When a voice from the thirteenth century comes to us amid the din of the nineteenth, it is difficult for those interested in the cause of human progress not to feel their attention strongly challenged. Such a voice appeals to us in a work which has now first appeared in an English version, “The Life and Revelations of Saint Gertrude, Virgin and Abbess,” by a Religious of the Order of Poor Clares
We owe it to a religious of the order of Poor Clares; a daughter of Saint Francis thus paying to Saint Benedict a portion of that debt which all the religious orders of the West owe to their great patriarch. The book possesses a profound interest, and that of a character wholly apart from polemics. The thirteenth century, the noblest of those included in the “ages of faith,” was a troubled time; but high as the contentions of rival princes and feudal chiefs swelled, we have here a proof that
“Birds of calm sat brooding on the charmèd wave.”
Not less quieting is the influence of such records in our own time. They make their way – music being more penetrating than mere sound – amid the storm of industrialism and its million wheels. Controversialists may here forget their strifes, and listen to the annals of that interior and spiritual life which is built up in peace and without the sound of the builder’s hammer, much less of sword or axe. There is here no necessary or direct contest between rival forms of belief. Monasteries have been pulled down and sold in Catholic as well as in Protestant countries; and in the latter also are to be found men whose highest aspiration is to rebuild them, and restore the calm strength and sacred labors which they once protected. Such books are not so much a protest against any age as the assertion of those great and universal principles of truth and peace which can alone enable each successive age to correct its errors, supply its defects, and turn its special opportunities to account. It is not in a literary point of view that they interest us chiefly, although they include not a little which reminds us of Dante, and reveal to us one of the chief sources from which the great Christian poet drew his inspiration. Their interest is mainly human. They show us what the human being can reach, and by what personal influences, never more potent than when their touch is softest, society, in its rougher no less than in its milder periods, is capable of being moulded.
The “Revelations of Saint Gertrude” were first translated into Latin, as is affirmed, by Lamberto Luscorino in 1390. This work was, however, apparently never published; and the first Latin version by which they became generally known was that put forth under the name of “Insinuationes Divinae Pietatis,” by Lanspergius, who wrote at the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. The work has appeared in several of the modern languages; but the French translation, by which it has hitherto been chiefly known among us, has many inaccuracies. The present English translation has been carefully made from the Latin of Lanspergius and the original is frequently quoted in the foot-notes. The “Insinuationes” consist of five books. Of these the second only came from the hand of the saint, the rest being compiled by a religious of her monastery, partly from personal knowledge and partly from the papers of Saint Gertrude. Two works by the saint, her “Prayers” and her “Exercises,” have lately appeared in an English version.
Saint Gertrude was born at Eisleben, in the county of Mansfield, on the 6th of January, 1263, just sixty-nine years after the birth of Saint Clare, the great Italian saint from whose convent at Assisi so many others had already sprung in all parts of Europe, and whose name had already become a living power in Germany and Poland, as well as in the sunny south. Saint Gertrude was descended from an illustrious house, that of the Counts of Lackenborn. When but five years old she exchanged her paternal home for the Benedictine Abbey of Rodersdorf, where she was soon after joined by her sister, afterward the far-famed Saint Mechtilde. When about twenty-six she first began to be visited by those visions which never afterward ceased for any considerable time. At thirty she was chosen abbess; and for forty years she ruled a sisterhood whom she loved as her children. The year after she became abbess she removed with her charge to another but neighboring convent, that of Heldelfs. No other change took place in her outward lot. Her life lay within. As her present biographer remarks, “she lived at home with her Spouse.”
The visions of Saint Gertrude are an endless parable of spiritual truths, as well as a record of wonderful graces. From the days when our divine Lord himself taught from the hillside and the anchored ship, it has been largely through parables that divine lore has been communicated to man. Religious and symbolic art is a parable of truths that can only be expressed in types. The legends through which the earlier ages continue to swell the feebler veins of later times with the pure freshness of the Church’s youth are for the most part facts which buried themselves deep in human sympathies and recollections, because in them the particular shadowed forth the universal. It is the same thing in philosophy itself; and that Philosophia Prima which, as Bacon tells us, discerns a common law in things as remote as sounds are from colors, and thus traces the “same footsteps of nature” in the most widely separated regions of her domain, finds constantly in the visible and familiar a parable of the invisible and unknown. The very essence of poetry also consists in this, that not only in its metaphors and figures, but in its whole spirit, it is a parable, imparting to material objects at once their most beautiful expression and that one which reveals their spiritual meaning. So long as the imagination is a part of human intellect, it must have a place in all that interprets between the natural and the spiritual worlds.
The following characteristic passage, while it shows that Saint Gertrude made no confusion between allegory and vision, yet suggests to us that so poetical a mind might, under peculiar circumstances, be more easily favored with visions than another:
“Whilst thou didst act so lovingly toward me, and didst not cease to draw my soul from vanity to thyself, it happened on a certain day, between the festival of the resurrection and the ascension, that I went into court before prime, and seated myself near the fountain; and I began to consider the beauty of the place, which charmed me on account of the clear and flowing stream, the verdure of the trees which surrounded it, and the flights of the birds, and particularly of the doves – above all, the sweet calm – apart from all, considering within myself what would make this place most useful to me, I thought it would be the friendship of a wise and intimate companion, who would sweeten my solitude or render it useful to others; when thou, my Lord and my God, who art a torrent of inestimable pleasures, after having inspired me with the first impulse of this desire, thou didst will also to be the end of it; inspiring me with the thought that if by my continual gratitude I return thy graces to thee, as a stream returns to its source; if, increasing in the love of virtue, I put forth, like the trees, the flowers of good works; furthermore, if, despising the things of earth, I fly upward, freely, like the birds, and thus free my senses from the distraction of exterior things, my soul would then be empty, and my heart would be an agreeable abode for thee” (p. 76).
If in this passage we see how the natural yearning for sympathy and companionship may rise into the heavenly aspirations from which mere nature would divert the heart, we find in the following one a type of that compensation which is made to unreserved loyalty. The religion of the incarnation gives back, in a human as well as a divine form, all that human instincts had renounced. “It was on that most sacred night in which the sweet dew of divine grace fell on all the world, and the heavens dropped sweetness, that my soul, exposed like a mystic fleece in the court of the sanctuary, having received in meditation this celestial rain, was prepared to assist at this divine birth, in which a Virgin brought forth a Son, true God and man, even as a star produces its ray. In this night, I say, my soul beheld before it suddenly a delicate child, but just born, in whom were concealed the greatest gifts of perfection. I imagined that I received this precious deposit in my bosom”. One of the chief tests as to the divine origin of visions consists in their tending toward humility; for those which come from a human or worse than human source tend to pride. The humility of Saint Gertrude was profound as the purity of which humility is the guardian was spotless. “One day, after I had washed my hands, and was standing at the table with the community, perplexed in mind, considering the brightness of the sun, which was in its full strength, I said within myself, ‘If the Lord who has created the sun, and whose beauty is said to be the admiration of the sun and moon; if he who is a consuming fire is as truly in me as he shows himself frequently before me, how is it possible that my heart continues like ice, and that I lead so evil a life?'” (p. 106).
There can be no stronger argument in favor of the supernatural origin of Saint Gertrude’s visions than their subjects. The highest of her flights, far from carrying her beyond the limits of sound belief, or substituting the fanciful for the fruitful, but bears her deeper into the heart of the great Christian verities. She soars to heaven to find there, in a resplendent form, the simplest of those truths which are our food upon earth. As the glorified bodies of the blessed will be the same bodies which they wore during their earthly pilgrimage, so the doctrines, “sun-clad,” in her “Revelations” are still but the primary articles of the Creed. Her special gift was that of realization: what others admitted, she believed; what others believed, she saw. It was thus that she felt the co-presence of the supernatural with the natural, the kingdom of spirit not to her being a future world, but a wider circle clasping a smaller one. From this feeling followed her intense appreciation of the fact that all earthly things have immediate effect on high. If a prayer is said on earth, she sees the scepter in the hand of the heavenly King blossom with another flower; if a sacrament is worthily received, the glory on his face flashes lightning round all the armies of the blessed. That such things should be seen by us may well seem wonderful; that they should exist can appear strange to no one who realizes the statement, that when a sinner repents there is joy among the angels in heaven.
A vision, from which we learn the belief of one of God’s humblest creatures that something was lost to his honor by her compulsory absence from choir, but that he was more than compensated for the loss by the holy patience with which she submitted to illness (p. 180), is not more wonderful than the fact that God’s glory should be our constant aim, or that God should have joy in those that love him. The marvel is, that the saint was always believing what we profess to believe. She lived in an everlasting jubilee of divine and human love: it was always to her what a beaming firmament might be to one who for the first time had walked up out of a cave. She was ever seeing in visible types the tokens of a transcendent union between God and man – a deification, so to speak, of man in heaven. Is this more wonderful than the words that bow the foreheads and bend the knees of the faithful, “He was made man?” If such things be true, the wonder is, not that a few saints realize them, living accordingly in contemplation and in acts of love, but that a whole world should stand upon such truths as its sole ground of hope, and yet practically ignore them.
Neither in ordinary Christian literature nor in the ordinary Christian life do we find what might have been anticipated eighteen centuries ago by those who then first received the doctrines of the incarnation and the communion of saints. How many have written as if Christianity were merely a regulative principle, introduced to correct the aberrations of natural instincts! Yet even under the old dispensation the sacred thirst of the creature for the Creator was confessed: “As longeth the hart for the water-springs, so longeth my soul after thee, O Lord.” The royal son of the great Psalmist had sang in the Book of Canticles the love of the Creator for the creature. What might not have been expected from Christian times!
How much is not actually found in all those Christian writings the inspiration of which, in the highest sense of the word, is de fide! How supernatural at once and familiar is that divine and human relationship set forth by our Lord in his parables! What closeness of union! what omnipotence of prayer! Some perhaps might say, “If our Lord were visibly on earth as he was during the thirty-three years, then indeed the closeness of intercourse between him and his own would be transcendent.” But the exact contrary is the fact. The closest intercourse is in the spirit, and apart from all that is sensual; the sense is a hindrance to it. So long as he was visibly with them, the affection of the apostles themselves for their Lord was too material to be capable of its utmost closeness. Even earthly affections are perfected by absence, and crowned by death. Till they are purified by the immortalizing fire of suffering, sense clings to the best of them more than we know; not by necessity corrupting them, but limiting, dulling, depressing, and depriving them of penetration and buoyancy. While he was with them, the apostles sometimes could not understand their Master’s teaching – where to the Christian now it seems plain – and replied to it by the words, “Be it far from thee!” When the feast of Pentecost was come, they loved him so that they did not fear to die for him; but they no longer so loved him as to see in him but the restorer of a visible Israel, and to lament his death. But this Pentecost has continued ever since in the Christian Church! What, then, was to be expected except a fulfilment of the earlier promises: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh;” and as a natural consequence of perfected love, the development of the spiritual sight: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel ii. 28)? Such was the condition of that renewed world for which the apostles wrote, and to which they promised the spiritual gift and the hidden life. More plainly than the Jewish king they proclaimed that the union between the Creator and the creature was no dream, but that the servants of sense and pride were dreamers; and, in words like a musical echo from the canticle of Canticles, they affirmed that between Christ and his Church there exists a union, the nearest type of which is to be found in the bridal bond. This was the doctrine that made the world in which Saint Gertrude lived. The clear-sighted will see that the charges brought against her and her Church are charges brought against the Bible no less.
But all is not said when it is affirmed that the ascetics, like the apostles, enjoyed a closer union with their Lord in his spirit because he had withdrawn his visible presence from the earth. Sense may separate those whom it seems to unite; but there is a nearness notwithstanding, which has no such paradoxical effect. No one can even approach the subject of the visions of the saints unless he duly appreciates the real presence, not only as a doctrine, but in its practical effects. The saints had a closeness to their Lord denied to the Jewish prophets. He was absent as regards visibility; but he was present in the blessed eucharist. If the absence made the love more reverential, the presence made it more vivid. A large proportion of the visions of the saints were connected with the blessed sacrament. In it the veil was not lifted; but the veiled nearness quickened that love which perfects faith. To sense all remained dark; but the spirit was no longer enthralled by sense, and it conversed with its deliverer.
There are those who could not be happy if they did not believe that the world abounds in persona nobler than themselves. There are others who are affluent but in cavils. The visions of saints must, according to them, be illusory, because they are not demonstrably divine! But are the ordinary graces of Christians distinguished from illusions by demonstration? Is penitence, or humility, or simplicity demonstrable? Do we believe that nothing is an object of prayer, or an occasion for thanksgiving, till it is proved to be such? Those who know that religion has its vast theological region of certainty know also that there exists an outward region in which, though credulity is an evil, yet needless contentiousness is the note of a petty mind. Or the visions must be fabulous, because the caviller does not understand the mode of spiritual operation to which they are referable! But how much do we know as to the separate or joint action of our bodily, intellectual, and moral powers? We believe in results; but we understand little of processes.
The only visions received as de fide are those recorded in the Holy Scriptures. Do we know by what process even these came to exist? Were they external manifestations, such as, if shown to two persons, must have worn for both the same semblance; or may they have had an existence only within the mind of the seer? Is not the real question this – whether or not they had a divine origin; not whether he who sent them worked on the mind from without, or stimulated its action from within? In this case the visions of some event – such as the crucifixion – possessed by two different saints, might not have been the less authentic although different from each other in some particulars. Who can say to what extent habitual grace may not determine the action of the imaginative faculty, as of other faculties, so as to produce vision in one man while it produces prudence or wisdom in another? That grace acts on the mind as well as on the heart no one will deny, since some of the gifts of the Holy Ghost are of an intellectual order, and it is through spiritual discernment that we understand religious truth. It seems, indeed, but natural to suppose that grace should operate on the imagination, and thus counterwork the seductions by which an evil power assails that faculty – a form of temptation often, but not consistently, insisted on by those who scoff at visions. If this be granted, then, as we can neither measure the different degrees in which grace is granted, and increased by co-operation, nor ascertain the intellectual shape and proportions of those to whom it is accorded, who can affect to determine to what extent that grace may not suffice, in some cases, to produce vision, even when accorded mainly for other purposes?
But this is not all. The imagination does not act by itself; the other faculties work along with it; by them also the vision is shaped in part; and as they are developed, directed, and harmonized in a large measure by grace, in the same degree the vision must, even when not miraculous, be affected by a supernatural influence. Once more: God works upon us through his providence as well as through his grace; and the color of our thoughts is constantly the result of some external trifle, apparently accidental. A dream is modified by a momentary sound; and a conclusion may be shaped not without aid from a flying gleam or the shadow of a cloud. Our thoughts are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” partly for us and partly by us, and through influences internal and external, which we trace but in part. We can draw a line between the visions which command our acceptance and those which only invite it; but in dealing with the latter class, it seems impossible to determine à priori how far they may or may not be accounted supernatural. It will depend upon their evidence, their consequences, their character, and the character of those to whom they belonged.
“But,” the caviller will object, “unassisted genius has visions of its own.” What then? Does that circumstance discredit all visions that claim to be supernatural? Far from it; the visions of genius are elevated by virtue. They are not only purified thus, but edged with insight and enriched with wisdom. Has virtue, then, nothing of the supernatural? or would Dante have “seen” as much if, instead of following her voice, he had followed that of the siren? Again, simplicity of character, and what Holy Scripture calls “the single eye,” have a close affinity with genius; for which reason the poor possess many characteristics of it denied to the rich – its honest apprehension of great ideas, for instance, and the inspiration of good sense; its power of realizing the essential and of ignoring the accidental; its freshness in impressions and loyalty in sentiment. But simplicity is a divine gift. Above all, faith communicates often what resembles genius to persons who would otherwise, perhaps, have narrow minds and wavering hearts. It appears, then, that the whole of our moral and spiritual being – which is of course under supernatural influence – admits of such a development as is favorable to genius, and may eminently promote that natural “vision” which belongs to it. Education and life may do the same. What disperses the faculties over a vast field of heterogeneous knowledge saps genius; what gives unity to the being strengthens it. It evaporates in vanity; it is deepened by humility. Society dissipates its energies and chills them; solitude concentrates and heats them. Indulgence relaxes it; severity invigorates it. It is dazzled by the importunate sunshine of the present; its eyes grow wider in the twilight of the past and the future. All the circumstances, exterior and interior, that favor genius are thus indirectly connected with grace or with providence. What, then, is not to be thought in a case like that of Saint Gertrude, in which we find, not genius trained on toward sanctity, but sanctity enriched with genius?
It is, however, to be remembered that we in no degree disparage the claim to a divine character possessed by Saint Gertrude’s visions in admitting that some of them may not claim that character. In one favored with such high gifts, it is not unphilosophical to suppose that the natural qualities, as well as supernatural graces, which lend themselves to visions would probably exist in a marked decree. We have no reason, indeed, to conclude that the Hebrew prophets, to whom visions were sent by God, never possessed, when not thus honored, anything that resembled them – anything beyond what belongs to ordinary men. They, too, may have had unrecorded visions of a lower type, in which the loftiest of their thoughts and deepest of their experiences became visible to them; and if so, they had probably something ancillary to vision in their natural faculties and habits, independently of their supernatural gifts. Among the peculiar natural characteristics of Saint Gertrude may be reckoned an extraordinary literalness of mind, strangely ignited with a generalizing power. She had a value for everything as it was, as well as for the idea it included. There was a minuteness as well as a largeness about her. These qualities probably belonged to that pellucid simplicity which kept her all her life like a child. This childlike instinct would of itself have constantly stimulated her colloquies with him who was the end of all her thoughts. In the spiritual as in the intellectual life, the powers seem augmented through this dramatic process, as though fecundated from sources not their own. The thoughts thus originated seem to come half from the mind with which the colloquy is held, and half from native resources.
Let us now pass to another cavil. Devotions such as those of Saint Gertrude have sometimes been censured because they are full of love. There is here a strange confusion. Most justly might dislike be felt for devotions in which love is not supplemented by a proportionate veneration. Among the dissenting bodies devotions of this sort are to be found, though we should be sorry rudely to criticise what implies religious affection, and is a recoil from coldness. The fault is not wholly theirs. An age may be so characterized that it cannot be fervent, even in its prayers, without being earthly; but such an age is not religious, and may not judge those that were. In them reverence and love are inseparable. God reigns in man’s heart through love and fear. True devotion must, therefore, have at once its fervid affection and its holy awe. Thus much will be conceded. It does not require much penetration to perceive also that the more it habitually possesses of awe, the more it admits of love. If the expression of divine resembles that of human affection, this results by necessity from the poverty of language. Those who object to the use of the word “worship” in connection with God’s saints as well as with God (though of course used in a different sense) see nothing to surprise them in the circumstance that the terms “love” and “honor” possess equally this double application. Yet when expressions of real and zealous love are addressed to Almighty God, they are sometimes no less scandalized than when worship (that is, honor and veneration) is addressed in a subordinate sense to the saints! In both cases alike they labor under misconceptions which may easily be removed.
To abolish the resemblance between the expression of divine and human affections, it would be necessary to break down the whole of that glorious constitution of life by which human ties, far from being either arbitrary things or but animal relations improved upon, are types of divine ties. The fatherhood in heaven is admitted to be the antetype of human parentage; and the adoptive brotherhood with Christ, the second Adam, to be the antetype of the natural brotherhood. Can any other principle prevail in the case of that tie which is the fountain whence the other domestic charities flow? Not in the judgment of those who believe, with Saint Paul, that marriage is a type of that union which subsists between him and his Church. If there be an analogy between divine and human ties, so there must be between the love that goes along with them and the blessedness that is inseparable from love.
In such cavils as we have referred to there is a latent error that belonged to the earliest times. The caviller assumes that an element of corruption must needs exist in religious affections which betray any analogy to human affections, whereas it is but a Manichean philosophy which affirms the necessary existence of corruption in the human relations themselves. Human relations are not corrupt in themselves either before or since the fall; but human beings are corrupt and weak, and do but little justice to those relations. Praise, both in heaven and on earth, is held out to us in Holy Scripture as one of the rewards of virtue. It may not be the less true, on that account, that few orators have listened to the acclamations that follow a successful speech without some alloy of self-love. Possessions are allowable; it may be, notwithstanding, that few have had “all things” as though they “had nothing.” It is not in the human relations that the evil exists (for they retain the brightness left on them by the hand that created them), but in those who abuse them by excessive dependence on them, or by disproportion. It is mainly a question of due subordination. Where the higher part of our being is ruled by the lower, or where the lower works apart from and in contempt of the higher, there evil exists. Where the opposite takes place – where a flame enkindled in heaven feeds first upon the spiritual heights of our being and descends by due degrees through the imagination and the affections – there the whole of our being works in a restored unity, and there proportionately the senses are glorified by the soul. This has ever been the teaching of that Church which encircles the whole of human life with its girdle of sacraments. It has naturally come to be forgotten in those communities which admit the legal substitution of divorce, and polygamy for the sanctity and inviolability of Christian marriage.
That those who do not understand the relation of human to divine ties should not understand the devotions of saints is far from strange. The expressions of the saints are bold because they are innocent. They have no part in that association of ideas which takes refuge in prudery. The language of Saint Gertrude is that of one on whose brow the fillet had dropped when she was a child, and who had neither had any experience of earthly love nor wished for any. It is indeed the excellence of the domestic ties that they are indirect channels of communication with heaven. But in her case the communication was direct and immediate – a clear flame rising straight from the altar of perpetual sacrifice. The beautiful ascent of affections from grade to grade along the scale of life had in her been superseded by a yet diviner self-devotion. She had not built upon the things that are lawful within due measure, but upon those counsels the rewards of which are immeasurable. She had reaped immortal love in the fields of mortification. She had begun where others end. She had found the union of peace with joy. Had there been added to this whatever is best in the domestic ties, it could to her have been but a rehearsal, in a lower though blameless form, of affections which she had already known in that highest form in which alone they are capable of being realized in heaven.
Expressions associated with human affections are to be found in Saint Gertrude’s devotions, because she had human affections. In the monastic renunciation the inmost essence of them is retained; for that essence, apart from its outward accidents, is spiritual. What is the meaning of the incarnation, if God is not to be loved as man? To what purpose, without this, the helpless childhood, the fields through which he moved, the parables so homely, the miracles of healing, the access given to sinners, the tears by the grave of him whom he was about to restore to life, the hunger and the weariness, the reproach for sympathy withheld? These domestic memories of the Church are intended to give the higher direction to human affections before they have strayed into the lower, in order that the lower may receive their interpretation from the higher. Nothing is more wonderful than to see the natural passing into the supernatural in actual life; nothing more instructive than to see this in devotions. It is not the presence of a human element in them, but the absence of a divine element, that should be deplored. The natural may be shunned where the supernatural is not realized. It can only be realized through love; and love is perfected through self-sacrifice, the strength and science of the saints.
It is easy to distinguish between devotions that are really too familiar and those of the saints. The latter, as has been remarked, are as full of awe as of love. Their familiarity implies the absence of a servile fear; but everywhere that filial fear, the seat of which is in the conscience, reveals itself. Again, if they regard our Lord in his character of lover of souls, they regard him proportionately in his other characters, as brother and as friend, as master and as Lord, as creator and as judge. The manhood in Christ is ever leading the heart on to his divinity; and the incarnation, as a picture of the divine character, is the strongest preacher of Theism. Again, the love that reveals itself in them has no pettiness, no narrowness; it exults in the thought of that great army of the elect, each member of which is equally the object of the divine love, as a single drop reflects the firmament no less than the ocean of which it is a part. Once more: in such devotions the thirst after the divine purity is as strongly marked as that for the divine tenderness; and death is ever welcome, that God may be seen in the spirit.
“But in these devotions,” it is said, “we trace the yearnings of a woman’s heart.” And why not? With what else is woman to love God? May not the devotion of a child be childlike, and of a man be manly? Why are female affections alone to strain themselves into the unnatural, instead of advancing to the supernatural? In such sneers there is as little philosophy as charity. The whole structure of our being – together not only with all its experiences, but with all its capacities – is that which, yielding to divine grace, constitutes the mould in which our devotion is cast. It is not religion alone, but everything – art, science, whatever we take in – that is colored by whatever is special to the faculties or the dispositions of the recipient. Religion is the only thing that holds its own in spite of such modification. It does so on account of its absolute simpleness. But it does much more than hold its own. It is enriched. Religion is as manifold as it is simple. The faculties and instincts of the mere isolated individual are too narrow to allow of his fully accepting the gifts which it extends to us. But fortunately our incapacities balance each other; the characteristics of religion least appreciated by one being often those which will most come home to another. Not only individuals but nations and ages, both by what they have in common and by what they have of unlike, unconsciously help to make up the general store. Christianity has become in one sense to each of us what it was to an à Kempis as well as what it was to an Aquinas; and why not also to what it was to a Gertrude or a Theresa? All things subserve this vast scheme. How much we are enriched by those different aspects of religion presented to us by the chief authentic architectures! In the Gothic, which is mystic, suggestive, infinite, it is chiefly the spirituality of religion that is affirmed. In the Roman basilica, orderly and massive, it is the “law” that is insisted on. In the Byzantine style, precious marble and beaming gold, and every device of rich color and fair form, preach the inexhaustibility of Christian charity and the beauty of the Eden it restores. These aspects of religion are all in harmony with each other. The mind that embraces them is not endeavoring to blend contradictions into a common confusion, but to reunite great ideas in the unity from which they started. Still more is the manifold vastness of religion illustrated by those diversities of the religious sentiment which result from diversities in the human character.
All modern civilization rests on reverence for woman, both in her virginal and maternal character; the Mother of God, from whom that reverence sprang, being in both these relations alike its great type. In the restored, as in the first humanity, there is an Eve as well as an Adam; and it has been well remarked, that among the indirect benefits derived from this provision is the circumstance that there thus exists a double cord, by which the two great divisions of the human family are drawn to the contemplation of that true humanity. From the beginning woman found herself at home in Christianity; it was to her a native country, in which she fulfilled her happiest destinies, as paganism had been a foreign land, where she lived in bondage and degradation. In the days of martyrdom the virgins took their place beside the youths amid the wild beasts at the Coliseum. In the days of contemplative monasticism the convents of the nuns, no less than those of the monks, lifted their snowy standards on high, and, by the image of purity which they had there exalted, rendered intelligible the Christian idea of marriage – thus refreshing with ethereal breath those charities of hut and hearth which flourished in the valleys far down. In those convents, too, the scholastic volume, and the psalm sustained by day and night, proved that the serious belonged to woman as well as the soft and bright. Since the devastations of later times womanhood has won a yet more conspicuous crown. Through the active orders religion has measured her strength with a world which boasts that at last it is alive and stirring. By nuns the sick have been nursed, the aged tended, the orphan reared, the rude instructed, the savage reclaimed, the revolutionary leader withstood, the revolutionary mob reduced to a sane mind. There are no better priests than those of France; yet they tell us that it has been in no small part through the Sisters of Charity that religion has been restored in their land. In how many an English alley is not the convent the last hope of purity and faith? On how many an Irish waste does not the last crust come from it?
The part of woman in Christianity might have been anticipated. For it she is strengthened even by all that makes her weak elsewhere. In the Christian scheme the law of strength is found in the words, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” It is a creaturely, not self-asserting strength; it is not godlike, but consists in dependence on God. In proportion as self is obliterated, a Divine Presence takes its place, which could otherwise no more inhabit there than the music which belongs to the hollow shell could proceed from the solid rock. To woman, who in all the conditions of life occupies the place of the secondary or satellite, the attainment of this selflessness is perhaps more easy than to man. Obedience is the natural precursor of faith; and to those whose hands are clean the clearer vision is granted. Moreover, religion is mainly of the heart; and in woman the heart occupies a larger relative place than in man. Paganism, with the instinct of a clown, addressed but what was superficial in womanhood, and elicited but what was alluring and ignoble. Christianity addressed it at its depths, and elicited the true, the tender, and the spiritual. The one flattered, but with a coarse caress; the other controlled, but with a touch of air-like softness. In pagan times woman was a chaplet of faded flowers on a festive board; in Christian, it became a “sealed fountain,” by which every flower, from the violet to the amaranth, might grow. Even the chosen people had forgotten her claims; – but “from the beginning it was not so.” Christianity reaffirmed them; it could do no less. It addresses distinctively what is feminine in man, as well as what is manly. It challenges, at its first entrance, the passive, the susceptive, the recipient in our nature; and it ignores, as it is ignored by, the self-asserting and the self-included.
That which Christianity claims for woman is but the readjustment of a balance which, when all merit was measured by the test of bodily or intellectual strength, had no longer preserved its impartiality. Milton’s line,
“He for God only: she for God in him,”
is more in harmony with the Mohammedan, or at least the Oriental, than with the Christian scheme of thought. It is as represented both by its stronger and its gentler half, that man’s race pays its true tribute to the great Creator. The modern poet gives us his ideal of man in the form of a prophecy:
“Yet in the long years liker must they grow:
The man he more of woman – she of man.”
– Tennyson’s “Princess”
Singularly enough, this ideal of humanity was fulfilled long since in the conventual life. The true nun has left behind the weakness of her sex. The acceptance of her vocation, implying the renunciation of the tried for the untried, the seen for the unseen, is the highest known form of courage –
“A soft and tender heroine
Vowed to severer discipline.”
– Wordsworth’s “Ode to Enterprise”
Her vow is irrevocable; and thus free-will, the infinite in our nature, stands finally pledged to the “better part.” In her life of mortification, and her indifference to worldly opinion, she reaches the utmost to which fortitude may aspire; yet she perfects in herself also the characteristic virtues of woman – love, humility, obedience.
The true monk also, while more of a man than other men, includes more of the virtues that belong least often to man. It is pre-eminently the soul within him that has received its utmost development, and become the expression of his being. The highest ideal of the antique world, mens sana in corpore sano, implied, not the subordination of the body to the mind, and of both to the soul, but the equal development of the former two, the soul being left wholly out of account. Such a formula, it is true, rises above that of the mere Epicurean, who subordinates the mind to the body, and makes pleasure the chief good. It leaves, however, no place for the spiritual. By the change which Christianity introduced, virtues which paganism overlooked or despised became the predominant elements in man’s being. Purity, patience, and humility bear to Christian morals a relation analogous to that which faith, hope, and charity bear to theology. The former, like the latter, triad of virtues will ever present to the rationalist the character of mysticism, because they rest upon mysteries – that is, upon realities out of our sight, and hidden in the divine character. The earthly basis upon which they are sometimes placed by defenders that belong to the utilitarian school is as incapable of supporting them as the film of ice that covers a lake would be of supporting the mountains close by. These are Christian virtues exclusively, and it was to perfect them that the convents which nurtured saints were called into existence.
We know the hideous picture of monastic life with which a morbid imagination sometimes amuses or frightens itself. Let us frankly contrast with it the true ideal of a monastic saint. No ideal, of course, is fully realized; but still it is only when the ideal is understood that the actual character is appreciated. The monastic life is founded on the evangelical counsels, the portion of practical Christianity most plainly peculiar to the Christian system. It is obedience, but the obedience of love. It is fear, but the fear of offending, far more than the fear of the penalty. It is dependence glorified. It is based on what is feminine as well as on what is masculine in our nature; on a being which has become recipient in a sacred passiveness. It lives by faith, which “comes by hearing;” and its attitude of mind is like that indicated by the sweet and serious, but submitted, face of one who listens to far-off music or a whisper close by. In the stillness of devout contemplation the soul, unhardened and unwrinkled, spreads itself forth like a vine-leaf to the beam of truth and the dews of grace. In this perfected Christian character we find, together with the strength of the stem, the flexibility of the tendril and the freshness of the shoot. For the same reason we find the consummate flower of sanctity – a Bernard or a Francis – and with the flower the fruit, and the seed which has sown Christianity in all lands; for monks have ever been the great missionaries. The soul of the monk who has done most for man has thus most included the womanly as well as the manly type of excellence. It has unity and devotedness. It has that purity which is not only consistent with fervor, but in part proceeds from it. It shrinks not only from the forbidden, but from the disproportionate, the startling, and the abrupt. It is humble, and does not stray as far as its limit. It regards sin, not as a wild beast chained, but as a plague, and thinks that it cannot escape too far beyond the infection. It has a modesty which modulates every movement of the being. It has spontaneity, and finds itself at home among little things. It is cheerful and genial, with a momentary birth of good thoughts, wishes, and deeds, that ascend like angels to God, and are only visible to angels.
Nor is this all. It is in the conventual life that the third type of human character – that of the child – is found in conjunction with the other two. In the world even the partial preservation of the child in the man is one of the rare marks of genius. In the cloister the union is common. Where the character is thus integrated by harmoniously blending the three human types – viz., man, woman, and child – then man has reached his best, and done most to reverse the fall. It is among those who have most bravely taken the second Adam for their example that this primal image is most nearly restored. We see it in such books as the “Imitation,” and the “Confessions” of Saint Augustine. We see it in the old pictures of the saints, where the venerable and the strong, the gracious and the lovely, the meek and the winning, are so subtly blended by the pencil of an Angelico or a Perugino. We see it within many a modern cloister. It has its place, to the discerning eye, among the evidences of religion.
In the north the world now finds it more difficult than in the south to appreciate such a character as Saint Gertrude. If it is sceptical as to visions and raptures, still more is it scandalized by austerities and mortification. The temperament of the south tends too generally to pleasure; but the great natures of the south, perhaps for that reason, renounce the senses with a loftier strength. They throw themselves frankly on asceticism, leaving beneath them all that is soft, like the Italian mountains which frown from their marble ridges over the valleys of oranges and lemons. The same ardor which so often leads astray, ministers, when it chooses the soul for its residence, to great deeds, as fire does to the labors of material science. In the north, including the land of Saint Gertrude, many of the virtues are themselves out of sympathy with the highest virtue. Men can there admire strength and industry; but they too often believe in no strength that is not visible, no industry that is not material. Mortification is to them unintelligible. Action they can admire; in suffering they see but a sad necessity, like the old Greeks, to whom all pain was an intrusion and a scandal.
Christianity first revealed the might of endurance. It was not the triumph over Satan at the temptation that restored man’s race; though Milton, not without a deep, unintended significance, selected that victory as the subject of his “Paradise Regained.” It was not preaching, nor miracle, but Calvary. Externally, endurance is passive; internally, it is the highest form of action – the action in which there is no self-will, the energy that is one with humility. The moment the Church began to live she began to endure. The apostles became ascetics, “keeping the body under,” and proclaiming that between spirit and flesh, between watching and sloth, between fast and feast, there was not peace but war. While the fiery penance of persecution lasted, it was easy to “have all things as though one had nothing.” There then was always a barrier against which virtue might push in its ceaseless desire to advance, and to discipline her strength by trial. When the three centuries of trial were over, monasticism rose. In it again was found a place for mortification – for that detachment which is attachment to God, and that exercise which makes Christians athletes. There silence matured divine love, and stillness generated strength. There was found the might of a spiritual motive; and a fulcrum was thus supplied like that by which Archimedes boasted that his lever could move the world.
It is difficult to contemplate such a character as that of Saint Gertrude without straying from her to a kindred subject – that wonderful monastic life, with its rapturous visions and its as constant mortifications, to which we owe such characters. Without the cloister we should have had no Gertrudes; and without the mortification of the cloister the ceaseless chant and the incense would have degenerated into spiritual luxuries. It is time for us to return, and ask a practical question: What was this Saint Gertrude, who found so fair a place among the wonders of the thirteenth century, and whom in the nineteenth so few hear of or understand? What was she even at the lowest, and such as the uninitiated might recognize? She was a being for whom nature had done all nature could do. She was a noble-minded woman, pure at once and passionate, more queenly and more truly at home in the poverty of her convent than she could have been in her father’s palace. Secondly, she was a woman of extraordinary genius and force of character. Thirdly, she was one who, the child of an age when the dialectics of old Greece were laid on the altar of revealed truth, dwelt habitually in that region of thought which, in the days of antiquity, was inhabited by none, and occasionally approached but by the most aspiring votaries of the Platonic philosophy. This was the human instrumentality which sovereign grace took to itself, as the musician selects some fair-grained tree out of which to shape his lyre. There was in her no contradictory past to retrieve. Without a jar, and almost without consciousness, she passed with a movement of swanlike softness out of innocence into holiness. Some have fought their way to goodness, as others have to earthly greatness, and won the crown, though not without many a scar. But she was “born in the purple,” and all her thoughts and feelings had ever walked with princely dignity and vestal grace, as in the court of the great King. Her path was arduous; but it stretched from good to better, not from bad to good. She did not graduate in the garden of Epicurus, nor amid the groves of Academus, nor amid the revel of that Greek society in which the glitter of the highest intelligence played above the rottenness of the most corrupt life. She had always lived by faith. The spiritual world had been hers before the natural one, and had interpreted it. Man’s supernatural end had ever for her presented the clue to his destinies, and revealed the meaning of his earthly affections. Among these last she had made no sojourn. She had prolonged not the time, but done on earth what all aspire to do in heaven: she had risen above human ties, in order to possess them in their largest manifestations. The faith affirmed that we are to have all things in God, and in God she resolved to have them. Her heart rose as by a heavenward gravitation to the centre of all love. A creature, and knowing herself to be no more, her aspiration was to belong wholly to her Creator. To her the incarnation meant the union of the human race, and of the human soul, with God. Her devotions are the endless love-songs of this high bridal. They passed from her heart spontaneously, like the song of the bird; and they remain for ever the triumphant hymeneal chant of a clear, loving, intelligential spirit, which had renounced all things for him, and had found all things in him for whom all spirits are made.
– text taken from magazine, December, 1865