Saint Gertrude the Great, about whom I would like to speak today, takes us also this week to the monastery of Helfta, where some of the masterpieces of feminine Latin-Germanic religious literature were created. Gertrude belonged to this world; she was one of the most famous mystics, the only woman of Germanic descent to be called “the Great” because of her cultural and evangelical stature. With her life and thought she influenced Christian spirituality in a singular way. She was an exceptional woman, gifted with particular natural talents and extraordinary gifts of grace, of most profound humility and ardent zeal for the salvation of her neighbor, of profound communion with God in contemplation and readiness to help the needy.
In Helfta she is systematically compared, so to speak, with her teacher Matilda of Hackeborn, of whom I spoke in last Wednesday’s audience; she was associated with Matilda of Magdeburg, another Medieval mystic; she grew up under the maternal, gentle and exacting care of Abbess Gertrude. From these three sisters of hers she acquired treasures of experience and wisdom; she developed them in her own synthesis, following her religious itinerary with unlimited trust in the Lord. She expresses the richness of spirituality not only in her monastic world, but also and above all in the biblical, liturgical, patristic and Benedictine world, with a most personal stamp and with great communicative effectiveness.
She was born on January 6, 1256, feast of the Epiphany, but nothing is known about her parents or the place of her birth. Gertrude wrote that the Lord himself revealed to her the meaning of this first uprooting. She said that the Lord said: “I chose her for my dwelling because it pleases me that everything that is pleasing in her is my work. […] Precisely for this reason I removed her from all her relatives so that no one would love her for reasons of blood relationship and I would be the only motive of the affection that moves her” (The Revelations, I, 16, Siena, 1994, p. 76-77).
At the age of 5, in 1261, she entered the monastery for formation and study, as was frequently the custom at that time. She spent all her life there; she herself points out the most significant stages. In her memoirs she recalls that the Lord preserved her with generous patience and infinite mercy, forgetting the years of her childhood, adolescence and youth, spent, she writes, “in such blindness of mind that I would have been capable […] without any remorse, of thinking, saying or doing everything I would have liked to do and where I would have liked, if you had not preserved me, either with an inherent horror for evil and a natural inclination to good, or with the external vigilance of others. I would have behaved like a pagan […] and that even though you willed from my childhood, from my fifth year of age, that I dwell in the blessed sanctuary of religion to be educated among your most devoted friends” (Ibid., II, 23 140s).
Gertrude was an extraordinary student; she learned everything that could be learned of the sciences of the Trivium and the Quadrivium; she was fascinated by learning and dedicated herself to worldly study with ardor and tenacity, achieving scholastic successes beyond all expectations. If we do not know anything about her origins, she tells us much about her youthful passions: literature, music and singing, miniature art captivated her; she had a strong character, determined, decisive, impulsive; often negligent, she says; she acknowledges her defects and humbly asks for forgiveness of them. With humility she asks for advice and prayers for her conversion. There are features of her temperament and defects that stayed with her until the end, to the point of astonishing some persons, who wondered how it was possible that the Lord preferred her so much.
From being a student she then consecrated herself totally to God in the monastic life and during 20 years nothing exceptional happened: study and prayer were her main activity. Because of her gifts, she stood out among her sisters; she was tenacious in consolidating her learning in various fields. However, during Advent of 1280, she began to feel displeasure in all this; she became conscious of her vanity and on Jan. 27, 1281, a few days before the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, towards the hour of Compline, the Lord illumined her dense darkness. With gentleness and kindness he calmed the turmoil that anguished her, turmoil that Gertrude saw as a very gift of God “to pull down the tower of vanity and curiosity that, woe is me, even bearing the name and habit of a religious, I had been raising with my pride, and at least thus find the way to show me your salvation” (Ibid., II, 1, p. 87).
She had a vision of a youth who, taking her by the hand, guided her to surmount the tangle of thorns that oppressed her soul. In that hand, Gertrude recognized “the precious imprint of those wounds that abrogated all the deeds of accusation of our enemies” (Ibid., II, 1, p. 89), she recognized the One who on the cross saved us with his blood, Jesus.
From that moment, her life of communion with the Lord intensified, above all in the most significant liturgical seasons — Advent-Christmas, Lent-Easter, feasts of the Virgin — even when illness made her unable to go to the choir. This is the same liturgical humus of Matilda, her teacher, which Gertrude, however, describes with simpler and more lineal, more realistic images, symbols and terms, with more direct references to the Bible, to the fathers, to the Benedictine world.
Her biography indicates two directions from which we could define a particular “conversion” of hers: in her studies, in the radical step from worldly humanistic studies to theological studies, and in monastic observance, with the change from a life that she describes as negligent to a life of intense, mystical prayer, with exceptional missionary ardor. The Lord, who had chosen her from her mother’s womb and who from her childhood had allowed her to participate in the banquet of monastic life, called her again with his grace “from external things to the interior life, and from earthly concerns to love of spiritual things.”
Gertrude understood that she had been far from him, in the region of the dissimilar, as Saint Augustine says: From having dedicated herself with too much eagerness to liberal studies, to human wisdom, neglecting the spiritual science, depriving herself of the pleasure of true wisdom, now she is led to the mount of contemplation, where she leaves the old man to be clothed with the new. “From grammarian she becomes a theologian, with the tireless and careful reading of all the sacred books that she could have or obtain, she filled her heart with the most useful and sweet sentences of sacred Scripture. Hence she always had at her disposal an inspired or edifying word with which to satisfy anyone who came to consult her, and at the same time the most appropriate scriptural texts to confute any erroneous opinion and silence the tongue of her opponents” (Ibid., I, 1, p. 25).
Gertrude transformed all this into the apostolate: She dedicated herself to writing and spreading the truths of the faith with clarity and simplicity, grace and persuasion, serving the Church with love and fidelity to the point that she was useful and welcome for theologians and the pious. From this intense activity of hers, little remains, also because of the circumstances that led to the destruction of the monastery of Helfta. In addition to the “Herald of Divine Love” or “The Revelations,” we still have the “Spiritual Exercises,” a rare jewel of mystical spiritual literature.
In religious observance, our saint was “a firm pillar […], a most firm advocate of justice and truth,” says her biographer (ibid., I, 1, p. 26). With her words and example she enkindled great fervor in others. To the prayers and penances of the monastic rule she added others with such devotion and confident abandonment in God, that she enkindled in those who met her an awareness of being in the Lord’s presence. And, in fact, God himself made her understand that he had called her to be an instrument of his grace. Gertrude felt unworthy of this immense divine treasure; she admits to not having protected it and appreciated it. She exclaims: “Woe is me! If you had given me as a memento of yours, unworthy as I am, even one thread of cotton, I should have however kept it with greater respect and reverence than I have had for these gifts of yours!” (ibid., II, 5, p. 100). However, acknowledging her poverty and unworthiness, she adheres to the will of God, “because,” she affirms, “I have taken such little advantage of your graces that I cannot decide to believe that they were given to me for myself, your eternal wisdom not being able to be frustrated by anyone. Hence, let it be, O Giver of all good, who have freely given me such undeserved gifts, that, reading this writing, the heart of at least one of your friends be moved by the thought that zeal for souls has induced you to leave during such a long time a gem of such inestimable value in the midst of the abominable mire of my heart” (ibid., II, 5, p. 100f).
In particular, two favors were more loved by her than any others, as Gertrude herself writes: “The stigmata of your saving wounds that you engraved in me, as precious jewels, in the heart, and the profound and saving wound of love with which you marked me. You flooded me with so much joy with these gifts of yours that, even if I had to live a thousand years without any interior or exterior consolation, their memory would be enough to comfort me, illumine me, fill me with gratitude. You also wished to introduce me into the inestimable intimacy of your friendship, opening to me with many signs that most noble sanctuary of your divinity that is your Divine Heart […] To this heap of benefits you added that of giving me as advocate the most holy Virgin Mary, your Mother, and of recommending me often to her affection as the most faithful of spouses could recommend to his own mother his beloved wife” (Ibid., II, 23, p. 145).
Turned toward the endless communion, she concluded her earthly life on November 17, 1301 or 1302, at almost 46 years of age. In the Seventh Exercise, that of preparation for death, Saint Gertrude writes: “O Jesus, you who are immensely loved by me, be always with me, so that my heart will remain with you and your love persevere with me without the possibility of division, and my passing be blessed by you, so that my spirit, free from the ties of the flesh, may immediately be able to find rest in you. Amen” (Esercizi, Milan, 2006, p. 148).
It seems obvious to me that these are not only historic things of the past, but that the existence of Saint Gertrude continues to be a school of Christian life, of the straight path, which shows us that the center of a happy life, of a true life, is friendship with Jesus the Lord. And this friendship is learned in love for sacred Scripture, in love for the liturgy, in profound faith, in love for Mary, so that one will increasingly really know God himself and thus true happiness, the goal of our life. Thank you.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechesis today focuses on Saint Gertrude the Great, a remarkable figure associated with the monastery of Helfta, where so many masterpieces of religious literature were born. Saint Gertrude is the only woman of Germanic descent to be called “Great”, an honour due to her exceptional natural and supernatural gifts. As a youth, Gertrude was intelligent, strong and decisive, but also impulsive. With humility she asked others for advice and prayer. Eventually, she experienced a deep conversion: in her studies she passed from worldly pursuits to the sacred sciences, and in her monastic observance she moved from concern with external things to a life of intense prayer. In her writings, she sought to explain the truths of the faith with clarity and simplicity, while not failing to develop spiritual themes associated with Divine Love. In her religious practice, she pursued prayer with devotion and faithful abandonment to God. Dear friends, may we learn from Saint Gertrude the Great how to love Christ and His Church with humility and faith, and to cultivate our personal prayer through an intense participation in the Holy Mass and the sacred liturgy.