Virgin, who interposes her own alternative maternal authority as superior to that of the institutional Church, roundly declaring:
Elysabeth yff thou wolde bee my dyscyple / I wolde be thy maystres / and yf thou wolde be my servaunt: I wolde be thy lady...I am moder to the sone of god alyve / whom thou hast chosen to bee thy lord and spouse / Thenne she sayde ther is noo brother in the worlde that may better enforme the of thy spouse / than I maye (f. 91va).
The Virgin puts herself forward as teacher (maystres) and as feudal superior (lady) and both roles are highlighted by the visionary’s immediate reaction:
Thenne Saint Elysabeth faylyng vpon the erthe / honouryd her and kneling she layde her hondes io[y]nyd to gyder bytwyxte the hondes of the blessyd virgyn (f. 91va).
This is the gesture of submission and loyalty that was offered to one’s superior, whether feudal lord or religious prelate. In the third revelation this contractual relationship between the Virgin and the visionary is formalised with the help of St. John the Evangelist, traditionally the protector of virgins and religious women, as it was to his care that the dying Christ had entrusted his own mother. Elizabeth is discovered characteristically praying, “and soo bytterly she weped: that she myght not wyth holde her from utterly sobbynges (ab exterioribus vlulatibus): An[d] cryenges wyth voyce” (f. 91vb), when the Virgin appears with the Evangelist who has drawn up a written document to record their contract. She says:
O Elysabeth thou hast chosen me to be thy moder lady and maystres: but I wold that thou make a charter to me of this chesyng and thy wylfull byhetyngis...I have brought wyth me my sonnes loved dysciple Johan the Euangelyste for to make therof yf thou consente an open (publicum) Instrumente (f. 92ra).
Elizabeth then indicates her submission by kneeling and giving her verbal consent ratified with an oath, and St. John (who remains silent throughout) “at the byddyng of the gloryous vyrgyne / made therof an open jnstrumente.”
This theme of divine as opposed to human authority emerges in a different guise in the last four revelations. In the tenth revelation, St. John the Evangelist reappears, this time as Elizabeth’s confessor. In every way she finds this a superior arrangement:
whan she shrove her to saynt Johan she hadde full mynde of all her synnes & whan she shrove her to ony other confessour / She hadde vnnethes mynde what she sholde saye. She was not glad and iocunde after her assoyling as whan she shrove her to Saynt Johan (f. 95ra–b).
But even the authority of St. John is not ultimately sufficient for Elizabeth. The last three revelations are unified by the theme of her need for divine reassurance that her sins have been forgiven. In the eleventh revelation Elizabeth hears the voice of God:
I make it knowen to the that all thy synnes be forgyven the / And whan she began to telle hym by one and by one / all the trespaces that she hadde in fresshe mynde: sayenge / suche and suche haue I done / the voyce answeryd thyse & al other are forgyve the (f. 95rb).
In the twelfth revelation Elizabeth is again weeping over her sins:
Elysabeth was lastyng (persisteret) in prayer: and full bytterly wepte her synnes / our lorde Jhesu Cryste that is confortatour of theym that ben soroufull sayde to her apperyng / O my dere doughter trouble the not ne be not sory for mynde off thy synnes / For why all thy synnes ben forgyven the / (f 95va).
In the thirteenth and last revelation she hears a voice saying “Elysabeth loo / This thyrde tyme I saye to the / thy synnes ben fo[r]gyven / And thou hast my grace” (f. 95vb). What appears as the visionary’s excessive scrupulosity masks, perhaps, a distrust of the institutional church and a preference for the certainties of personal experience and private revelation that might have caused trouble outside a strictly cloistered environment.
But in one way at least, the Revelations do not resemble other female visionary writings: the lack of any eucharistic devotion is both pronounced and remarkable. Indeed the liturgy and the divine office are never even mentioned. This may well relate to Elizabeth’s obvious distrust of the patriarchal authority of the Church on earth. Certainly the maternal authority of the Virgin seems to be the most important single element in her spirituality and apart from the appearance of Christ himself in the last three revelations, male authority figures (John the Evangelist and the Archangel Gabriel) play merely subsidiary roles, literally, walk-on parts. This is further reason to attribute the text to the Dominican nun Elizabeth of Töß, who lived out her life within an enclosed women’s community, rather than to Elizabeth Thuringia, who lived in the world as a Franciscan tertiary and was notoriously subservient to her harsh confessor, Conrad of Marburg.
A Translation into Modern English, made from the Latin text
in Cambridge Magdalene College MS F.4.14
Here begin the visions of the blessed virgin Elizabeth, daughter of the king of Hungary.
One day blessed Elizabeth, constant in private prayer, was seeking Christ her spouse with devout mind and anxious spirit and was not finding him as she usually did. She began to cut short her prayer and grow concerned in her heart as to what the reason could be that her spouse was not visiting her, through the infusion of sweet consolations, as he had been accustomed to do at other times. When she had just made up her mind silently to have recourse to some friar for advice on this, the Virgin Mary appeared to her and said to her, “Elizabeth, if you are willing to be my pupil, I shall be your mistress.”
She replied, “Who are you, mistress, who wish to have me as your pupil and handmaid?” The Virgin Mary replied to her, “I am the mother of the Son of the living God, whom you have chosen as master and spouse.”
Then blessed Elizabeth fell to the ground and worshipped. On bended knees she placed her joined hands between the hands of the Virgin.12 The blessed Virgin said once again, “If you are willing to be my daughter, pupil, and handmaid, I shall be your mother, mistress, and teacher. And when you have been sufficiently instructed and educated by me, I shall lead you to your dear spouse my Son, who will receive you into his hands, as I have just now received you.” Then she began to counsel her, saying, “Avoid disputes, quarrels, slanders and complaints. Do not lend your ears to complaints about yourself, nor allow your heart to become heavy on their account. But bear in mind that nothing so bad can be said of you but that something even worse could be said than what is said!”
On the next feast of the Blessed Virgin following this, on that very day the handmaid of God, Elizabeth, was weeping most bitterly in prayer, fearing that she had not fully kept the advice of the Virgin mentioned above. There suddenly appeared to her, not in a dream but in a waking state, the blessed Virgin, who called her with sweet speech by her own name and said, “Elizabeth my sweetest daughter, do not torment yourself so greatly because you have not completely conformed to my perfection. But struggle constantly against sin and say just once the great angelic greeting with which Gabriel, God’s messenger, greeted me,13 and every offence shall be generously forgiven you by my Son.”
In the process of time, on the day of the feast of St Scholastica,14 the handmaid of God, Elizabeth, was continuing steadfastly in prayer. As she prayed she was weeping most bitterly, because she could not restrain herself from audible groans and vocal cries. Suddenly there appeared to her the Blessed Virgin Mary, accompanied by John the Evangelist. The Blessed Virgin said, “Elizabeth, you have chosen me as your mother, mistress, and teacher. But I want you to draw me up a document concerning this choice and freely-willed promise, so that you cannot go back on your decision. For that purpose I have brought with me my Son’s beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, so that if you agree he will draw up a public document.” Then blessed Elizabeth, on bended knees and with joined hands, paid homage on the ground and said, “Do with me, my lady, as with your handmaid, whatever you please.” And she confirmed this donation with an oath. And St John, on the instructions of the blessed Virgin Mary, drew up a public document to this effect.
Once on the Vigil of the Nativity of Our Lord15 while praying with great concentration, she was reciting the Hail Mary in a loud voice, with much devotion and shedding of tears. The Blessed Virgin appeared to her in visible form and said to her, “I have come to teach you the prayer which I made as a young girl when I was still living in the Temple.16 I resolutely decided in my heart that I wished to have God as father and I made up my mind to do whatever would please him, so that I might find favour in his sight. I made myself learn his law and all the commandments contained in it. In particular I committed to memory three commandments, being eager to keep them with the greatest care and with all my might. These are: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself (Dt 6:5). Love your friend and hate your enemy” (Lv 19:18 and Mt 5: 3). For I understood that man and angel were good, and my enemy was the devil and, insofar as he is evil, the evil man. From that love of God and neighbour, and from the fear and hatred of the enemy (that is, of the devil and sin), every fulness of grace and virtue has descended to me. That love cannot take root in the human heart unless there is there hatred of the enemy, that is, of the devil and sin.
“If therefore you wish to obtain that love, do as I did in the Temple in my earliest youth. For I would rise in the middle of the night and, standing before the altar with complete concentration of mind, I would ask the Lord for his grace by which I might be able to keep these commandments I have mentioned, and I would make seven petitions, one after the other, in prayer before the altar.
“The first was, that he would give me his grace by means of which I should be able to fulfill the first commandment, that is, on loving God above all things, with all my heart, all my mind and all my strength.
“The second was, that I should be able to fulfill the second commandment, on loving my neighbour as myself, and that he should make me love what he himself loved.
“The third was, that I should be able to fulfill the third commandment and that he should make me hate the enemy of the human race because from him derive vice, sin, and whatever he himself hates.
“The fourth was, that he should give me humility, patience, kindliness, gentleness and other virtues, by which I might be made lovely in his eyes.
“The fifth was, that he should allow me to see the time when that blessed virgin should be born who, according to the sayings of the prophets, was to bear his son; and that he would keep safe my eyes with which I might see her, my ears with which I might hear her speak, my tongue with which I might praise her, my hands with which I might touch her, my feet with which I might run to her, my knees on which I might do her homage, and see and do homage to her son lying on her lap.
“The sixth was, that he would give me grace by which I might be able to keep all the commandments of the priests and the rules of the Temple.
“The seventh and last was that he would deign to keep safe his holy Temple and all his own People, to serve him forever.”
Having heard this, blessed Elizabeth burst out with these words: “Most excellent lady, were you not sanctified in your mother’s womb? How was it that you said these things? Were you not free from every sin and filled with every grace?”17
The Blessed Virgin replied, “Listen, Elizabeth. Undoubtedly, daughter, I was such as you say. However, you should know this in truth, that at that time I considered myself vile and wretched and unworthy of every grace of God’s, just as you now consider yourself, and even more so. And so I was always asking God that he would deign to infuse into me his grace and strength.”
Furthermore, one night Christ’s handmaid, Elizabeth, had begun to meditate on how God the Father was well pleased in the glorious Virgin while she was yet living, in that he was willing to take flesh from her. The Blessed Virgin replied, “God did with me, my dear daughter, as one who knows how to play the cithara or viol. For first he tunes the instrument, so that it makes a sweet, harmonious sound; afterwards, chanting and plucking, he makes music. In this way did God the Father first tune and adjust in me every movement and sensation, both of body and mind. Then he touched me with the finger of his Spirit and tuned all my words and deeds to his good pleasure.
“Frequently he would raise me, accompanied by angels, to contemplate the court of heaven, where I would find such great solace and increase of mental sweetness that when at length I came to myself, I was so intoxicated with love for that heavenly homeland that I longed to embrace stones, trees, animals and all other creatures, and to serve them for love of him who had created them. I would also long to serve all the ladies who came to the Temple, for love of their creator, whose ineffable sweetness I was tasting.
“Therefore, daughter, when God wishes to give you some grace or consolation, you should accept it with humility and allow him to do whatever he likes with you. You ought not to be arrogant under the cloak of humility and say, ‘Lord, why do you do these things to me? I am not worthy’, and suchlike. For just as he is most wise, so he knows what he should do with you better than you do yourself. And the glory is his if he performs some miracle in you, not your own.”
Now it so happened that while this intimate conversation was continuing at some length, one of Elizabeth’s fellow nuns walked past the place where Christ’s handmaid was praying. Blessed Elizabeth, reproaching her soundly, said with great asperity, “Why at this time of day did you walk across me from one side to the other?” She began almost to threaten her with her words and gestures.
As that woman was retreating, the Blessed Virgin said to Christ’s handmaid, Elizabeth, “Daughter, how foolish and undiscriminating you still are! While you have me here with you, you should not pay attention to anything of this world. Now therefore profit from my presence this night. For by my son’s special grace I have been sent to you so that you may confidently ask questions and I shall tell you the truth concerning everything that you ask. However, since you allowed your attention to wander to the action of that fellow of yours, and you rebuked her with such lack of discretion, I wish to give you as penance that you may not go back to bed tonight. Nor do I at present intend to reveal to you any secrets that I would have told you if you had not affronted my dignity.”
So when that night had come to an end and day had just broken, Christ’s handmaid, Elizabeth, began earnestly to lament and to be distressed by the offence which she had offered the majesty of the glorious Virgin the night before, as recounted above. She was very afraid that she would never be able to recover such great grace and consolation. The Blessed Virgin replied to her silent thought, appearing to her and saying again and again, “Do not be afraid, daughter, and do not distress yourself with any foolish uncertainty about losing me because of your past sin; for your sin has already been forgiven you through your penitence. And I have now come to you so that you may ask what you like, for I am ready to answer your questions on everything, according to the promise I had made.”
Blessed Elizabeth immediately said, “Lady, I ask you to tell me what it was that prompted you to ask the Lord to promise, of his special grace, that you would see the birth of that virgin from whom his son was to be born.”
She replied, “One day when I had had consolation from God, more wonderful than I had ever experienced before, and had come to myself, with most burning heart I began to consider whether I could do something, or have something in myself, on account of which God would permit me never to be separated from him, and this I began to strive. And with this thought I rose up and went to a book and began to read it. And on the first page of the book there met my eyes that text of Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive …’ (Is 7:14). And while I considered and meditated on how greatly virginity pleased God, given that he wished his Son to be born of a virgin, in my heart I resolved at once to preserve my own virginity out of reverence for her and, if I should chance to live to see her, to serve her in virginity all the days of my life, wandering with her, if necessary, through the whole world.
“After this, therefore, on the following night, while I was praying to God with devout mind, asking that he would allow me to see that virgin of whom I have spoken before I died, suddenly so great a shining light appeared before my eyes, although I was in darkness, that the sun was nothing in comparison. And from out of that shining light I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Virgin of the stock of David, you shall bear my Son.’ And it added, ‘Know with complete certainty that that honour and reverence which, out of love for me, you longed to pay another virgin, shall be paid to you by others. I wish you to be that virgin who is to bear my Son. And not only will you possess him through you and in you, but in right of marriage you will be able to give him to whomsoever you please. Anyone who has not loved you nor believed that you were the mother of my Son, who took flesh from you for the salvation of the human race, will not have my grace or love, nor will he enter my Son’s kingdom. You alone will be able to offer to others my Son and his grace, which you will receive from me.’
“Having heard these words I was beside myself with excessive astonishment and wonder, and fell prostrate on my face as if dead, for I could not hold myself upright. But suddenly God’s angels were there, raising me up from the ground and strengthening me and saying, ‘Fear not, for you are blessed above all women and on you has alighted God’s grace, through which can be easily fulfilled all that the Lord has said to you.’ From that time forth I did not cease, day and night, to render praise to my creator with heart, mouth, and deed, looking forward with firm and certain confidence to the day and the hour that those things that had been revealed to me by the Lord should be fulfilled. I used to say to myself over and over again, ‘Most kindly Lord, in that it is your pleasure to offer so great a grace to your unworthy handmaid, I ask that you give me the spirit of your wisdom,18 by which I may worthily conceive your Son, the creator of heaven and earth, and serve him as he wishes. Give me the spirit of understanding, by which with enlightened mind I may have the strength to fulfill all his will,19 insofar as is possible in this world. Give me the spirit of counsel, by which I may protect and guide him as is fitting while he is still crying in his human weakness, as yet unable to speak. Give me the spirit of strength, by which I may with courageous heart bear title of his dignity in my heart and constantly cleave to it. Give me the spirit of knowledge, by which I may instruct all those who will have to do with him and who will wish to imitate him. Give me the spirit of loving-kindness, by which [I may foster]20 his human nature and delicate constitution as shall be fitting. Give me also the spirit of the fear of the Lord by which I may serve him with humble mind and proper reverence. My dearest daughter, all that I asked was granted me, as you can understand from the angelic greeting with which I was greeted by the Archangel Gabriel.”21
On another occasion Christ’s handmaid, Elizabeth, was standing in prayer and thinking how great a grace God had done the glorious Virgin. The Blessed Virgin appeared to her and said to her, “My daughter, you think that I had such great grace from my creator without any effort on my part. But it was not so except for that grace of sanctification in my mother’s womb. I gained every other grace with much physical and mental effort, for instance by praying continually day and night with most burning love, and by lamenting with most bitter groans, and by always thinking, saying and doing whatever I believed most pleased my creator, and with the greatest care avoiding every offence, however trivial.” She added, “You may hold it as immutable, daughter, that no influx of devotion perfectly pleasing to God, or gift of grace or virtue, descends on the human heart, except through devout prayer of the mind and harsh affliction of the body. For after someone has made a perfect offering to God of body and soul, the two combined, and God has dedicated them to his service and honour, of his grace the Lord God, the most high, begins to make that human soul joyful to such an extent that she cannot bear it. But through sweetness and astonishment she is rendered incapable, like a man drunk on sweet and potent wine who is beside himself and because of the weakness of his head cannot bear it.
“And then that soul recognises that she has done nothing pleasing to God that is superior to such great consolations. And she thinks herself much indebted to God, and more worthless and despicable than she had ever thought herself. But after such a soul has come to herself, she should render praise and thanks to God with all the devotion and affection of her mind, and should think herself unworthy of every grace, and ungrateful for so great a blessing, and she should bewail this with much fear. And when God sees that such a soul is always greatly humbled as a result of the gifts she has received, he is all the more sedulous to give her gifts of graces, so much so that he fulfills, as it were, her desire in this world, so that it seems to her that her conversation is with God in heaven and not on earth with men and women. It also seems to her that she has a paradise within her. This, I say, was what happened to me while I was still alive.
“When, therefore, I was completely consumed within by the love of God, and experienced such great sweetness from him that for his sake, the whole world grew worthless in my sight, and one day with devout mind was alone in my private chamber, suddenly the Angel Gabriel was with me and, as the gospels say, greeted me saying, ‘Hail, full of grace …’ When I heard this greeting I was terrified at first, but afterwards I was comforted and reassured by his friendly and loving conversation, not doubting that the message he brought was true. I flung myself on the ground and on bended knees with joined hands I worshipped and said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord,’ and so on. Having said this, I was immediately rapt in ecstasy. Divine grace flooded me in such fulness that I experienced great sweetness and consolation in my soul. And in that rapture the Son took flesh from my purest blood, without any thought or carnal pleasure on my part.
“The principal reason God did me this grace was the faith and humility with which I gave full credence to the angel’s words, and humbled myself completely and yielded to the divine will. And so he condescended to bestow on me so great a grace. So you too, daughter, in all that God promises you or does, do not hesitate from lack of faith or resist him, saying, ‘Lord, why are you doing this to me?’ But following my example say, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord,’ and so on. Even if sometimes what he promised you is not fulfilled, or what has been bestowed on you by the Lord is taken away from you, blame yourself and think that you have committed some offence in the sight of the divine majesty, on account of which the divine decree has changed. Therefore anyone who wants to obtain eternal life must obey God’s commands from his heart in firm faith, submitting himself to him through true humility and obedience, because these are the opposites of the two sins of our first parents, Adam and Eve, who lost the grace and dignity in which they had been created on account of pride and disobedience.”
Further, on another occasion, on the Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord, the handmaid of Christ, Elizabeth, in a lengthy and long-continued prayer, was humbly asking God with great devotion and shedding of tears to give her the grace by which she might love him with her whole heart. The Blessed Virgin appeared and said to her, “Who loves God with his whole heart? Is that not you, Elizabeth?” When she was afraid to assent and say that she loved God with her whole heart but, remaining silent throughout, made no reply at all, the Blessed Virgin said to her, “Do you want me to tell you who loves God perfectly? Truly, Bartholomew the Apostle loved him, as did Laurence the Martyr and John the Evangelist and the other apostles and martyrs.” She added, “Would you be willing for his love to be flayed, grilled, and to drink poison?”
And since she did not dare either affirm or deny that she was willing to suffer these things for the love of Christ, the Blessed Virgin said, “Truly I tell you, daughter, that if for the love of God you are willing to be stripped of all worldly things and of the cravings of your own will, so much so that you wished neither to possess nor to crave anything in this world, I shall obtain for you from my son the merit which St Bartholomew has for his flaying. And if you patiently tolerate injuries and insults, and whatever inconveniences are inflicted on you, you will have the same merit which St Laurence has for the grilling of his body. And when you gladly and humbly tolerate criticisms, mockery and abuse from others, you will have the same merit that John the Evangelist had for the drinking of poison. And if you are willing to trust me and obey me with respect to the carrying out of all that has just been said, I shall be at your side and I shall be with you, always helping you when it is appropriate.”
Moreover, on another occasion the handmaid of Christ, Elizabeth, was praying, and in her prayer was considering with devout mind how the Blessed Virgin used to pray, according to her own revelation, as described before. The Blessed Virgin replied to her, “In praying, daughter, I was acting like a man who wants to construct a beautiful fountain from scratch. First he goes to the foothills of the mountain beneath which water wells up, and he listens carefully to discover in which area there are streams of water flowing through. When this has been investigated through hearing, he immediately begins to excavate in that part of the mountain until he finds the headspring of the welling streams. Then he channels the water to the site of the fountain. He makes the site wide, beautiful, and sparkling clean, so that the water there will be always kept pure and bright. After that, he constructs a wall around the fountain and sets up a stone column in the middle of the fountain, making spouts all around it through which the water may freely flow on every side. And the water is available for people to drink. This is what I did, spiritually speaking.
“For I went to the mountain when I carefully listened to and learnt the Law of Moses and all the commandments of the Decalogue. Then I discovered the stream of water when, through reading, meditating, and praying, I learnt that the headspring of all goodness was to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s soul and all one’s strength. Then I channelled the water to the site of the fountain when I conceived a firm desire of loving all that God loves, and hating all that he hates. Then I did indeed keep the water sparkling clean and bright when I was zealous to protect the desire of my heart and the emotions of my lower nature, keeping them unharmed from all defilement of sin. Then I constructed a wall around the fountain when I took care to protect unharmed all the virtues and especially humility, patience, and kindliness, together with faith, hope, and charity, right to the end of my life. Then I set up a column and inserted spouts in it when I gave myself as model and source of help for all those who loved me and wanted to cleave to me, always ready to stand by them and offer them the water of divine grace to drink.
“All those things, daughter, did God fulfill in me, and he gave me as a model to the entire human race so that not a single one might be excused. For anyone who wants to follow me and yield to my advice will find grace at my hands and salvation. And you should know for certain, daughter, that anyone who does not love me will not be able to find grace from my Son or, consequently, from the Holy Spirit. And so, dearest daughter, I tell you these things so that you may learn to seek grace from God in prayer with faith and humility, as you know that I did, from what has been said. For without prayer it is impossible to obtain God’s grace.
“However, virtues and graces are not distributed by God to all alike, because people do not all alike know how to request from God with faith and humility in prayer, and to protect when they do obtain them. So people ought to encourage each other in prayer, so that one may share with another what God has given him, and may receive from others what he does not himself have. Hence I wish, daughter, that you should pray punctiliously not only for your own salvation but also for that of others. For by these means shall grace be increased both for you and for others, and your prayers will be fruitful.”
Moreover, the handmaid of Christ, Elizabeth, was groaning in spiritual affliction for three years because it seemed to her that she could not have her own confessor. Consequently, whenever she wanted to make her confession, God the Father, taking pity on her desolation, assigned her St John the Evangelist as confessor, instructing him that whenever she wanted to confess he should himself hear her, and absolve her by his authority. It was God’s will that when she confessed to St John, she would fully call to mind all her sins. But when she confessed to her other confessor, she could scarcely remember what she should say, and after his absolution she did not remain happy and joyful as she did when she confessed to St John.
It happened that one day the handmaid of Christ, Elizabeth, suffered from some accursed woman a great and remarkable injury, by which to human eyes she seemed seriously hurt. When at last she recovered herself, mindful that she had suffered an injury, and inflamed by a fervent attack of charity, she turned to prayer. Praying devoutly, with unspeakable groaning and lengthy shedding of tears, she began to petition the Most High for the aforesaid woman and for all others from whom she had received some injury. She broke out in these words, “Sweet and merciful Father and eternal God, you who render good for evil, I ask that you should render to the woman who did me this injury remarkable joy of timely consolation, so that she may rejoice. From this ought I to rejoice, if I were your daughter.”
When she had said this, suddenly a voice sounded in her ears, saying, “Elizabeth, you have never framed any prayer that pleased me as much as this one. For this has pierced right to the depths of my heart. And so I declare to you that all your sins are forgiven you.” And when she was enumerating one by one all those which she held in her recent memory, saying, “I did such and such,” the voice replied, “These and all others are forgiven you.”
Then she said, “You—who are you that speak to me and forgive all my sins?” And the voice said to her, “I am he to whose feet Mary Magdalene drew near, and went away cleansed of every sin” (Mt 26:6–13 etc.).
Once while the handmaid of Christ, Elizabeth, was considering in prayer what she could do that might greatly please God, she heard a voice saying to her, “Hope in the Lord and do good and dwell in the land and you shall feed on its riches. Delight in the Lord and he will give you the requests of your heart. Hope in him and he himself shall perform it and he shall lead forth your righteousness as the light and your judgment as the midday sun. Be subject to the Lord and pray to him” (Ps 36:3–7).
One day when the handmaid of Christ, Elizabeth, was persevering in prayer and was most bitterly weeping over her sins, Jesus who is the comforter of those who mourn appeared to her and said, “My dearest daughter, let not the memory of your sins trouble or sadden you, for all your sins are forgiven you.” And when she replied to the contrary and said that she was convinced that if he wished to treat her with justice and not mercy, she ought to be condemned to the pains of hell, Jesus replied and said, “My daughter, justice has already been done to God the Father for your sins, and full satisfaction made to him already for everything, according to the demands of justice. For if you have offended God with all the limbs of your body, I have suffered for your sins and those of the entire human race in all the limbs of my body. For if you have offended with your hands and feet, my hands and my feet were fixed with harshest nails to the wood of the cross. If you have offended with your head, my head was lacerated most painfully with thorns. If with your eyes, my eyes were bound and covered with a blindfold. If with your ears, my ears heard blasphemies and revolting insults. If with your tongue, my tongue was sprinkled with strong vinegar and torn. If with your heart, my heart was pierced with a lance. If you have offended God with your entire body, my entire body has been scourged, so that from the soles of my feet to the top of my head there could be seen in me no trace of wholeness (Is 1:6). You can therefore see, daughter, that suitable satisfaction has been most justly done to God the Father for your sins. Truly, I have borne in my heart the languors of every sin and their sorrows – I who did no sin, nor was any guile found in my mouth” (Is 53:9).
Moreover the handmaid of Christ, Elizabeth, was praying on when suddenly with the eyes of her mind she saw a hand22 which had long fingers and a wide broad palm. In the midst of the palm was a bleeding wound. She immediately understood that it was the hand of Christ. She was wondering why it was so slender and long: immediately she was given the answer that it was so slender because when Christ was living in the flesh, during the night he held his hands stretched out in prayer, and during the day while preaching the kingdom of God through the towns and villages, he toiled with his hands, feet, and whole body.
After this she heard a voice saying to her, “Elizabeth, for the third time I say to you, your sins are forgiven you and you have my grace.” She replied to this voice, ”Lord, if I am made as holy as you say, why is it that I cannot stop myself from offending your majesty in some way every day?” The voice said to her, “Because if you did not sometimes offend, you would not be so humbled and consequently you would not love me so much and you would become worse than the devils, who believe and tremble (Jas 2:19). Therefore I have not sanctified you to such an extent that you are unable to sin. But it is enough for you that I have given you so much grace that, rather than willingly offend me mortally, you would allow yourself to be killed, and to die.”
Having said this, Christ appeared fully to her. It seemed to her that frothing, foaming blood flowed abundantly from his side. She began to wonder at this, and Christ said to her, “Do not wonder, daughter, for when I was hanging on the cross, because of the extremity of pain all my limbs were dislocated, my vital organs were shattered and my veins opened. And so the blood from my side was abundant like this, and flowed out foaming.”
All that has been said above, the handmaid of Christ, Elizabeth, asserted around the time of her death (which took place in the year of our Lord 123123) she had seen and heard. She used to say that she had such great certainty concerning all these things that she would rather choose death than doubt that even the smallest part of it were not true.