St. Matilda of Hackeborn: Liturgy and Spirituality

Pope Benedict’s weekly catechesis.

Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of teachings on some of the great women saints of the Middle Ages. He spoke Sept. 29 about St. Matilda of Hackeborn, whose sister was St. Gertrude the Great.

St. Matilda was drawn to convent life from an early age. She entered the convent at Helfta in Saxony where her sister was abbess. A mystic and a scholar, she was enabled by the intensely spiritual and intellectual atmosphere at the convent to compose numerous prayers and be of counsel and consolation to many. She became the director of the convent’s novices, of its choir and of its school. Her life of intense prayer led her to an intimate union with Christ, expressed in devotion to his Sacred Heart.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to speak about St. Matilda of Hackeborn, one of the prominent members of the convent at Helfta who lived in the 13th century. Her older sister, St. Gertrude the Great, recounts the special graces that God granted to St. Matilda in the sixth volume of her Liber Specialis Gratiae (The Book of Special Grace).

“What we have written is very little compared with what we have omitted,” she wrote. “Only for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor do we publish these things, because it would seem unjust to us to keep silence about the many graces that Matilda received from God, not so much for herself, it seems to us, but for us and for those who will come after us” (Mechthild von Hackeborn, Liber Specialis Gratiae, VI, 1).

St. Gertrude and another nun from Helfta wrote this work, which has a unique history.

Matilda, at the age of 50, was going through a serious spiritual crisis and physical suffering. In the midst of this situation, she confided to two of her fellow sisters the special graces with which God had guided her since her childhood. She was unaware that they wrote it all down.

When she discovered what they had done, she was plunged into anguish and turmoil. However, the Lord consoled her and helped her to understand that everything that they had written down was for God’s glory and for the benefit of her neighbor (see ibid, II, 25; V, 20).

As a result, this book is the main source from which we have been able to obtain information on St. Matilda’s life and spirituality.

Her Early Life

Through her, we are introduced to the family of Baron von Hackeborn, one of the most wealthy and powerful noble families of Thuringia — related to Emperor Frederick II — as well as to the convent at Helfta during one of the most glorious periods of its history.

Baron von Hackeborn had already given one daughter to the convent, Gertrude of Hackeborn (1231/1232-1291/1292), who had an extraordinary personality. She was its abbess for 40 years and lent a unique character to the spirituality of the convent, leading to its extraordinary flourishing as a center of culture and mysticism as well as a scientific and theological school.

St. Gertrude provided the sisters there with an advanced education that allowed them to cultivate a spirituality that was based on sacred Scripture, the liturgy, the Fathers of the Church and the Cistercian rule and spirituality, with a particular penchant for St. Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry.

She was truly a teacher, exemplary in all she did, because of her radical commitment to the Gospel and her apostolic zeal. Even as a child, Matilda welcomed and enjoyed the spiritual and cultural climate that her sister had created, later adding her own personal imprint.

Matilda was born either in 1241 or 1242 at the castle of Helfta and was the baron’s third daughter. When she was 7 years old, she and her mother visited her sister, Gertrude, at the convent in Rodersdorf. She was so enthralled by the environment there that she ardently desired to be part of it.

She entered the convent first as a pupil and became a nun at the convent in 1258, which, in the meantime, had been moved to Helfta, to land owned by the Hackeborns. She stood out for her humility, fervor, kindness, transparency and innocence, as well as for the intensity and the familiarity with which she lived out her relationship with God, the Blessed Virgin and the saints.

Her Personality

She was gifted with many natural and spiritual qualities, such as “knowledge, intelligence, literary expertise, and a wonderfully soft voice. All of this made her a real treasure for the monastery in all regards” (Ibid, Introduction). Consequently, “God’s nightingale” — as she was called — though very young, became the director of the convent’s school as well as the convent’s choir director and novice mistress — services that she carried out with talent and with untiring zeal, not only for the benefit of the nuns there, but for all those who sought her wisdom and goodness.

Enlightened by a divine gift for mystical contemplation, Matilda composed numerous prayers. She was a teacher of faithful doctrine and of great humility — a counselor, a consoler and a guide in discernment.

“Her teaching flowed,” we read, “with an abundance that had never been seen before in the convent and, alas, we fear greatly that something similar will never be seen again. The nuns met with her to listen to God’s word as they would a preacher. She was the refuge and consoler of all, and she had, as a singular gift of God, the grace of revealing freely the secrets of each one’s heart. Many people — not only in the convent, but also strangers, religious and laypeople arriving from afar — attested that this holy virgin had freed them from their sorrows and that they had never experienced so much consolation as they did by her side. She also composed and taught so many prayers that if they were all collected they would surpass the volume of a psalter” (Ibid., VI, 1).

In 1261 a little 5-year-old girl named Gertrude arrived at the convent. She was entrusted to Matilda’s care. Even though Matilda herself was barely 20 years old, she educated and guided the young girl in her spiritual life to the point that Gertrude became not only an excellent disciple, but also her confidant. In 1271 or 1272, Matilda of Magdeburg also arrived at the convent.

Thus, the convent was home to four great women — two Gertrudes and two Matildas — the glory of German monasticism.

Prayer and Suffering

During her long life in the convent, Matilda endured constant and intense suffering, to which she added her own rigorous penances for the conversion of sinners. In this way, she participated in Our Lord’s passion to the very end of her life (see ibid, VI, 2).

Her life was rooted in prayer and contemplation: Her revelations, her teachings, her service to others, and her journey in faith and love had their basis and context here.

The writers of the first volume of the work entitled Liber Specialis Gratiae collected the words that Matilda spoke in confidence on the feast days of the Lord, the saints, and, in a particular way, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It is impressive to see this saint’s ability to experience the sacred liturgy in its various components, including its most simple elements, and to integrate them into daily life at the convent. Some of her images, expressions and applications may at times seem foreign to us, but, considering life in the convent and her tasks as teacher and choir director, we can better grasp her unique ability to form and to educate, which aided her fellow sisters to live intensely every moment of life in the convent, beginning with the liturgy.

Regarding liturgical prayer, Matilda gave particular emphasis to the canonical hours and to the celebration of Mass, especially Communion.

At that moment, she was often caught up in ecstasy — in deep intimacy with the Lord in his gentle yet flaming heart, in splendid dialogue with him, as she prayed for interior illumination and interceded in a special way for her community and for her fellow sisters.

At the center of that illumination are the mysteries of Christ, which the Blessed Virgin Mary recommended as the means to walk along the path to holiness: “If you desire true holiness, remain close to my son; he is holiness itself that sanctifies all things” (Ibid, I, 40). In her intimate relationship with God, the entire world, the Church, those who do good deeds and those who sin were all kept present. For her, heaven and earth were one.

Liturgy and Scripture

Her visions, her teachings and the events of her life are described with expressions that evoke the language of both the Bible and the liturgy. In this way, we come to appreciate her profound knowledge of sacred Scripture, which was her daily bread.

She constantly referred to sacred Scripture, whether to savor the biblical texts that were read during the liturgy or to draw on its symbols, idioms, landscapes, images and personalities.

She had a particular preference for the Gospels: “The words of the Gospel were for her wonderful nourishment and aroused in her heart feelings of such sweetness that often because of her enthusiasm she could not finish the reading. ... The way in which she read those words was so fervent that it aroused devotion in everyone. Likewise, when she sang in the choir, she was completely absorbed in God, transported by such ardor that at times she manifested her feelings with gestures. ... At others, swept up in ecstasy, she did not hear those who called her or moved her, and it was hard for her to recover the sense of exterior things” (Ibid., VI, 1).

In one of her visions, Jesus himself recommended the Gospels to her. Opening up to her the wound of his most gentle heart, he said: “Consider how great is my love! If you want to know it well, you will not find it expressed more clearly anywhere than in the Gospel. No one has ever expressed feelings stronger or more tender than these: As my Father has loved me, so have I loved you (John 15:9)” (Ibid, I, 22).

Message for Us Today

Dear friends, personal prayer and liturgical prayer, especially the Liturgy of the Hours and the holy Mass, are at the root of St. Matilda of Hackeborn’s spiritual experience.

Allowing herself to be guided by sacred Scripture and nourished by the bread of the Eucharist, she followed a path of intimate union with the Lord, completely faithful to the Church at all times.

For us, too, this is a powerful call to intensify our friendship with the Lord, especially through daily prayer and attentive, faithful and active participation in the Mass. The liturgy is a great school of spirituality.

Her disciple Gertrude describes the last moments of St. Matilda of Hackeborn’s life with deep emotion — moments that were very harsh yet illuminated by the presence of the blessed Trinity, the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, but also by the presence of her blood sister Gertrude. When the hour came for the Lord to take her with him, she asked him to allow her to live a bit longer in her suffering for the salvation of souls. Jesus was pleased with this further sign of love.

Matilda was 58 years old at the time. The last stretch of her journey was marked by eight years of serious illness. Her work and her reputation for holiness spread quickly. When her hour arrived, “the God of majesty ... only sweetness of the soul that loves him ... sang to her: Venite vos, benedicti Patris mei ... Come you blessed of my Father, come to receive the Kingdom ... and he united her to his glory” (Ibid, VI, 8).

St. Matilda of Hackeborn entrusts us to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the Virgin Mary.

She invites us to praise the Son with the heart of his mother and to praise Mary with the heart of her son. “I greet you, O most venerable Virgin, in that most gentle dew, which from the heart of the most blessed Trinity was poured out in you. I greet you in the glory and the joy with which you now rejoice eternally, you who, in preference to all the creatures of heaven and earth, were chosen even before the creation of the world! Amen” (Ibid, I, 45).

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