Elisabeth von Wolkenstien of Uttenhiem was of famous Tyrolean Nobility. Tyrol, which is now a western state in Austria, was an active location for the early Anabaptist movement in the 16th century. Elisabeth was a mother of a daughter and 3 sons and was married to the crown administrator of the territorial district of Uttenheim. Her Husband Anton, dabbled in the reformation movement, introduced reformation preachers to his family, and got in trouble for his Lutheran tendencies. Somewhere along the way, Elisabeth was inspired by the changing spiritual landscape of the radical reformation and began inviting Anabaptists to her noble residence – such as the more famous Anabaptist preacher, Jacob Hutter.
She taught her cook and a small circle of people to read the bible and taught the beliefs of the Anabaptists, and helped to hide Hutter because of his increased prominence in the area. More and more Anabaptists would come to visit. She provided food, lodging and protection to the Anabaptist and saw this as a part of living out her faith. For 7 years, she helped the Anabaptist movement in this way.
However, her cook began telling the authorities about these gatherings and the authorities started to tighten up. Then, another Anabaptist under torture gave a tip to the authorities, giving up Elizabeth, her husband, and two sons. Her teenage sons and her husband were taken to prison, and she and her cook were taken to a castle. The sons recanted, and one joined the army to prove himself – he never returned from war.
Elisabeth was not initially tortured, because of her noble birth, and we are unsure what happened to the cook. Elisabeth admitted that she was rebaptized and had Anabaptist beliefs, and as a result she lost their rights to any of their property and was placed in prison. She was then interrogated a second time, and she asked to have a year to pray for wisdom and grace, and think over her faith.
The authorities sent a letter concerning Elisabeth to King Ferdinand II to seek direction in how to handle the situation. And then they began torturing her at a third interrogation
At the 4th interrogation, she recants but not publicly – if she didn’t recant they would kill her. Even though she recants, she was forced to never leave Tirol for the rest of her life, and to pay for the cost of her imprisonment. They then had one more requirement – that she would recant publicly. Elisabeth, being very clever, said she was illiterate and couldn’t read what they want her to say, to try to get out of publicly recanting. So they said she had to recant via a “repeat after me” done by a priest.
She said “I, Elisabeth, wife of Anton von Wolkenstein, confess that I erred when I became a member of the devious and seductive sect of the Anabaptists. Because I regret this from the bottom of my heart, I recant and forswear publicly, give my assent, and commit myself to live from this moment onward for my whole life, according to the principles of the true Christian church and in no way to deviate from it.”
In the end, Elisabeth was allowed to live with her daughter and son in law.
Today, I share this story of Elisabeth because today we are celebrating all saint’s day. All saints day, which was Nov 1, is the day on the church calendar where we remember the saints of our tradition. As Mennonites, who don’t explicitly have saints, I thought it would be fitting to consider a story of Elisabeth today, and consider what we can learn from her life and faith, and perhaps how that relates to our lectionary text that was read today.
Today’s gospel passage is from Luke – and its the sermon on the plain – which is kind of like the Luke version of the sermon on the mount.
Throughout Luke – Jesus keeps getting in trouble. In chapter 4, Jesus goes to his hometown and preaches in a synagogue, and those in the synagogue become incredulous at his claims. This trip home peaks with the folks in the synagogue threatening to throw him off a cliff. Throughout chapter 5 Jesus gets questioned over and over again for his teachings and actions. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” “Who do you think you are forgiving sins and speaking blasphemies?
And that leads us to our passage for today, Luke chapter 6, the sermon on plain, and Jesus starts to talk about who is blessed.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
I imagine that last one would have felt pretty good to say after being nearly thrown off a cliff by your haters.
I imagine that Elisabeth, our 16th century saint for today, appreciated these words and could relate to Jesus’ experiences. She taught teachings that were considered blasphemous, like Jesus. And though She wasn’t nearly thrown off a cliff, her life was threatened, like Jesus.
Elisabeth, our anabaptist saint who had all of her possessions seized from her.
Elisabeth, who was tossed in a Jail for her beliefs.
Elisabeth, who’s children recanted pretty quickly and left her behind.
Elisabeth, who like many women even today, was silenced and told she cannot think and say the things she believes
Elisabeth, who in the end, bailed on her convictions.
Elisabeth did not do what our favorite Mennonite Martyrs did. She bailed. She recanted
Elisabeth, who’s story has similarities to Jesus in Luke, does not maintain her beliefs the whole way to the cross, like Jesus.
If she bailed, and was no longer hated because of her beliefs, did she still qualify for the “blessings” that come from being hated? Perhaps Jesus’ woes are more fitting for her.
Woe to you who are rich,
Woe to you who are full now,
Woe to you who are laughing now,
Perhaps a better question, “are these blessings something that one qualifies for”
What is a Beatitude?
Some interpreters think about these beatitudes in a very transactional way. If you are poor enough, you get the kingdom. If you are hungry, you get to be filled up.
When I read the beatitudes, I find myself asking a ton of questions. Who am I in these beatitudes? Am I too rich, am I laughing too much?
Jesus even says, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” Now that is a beatitude for a new pastor to meditate on.
I wonder if one of the points of the beatitudes is an invitation to have us wonder. To have us ask really hard questions of ourselves – instead of tasks for us to complete.
Something I have been pondering, is how the beatitudes can seem like dualities. Such as weeping vs laughing. However, in my experience, weeping and laughing seem less of opposites, and more deeply intertwined.
For instance, When I worked as a chaplain in the hospital, nearly every day I was working with families of patients who had died. One of the most meaningful tools for working with families was storytelling. I would often ask the family, “tell me about this person.” And they would start telling a story, and nearly every time, the story telling would have tears of grief, but then begin to evolve into stories of laughter. Everyone in the room is sharing, is crying, and is laughing. What a Holy experience to be a part of.
It wasn’t that the families were ignoring the grief and were just staying positive. They were deeply experiencing the grief in the loss of their loved one. One of the things that can make grief so strong, is the amount of love there is for someone. Grief can be stronger, when you have memories of loved ones that make you laugh. Weeping, and laughter are in deep relation with each other. It reminds me of the Flaming Lips lyric in the song “Do You Realize,” Where they sing, “Do you realize that happiness makes you cry.”
Perhaps, instead of seeing the beatitudes as something that we are either/or – we actually experience both. You are never purely either hungry or full, we are actually oscillating between these things all the time. You are never purely in grief or in joy. Never purely hated or loved, never purely spoken well of or spoken poorly of, and never purely in abundance or not enough,
And Perhaps, like Elisabeth von Wolkenstien, never purely acting faithfully or recanting
And Jesus, in his sermon on the plain, welcomes us right into the complexity of those experiences.
I have experienced the Christian tradition as a whole, and more specifically in our tradition as Mennonites, who have a 5 inch thick book dedicated to telling the stories of the martyrs, that we are all really inspired by the stories of people who die for their faith.
Perhaps this is the reason why we obsess over the story of Mennonite celebrity martyr Dirk Willems who, during his escape from prison, saves the life of his prison guard, which in turn gets Dirk captured and then killed.
It is so pure – he was true to the very end. And to be honest, nearly unrelatable.
Elisabeth’s story, I find to be much more relatable. She played an incredible role in the passing of the anabaptist faith. She was able to use the power that she had as a noble to lodge and support anabaptists. She stood strong for her convictions. She had an incredible amount of courage to hold to her convictions as long as she did. She was silenced by the authorities and told what she could say or believe. And she struggled to know what to do when her life was on the line.
I get that feeling. It is a terrible feeling when what you do is incongruent with what you preach or believe. It’s a terrible feeling to state something that you do not believe to make other people happy.
Elisabeth was not as pure as Dirk Willems, who’s beliefs brought him to his death.. She wanted to live with her family, to not die, and to have some comforts. Shoot, I want those things too.
Is purity the goal?
In highschool, I was obsessed with my CD collection. I had a thick CD binder with around 200 CDs that I had collected throughout middle school and high school and I loved having what I thought was a prestigious collection of music. Does anyone have a CD player anymore?
Anyways, after graduating from high school, I began to work at Camp Hebron – a Mennonite Camp in Central PA. That first summer after high school, I was doing a lot of spiritual exploration, and was influenced by the college kids that were passionate about charismatic spirituality, “Christian music,” evangelizing at any means, and intense purity culture. So intense that at the end of the summer, I took my 200+ CD collection of all these evil bands, and threw them away. My high school friends were incredulous. They asked, why didn’t you just give them to me – I thought I didn’t want my music to be a bad influence on them.
My music taste was now pure, free of the impurities of Radiohead, System of the Down, and the Flaming lips.
Perhaps I could now be like Dirk Willems.
Overtime, things seemed less and less black and white to me. Were the questionable theologies of “Christian rock” a “good influence” on me? Were the stories of human struggle in the “secular music” something that evoked in me a connection with the divine?
While I never got my CDs back, within a couple years, I was back to appreciating both music.
I am not convinced that purity was the solution.
I often wonder about what it means to be a Mennonite living in the United States. To be connected to this tradition of “non-violence,” and to have the largest military budget in the world, violently maintaining the prosperity that many of my Mennonite ancestors and my community have experienced. Am I pure of the violence?
I know that the Ukrainian war has been a great struggle for non-violent Mennonites to know what to think. I’m
Or how about voting. My grandparents never voted, because they did not want to vote for the commander in chief. Are they pure of the violence.
I know that the movement for black lives has been a struggle for some to join in because of how some protests have led to destruction of property – and yet the police that we pay for are violently killing black Americans. Can I be pure of the violence?
Perhaps Jesus’s beatitudes are not about weeping over laughter, poverty over wealth, Christian music over secular, peace over violence, or martyrdom over recanting, but a recognition of the struggle in life as we experience both. Perhaps it is an invitation to keep holding the questions – and to live into the tension. Not ignore the contradictions, but recognize them and embrace them. And perhaps Jesus is saying, bless you, in this struggle. I see you.
Blessed are you in the struggle with money, with poverty and wealth
Blessed are you in the struggle of the things you hunger for, and the things you have too much of
Blessed are you in your moments of grief, where sadness and laughter are all mixed up.
Blessed are you in the struggle of connections with others, as you experience hatred and love.
Blessed are you in the struggle of your music collection.
May you not make the same mistakes as Phil did.
Blessed are you, when you are stuck in a situation, when you have to choose between your life, or publicly recanting, and you choose to go ahead with a strange “repeat after me” recanting of your faith.
Blessed are you, Elisabeth von Wolkenstein of Uttenheim, because life is not so pure, and you have to make hard decisions, as a human with convictions, as a mother, as a follower of Jesus and the Anabaptist tradition.
What does it mean to be blessed in the struggle – Well, if we think we are not experiencing both sides of a beatitude, if we think we can be purely righteous. If we think that we were complete, a pure Dirk Whelms, then we remain in the illusion that we are whole. That we will have all the answers. That nothing needs to change.
However – the reality is, things need to change. People are in poverty, people are weeping, people are hated. Reality is not whole. Perhaps what Jesus is inviting us to do in the beatitudes, is to question ourselves so that we might grow and the world might change, and God’s kin-dom might deepen.
And through the questions that the beatitudes evokes, and the questions that Elisabeth’s story evokes, may we grow not towards purity and wholeness, but instead in deeper connection with others. In deeper connection with one’s self. In deeper connection with creation. And in deeper connection with God.