Cloistered Dominican Nuns Corpus Christi Monastery

A [Not] Fairy Tale: St. Margaret of Hungary, O.P.

From 15th Century Woodcarving IMG_1213

Once upon a time, there lived a king and his queen in a beautiful land.  For a time, peace and prosperity reigned in this land.  Then, whispers and rumors came of a storm brewing and moving toward them.  A destructive and blood-thirsty people, the Tartars, were coming.  The king and queen grew vigilant, but the people could not be roused from their peace and comfort, and dismissed the threat.  Then, the storm descended and the Tartars invaded the peaceful land, destroying what the people had built.

The king sent his children and pregnant queen to another noble, who, seeing an opportunity to grab power for himself, sought to exploit the king’s vulnerability by rousing other nobles and the people against him.  Eventually, the king was driven to run and, reuniting with his queen and children, fled to make a last stand at a stronghold on an island.  Two of his three children died in the course of their escape and, as they watched the Tartars building boats and readying themselves to cross the waters to the island, it appeared the rest of the royal family would soon follow them in death.  Desperate, the king and queen knelt down and prayed.  “God, should you see fit to deliver us and our people from these violent people, we will consecrate our unborn child to you, in the service of St. Dominic’s Order.”

At the completion of their prayer, another storm began, this one from nature.  For three days, their place of refuge was buffeted by the winds and rains.  At the end of the third day, as the storm began to break, the priest with them heard their confessions and prepared them for the death all thought to be inevitable.  But as they went outside to meet their fate, they were met instead with calm and clear skies.  There was no sign of the invaders anywhere.  And they never returned to the land.  Returning home, the queen gave birth to a little baby girl they named Margaret.
True to their promise, when the little girl was three years old, they took her to a Dominican monastery to be educated with other girls of noble birth.  But soon the nuns realized little Margaret was different from the others girls.  She spent her time in prayer instead of play.  If the other girls invited her to play, she insisted they all go to the chapel first and pray an “Ave”.  Watching the nuns, Margaret learned the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary by rote and would recite it to herself during the day.  When she heard the nuns made certain sacrifices and acts of mortification for Jesus, she begged permission to do the same.

One day, she asked the meaning of the crucifix, and was told how the Son of God became man and died for us on the cross.  She sank down on her little knees, kissed and hugged the crucifix tightly, burst into tears, and said:

    O my Jesus!  Me too!  To You I give myself, for You I abandon all things.

The nuns and others observed her understanding and reasoning seemed to be more advanced than other girls her age.  When she was four years old, she begged, and was permitted, to receive the Dominican habit.  She received it with such gravity and respect, all the nuns were filled with admiration.

Her parents build a convent for her on an island in the Danube River, on the outskirts of Budapest, and she moved there with several sisters when she was ten years old.  The community grew quickly and soon numbered seventy sisters.  Despite her royal lineage, she longed to be treated as a worthless servant, desiring only to share in Jesus’ life and sufferings.  She was never prioress or held any other position of prestige or authority, even in her own monastery, and no job was too difficult or menial for her.  In fact, she sought the dirtiest and most repugnant work and took special delight in caring for the especially difficult sisters in the infirmary.  In offering her mind to God, she set about memorizing all 150 Psalms and the Conferences by John Cassian in Latin, among many other Scripture passages, prayers, and written works.

One day, the king of Bohemia chanced to meet her on a visit to the monastery and was beguiled by her beauty.  Smitten, he asked permission of her father to marry, who responded with the fact that she was dedicated to God.  Undaunted, the king of Bohemia asked, if he could obtain a dispensation for her from the pope, would he consent?  The match was politically compelling…and just think of all the good Margaret could do for the people of Hungary and Bohemia as queen!  Her father agreed that, if he could obtain permission of both the pope and his daughter, he would grant his consent.  The pope granted the dispensation, but Margaret adamantly refused.  Despite arguments and pressure from her parents, she held her ground: she would not break the promise of her dedication to God, and would rather die than marry.  You see, Margaret had already given her heart, mind, body, and soul to another Love.

Margaret continued her penances, long vigils, and tireless works of charity within the cloister.  In all things, she offered herself for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, in particular, her own people.  The Cross was all she needed to be spurred on to her heroic acts of love and sacrifice.  One of the items she cherished most was a crucifix in which was kept a small relic of the True Cross and she was often found praying in front of a crucifix, with tears streaming down her face.

A fellow sister once asked her how to pray well.  She responded:

Sister, offer God your body and your soul, and let your heart be always near Him, with neither death nor tribulation, nor anything here below being able to detach it from Him; thus you will pray well.

In her desire to be the poorest of the poor, she chose to wear the poorest, roughest, most threadbare habits.  If she was given anything new and of better quality, with permission, she immediately sought to give it away to benefit the poor.  Her knees were cracked and gnarled from her long prayers and her hands were often chapped and bled from her work.   Her face was marked with tears of compassion and sorrow for sins from her prayers, streaking through the dirt and grime she picked up from her tasks.  Because of her resulting poor and dirty appearance, some of her own sisters became embarrassed and avoided her.  She was not ignorant to this fact.  Shortly before her death, she told her sisters:

You will no longer want to keep away from me then, for my body will be as fragrant after death as it is displeasing to you now.

Though this treatment from her sisters may have stung her sensitive heart, she was joyful to be treated as Jesus was – scorned and despised.  When her sisters encouraged her to spare herself and moderate her sacrifices and penances so that she may live longer, she simply looked at them with her delightful smile and replied:

Many of the people who look forward to a long life in this valley of tears put off doing good works, since they think that they will have plenty of time before they die.  As for me, I prefer to be of the number of those who, being anything but certain of a long life, consider that they have no time to lose if they wish to give God all the glory that they can before they die.  Besides, we all know that it is a waste of time to live here in a convent if we are looking for rest and comfort for our mortal body and for the joys of this world.  The enclosure is a suitable home only for those who are seeking those things which are eternal.

Reading accounts of her life, we cannot help but wonder, “How can I possibly relate to this?!”  For we have the incredible story of a princess who became a pauper and endured much pain and hardship, whose life was filled with unbelievable graces and miracles.  But ultimately, her story is the fairy tale that is not a fairy tale – it is a love story Jesus invites us all to live.  The one where we recognize that the end is the beginning: the ultimate purpose of our life on earth is not to live the soft, luxurious life of a princess, to seek riches, power, or pleasure, even if those things could be used to do good.  Because, ultimately, whether rich or poor, talented or not, we are all poor servants and the only treasure that will last is that to which we look for in eternity.

St. Margaret of Hungary, O.P., died when she was twenty-eight years old.  Before she died, she was given the grace to know the date of her death.  While in still perfect health and vigor, she told a sister on January 8, 1270, “I will die in ten days.”  After a few days of violent fever, on the 18th of January, she died, having spent 24 of her 28 years in the religious habit.

A few days before Margaret died, a Premonstratensian nun in a neighboring convent, saw in a vision the Blessed Virgin Mary descend to the Dominican convent and place a magnificent crown on the head of Sister Margaret, when she led her to heaven amid the sounds of ravishing music.  Another nun of the same order saw a brilliant star go up to heaven at the moment Margaret died.  During her life, Margaret worked many miracles, but after her death, they were very numerous – no less than two hundred having been proved: the blind, the lame, the paralyzed, and the sick obtained a cure at her tomb.  She is invoked as patron saint against floods and fevers.

St. Margaret of Hungary, pray for us.

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