Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Gertrude, Enraptured by the Heart of Jesus

Today is the Feast of Saint Gertrude “the Great” (1256-1302) of the 13th century Benedictine monastery of Helfta in Southeastern Germany, which was part of the town of Eislebem (now primarily known as the birthplace of Martin Luther). After the area became Protestant, the nuns were driven out (and did not return until in 1999). But nearly three centuries before Luther, the Helfta monastery thrived in medieval Saxony and counted among its nuns women of advanced education and intellectual refinement, as well as several mystics and visionaries whose experiences are extensively documented. 

The influence of Helfta was such that it could be said to be a “center” for women theologians in the 13th century. (The diverse features of the medieval world, and the measure of opportunities it provided people—relative to their abilities or desire to take them up—remains under-appreciated in historical studies.) The writings of these women drew on the theological foundation of a contemplative life that accentuated the humanity of Jesus, and in particular (especially for the visionaries) the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Their place in sustaining and developing “devotion to the Sacred Heart” hundreds of years prior to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque is crucially important. The Helfta nuns not only prayed, read, studied, and wrote, but they also played a role in advising many people, including political and ecclesiastical figures of the time. 

No one was more remarkable than Gertrude, who devoted her early years in the monastery to pursuing a liberal arts education and developing a fluid Latin literary style. She began to have special experiences of God’s love, however, that led her to a “conversion” from what she saw as vain pursuits in comparison with the overwhelming graces, attentiveness of God, and the ardor of Jesus that filled her soul. Her intense dialogue with Jesus continued to grow and she committed to writing many profound experiences, while she also served as an exemplary religious and an accessible presence in the community, a counselor to many, and a mystic enraptured by the merciful and loving heart of Jesus.

Personally, I hope that one day she might be given the title of "Doctor of the Church." It seems like a possibility to me. Dear Saint Gertrude, pray for us in these troubled times, pray that the love of the Heart of Christ will touch us too, heal us, transform us, and set our hearts on fire.

“O devastating glowing coal, my God,
You who contain, radiate and brand with living heat!
You exercised Your inextinguishable power on my damp and slimy soul,
first drying up in it the flood of worldly pleasures
and afterwards softening the rigidity of its attachment to its own ideas,
a position in which it had long been completely fixed.
O truly devouring fire, You who wield Your power against vice
so that You may reveal Yourself to the soul gently 
when the time comes to anoint it!
In You and in none other do we receive this strength,
so that we may have the power to be reformed 
into the image and likeness of our original state.
O powerful furnace, in the lovely vision of true peace,
by whose operation dross is transformed into refined and choice gold
when the soul, wearied by deceit, 
at long last blazes with an inner and insatiable desire
to track down what belongs to it, 
and which it may receive from You alone, very Truth!”.

~Saint Gertrude the Great