16 Nov Saint Gertrude the Great, Virgin
Today is the feast day of Saint Gertrude. Ora pro nobis.
Eternal Father, I offer Thee the most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus Christ, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the Universal Church, for those in my own home and within my family. Amen. The Prayer of Saint Gertrude for the Souls in Purgatory
by DOM Prosper Gueranger, 1863
St. Gertrude was born in 1263, at Eisleben, in the county of Mansfield, in Upper Saxony. She and her sister, St. Mechtilde, were of the family of the Counts of Lachenborn. When she was five years old she was placed in the Benedictine abbey of Rodersdorf, in the diocese of Halberstadt, and her sister Mechtilde followed her soon after. In that holy retreat Gertrude flourished like a heavenly plant, and her soul seemed to be adorned with all the gifts of nature and of grace.
The monasteries of nuns in the Middle Ages were often schools of science; in that of Rodersdorf St. Gertrude was instructed not only in sacred learning, but in what were then called the liberal arts; and she made such progress in her studies, that her learning was matter of astonishment to the most renowned doctors. Being endowed with a natural and persuasive eloquence, the effect of which was aided by her saintly life, she drew all hearts towards her, and her sweet influence.
When she had reached her twenty-sixth year it pleased the Savior of men to manifest Himself sensibly to her, and to begin that series of ineffable communications which thenceforward were her whole life. A holy soul, to whom the Lord specially revealed Himself from time to time, was assured by Him that, after the divine Sacrament of the Altar, there was no earthly resting-place He loved so much as the heart of Gertrude. To another he gave this assurance, that whoever desired to enjoy His presence would always find Him in that heart in which He loved to dwell. And yet a third person, who had ventured to ask how St. Gertrude had merited to be thus preferred, received for answer these words: “I love her thus because of the holy liberty of her heart, into which nothing can enter to dispute my sway.”
The sisters of the monastery of Rodersdorf knew well the value of the treasure they possessed, and elected her abbess in 1294; and the servant of God exercised this maternal office for forty years. Circumstances into which we need not now enter removed Gertrude and her community, a year after her election, to the abbey of Helfta, where she spent the remainder of her life. Her sister Mechtilde followed her thither; and her simplicity of heart was rewarded by our Lord with favors which we may almost compare with those which He lavished on Gertrude herself. God withdrew Mechtilde from the world before her illustrious sister, who lived until 1384.
The marvels which marked the life of Gertrude may be all referred to the unreserved familiarity with which it pleased the Son of God to converse with her, a familiarity so touching and so uninterrupted, that the pious Louis of Blois says it may give us some idea of the communications of the Savior to His Blessed Mother. When we read the five books of her Insinuations of the Divine Goodness, we begin to understand how dear a soul may be to God, and how it may respond to His loving advances.
The fidelity of Gertrude merited for her many sublime favors, some of which we will mention. Once, when she was pouring out her whole heart in love to its divine Spouse, it received the impression of the five wounds of the divine Redeemer; and Gertrude felt them continually to the moment of her death, with an ever-increasing anguish and love. On another occasion, on the Feast of the Annunciation, the Mother of God fastened on her breast a heavenly jewel, wherein were seven precious stones, which expressed by their symbolical colors the seven principal virtues which had drawn down upon the lowly virgin the complacency of the heavenly Spouse. Again, on the Feast of the Ascension, while she was gazing on the crucifix with loving emotion, a ray was darted from the holy image swift as an arrow, and pierced her heart through and through.
Christmas Day was to her more than once marked by wonderful graces. Once she received in her heart the divine Infant, who sprang from His crib to attach Himself to her. Another time the Blessed Mother condescended to lay Him in her arms. One day, on the Purification of our Lady, when her whole being was, as it were, melted in an ecstasy of love, our Lord impressed Himself upon her as a divine seal, which could never be obliterated. And on very many other occasions the Son of God deigned to disclose to Gertrude His ineffable beauty, to ravish her heart with His divine caress, to make her feel the constant care with which He adorned and embellished her soul, and to teach her how she should think and speak and act, to be always pleasing in His sight.
But the especial characteristic of the piety of St. Gertrude towards the incarnate Word is her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The mystery of mercy and of love contained in that divine Heart had been disclosed to her by the Son of God Himself, some centuries before it became an object of special devotion to the Church at large. St. Mechtilde shared with her sister this glorious privilege; and the Heart of Jesus had already been long an object of adoration and love to the sons and daughters of St. Benedict, when, in the seventeenth century, it pleased God to claim for it, by the instrumentality of the venerable sister Margaret Mary, and of the Order of the Visitation, that more solemn worship with which it is now surrounded.
Everything concurred to draw St. Gertrude towards that adorable centre and source of the divine love; and, moreover, our Lord Himself continually excited her to this devotion. Again and again He presented to her view His Sacred Heart, in token of the intimate union which He willed to maintain with her; and He even vouchsafed, in one ineffable revelation, to exchange it for that of the holy virgin, who thus felt her divine Spouse live and love within her. At the moment when Gertrude was about to expire and to rejoin the supreme object of her love, Jesus appeared to her, visible even to some of the pious nuns who were about the deathbed of their mother; and when the last moment came, they saw her soul spring towards the God-man and disappear in his bosom, and thus borne up to heaven.
The love of Gertrude towards Mary was in proportion to the tenderness with which the Mother of God regarded the dearest of the spouses of her Son. Our Lord revealed to her in many sublime visions the grandeur of her of whom He condescended to take our flesh; Mary herself more than once condescended to associate the humble virgin with her in the joys of her divine maternity. Gertrude has bequeathed to us the expression of her devotion to the glorious Queen of Heaven, in that exquisite prayer which so expressively reveals the deep and touching character of her piety, “Hail, fair Lily of the effulgent and ever-glorious Trinity. Hail, radiant Rose of heavenly fragrance, of whom the King of heaven willed to be born, and with thy milk to be fed; feed our souls with thy divine insinuations.”
The religious honor of the saints was dear to the heart of Gertrude; but she felt a peculiar predilection for some of these friends of God. A special attraction drew her towards St. John the Evangelist, to whom the goodness of our Lord to her gave her so striking a resemblance. The great patriarch St. Benedict was honored by her with the most filial tenderness, and he rewarded her piety with marks of true paternal affection. He chose her to reveal to the faithful the promise he had made to give special aid, at the hour of their death, to all those who during their life should have rejoiced with Him in the graces which attended His blessed death. St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, and St. Bernard, were peculiarly dear to the devotion of Gertrude; and, amongst the saints of her own sex, she loved with a love of preference St. Agnes, the tender spouse of the divine Lamb; St. Catherine, the noble and eloquent teacher of Alexandria; the virgin martyr St. Margaret, whom the crusades had rendered so dear to all the Middle Ages; and St. Mary Magdalen, who so loved the divine Redeemer, and who was at once the pattern and the encouragement of Gertrude.
Her life, thus crowded with wonders, was rendered more beautiful still by the ineffable halo of simplicity which crowned it. Her profound knowledge of the mercies of which the Heart of Jesus is the centre and the source caused her own heart to overflow with love to sinners. The conversion of sinners was her great anxiety, and seemed, in many instances, to be effected at her will. A tender devotion to the souls in Purgatory was also a characteristic mark of the piety of Gertrude; and our Lord often condescended to give her proof how pleasing to Him was her charity towards those who could no longer do any thing for themselves.
The gift of miracles set the seal of perfection on this life so full of grace; nor will it appear wonderful that the prayers of Gertrude obtained every thing from Him who loved her so much, and whose love she so fully returned. And yet it was His will to test her patience with long and most painful illnesses, in order for her more complete purification; but He found that she who in time of health chastised her body, and strove to enter more and more into the sorrows of her heavenly Spouse, was always disposed to welcome suffering with thankfulness and joy such was Gertrude; and yet earth would have preserved no memory that it had ever possessed such a treasure, if the divine goodness had not taken care to reveal it to men, lest so glorious a triumph of His grace should remain unknown. Our Lord condescended to command the humble virgin to write out an account of the divine favors He had bestowed on her; and nothing but a direct command from Him could have overcome her supreme desire to glorify God, and be useful to men in this world, without leaving in the memory of men any trace of her passage.
To the obedience of Gertrude we owe the five books which she wrote in German, but which are better known in the Latin translation of the pious Lanspergius. They bear the touching and expressive title, Insinuationes Divina Pietatis; and from them we may learn to what depth of condescension the divine goodness can stoop, and what ineffable tenderness of love the Creator can lavish upon His faithful creatures. Of these the second book alone was written by Gertrude; and it is enough to enable us to enter into the interior dispositions of her privileged soul. The first, third, and fourth books were compiled by the nuns of Heldelfs from papers which the Saint had written in obedience to the command of God. The fifth contains some interesting notices of her last illness and death, and of several events in which the monastery was much interested.
The numberless conversations of the Saint with her Savior, the light which He bestowed upon her, the direction which He gave her, the wonders that took place in this transcendent communion, the language of Gertrude herself,–all concur to render this book one of the most precious illustrations of the power of divine grace in the soul of man, as well as one of the most affecting and instructive of human compositions. No doubt there are many defects of arrangement and method in the several narratives; but still all who have read them with attention bear testimony that no book has ever so enlightened and touched them.
The list of the devoted admirers of these writings would be long and imposing. We might place at its head the name of the seraphic St. Teresa, who, we are told by Father Ribera, her confessor, had taken St. Gertrude as her mistress and guide. Louis of Blois speaks of her, in his Monile Spirituale, in terms of rapturous enthusiasm. Lanspergius, as we have already seen, translated the documents which contain the revelations and teachings of the Saint into Latin. St . Francis of Sales never speaks of her but with devout admiration. Cornelius a Lapide, in his commentaries on the holy Scriptures, calls her a consummate mistress of the meaning of the Holy Spirit. It would be easy to carry on this list through several pages; we will close it with the judgment of the holy and wise M. Olier, as we find it in his unpublished works: “St . Gertrude,” says that man of God, “by reason of her simplicity and profound humility, induced our Lord to treat her in a manner altogether singular, and to enrich her with His best gifts. Her writings tend always to unite the soul to Jesus Christ, and differ in this respect from many works of contemplation, which rather withdraw the soul from its application to the holy Humanity of our Lord.”
It would not be easy, we think, to produce higher or more abundant evidence in favor of any book; nor could the character of the spirituality of St. Gertrude be recognized and attested by judges more competent. But there is an authority far higher still–that of the Church itself. That mother of the faithful, ever guided by the Holy Ghost, has in her holy liturgy set her seal upon St. Gertrude. The Saint herself, and the spirit which animated her, are there for ever recommended and glorified in the eyes of all Christians, in virtue of the solemn judgment contained in the office of her festival. (1)
Many of the writings of St. Gertrude have unfortunately perished. Those now extant are:
- The “Legatus Divinae Pietatis”,
- The “Exercises of St. Gertrude”;
- The “Liber Specialis Gratiae” of St. Mechtilde.
Death and influence
Gertrude died after an illness in 1302. She was never formally canonised, but Pope Innocent XI added her name to the Roman Martyrology in 1677, and in 1738 at the request of the King of Poland and the Duke of Saxony, Pope Clement XII extended her feast to the Universal Church
Monastic life restored at Helfta today
During the Reformation, the convent of Helfta, was secularised, but in 1999 eight Sisters from Seligenthal – a Cistercian convent in Bavaria – started to build a new convent on the site and to restore monastic life there. Today, eighteen women live, pray, and work there and women are invited to share monastic life for shorter periods of time. In 2008 a new chapel in honour of St Gertrude the Great was opened and blessed.
Image: Ecstasy of St. Gertrude, artist: Pietro (Libertino) Liberi (9)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff