Catholic Truth Society – Saint Gertrude the Great

detail of a painting of Saint Gertrude the Great, by Miguel Cabrera, 1763; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas, USA; swiped from Wikimedia Commons(12561301)

Saint Gertrude, distinguished by the title of “the Great,” was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, 1256, and belonged to the noble house of the Counts of Lachenborn, in Saxony. Before beginning to give an account of her life, it may be well to say at the outset that we shall look in vain for great or striking actions according to the ideas of the world. Gertrude was essentially a contemplative Saint, leading exteriorly a hidden, ordinary life the perfect type of a Benedictine nun; and her claim to the title of’s Great’s rests, not on the opinion or praise of men, but on the words of Our Lord Himself. He made known to Saint Mechtilde that, after the Blessed Sacrament, there was no dwelling so pleasing to Him as the heart of Gertrude; and in the Office of her Feast we read that’s Christ was wont to speak to His beloved Gertrude face to face, as a man is accustomed to speak to his friend.”

Perhaps a simple record of God’s dealings with this chosen soul will be an efficient answer to that oft-repeated question, “What is the use of an enclosed nun? “Those who work among the sick and poor are justly appreciated and admired; but that people should go and shut themselves up and, as is supposed, do no good to any one else, passes the understanding of the majority in our matter-of-fact age. The practical development of such an idea would lead men to conclude that the time passed in praising and worshipping God is time wasted, or, at least, time spent in a less useful manner and less pleasing to God Himself than that occupied in active works of charity. Yet we read in the Holy Scripture that the Cherubim and Seraphim, the highest and most perfect of all God’s creatures, are continually standing before His throne and crying out, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts!” The contemplative Orders have been called by spiritual writers the “angels of the earth,” as their great duty and occupation is the unceasing praise and worship of their Creator. This praise is the end for which all men were created, and will be the everlasting occupation of all who are saved; but it is only given to a chosen few to begin, even in this world, to live the life that the Blessed lead in Heaven.

Again, the duty of a contemplative Religious is to keep Our Divine Lord company in the Sacrament of His love, to console Him for the ingratitude of some and to make reparation for the malice of others. The Blessed Sacrament must ever be the centre of her cloister home, the magnet of her heart; here at least it can suffer no neglect, no forgetfulness, for even when engaged with her daily duties she leaves her heart at her Lord’s feet. And, lastly, besides repairing, as far as in her lies, the sins of a guilty world by prayer and penance, she is ever supplicating, interceding, drawing down from Heaven that dew of divine grace and infinite mercy which, softening the hardest heart, leads the sinner repentant to the feet of the missioner, the prodigal to his father.

How perfectly Gertrude fulfilled these three duties is abundantly proved even in the few details that remain to us of her life, and by Our Lord’s words concerning her that He could refuse nothing to her prayers. From her earliest childhood she gave signs of future sanctity, and from the moment reason began to dawn in her infant mind the Holy Spirit seems to have constituted Himself her only Guide, so taking possession of her heart and affections that at five years of age she had already determined to consecrate herself to Christ as His spouse. This resolve, which she formed secretly in her heart, she soon found means to carry into execution. She entreated her parents to send her to the Monastery at Helfta; and having gained her point she entered the house of God, a child indeed in years, but with a mind already far advanced in the knowledge of God and the things of God, and with a firm resolve never more to leave the Monastery. This house had been founded some years before Gertrude’s birth by Burchard, Count of Mansfield, at Rodersdorf, from whence the Community afterwards removed to Helfta. At the time of her entrance the Monastery was governed by the Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn, who, on account of her great virtue, was unanimously elected in 1251, at the age of nineteen, to succeed the first Abbess Cunegonde. She governed the Monastery forty years. The learned monks of Solesmes in their preface to the Herald of Divine Love, published in 1877, have proved very clearly that our Saint Gertrude the Great was never an Abbess, as had hitherto been commonly supposed. In course of time the names of the two Gertrudes had become confounded, and Saint Gertrude was erroneously believed to have been Abbess and sister to Saint Mechtilde; whereas Saint Mechtilde was in reality sister to the Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn.

Saint Gertrude, in the first chapter of Book V of the Herald of Divine Love, gives a vivid picture of the virtues of her Abbess, and of the love with which she inspired all who came in contact with her. She says, “I do not think that throughout the world one could be found endowed with more abundant gifts of nature and of grace; and, though she received into the Monastery and trained over a hundred persons, I never heard any one of them say that they had more affection for another than for their Abbess; even the little children were as tenderly attached to her as to their own mothers.”

It was to this loving and tender mother that Gertrude was entrusted by her parents, and we shall see in the course of this history how the child profited by her counsels and instructions. She had not been at Helfta many days before it became evident that she was destined to serve as an example to the other children, and as an object of veneration to the nuns. In order to advance steadily in perfection, she practised a continual remembrance of the presence of God, together with careful self-examination in order to discover whether any of her actions fell short of her desire to please Him. This practice inclined her to silence and solitude, so that before she was bound to the Rule she kept it faithfully.

By nature Gertrude was mild and obliging, and to this she joined a certain gravity of manner which secured for her the respect and reverence of her Sisters, while her sweetness attracted their love. Having passed through the novitiate, and bound herself by the vows of religion, she began to manifest an extraordinary affection for study, and a mind so well adapted to the acquisition of knowledge that her Superior thought good to allow her to study Latin thoroughly and also to begin the study of philosophy. She was even permitted to pass to that of theology, in which she became so proficient that she was considered the oracle of her age. Nevertheless, although this life of study was in itself most useful and was pursued with the approbation of her Superiors, it proved, in her case, an obstacle to grace and a hindrance to her spiritual advancement. The sensible delight which she took in her studies usurped the place of that which she had formerly experienced in prayer, and she even went so far as to shorten the time given to this holy exercise in order to devote herself more to her books.

This slight infidelity tarnished the purity of her soul; and her Divine Spouse, who deigned to be jealous of her perfection, opened her eyes to her fault and manifested to her the pride and curiosity to which she had secretly yielded, under a frightful form which He impressed on her imagination, causing her an intense agony at the sight of the time that she had thus misspent in the indulgence of self-gratification. This sorrow was so great that nothing could have consoled her, had not Our Lord come Himself to forgive her and restore her peace of mind. This He did after Complin, on the Feast of the Purification of Our Blessed Lady. Gertrude was walking down the dormitory when, on meeting one of the Religious, she bowed her head according to the Rule, and at the same moment she saw Our Lord standing before her. He appeared to be about sixteen years of age, and was so beautiful that she was ravished at the sight. He took her hand and told her that He wished her to banish all sadness from her heart, for He forgave her all her past infidelities, and would treat her in future as His spouse. Gertrude was twenty-five years old when she received this favour in 1281. She afterwards acknowledged that from that moment she never lost the sense of the Presence of God, and that she always found Him in the innermost depths of her heart. She did not speak thus to glorify herself, or to attribute to her own merits what she knew she owed entirely to the mercy of God, but she desired to make it known that all glory might he given to Him. She poured forth her thanks giving to Our Lord in the following words: “Thou hast never lei me seek Thee in vain! Whenever I did turn to Thee from the distractions of creatures I find Thee waiting for me in my heart. Only once, for eleven days, Thou didst put a cloud between us to hide from me the brightness of Thy countenance, leaving me in a state of abandonment more bitter a thousand times than death to such as know what it is to lose Thee through their own fault.”

Our Lord now began to bestow such wonderful favours on Saint Gertrude, that not only was she prompted to conceal them out of humility, but also because she feared that, being in their nature so far above human under standing, they would not be believed. The Lord, Who worked thirst-wonders in her, took upon Himself to disclose them lo some chosen souls in the monastery, and when Gerliude discovered this she said to Him, “Thou art my witness, O my God, that I never communicate Thy secrets to any one; if must therefore he Thyself Who hast made known to these others what has passed between me and Thee.” This intimate intercourse between her soul and God wrought a wonderful Change in Gertrude – it effaced the images of creatures from her mind, and it caused her to withdraw her heart from an inordinate love for knowledge in order to keep it all for God. She was thus raised to a stale of sublime perfection, and her advancement was not effected in the ordinary way, by different degrees acquired successively, but God accomplished His work in her soul by our fill of His grace. He thus gave her in one instant all the advantages which others have only obtained after long years of penance.

She had acquired a profound knowledge of the mysteries of God, partly by means of the studies she had pursued, but chiefly by the light of tin- Holy Spirit vouchsafed to her in prayer.

Though, as we have said, Gertrude was never Abbess of her monastery, it is evident that on account of her singular holiness and gift of discernment of spirits, the nuns were not only allowed, but encouraged, to seek help and advice from her. Thus she was enabled to enkindle in the hearts of others the flame of divine love which burned in her own; and she considered it her duty to communicate it to all who came under her influence. Yet, withal, her purity of intention was such that any word of praise uttered in regard to her gave her intolerable pain, feeling convinced that the favours be stowed on her were given her for tin: advantage of others rather than for her own. This conviction made her always ready to give advice or comfort to those who sought it from her, gladly leaving all other occupations to attend to this duty. She would even abandon the sweetness of contemplation, which was her chief delight, at the call of a Sister in distress; and she would sacrifice not only her spiritual repose, but also that of her body, to spend the night in ministering to the relief of the suffering, sparing herself no labour in attending to their wants.

Yet, while she performed these acts of loving kindness, she was ever on the watch to check any excess of natural affection which the Sisters might have for her, to the prejudice of the pure love of God which she desired to see reigning in their hearts. She was always fearful of this danger, not only in her intercourse with them, but also with the seculars who came to consult her on affairs of conscience. When the case required reprehension, the wisdom of God seemed to speak by her mouth, nor would she leave the guilty parties until she had softened their hearts and won them to repentance. Her Sisters were so convinced of her power to obtain from God whatever she asked that they thought them selves secure of a remedy for all their temptations and troubles by merely mentioning them to her. On one occasion a Sister, finding herself grievously tormented by a temptation, took a little object belonging to Gertrude and pressed it to her heart, and immediately the temptation vanished.

Saint Gertrude’s zeal did not confine itself to helping individual souls. She was always eager for the general welfare of her own monastery, and of those with whom she corresponded, or was in any way connected, endeavouring to encourage in them religious perfection and discipline by the exact observance of the Rule. Her love for the beauty of God’s house was increased by a vision, in which she saw Our Saviour bearing on His shoulders a large house, giving her to understand that those who restore and maintain strict observance are to Him pillars of support which ease Him of His burden.

It was fitting that Our Lord should Himself make known to certain chosen souls the wonderful works He had wrought in Gertrude, since she was so careful to hide in the secret of her heart all that could attract the notice and esteem .of others. This leads us to consider her profound humility, which resulted from the extra ordinary graces bestowed upon her. In her case, as the graces were the more sublime, so was the corresponding humility the more profound. It was this true humility which led her sincerely to believe that God manifested the greatest miracle of His patience by allowing the earth to bear her, and this at a time when she was being treated as an oracle, and consulted on all sides by persons who sought to be enlightened by her in their doubts and difficulties. She, meanwhile, yielded with the submission of a child to the direction of those who had the care of her soul. She practised with the utmost fidelity every point of her Rule, and would never dispense herself without the most urgent necessity.

One day, Our Lord revealed to Saint Mechtilde, who lived in the same monastery, the sublime state of perfection to which Saint Gertrude was raised. She saw the Son of God on a throne of majesty, and Saint Gertrude at His feet, with her eyes fixed immovably on Him, never withdrawing them from Him, although at the same time engaged in her different duties. Our Lord then told Saint Mechtilde that it was in this way that Saint Gertrude lived, keeping her mind and heart ever attentive to Him who was always present to her soul, while she was fulfilling His holy Will in her actions. Saint Mechtilde, presuming on the familiarity with which Our Lord likewise treated her, said to Him, “I wonder, O my God, how it is that she, being so highly enlightened, should yet be so strict with regard to the faults of others?’s Our Lord replied that this was owing to her great aversion to sin, and to her great love for her Sisters, causing her to feel as much pain for the faults which she saw in them as for the faults she saw in herself.

Several persons having consulted Gertrude as to the practice of frequent Communion, she advised them to adopt it; but afterwards she feared she had given the advice without sufficient consideration, and she was much troubled in her mind. She made known her fears to Our Lord in prayer, and He assured her that the advice she had given came from Him, and added that He would not allow any one whom He foresaw would profane the Holy Sacrament to consult her on the subject. The loving promise restored the tranquillity of her soul.

Our Lord also revealed this favour to Saint Mechtilde as she was praying one day for Saint Gertrude. He said that whenever Gertrude judged any one to be worthily disposed for Holy Communion He ratified her judgement, or rather, that Gertrude’s soul was so united to the Holy Spirit that she had no other light wherewith to form her judgement but that which He communicated to her, and so she acted always in conformity to His holy Will.

It was a great consolation to Saint Gertrude to have Saint Mechtilde in the same monastery, since, on account of her sanctity and the favours she had received from God, Gertrude could confide in her and seek help from her in the interior trials, troubles, and perplexity which her revelations occasioned her. At these times she would beg Saint Mechtilde to consult Our Lord as to whether she was under a delusion, trusting with great confidence in the advice of one who was herself so highly gifted and enlightened.

In the second year of Gertrude’s new spiritual life, as she herself relates, Our Divine Lord placed His seal upon her ardent love by imprinting on her His sacred Stigmata. Five years after this, as she was preparing for Holy Communion, she experienced such extraordinary feelings of divine love that she was convinced some new favour was about to be bestowed upon her; and, in fact, when she returned to her place to make her thanks giving, she saw a ray of light proceeding from the Crucifix in the church. It seemed to come from Our Lord’s wounded Side, and to pierce her inmost heart, while she heard these words: “Henceforth let all your affections be centred here, and let all the passions of your soul, whether of joy, hope, sorrow, or fear be dissolved in My love.”

Our Lord, in His love for this chosen soul, manifested Himself to her in various ways, according to the different mysteries celebrated by the Church. Thus, at Christmas time, she would often see Him in the arms of His blessed Mother, who would place her Divine Child in Gertrude’s arms, and clothe her by this means with the innocence and purity of the holy Infant. In the same way she participated in the graces of the other mysteries of Our Lord’s life, and these favours always produced efficacious fruits in her soul.

Another mark of God’s singular predilection was shown to her when He gave her Our blessed Lady to be her Mother, promising that she would assist her in all her difficulties and sufferings. This Gertrude ever after experienced, especially in times of sickness, for then Our Lady seemed to redouble her care and favours towards her.

She had a true Benedictine love for the Liturgy of Holy Church, and entered heart and soul into the spirit of all the festivals of the Christian cycle. In her revelations we find that on nearly all these days she received some extraordinary grace from God in conformity with the mystery the Church was celebrating.

Dom Gueranger, in his preface to the Exercises of Saint Gertrude, says that the especial characteristic of the piety of Saint Gertrude towards the Incarnate Word is her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Our Lord Him self continually excited her to this devotion, for again and again He presented to her view His Sacred Heart in token of the intimate union which He willed to maintain with her; and He even vouchsafed in one ineffable revelation to exchange it for that of the holy virgin, who thus felt her Divine Spouse live and love within her.

Saint Gertrude herself tells us, in the fourth Book of her writings, how on one occasion when she was speaking with Saint John of the delights he experienced when resting his head on the Sacred Heart at the Last Supper, she asked him why he had kept such absolute silence as to what he had felt and drunk in from that abyss of divine love; and Saint John told her that it was reserved for later times to experience all the sweetness of its pulsations, so that the world, grown cold with age, might recover some degree of warmth from hearing of the mysteries of that Sacred Heart. Saint Mechtilde and the rest of the Community united with Saint Gertrude in this glorious devotion, which spread gradually to other houses of her Order; and the Heart of Jesus had already been long an object of special adoration and love to the sons and daughters of Saint Benedict, when in the seventeenth century it pleased God to claim for it, through the instrumentality of Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, of the Order of the Visitation, that more solemn worship with which it is now surrounded. In our times we can see how fully the promise made to Saint Gertrude has been realized, and how when men were striving to substitute a religion of servile fear for that of filial love, Our Lord deigned to invite, not only the favoured few, but all mankind, to come and rest upon His Sacred Heart, permitting them to honour with a special worship the organ of His love for them.

It would be impossible in this short sketch to recount all the favours that are known to have been bestowed by Our Lord upon this chosen soul, whom He deigned to treat with such loving familiarity as His Spouse and intimate friend, confiding secrets to her which we are not worthy to understand. The devil was naturally filled with envy at the sight of one so holy, and did all in his power to disturb her peace of mind and tranquillity. One day when she was reciting her Office with some precipitation she saw him at her side, and as she began each verse of the psalm he would take it up and hasten through it, leaving many words half articulated; and when he had finished he turned to her and said in a mocking tone, “God has favoured you greatly in giving you such a fluent tongue! You really praise Him finely, and it is a pleasure to hear you hurrying through your Office like this! In only one psalm you have omitted several syllables.” Gertrude did not fail to profit by the devil’s mockery, and learned hereby how vigilant Satan is in noticing the faults we commit in the divine service.

Another time she was busy spinning wool, and in the course of her work she threw some tufts on the ground, which the devil hastened to collect as a proof that she had been wanting in her vow of poverty. In many similar instances Satan endeavoured to trouble her peace of mind on account of her little imperfections, but her Divine Spouse was ever at hand to dispel her fear by His sweet presence and to prevent her giving way to discouragement at the sight of her faults.

Among the many miracles with which Our Lord rewarded Saint Gertrude’s childlike trust in Him turning to Him, as she did in every emergency, with the most absolute confidence in His goodness two are recorded in the Office of her Feast of her power over the elements. In the first instance, we read of how the winter one year had been exceptionally long, and the ground was frozen so hard that when the springtime came it showed no sign of yielding its produce. Then Gertrude prayed lovingly to Our Lord during Mass, telling Him of her compassion for the poor country folk and asking Him to bring a thaw. No sooner was Mass over than the path outside the church was found covered with water, the sun was shining, and the ice and snow were melting fast. The change of weather was so sudden and unexpected that people shook their heads and said it could not last. They knew nothing of Gertrude’s prayer, but her Divine Spouse did not do things by halves, and a sweet, warm spring came to gladden the whole country.

On another occasion the heavy and continued rains threatened to ruin the harvest, and the nuns redoubled their prayers for fear of losing their corn. Gertrude especially persisted in the petition, until she had obtained a promise from God to accede to her request. Then immediately the weather cleared and the rain was at an end.

We read again that sometimes she would obtain the intervention of her Spouse almost playfully, as when once she was working at an embroidery frame and she dropped her needle among the straw with which the floor was strewn. The other Sisters who were working with her heard her say, “O Lord, all my efforts could not find my needle in the straw do Thou therefore find it for me!’s and putting her hand among the straw, she found it instantly. Another proof of her reliance on God for the least detail is shown by the practice she had of shutting her eyes and taking the first thing that came whenever a choice was given her, whether of food, clothing, or any other object. She thus looked upon whatever she received as a gift direct from God, and was equally contented whether she had what was new or old, good or bad. Sometimes when she was taking her meals, she would say to Our Lord, “Accept, O my Divine Spouse, this service which I am rendering to the least of Thy little ones, as if it was done to Thyself.” It was thus that she ever considered Christ as dwelling in her; and as she looked upon herself as the last and least of all, she considered that whatever she did or gave to herself was done or given to the least of Christ’s little ones.

Her eager, impetuous love for Our Lord is touchingly exemplified in a beautiful little incident which she herself relates. She was praying one day before her Crucifix, compassionating the wounds of her Beloved, and pouring out her heart before her Saviour crucified for her sake, until at length, not being able to bear any longer the thought of those cruel iron nails which tore His sacred Hands and Feet, she took them from her Crucifix and in their place she substituted sweet-smelling cloves. Our Lord was so pleased with this tender act of love, that He vouchsafed in return to heal all the wounds left on her soul by sin. At this manifestation of divine condescension she pressed her Crucifix more tightly to her heart, and covered it again and again with kisses in an ecstasy of love, until at length, worn out by her long watch, she said to Our Lord: “Good-night now, my Beloved, let me sleep to renew my strength, for I am exhausted after meditating so long.” And as she lay down to rest she saw Our Lord detach one arm from the Crucifix, and heard Him say as He embraced her, “My continual love excites your eager longing, while your tender love for Me gives Me the sweetest delight.” Then He deigned to restore her strength by letting her rest on His sacred Bosom and drink from the wound in His Side.

Once when Saint Gertrude was ill and had been suffering much all night, the time seemed to her so long that she began to feel depressed. Then Our Lord appeared to her, holding in one hand health, in the other sickness, and bade her choose between them. She generously refused to make a choice, declaring that she was indifferent to the one or to the other so long as she did but accomplish the holy Will of God. This resignation rendered her yet more pleasing to her heavenly Spouse; and, causing her to rest upon His most Sacred Heart, He explained to her the advantage of sufferings.

Our Divine Lord exacted the utmost purity of intention and love from Gertrude on all occasions: so that once, when she complained to Him that a certain person whom she loved, and for whose perfection she had done much, only repaid her with ingratitude and despised her love, Our Lord made answer that He had permitted that she should receive this unkind treatment in order that she might understand once for all that it is vain to look for fidelity from creatures, and that she must expect it only from God.

The virtues of this great Saint were not only profitable to herself, but by means of her example many of the Religious of her Monastery were raised to a high degree of perfection; and she had the joy, even on earth, of seeing the degree of glory to which many who died before her had attained. She received also a special favour from Our Lord whereby she was enabled to see in what dispositions the nuns of her monastery were at the hour of their death, and to help those who were in purgatory; her love and charity being untiring in making efforts for their speedy release, never desisting until she saw them safe in their heavenly home.

When Gertrude was thirty-five years old, it pleased God to take to Himself the Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn. Her death must have been a very sensible grief to the holy Virgin, who was tenderly attached to her Superior, and had lived all her religious life under her motherly guidance. Gertrude of Hackeborn was succeeded in tire abbatial dignity by Sophia of Mansfield, who ruled the Monastery during the remainder of our Saint’s lifetime. During the first year of her government, in 1292, the Emperor Rudolph of Hapsburgh died. There were two claimants to the Imperial throne, and the choice lay with the electors. They would probably have elected Albert, son of the late Emperor, but he had made himself unpopular with them on account of his harsh manner; and their choice therefore fell on Adolphus, Count of Nassau. At the time of the election the community of Helfta, knowing the grave issues at stake and the importance of a good, God-fearing ruler in the unsettled state in which their country then lay, all assembled in earnest prayer for the guidance and assistance of the Holy Ghost. As they were thus praying, Gertrude turned to her Abbess and told her that, contrary to their expectation, Adolphus of Nassau had been chosen, but that in a few years he would die a violent death at the hands of his rival. This prediction was verified when, on 2 July 1298, Adolphus was killed in battle by Albert, who thus took possession of his father’s throne.

If it had not been by the express commands of the Divine Master, to which Gertrude was obliged to bow in submission, it is probable that she, like so many of God’s most beautiful treasures, would have remained hidden and unknown to mankind until that great day when all hearts shall be revealed. In Gertrude’s case, however, hidden as her life was, and little as we know of her in some respects, we have cause to thank God that He deigned to compel her, despite her natural shrinking, to commit to writing many of the favours He had bestowed on her. He told her it would tend to increase His glory, not hers; and the moment she understood this she no longer hesitated to comply, except to seek to learn from Him how she was to set about her writing, not feeling any natural capacity for such a task. Our Divine Lord reassured her, and promised Himself to inspire her. Each time that she took up her pen, she wrote without the slightest effort so long as her Divine Spouse continued to inspire her, but when He thought she had written enough for one day He would leave her, and then she was not able, do what she would, to think of another word or to recall to mind a single grace or favour she had received. This reassured her greatly, as she felt that she was merely an instrument in God’s hands, a channel through which He was to make known to men His goodness and His love.

Her writings are comprised in the five books known as The Herald of Divine Love. The first book was not written by herself, but by some nun of her monastery, and gives a short account of the miracles wrought by her, of some incidents in her life, and of her remarkable virtues. The second was written by Gertrude at the dictation and inspiration of Our Lord, as related above, and makes known the wonderful favours she received. The third, fourth, and fifth books were written most probably at her dictation. The third book is full of instruction suitable for all: as to how we may serve and please God; how we may offer Him the merits of the Passion to atone for our sins; how we may learn to love Him more; how to approach the Sacraments; and how to resign ourselves on all occasions to His good will and pleasure. The whole of the ninety short chapters are most consoling, breathing throughout the immense compassion which God extends to human weakness and the infinity of His mercy. The fourth book gives an account of the different favours she received on the various festivals throughout the year, teaching us how we may best honour Christ and His Saints on the feasts established by the Church in their honour. The fifth book contains accounts of the holy deaths of several Religious of her monastery, and revelations concerning the souls in Purgatory and their deliverance, and her own preparation for death. Finally, our Lord promised her that whoever should read these books devoutly should receive great profit for their souls; and that, on the contrary, He would humble and cast down any one who read them through with curiosity and a desire to pry into His secrets in order to censure and mock them.

The little book commonly known as the Prayers of Saint Gertrude, is so popular that it needs no recommendation here; but there is another book of devotions called the Exercises of Saint Gertrude which is not so widespread, and yet is perhaps the most beautiful of all her writings. Speaking of it, Alban Butler says that some of the sighs by which she expresses her thirst after union with God are so heavenly that they seem rather to come from one already dwelling in Heaven than from a pilgrim in this mortal life; and Dom Gueranger assures us that persons who will follow Saint Gertrude in the week of Exercises she proposes to them, will come forth from these Exercises transformed in their whole being. They will return to them again and again with ever-increasing pleasure; they will feel confounded indeed to be admitted so near the inmost heart of so great a Saint, but they will also feel that they have been created for the same end as that Saint, and that they must bestir themselves to quit all easy, dangerous ways which lead to perdition.

Gertrude was now nearly fifty years of age, and the days of her exile were fast drawing to a close. Her life had been one of constant suffering, her natural delicacy having been increased by long and repeated illnesses. She tells us herself how, after her seventh severe illness, she had ventured to ask Our Lord if He would not vouchsafe to cure her. But her Divine Spouse desired only that she should resign herself entirely into His hands to do or not to do, to suffer or not to suffer, just as He willed. He told her it was not expedient for human frailty to know how much God intends it to bear, for oftentimes it would shrink at the sight. Throughout Saint Gertrude’s revelations of God’s dealings with her soul we cannot fail to be struck by the immense value He places upon the intention and submission of the will. He told her once that what we do is nothing to Him, that it is absolutely immaterial to Him whether we are employed in mental or bodily exercises, provided that our intention is to please Him. Here we have the key to Gertrude’s extraordinary sanctity, which God so valued that He could refuse nothing to her prayers, and that He found His chief delight in dwelling in her heart. In itself her life had nothing unusual about it; she lived quietly and peacefully in her monastery, either occupied with the daily routine of duties which fill the day of an enclosed nun, or stretched on a bed of sickness, apparently, perhaps, a burden to herself and useless to her community. Yet the love which animated her most trivial actions turned all she touched to gold; while the entire conformity of her will to that of her Divine Spouse in all the suffering she endured in being constantly deprived of taking part in the great festivals which were her chief delight, and in many similar trials, caused her union with God to be so perfected, even in this life, that she might truly have said, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives and reigns in me.”

We all know what it is to yearn for the presence of one we love deeply, and our own experience may give us a faint idea of what Gertrude suffered until she could be dissolved and be with Christ. The greatest of Purgatory’s torments is not the fire, nor even Heaven deferred, but the inability of the soul to satisfy its intense craving to gaze once more on the Beatific Vision which for one brief moment was vouchsafed to it at the judgement. So much did Gertrude languish with love that each year seemed like an eternity to her, and while she would not hasten her release one moment contrary to the Will of God, yet from time to time she would cry to Him, saying,’s Though I am but the refuse of Thy creation, my one loving desire is to die and to be with Thee, to offer Thee the homage of my song of gladness in union with that happy company who sing Thy praises eternally in Heaven.” Her intimate friend and confidant, Saint Mechtilde, had already gone in 1298 to enjoy the delights of Paradise, and at length in 1300, on the Feast of Saint Martin, November 12th, Saint Gertrude said to her divine Spouse,’s O Lord, when wilt Thou take me hence?’s and He answered,’s Very soon I will take thee from the world.” At these words Gertrude was filled with joy and a yet more eager desire to die. On the following Easter Day, when she communicated, our Lord said to her,’s Come, My beloved, I will make of thee My throne.” Then she knew that the promise made to her on the Feast of Saint Martin was about to be realized. Our Lord added,’s Choose now whether you will die at once, or whether you will submit to a long illness, in order that your soul may be yet more perfectly adorned.” And she answered,’s O Lord, Thy will be done.” Then Our Lord told her that she had done well to leave the choice to Him, and that if for love of Him she would consent to live a little longer, He would hide her in His heart, and lead her thence at death to everlasting bliss.

Then she rallied for a time, ever adding fresh jewels to the bridal robe which she was preparing for the day of her heavenly nuptials. Our Lord had promised to warn her when the day of her death was really at hand, and at length He sent two angels, princes of the celestial court, to announce to her that the hour of her release was at hand. “Behold the Bridegroom comes, go ye forth to meet Him.” Then heavenly Spirits appeared, coming down from Heaven to earth, and inviting Gertrude to the joys of Paradise, singing with sweetest melody,’s Come, lady, come, for the delights of Heaven await you.” But her Divine Spouse would Himself come to fetch His bride, and entering her chamber with His Mother and many saints, martyrs, confessors, and virgins, all carrying emblems of their various triumphs, He said to her,’s Arise, My sister, My Spouse, My beloved one, and I will open to thee, My inmost heart, that in My embrace you may transcend the stars.” These words penetrated her very soul, and broke the fetters which still bound her to earth, while her freed spirit flew to Him whom alone she had loved and served, where the heavenly harpers hush their thrilling harmony and listen silently, and where burning seraphs droop their wings in ravishment ineffable.

About forty years after Saint Gertrude’s death the monastery of Helfta was invaded by the soldiers of Albert of Brunswick, the unworthy Bishop of Halberstadt, and set on fire. It was not completely destroyed, but, owing to the unsettled “state of the country, it was deemed more prudent for the nuns to dwell in future nearer to the town of Eisleben. They therefore built the monastery of New Helfta, but retained possession of their old home, leaving undisturbed, it is supposed, the graves of their Sisters, 1 and probably hoping to return when peace was fully restored. But this was never considered safe for them to attempt, and two centuries after, at the time of the so-called Reformation, the peasants in 1525, incited by the heretics, burned the valuable archives, and the building was gradually suffered to fall into decay. In a second rising of the peasants in the same year, or the following one, the monastery of New Helfta was partially burnt, and the Religious dispersed to find shelter where they could.

In 1869 the Benedictines of the Perpetual Adoration, from Osnabruck, bought the half-ruined Abbey, and were enthusiastically welcomed by the whole popula tion, both Catholic and Protestant, but they had scarcely begun the work of restoration when they were expelled from Germany by the iniquitous May Laws.

Saint Gertrude’s feast was extended to the universal Church in the seventeenth century. The King of Spain asked and obtained that she should be declared Patroness of the West Indies; in Peru her feast is celebrated with extraordinary splendour, while in New Mexico a town was built in her honour which bears her name. The veneration in which her memory has always been held is attested by the writings of many Saints and holy persons, who cannot speak too highly of her holiness, of her writings, and of her work in the Church. Finally, in our own day, Father Faber expresses a wish which finds an echo in every Benedictine heart, that “Gertrude could be in the Church once more what she was in ages past, the Doctress and the Prophetess of the interior life, like Deborah who sat beneath her palm-tree on Mount Ephraim uttering her canticles and judging Israel.”

– text taken from the booklet Saint Gertrude the Great, author not listed, published by the Catholic Truth Society of London