Lessons from Lady Elizabeth of Marburg

Hands working on a carpentry project. CREDIT: FRANCESCOCORTICCHIA
Lastly I would suggest that a job, even a temporary one, should be seen on some level as a calling.

Count Paviam journeyed from the royal court of Hungary to the city of Marburg in the year 1229. He came to observe Lady Elizabeth working in the hospital there, Elizabeth who had previously shared the Hungarian throne with her late husband, Louis. The count came, in fact, not just to observe, but also to persuade Elizabeth to return to the court.

Tom Holland, in his book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (2019, Basic Books) writes that the count was shocked by what he saw. He regarded as clearly excessive and self-abasing the tasks that Elizabeth performed.

Lady Elizabeth, dressed in a coarse tunic, bathed the sick, cleaned their sores, wiped mucus and other body fluids as needed, and changed the bed linens. She paid particular attention to one boy who had dysentery and was also paralyzed. Since he could not move himself around, she had the boy sleep in her bed and took him outside whenever his stomach cramps would start, sometimes more than six times a night. When Elizabeth wasn’t looking after the ill, she prepared vegetables in the kitchen, washed dishes, and spun wool in order to make some income.

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Count Paviam’s attempt to persuade Elizabeth to come back to Hungary failed. They lived during a time when reformers were busy trying to cleanse the Catholic Church. The church, they observed, had lost its bearings. It had too much wealth and its leaders were altogether too powerful and pampered. What the church needed, according to the reformers, was a return to a life of simplicity and service. Vows of chastity and poverty were encouraged. Elizabeth’s response to the count, Holland writes, was swift. She refused. She went a step further. She stated, “If there was a life that was more despised, I would choose it.”

It is difficult for people living in the modern developed or developing world to understand the thinking behind Lady Elizabeth’s response. The jobs we feel entitled to do not look much like what Elizabeth undertook. We believe we should be well compensated, that the work environment should not pose a health threat, and that the job should be accompanied by a suite of benefits including pension, paid maternity and paternity time, and bereavement days. On every one of these points and many more, a career in the hospital of Marburg failed.

Now, it seems to me that a requirement that workers embrace poverty and seek out truly humbling working conditions is extreme, although in certain times and circumstances it might be necessary. However, from this account — which is a fragment of Holland’s impressive survey of the history of Christianity — several key insights to what makes jobs meaningful come to light.

First of all, money, or some kind of material compensation, is necessary (Elizabeth did work for hers). But it is not the only reason we take on jobs. We work for other, possibly “higher,” causes. For most people, the most accessible higher cause is one’s family. But it might also be the welfare of fellow employees who need us to work with them as a successful team. Or the well being of the people our jobs allow us to serve.

Second, the work we do should make a positive impact on wider society. A restaurant server should be able to gain satisfaction from providing a welcoming space to people who are tired, dealing with personal issues, or just in need of a short break during an otherwise difficult afternoon (I’m not suggesting that servers should become counsellors, but only that their clients typically look for a welcoming space, a decent beverage, satisfying food and civil conversation). A realtor must be honest and trustworthy with his or her buyers, sellers, legal team and administrators. A member of a paving crew should leave behind driveways that don’t heave with the frost. A college professor should, to some degree, motivate or inspire students towards the highest level of competence they can achieve.

Lastly I would suggest that a job, even a temporary one, should be seen on some level as a calling. In other words, there is a god. He does not intend for any of us to live haphazardly, pointlessly, or hopelessly. His intention is that our jobs should contribute to a satisfying ordering of our lives.

Perhaps the best way to experience the order that work gives to your life is to go through a period — short I hope — of unemployment when you need to be working. The sense of “rightness” that comes with going back to work can be overwhelming. Suddenly, the world feels properly arranged — a whole lot better of a place to live.

Without responsibilities to look after each day, life can quickly feel disordered, pointless. But a job that lines up to some degree with our skills, preferences, goals and morals, can be one of the things that provides purpose and meaning.

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