Gertrude (The Great), St.

views updated


A German nun and mystic; b. Jan. 6, 1256; d. Helfta, near Eisleben, Saxony, Nov. 17, 1302, or possibly 1301. Nothing is known of her birthplace, family, or the circumstances of her entrance into the monastery. She was committed to the care of the nuns at the monastery of Helfta at the age of five, and in the company of other oblates such as herself received a careful education. Unusually talented, she gave herself zealously to study. At the age of 25 she discovered the mystical life. She enjoyed visions and interior graces, but apart from that, little is known of her life. She certainly worked as a copyist in the monastic scriptorium. Although often too ill to be present at all the choral Offices, she served as second chantress with St. Mechtild of Hackeborn (124198), who was also favored with revelations. In fact, the experiences of these two saints were inseparable; both belonged to the same mystical school of the 13th-century spiritual renaissance of the Cistercians. The nuns of Helfta, however, were independent and never juridically attached to the Cistercian Order.

Gertrude's "conversion," a mystical experience that took place Jan. 27, 1281, was for her a living encounter with Christ and the revelation of a bond of love between Him and herself. The entire spirituality of the mystics of Helfta was centered on that type of union with the person of Christ. Their spirituality was essentially what is called by some theologians a Brautmystik, or a nuptial mysticism. Gertrude certainly knew the school of abstract and speculative spirituality current at the time in the Low Countries and the Rhineland, but she did not belong to it. Union with Christ was the way by which her contemplation progressed toward the life of the "resplendent and completely calm Trinity." Her Christocentric perspective found expression in a devotion to the sacred heart, upon the later development of which the revelations and lyrical outpourings of SS. Mechtild and Gertrude had an important influence. Another essential characteristic of Gertrude's spirituality was the unity that constant attention to God established among the activities in her monastic lifeScripture study, spiritual reading, prayer, and choral Office. For her the liturgy was not simply a duty to be fulfilled at certain hours but rather the rhythm of her life of prayer. The liturgy and Scripture furnished her with the doctrinal themes of her piety, the best of her images, and even the form of her lyricism. But more than that, it was a "mystery," a sacrament of the presence of Christ. Hence instead of being in contradiction, her liturgical and personal prayer were in profound harmony.

Three Latin works are attributed to St. Gertrude. (1) The Exercitia spiritualia. This title was probably not given to the work by Gertrude herself. These exercises represent seven affective meditations. They tend to renew in the soul a consciousness of the work of holiness accomplished by grace from baptism up to the preparation for death. (2) The Insinuationes (called also Revelationes or Legatus divinae pietatis ), which is composed of five books. The essential point is to be found in bk. 2, written by Gertrude herself in 1289 as a memorial of her mystical experiences over an eight-year period. In the following years she wrote in the sense that she dictated, or perhaps simply inspired, other confidences and recollections. After her death the whole corpus of her other writings was reassembled in three other books (3, 4, 5) by a companion, another nun of the same monastery who also wrote an introduction to justify the entire work (bk. 1). This introductory book is in the manner of a biographical study. (3) Preces Gertrudianae, which is the book through which most people have known her. However, the work is not really authentic. It was composed in the 17th century, and is a flowery collection of loving effusions impregnated with the spirit and lyricism characteristic of St. Gertrude, but only some of the passages represent a faithful reproduction of her actual texts.

Feast: Nov. 16.

Bibliography: Works. Revelationes Gertrudianae ac Mechtildianae, ed. l. paquelin and j. pothier (Poitiers 187577) v.1. The Exercises of St. Gertrude, ed. and tr. a Benedictine of Regina Laudis (Westminster, Md. 1960). The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude, Virgin and Abbess, of the Order of St. Benedict, tr. m. f.c. cusack (Westminster, Md. 1949). Prayers of St. Gertrude and St. Mechtilde of the Order of St. Benedict (Philadelphia 1955), spurious. Literature. a. m. zimmermann, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 4:761. j.l. baudot and l. chaussin, Vies des saints et des bienheureux selon l'ordre du calendrier avec l'historique de fětes, ed. by the Benedictines of Paris (Paris 193556) 11:520536, extensive bibliog. The Love of the Sacred Heart, pref. a. goodier (New York 1922), contains excerpts from her writings. m. j. finnegan, Scholars and Mystics (Chicago 1962). "Similitudes in the Writings of St. Gertrude of Helfta," Mediaeval Studies 19 (1957) 4854. p. doyÈre, "St. Gertrude, Nun and Mystic," Worship 34 (1960) 536543.

[p. doyÈre]

About this article

Gertrude (The Great), St.

Updated About content Print Article