Saint of the week

St Gertrude the Great, November 16th

St Gertrude was a 13th century German Benedictine nun and mystic, and she is also the only German woman to be called “Great”, Pope Benedict XVI tells us, solely because of “her cultural and evangelical stature”. Her writings reveal that she anticipated popular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to St Joseph and also the later revival of the frequent reception of Holy Communion. Her existing works, as many others have been lost, were considered by Alban Butler, the hagiographer, as “perhaps the most useful production, next to the writings of St Teresa, with which any female saint has enriched the Church for the nourishing of piety in a contemplative state”.

Indeed, a general audience of October 6th, 2010, Pope Benedict declared that her “life and thought had a unique impact on Christian spirituality”.

“She was an exceptional woman, endowed with special natural talents and extraordinary gifts of grace, the most profound humility and ardent zeal for her neighbour’s salvation,” the Pope Emeritus said, adding: “She was in close communion with God both in contemplation and in her readiness to go to the help of those in need.”

St Gertrude was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, 1256, but nothing is known about either her parentage or her place of birth. She entered the Benedictine monastery of Helfa in Saxony as a five-year-old girl, a common practice during that period, but she probably never left the cloister from the time of her arrival. St Gertrude grew up under the wing of Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn, and was a student of St Matilda of Hackeborn and also an associate of Matilda of Magdeburg, the Medieval mystic.

Butler’s Lives of the Saints says she was “personally very attractive and of great intellectual ability, that she became a good Latin scholar and in due course was professed a nun”. In fact, she was an extraordinarily talented student who attained “scholastic successes beyond expectation” and who was especially passionate about literature, music, song and art. Although already living the religious life of study and prayer, the saint underwent a profound interior conversion at the age of 26 years old following the reception of the first of the private revelations that made her famous across Europe.

At a moment when she had been feeling deeply disgusted with the vanity of her learning, she experienced a vision of a young man who took her by the hand to guide her through a tangle of thorns which wound around her heart.

In that hand, Gertrude recognised, in her own words, “the precious traces of the wounds that abrogated all the acts of accusation of our enemies” and thus identified the visitor as Our Lord Jesus Christ.

This was one of the most important moments in the life of St Gertrude and thereafter the saint applied herself with great zeal to the attainment of spiritual perfection and to ever closer unity with God. She deliberately shifted away from the humanistic studies at which she excelled to apply herself instead to theology and knowledge and understanding of Sacred Scripture. She successfully transformed all of this learning into an apostolate which reached far beyond the boundaries of her monastery or the confines of her historical period.

In particular, Pope Benedict explained during his general audience, “she devoted herself to writing and popularising 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”.

Among St Gertrude’s works are The Herald of Divine Love, The Revelations, and also her Spiritual Exercises. These had the effect of inspiring fervour among their readers and led the saint to understand that she had been called to serve as an instrument of God’s grace. “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,” St Gertrude wrote. “Therefore, O giver of every good thing who has freely lavished upon me gifts so undeserved, in order that, in reading this, the heart of at least one of your friends may be moved at the thought that zeal for souls has induced you to leave such a priceless gem for so long in the abominable mud of my heart.”

St Gertrude went on to record numerous divine visions and mystical experiences, which have been received favourably by eminent theologians and other holy mystics. She spoke of a ray of light shooting like an arrow from the wound in the side of Our Lord on a crucifix, for instance, while on another occasion she saw the representation of her soul as wax softened at a fire and presented to the bosom of Christ to receive the impression of a seal. She also spoke of a spiritual marriage in which she felt drawn into the heart of Jesus.

St Gertrude died on November 17 in either 1301 or 1302, at the age of about 46 years after suffering from ill health for about a decade. Her Spiritual Exercises tell us something about how she prepared for death, as they include a prayer which reads: “O Jesus, you who are immensely dear to me, be with me always, so that my heart may stay with you and that your love may endure with me with no possibility of division; and bless my passing, so that my spirit, freed from the bonds of the flesh, may immediately find rest in you. Amen”

St Gertrude the Great was made a saint in 1677 by Pope Innocent XI using the process of equipollent (or equivalent) canonisation in 1677. The following century, Pope Clement XII instructed the entire western Church to observe her feast day.