St. Gertrude the Great
Feast Day November 16
“Today, I will learn everything there is to learn today.” This is the mantra of learning that my daughter’s kindergarten teacher instilled in her students. As I have been spending time with the life of Saint Gertrude the Great, this mantra and the image of my little girl’s bright enthusiastic face keeps surfacing in my mind. The driving force in Gertrude’s life was twofold, a sincere desire for God and an unquenchable desire for learning.
Born in Eisleben, Saxony on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256, it seems appropriate that Gertrude would seek both God and learning. No one is certain if Gertrude was given by her parents as an oblate to the Monastery of Helfta or if she was an orphan, either way, she arrived at the monastery when she was four years old and received an extraordinary education under the leadership of Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn. Gertrude was taught by St. Mechtilde of Hackeborn (the abbess’s sister). Gertrude’s curiosity was insatiable. She had a great interest in literature, music and miniature painting.
The desire for God, a desire Gertrude had known from her earliest memory, spurred her to dedicate herself to seeking God in the monastic community of Helfta. The academic gifts she possessed did not assist her though in pursuing the life of an ordinary nun. Her quest for knowledge became a burden on her and a distraction in her prayer. When she was twenty-four she had a vision of a “young man” coming to her, taking her hand and guiding her through the tangle of thorns, vanity and pride that surrounded her heart. She recognized on his hand “the precious traces of the wounds”. After that experience, Gertrude redirected her pursuit of knowledge toward the Scriptures and the writings of the great spiritual leaders of the Church. As her visions continued Gertrude began to write and to assist those who came to her for guidance. She counseled anyone who came to her, politicians and paupers alike. Pope Benedict XVI sees the fruits of Gertrude’s visions and studies this way:
“Gertrude transformed all this into an apostolate: she devoted herself to writing and popularizing the truth of faith with clarity and simplicity, with grace and persuasion, serving the Church faithfully and lovingly so as to be helpful to and appreciated by theologians and devout people.” Pope Benedict XVI General Audience October 6, 2010
The women of Helfta were among the first to devote themselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Many of Gertrude’s visions reinforce this devotion. On the Feast of St. John the Evangelist St. Gertrude had a vision. She was resting her head near the wound in the Savior’s side and hearing the beating of the Divine Heart. She asked Saint John if on the night of the Last Supper, he had felt these pulsations, why he had never spoken of the fact. Saint John replied that this revelation had been reserved for subsequent ages when the world, having grown cold, would have need of it to rekindle its love.
Many of Gertrude’s mystical experiences are lost to us because much of her writing did not survive. When the nuns moved from Old Helfta to New Helfta, much of her work did not accompany them. Three works did survive though: The “Legatus Divinae Pietatis”, The “Exercises of St. Gertrude”; called “A rare gem” by Pope Benedict XVI and The “Liber Specialis Gratiae” of St. Mechtilde. Writing created some struggles within Gertrude, especially coping with her wound of pride. Yet, in recognizing her poverty and worthlessness she adhered to God’s will, “because”, she said, “I have so little profited from your graces that I cannot resolve to believe that they were lavished upon me solely for my own use, since no one can thwart your eternal wisdom.”
Encouraging! Saint Gertrude the Great struggled with pride and answered the struggle with true humility. She did not resort to claiming her gifts do not exist. She did not undermine God by not using her gifts. Recognizing what was “lavished” on her, she used these gifts in cooperation with God. By doing so, her writings not only influenced the people of her time but also were used by the Church in France to refute Jansenism. Her writings also influenced the spiritual lives of Philip Neri, Theresa of Avila and Francis De Sales not to mention countless unnamed people even until today.
So I encourage you to pay attention to your gifts. Don’t deny them. Because if you are cooperating with God, today, you will learn all there is to learn today.
Ana Cloughly, OSB