“Her life lives on as a lesson of Christian life, of an upright path, and shows us that the heart of a happy life, of a true life, is friendship with the Lord Jesus.”
Silence, prayer, study, and diligent observance of the liturgy… These are some of the principal characteristics of monastic life that have been embraced by a host of chosen souls throughout history. The life of total renouncement of worldly glory, paradoxically, made monasteries efficacious pillars of culture and faith, throughout history. They have always been, a famous historian affirms, “centres of light, of religious ardour and liturgical life, which not only maintained the faith and religious fervour kindled in Christian peoples, but also evangelized and civilized entire nations, conquered by the Church of Rome.”1
In the thirteenth century, the social and religious life of Europe was illuminated by the Cistercian Order, whose abbeys radiated the Benedictine “ora et labora,” renewed by the sanctity, strong personality and captivating eloquence of St. Bernard.
In Helfta, in the centre of present-day Germany, one of these Benedictine monasteries of the feminine branch flourished; having adopted the Cistercian practices and customs, it became the setting for great mystical manifestations. At that time, as the first glimmers of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus were beginning to appear, there lived three great saints who would mark the history of monasticism: St. Matilda of Magdeburg, St. Matilda of Hackeborn and St. Gertrude the Great, “one of the most famous mystics, the only German woman to be called ‘Great’, because of her cultural and evangelical stature.”2
Chosen soul set in a fragrant orchard
Almost nothing is known of St. Gertrude’s early childhood, not even her parents’ identity or where she was born. It is assumed that she came into the world in Eisleben, in Upper Saxony. What is certain is that she was born on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256, and that she was welcomed into the cloistral school of the Monastery of St. Mary of Helfta at a tender age, and there received an outstanding religious and intellectual formation.
Young Gertrude is described in the panegyric that begins the compilation of her writings: “a chosen soul who was set [by God], by pure grace, as a resplendent lily in the garden of His Church, in a fragrant orchard, namely, among holy souls, for at five years of age she was taken from the toils of the world and hidden in the enclosure of religious life, and her purity increased to such a degree, bearing all manner of blossoms, that she appeared delightful to the eyes of all and drew many to her.”3
Later, Christ Himself revealed the reason for having chosen her so young, taking her from parents and relatives: “I chose to dwell in her because I was pleased that everything lovable in her was My work, so that those who were not able to understand the interior—that is, spiritual—gifts that she possessed, would at least love My exterior gifts which shone in her, such as her intelligence, her eloquence and others that proceeded from Me, and thus I took from her all her relatives so that no one would love her as kindred, but that I would be the reason for the love her friends had for her.”4
Innocent heart, brilliant intelligence
Indeed, she was favoured by God with a brilliant intelligence and with many natural gifts, and in her youth she showed true enthusiasm for studies, acquiring a solid universal culture. She studied Latin, philosophy and theology, and she delighted in reading the classical authors, such as Virgil, Cicero and Aristotle.
Music also enchanted her. She had a lovely singing voice and was invested with the task of second cantor during monastic community acts. The liturgy of the canonical hours and all ceremony attracted her strongly, contributing greatly to her continual spiritual growth. “In the sacred liturgy her spirit was favoured with lofty mystical contemplations, and when she was struck by some verse, antiphon, responsorial, hymn or ritual act, she ascended and united herself to God with ardent love.”5
Gertrude was affable, sympathetic, communicative, and possessed a very lively temperament. Her purity was outstanding; she never fixed her gaze upon a man, maintaining not only her corporeal virginity intact, but above all that of the heart, conserving complete innocence. She was exemplary in keeping the rule, docile, obedient and helpful in all areas of community life—a source of edification to all who knew her.
Conviviality with the Divine Spouse begins
However, as often happens with chosen souls, she considered herself nothing more than a proper nun, who fulfilled her duties lukewarmly and who was divided by an excessive interest in culture and study. In Advent of 1280, as she was about to turn 26, the burden of regular observance weighed on her and she was immersed in melancholy and interior darkness. She considered herself proud and said that she had erected a fortress of vainglory and curiosity, “which my pride had raised up within me, although I bore the name and habit of a religious to no purpose.”6
On January 27 of 1281—an unforgettable date in her life—the first mystical visit of Jesus occurred, which she called a “conversion,” marking the beginning of uninterrupted conviviality with her Divine Spouse. After Compline, while in the dormitory, Gertrude relates “I looked upon Thee […] under the form of a youth of sixteen years, beautiful and amiable, and attracting my heart and my eyes […] Thou didst utter these words, filled with tenderness and sweetness: “Thy salvation is at hand; why are you consumed with grief: Have you no counsellor, that you are so changed by sadness?’” 7
While she knew she was physically still in the dormitory, she nevertheless seemed to find herself in the choir, where she was accustomed to offering her prayers. Then He said to her: “I will save thee, I will deliver thee; fear not.” And taking her right hand in His loving and gentle right hand, He continued so as to ratify His promises: “You have licked the dust with My enemies (cf. Ps 72:9) and you have sucked honey amidst thorns; but return now to Me—I will receive you and inebriate you with the torrent of My celestial delights” (cf. Ps 36:8).8
Then she saw a hedge that separated her from Him, of such prodigious length that she could see no end to it, and the top of it appeared set with thorns. She burned with the desire to approach Him to whom she was so strongly attracted yet she could find no way. She was then carried close to Him and she could, at last, contemplate the radiant wounds of His hands, identifying Him as Creator and Redeemer. Offering Him her humble and passionate gratitude, she remained forever captivated by Him Who had “infused new light into my soul, so that I began to run after the odour of Thy ointments, and Thy yoke, which a little while before had appeared hard and almost unbearable, became sweet and Thy burden light (Mt 11:30).”9
Gertrude renounced literature and rhetoric to give herself unreservedly to the love of God. Her “conversion” was also intellectual, for from the time of this mystical experience she exchanged profane studies for sacred ones, resolutely dedicating herself to scholastic and mystical theology, Sacred Scripture and to the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, especially St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great and St. Bernard.
Spirituality of union and of abandonment
Intimate union with God and abandonment to His most holy will marked the spirituality of St. Gertrude. One winter day, she came across a short prayer which asks Our Lord to breathe within Him, as refreshing air, and to desire Him as true happiness. She asked that His most holy wounds would be impressed on her heart, “to stimulate my compassion for Thy suffering and to increase in me Thy love. Grant me also to despise all creatures, and that my heart may delight in Thee alone.”10 0
This prayer pleased her so much and expressed her soul’s desire so clearly that she repeated it innumerable times, with increasing fervour. Days later, after Vespers, she relates, “As I pondered these things, I perceived that the grace which I had so long asked by the aforesaid prayer was granted to me, unworthy though I am; for I perceived in spirit that Thou hadst imprinted in the depth of my heart the adorable marks of Thy sacred Wounds, even as they are on Thy Body, that Thou hadst cured my soul, in imprinting these Wounds on it, and that, to satisfy its thirst, Thou hadst given it the precious beverage of Thy love.”11
On another occasion, she expressed to Jesus the flames that consumed her soul: “I have no other joy than to desire that Thy amiable and peaceful will may ever be fulfilled in me and all creatures. So that this may be accomplished, I am ready to offer every member of my body to be exposed to any suffering.” To which the Lord replied: “Since you have so ardently desired to see the designs of my will executed, I will reward you with this recompense, that you shall appear as agreeable in My sight as if you had never countered My will, even in the most trifling matter.”12
Despite her poor health, which obliged her to often remain bedridden, many came to seek her counsel because of her fame for sanctity. For everyone, “she had a kind and penetrating word, her eloquence was so refined and her discourse so persuasive, efficacious, and attractive, that the majority of those who heard her clearly testified to the spirit of God that spoke in her. […] In some, her words inspired contrition of heart which would save them; others, she enlightened regarding the knowledge of God or of their own debilities; to some she granted the relief of joyous consolation, while she inflamed the hearts of still others with the burning fire of divine love.”13
Beginnings of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Precursor of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by several hundred years—for it was only declared by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the seventeenth century— St. Gertrude penetrated into the intimate love of her Spouse, not according to the vocation of an expiatory victim for the sins of the world, but resting her head on His breast and experiencing the divine and merciful pulsations of His Heart, like St. John the Evangelist. She can thus be considered the theologian of the Sacred Heart, burning furnace of charity, whose wound represented to her a flaming gateway of delights, where she found refuge and was purified.
One day, at Holy Mass, during the elevation, while offering the Father the Sacred Form, in reparation for her imperfections and omissions, she realized at that instant that her soul had been accepted by the Divine Majesty in the same way He received the oblation of the spotless Lamb on the altar. While she expressed joyful thanks for this marvellous favour, “the Lord gave her to understand that every time someone assists Mass with devotion, uniting himself to God Who offers Himself to Himself in this Sacrament for the salvation of the world, God the Father contemplates that person with the same complacency He has for the Most Blessed Host which is offered to Him.”14
Aware of the profound union between Mother and Son, Gertrude knew by mystical experience that devotion to Mary is essential to intimacy with the Heart of Jesus, as she is the most agreeable tabernacle of the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom. Thus, she asked her for “a heart adorned with so many virtues, that God would also be pleased to dwell in it,”15 with a joy similar to that which He had in dwelling in her.
The Spiritual Exercises—another of her works that has come down to us—present admirable paraphrasing of liturgical texts, with theological precision and captivating prose. Nevertheless, it is in the Herald of Divine Love where she records the infinite mercy of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In response to the saint’s reluctance to commit her revelations to paper, the Divine Saviour prompted: “If you know that My will, which no one can resist, is that you write this book, why are you troubled? I Myself urge her who writes to do so; I will faithfully help her and safeguard what is mine. […] This book will be called Legatus divinæ pietatis, for in it one will in some way taste the superabundance of My divine piety. […] I grant by virtue of My divinity that whoever reads it with sincere faith, humble devotion and pious gratitude, for My glory, and seeks in it his edification, will obtain pardon for his venial sins and attain the grace, spiritual consolation and disposition for more sublime graces.”16
A school of Christian life
Gertrude died on November 17, 1302, and is, today, a star of the highest grandeur among Catholic mystics. Her writings, which reveal a life of outstanding sanctity and eminent doctrine, can be placed alongside those of St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus or St. Hildegard of Bingen, the great female Doctors of the Church.
“St. Gertrude’s life lives on as a lesson of Christian life, of an upright path, and shows us that the heart of a happy life, of a true life, is friendship with the Lord Jesus. And this friendship is learned in love for Sacred Scripture, in love for the Liturgy, in profound faith, in love for Mary, so as to be ever more truly acquainted with God himself and hence with true happiness, which is the goal of our life.”17 ◊
Request for Declaration as Doctor of the Church
Since 2012, the Cistercian and Trappist Orders and the congregations belonging to the Benedictine family have been promoting the postulation of the declaration of St. Gertrude as Doctor of the Church, a request which has the adherence of figures such as the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, Cardinal Orani João Tempesta, OSB, and many bishops, theologians, and experts.
More information with respect to this cause, as well as the steps involved in writing a postulatory letter in support of the initiative, can be found on the website of the Conference of Monastic Communities of the Southern Cone, www.surco.org/santagertrudis, or by writing to the postulator for the Title of “Doctor” for St. Gertrude, Sister Augusta Tescari, OCSO, Trappist monastery. Via Della Stazione, 23.01030. Vitorchiano (Viterbo) Italia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.