Saint of the Day: St. Elzear & Bl. Delphina – The Happy Couple
Today, an unconsummated marriage would probably not be considered advisable by the Church and mental health experts. St. Elzear and Blessed Delphina were a couple who were married and lived together chastely. They are saints because of their care of the poor and the suffering. This couple is also known for their conscientious exercise of their duties as members of the nobility. Interestingly, they were known and remembered as a happy couple.
Personally, I don’t think that I would have responded by taking a vow of chastity on my wedding night the way St. Elzear did when he found out the Delphina had already made one. We have a contemporary theology of marriage that stresses and endows love making and sex within marriage as sacramental.
Certainly the late Middle Ages (St. Elzear 1286 -1323, Bl. Delphina 1283- 1358) was not a “puritanical” time. In fact, Puritanism would not happen for another 200 years and would never take root in the Mediterranean.
St. Elzear was born at the family castle in Ansouis, Provence, in the south of France. At 23, he became lord of Ansouis and Count of Ariano in the Kingdom of Naples. The Count and Contessa became influential in the court of King Robert of Naples and Elzear was the tutor to the King’s son Charles. He was also the “justiciar” or head of law enforcement and justice for southern Abruzzi under King Robert. St. Elzear died on September 27, 1323 while on a diplomatic mission to Paris to arrange the marriage of Charles to Mary of Valois. Blessed Delphina would survive him for another 35 years and spend the time in continued acts of charity.
As nobles, producing children was a serious responsibility. Even when having children was precluded due to medical reasons, noblemen usually had some illegitimate sons at hand. William the Conqueror was one such son. Since the marriage of the Count and Contessa of Ariano (St. Elzear and Blessed Delphina) was so atypical by the standards of their day and ours, how do we relate to it?
Perhaps it was a marriage of convenience, in the sense that due to their social station they were obliged to marry but would have really preferred monastic vocations. Since their state in life was determined when they were young children of a noble family, they simply found a way around it.
Young children at the ages of 5 -7 were sent as oblates to monasteries and convents. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Thomas Aquinas are two examples. We also know, of course, that many people who found themselves in “enforced” monastic vocations would do their best to bend or break the rules.
Then as now, marriages – especially those among the rich and powerful -were not happy affairs. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) and her Church sanctioned marriages to King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England demonstrates the far from Romantic character of such marriages. In fact, Eleanor of Aquitaine was a major promoter of the troubadour movement. The origins of what we today experience as romantic love originally began as songs of chaste love for the unattainable woman. As we know, the reality of courtly love was far from chaste, but it seemed to provide some fluidity in a tight social structure. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t cause feelings of betrayal and rejection resulting in duels, beatings, and death. The case of King Henry VIII in the early modern period (1491 -1547) provides a window onto the complexity of marriage in Europe in previous centuries.
The Count and Contessa feeding the poor, living as lay Franciscans, and in the case of St. Elzear healing lepers were definitely unusual for the time. What was probably most striking about them is that they were known as a happy couple. Their marriage – even if its lack of consummation might not adhere to the Church’s definition of one – was a partnership for a radical living of the Gospel.
In our own culture and time, can we say as much about our marriages and the joy, happiness and moral guidance they bring to others?