Cheering From the Cloud of Witnesses

A statue of St. Isabel of Portugal at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Photo by Josh Benton

A statue of St. Isabel of Portugal at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Photo by Josh Benton

There is something called The Great Cloud of Witnesses in Christianity. It can be found in Hebrews 11 and 12. This Great Cloud of Witnesses comes from the history of God’s people. God’s very flawed people who have become people who lived by faith despite their flaws. As time goes by, many followers of Jesus look to this cloud of witnesses, of those fellow believers who have gone before us and are now with our Savior. We see them as examples of faith, of people whom lived for Jesus despite their flaws. And we sometimes envision them cheering us on as one might do at a spectator sport, like at the 12th man at crowd of the Seattle Seahawks at the Centurylink Stadium in Seattle, WA.

There are many believers who have gone before us. Each one living a flawed life of faith. Each one we look to for inspiration on how to follow Jesus. We named our children after people such as these as found in the Bible. We named our son after one of the Disciples of Jesus. We named our daughter after Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. But we weren’t sure about the name Elizabeth, so we chose the Spanish version instead for her.

A few months back, our daughter came to us and said that she wished she had been named Elizabeth instead. She said there weren’t any cool Isabelles in the Bible or anywhere else. We tried our best to explain to her the importance of names and how different names are translated differently in various languages. Didn’t help.

This all changed when my wife and I visited Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo, CA, a few weeks ago. As we walked through the sanctuary, we saw the focus of the sanctuary on the suffering of Jesus. Along the walls, they had the stations of the cross, pictures to meditate on Jesus final journey to die and suffer for us upon the cross, there are 14 in all. We looked at the decorations and paintings, a combination of both Spanish and Native American art. And we noticed the various saints adorned along the wall.

And then we noticed St. Isabel, roses being held in her dress.

I took a picture of it. Since our kiddos were being watched by my folks while we were visiting San Luis, I texted the picture of St. Isabel to my mom to show my daughter. The response “She’s so excited.”

My wife and I researched and asked about St. Isabel. She is St. Isabel of Portugal (also known as Elizabeth, but don’t tell my daughter). There’s something about Isabel of Portugal that stood out to my wife and I–she was kick butt!

St. Isabel was the queen of Portugal in the early 14th century and married to a not-so-nice husband/king. St. Isabel was said to have studied Latin, theology, the Bible, and so much more from an early age and was well versed in many things. As she was married to the king and in a place of privilege, St. Isabel spent her time helping the poor and needy even having her ladies-in-waiting assist her. She also spent time educating the poor and less fortunate, and she was a patron of the Franciscan Order in the Catholic church. According to my research, this was greatly looked down upon in the courts at this time.

As a devout follower of Jesus, she took his words seriously to tend to the weak, the poor, the outcast, the hungry, the naked, and the outcast. She was active in her kingdom, using what she had to help others. Today the term used in current conservative Evangelical theology is “Missional.” She was keeping the mission of God to help the hurting and oppressed and poor and needy in the name of Jesus alive.

It is said that on one occasion when there was a famine, St. Isabel was sneaking out bread for the hungry in her dress. Her husband caught her and demanded to know what she was hiding. Not knowing what to do, she lied and said that she was carrying roses (in mid January mind you). And the miracle attributed to her is that as she reveled what was hidden, roses appeared instead of bread. She was let go by her husband and she continued to feed the hungry during the famine.

She is also known as Isabel the Peacemaker. She stopped the coup of her son against his father by standing in the middle of the battlefield calling for an end to the violence. She brokered peace amongst nations. And when she was old and frail, living a life of service to the poor and hungry, she went once again to stop a major battle. In doing so, she fell ill and later died (on July 4 of 1336).

She gave all, risked all, lived all in the name of Jesus. Though she was a queen she stooped low to help the lowly. Though she was queen, she spent time helping the poor, the hurting, the needy. She used all she could to do all she could in Jesus’ name.

Later I e-mailed the Mission San Luis de Tolosa to ask about St. Isabel of Portugal. I expressed our daughter’s desire to have a cool Isabelle to look up to. They people of the mission directed me to places to learn more. The person responding then added that they hopped my daughter would be inspired in the faith by her “Patron Saint.”

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal. Portrait by José Gil de Castro, Museo Colonial de San Francisco (Santiago, Chile). From http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=116

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal. Portrait by José Gil de Castro, Museo Colonial de San Francisco (Santiago, Chile). From http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=116

That got me to thinking a lot. Now, I do not believe in the veneration of saints (I would like to make that clear). At the same time, these people, these flawed followers of Jesus, lived their faith. They too are part of The Great Cloud of Witnesses cheering us on. They are people of faith we can learn from to help us in our own faith journey and faith walk.

I’ve been pondering about St. Isabel as of late. She supported the Franciscan order, an order who has been following Jesus as their founder had laid out to do–feed the hungry, help the poor, alleviate suffering, preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. I wonder, am I risking it all like Isabel did? Am I using who I am and where I am to be who God has called me to be? Am I a living example for my children to look to, to point to, saying that I am an example, though as flawed as I am, on how to live for Jesus.

St. Isabel of Portugal would today be seen as a strong leader in the church, she would be seen as embodying the idea of being missional, living out the mission of God in Jesus. She is truly one of The Great Cloud of Witnesses. I pray that she inspires my daughter to live for Jesus, and inspires me to.

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