Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on some of the great women saints of the Middle Ages. He spoke Oct. 6 about St. Gertrude the Great, a contemporary of St. Matilda of Hackeborn, the subject of last week’s catechesis. Previously, he spoke about St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Clare of Assisi.
As a youth, Gertrude was intelligent, strong and decisive, but also impulsive. She eventually experienced a deep conversion. In her studies, she quickly moved from worldly pursuits to the sacred sciences, and in her monastic observance, she moved from a concern with external things to a life of intense prayer. In her writings, she sought to explain the truths of the faith with clarity and simplicity, while in her religious practice she pursued prayer with devotion and faithful abandonment to God.
Dear brothers and sisters,
St. Gertrude the Great, of whom I would like to speak today, takes us back again this week to the monastery of Helfta, the birthplace of some of the masterpieces of religious literature written by women in Latin and German.
Gertrude was part of this world. She was one of the most famous mystics and the only German woman to receive the title of “Great,” in recognition of her cultural and religious prominence. She made a unique contribution to Christian spirituality through her life and her thinking.
She was an exceptional woman of outstanding natural talents, extraordinary gifts of grace, deepest humility and ardent zeal for the salvation of others, intimate communion with God in contemplation, and readiness to assist those in need.
At Helfta, she lines up perfectly, so to speak, with her teacher, Matilda of Hackeborn, of whom I spoke in last week’s general audience. She maintained a relationship with Matilda of Magdeburg, another mystic, and she grew up under the gentle yet demanding maternal guidance of Abbess Gertrude.
Through the help of these three fellow nuns, she acquired a wealth of experience and wisdom. She cultivated these gifts in her own way, following her own spiritual journey with unlimited trust in the Lord. What she conveys is the richness of spirituality not just of her monastic world, but, above all, the richness of the biblical, liturgical, patristic and Benedictine worlds — all with her own very personal stamp and her exceptional communication skills.
She was born on Jan. 6, 1256, the feast of the Epiphany, but we know nothing about her parents or where she was born.
Gertrude wrote that the Lord himself revealed to her the meaning of the first time she was uprooted: “I chose her for my dwelling because it pleases me that everything that is pleasing in her is my work […] For this reason, I took her away from all her relatives so that no one would love her for reasons of blood relationship and so that I would be the only object of her desire” (Le Rivelazioni, I, 16, Siena, 1994, pp. 76-77).
In 1261, at the age of 5, she entered the convent for formation and study, as was often the custom at that time. She spent her entire life there. She herself tells of its most significant stages.
In her memoirs, she recalls that the Lord preserved her with forbearance, patience and infinite mercy, forgetting the years of her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood spent, as she writes, “in such blindness of mind that I would have been capable [...] without any remorse, of thinking, saying or doing everything I would have liked to do and where I would have liked, if you had not preserved me, both with an inherent horror for evil and a natural inclination to good, and thanks to the vigilance of others. I would have behaved like a pagan [...] despite that you willed from my childhood, from my fifth year of age, that I dwell in the blessed sanctuary of religion to be educated among your most devoted friends” (Ibid, II, 23, p. 140f).
Gertrude was an outstanding student. She learned everything that she could learn from the Trivium and Quadrivium, the educational method of that era. She was enthralled by knowledge and devoted herself to her studies with passion and tenacity, achieving academic success beyond all expectations.
Although we know nothing about her origins, she has related in depth her youthful passions: Literature, music, singing and miniature art especially appealed to her.
By nature, she was willful, decisive, direct and impulsive.
She tells us that she was often negligent. She acknowledges her defects and humbly asks forgiveness for them. With humility, she asks for advice and for prayers for her conversion. These features of her temperament — as well as her defects — accompanied her to the end of her life, so much so that some people were astonished and even wondered how it was possible that the Lord favored her so much.
After her years as a student, Gertrude went on to dedicate herself totally to God in convent life. For 20 years nothing exceptional happened: Her main activities were study and prayer. Because of her gifts, she stood out among her fellow sisters; she resolutely sought to deepen her knowledge in various fields.
However, in 1281, during the Advent season, she began to experience disgust for all this and became aware of her vanity.
On the evening of Jan. 27, 1281, a few days before the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, around the hour of Compline, the Lord cast his light on the deep darkness she felt.
Gently and kindly, he calmed the turmoil she was experiencing — a turmoil that Gertrude considered a gift from God “to pull down the tower of vanity and curiosity that, woe is me, even bearing the name and habit of a religious, I had been raising with my pride, and at least thus find the way to show me your salvation” (Ibid, II, 1, p. 87).
She had a vision of a young man who took her by the hand and guided her to loosen the knot of thorns that were oppressing her soul. Gertrude recognized in that hand “the precious imprint of those wounds that abrogated all the denunciations made against us by our enemies” (Ibid, II, 1, p. 89).
She recognized in that hand Jesus, the one who saved us with his blood on the cross.
From that moment, her life of intimate communion with the Lord became more intense, especially during the high points of the liturgical calendar — Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and the feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary — even during times of illness when she was unable to make it to choir. This is the same fertile liturgical soil of Matilda, her teacher.
Nevertheless, Gertrude describes it using images, symbols and expressions that are simpler, more straightforward and more realistic, with more direct references to the Bible, to the Fathers of the Church, and to the Benedictine world.
Her biography indicates the two aspects of what we might describe as her own special “conversion.” The first was in her studies, where she radically abandoned the humanistic studies of this world in order to study theology, and the second was in her monastic observance, where she moved from a life that she called “negligent” to a life of intense mystical prayer, bound up with exceptional missionary zeal.
The Lord, who had chosen her when she was in her mother’s womb and who from her childhood had chosen her to partake of the banquet of monastic life, called her again with his grace “from external things to the interior life and from earthly concerns to a love for spiritual things.”
Gertrude realized that she had been distant from God — to the point of dissimilarity, as she and St. Augustine call it — and that she had dedicated herself too avidly to liberal arts and to human wisdom, neglecting spiritual knowledge and depriving herself of the pleasure of true wisdom.
Now she was being led to the mount of contemplation, where she abandoned the old self to be clothed with the new. “From a grammarian she becomes a theologian, with the unceasing careful reading of all the sacred books that she could have or obtain, she filled her heart with the most useful and sweet sentences of sacred Scripture. Hence, she always had at her disposal an inspired or edifying word with which to satisfy anyone who came to consult her and, at the same time, the most appropriate scriptural texts to confute any erroneous opinion and silence the tongue of her opponents” (Ibid , I, 1, p. 25).
Gertrude transformed everything into an apostolate. She dedicated herself to writing, to expounding on the truths of faith with clarity and simplicity, grace and persuasiveness, serving the Church with love and faithfulness, to the point of being esteemed by theologians and pious men and women alike.
Very few works are left from this period of intense activity, partly due to the events that led to the destruction of the convent at Helfta. Only The Herald of Divine Love, The Revelations, and her Spiritual Exercises are left — the latter being a rare gem of mystical and spiritual literature.
According to her biography, St. Gertrude was “a firm pillar ... a most steadfast proponent of justice and truth” (Ibid, I, 1, p. 26) in terms of religious devotion.
Her words and her example inspired great fervor in others.
To the prayers and penances required by the monastic rule, Gertrude added many others with such devotion and faithful abandonment to God that she enkindled in those who knew her an awareness of being in the Lord’s presence. Indeed, God himself helped her to understand that he had called her to be an instrument of his grace.
Yet Gertrude felt that she was unworthy of this immense divine treasure and confessed that she had not protected or cherished it.
“Alas, if you had given me in your memory, as unworthy as I am, even a single thread of sackcloth, I would have treated it with even greater respect and reverence than what I would have had for all of these your gifts!” she wrote (Ibid, II, 5, p. 100). However, recognizing her poverty and her unworthiness, she clung to God’s will “because,” she says, “I have taken such little advantage of your graces that I cannot bring myself to believe that you had provided them through me alone, for your eternal wisdom cannot be rendered fruitless by anyone. Therefore, Giver of every good, who has freely given me such undeserved gifts, grant that in reading this text, the heart of at least one of your friends may be moved to think that your zeal for souls has led you to leave during such a long time a jewel of such inestimable value in the midst of the abominable mire of my heart” (Ibid, II, 5, p. 100f).
Friendship With Jesus
There were two divine favors that were particularly dear to her, as Gertrude herself writes: “The stigmata of your saving wounds that you engraved in me as precious jewels in the heart and the profound and saving wound of love with which you marked me — you flooded me with so much joy with these gifts of yours that, even if I had to live a thousand years without any interior or exterior consolation, their memory would be enough to comfort me, illumine me and fill me with gratitude. You also wished to introduce me into the inestimable intimacy of your friendship, opening to me with many signs that most noble sanctuary of your divinity that is your divine heart. [...] To this wealth of benefits you added that of giving me as advocate the most holy Virgin Mary, your mother, and of entrusting me often to her affection as the most faithful of spouses could entrust to his own mother his beloved wife” (Ibid, II, 23, p. 145).
Striving unceasingly after communion, she came to the end of her earthly life on Nov. 17 in the year 1301 or 1302 at the age of around 46.
In her seventh spiritual exercise, which was devoted to preparation for death, St. Gertrude wrote: “O Jesus, you whom I love immensely, be always with me, so that my heart will remain with you and your love persevere with me without ever being separated from you and my passing be blessed by you, so that my spirit, once freed from the bonds of the flesh, may immediately be able to find rest in you. Amen” (Esercizi, Milan, 2006, p. 148).
It seems obvious to me that these are not merely things of the past — historic things.
St. Gertrude’s life continues to be a school of life for Christians — of the straight path — that shows us that the focal point of a happy and authentic life is friendship with Jesus the Lord.
We learn about this friendship through love for sacred Scripture, through love for the liturgy, through profound faith, and through love for Mary, in order to gain ever-increasing knowledge of God himself and, therefore, to know true happiness, the final goal of our existence. Thank you.