A Great Woman from a Tiny Village

The monastery at Helfta

Gertrude the Great, also known as Gertrude of Helfta, was born January 6, 1256. Her surname, Helfta, tells us where she came from. Today Helfta is a small village in eastern Germany near the city of Eisleben, the native town of Martin Luther. Gertrude spent most of her life in a Cistercian monastery located at Helfta. This is the monastery of Helfta today.

monastery: a community bound by a vow to observe a religious life

Family surnames were rare in the Middle Ages, and Gertrude was the most popular German first name for girls. Pope Benedict XIV called her "Gertrude the Great" in the seventeenth century to distinguish her from the Abbess of Helfta, Gertrud of Hackeborn.

Gertrude's Childhood in the Monastery

When Gertrude was five, her family offered her life to God to be served in the monastery of Helfta. This was a common practice in prosperous families. It protected girls socially and economically and nourished their intellectual growth. It offered them a life of prayer and community as an alternative to the duties of family life.

Both male and female Cistercian monasteries follow the "Rule of Saint Benedict" . You can read more about the practice of offering a child to God in chapter 59 of the Rule (in Latin or in English ).

The girls shared monastic life with the adult women. The rule of Saint Benedict prescribes seven community prayers and the daily celebration of Mass (ch. 7-20). But instead of working in the monastery or on the farm as adults do, children like Gertrude had school lessons. For more about children's lives in a Benedictine monastery see chapter 37 (in Latin or in English ) and chapter 30 (in Latin or in English ).

Gertrude's Education

Gertrude received an excellent education in the monastery school, unlike many other girls in the 13th century. Mechthild von Hackeborn , the abbess of Helfta during Gertrude's childhood, concentrated on improving convent education. Gertrude not only practiced reading and writing in Latin, she also studied the seven liberal arts : grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic and geometry, as well as music and astronomy.

Gertrude's religious education included memorizing the Bible and the office of hours , but she also studied the great Christian theologians. How do we know this? Because Gertrude wrote several works in Latin in such a way that shows how well-educated she was.

For example, Gertrude cited Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, and, very often, Saint Bernard. Her Latin style shows the virtuosity of great secular authors such as Sallust or Cicero. She knew the ancient Roman "cursus honorum" (cf. Legatus divinae pietatis, Book III Chapter XXXVI) and the "Fescennini versus" , songs used in the ancient Roman wedding ceremony (cf. Legatus divinae pietatis, Book III Chapter XLV).

What makes the life of a sister "Great"?

Until age 26, Gertrude was just a sister like all the other nuns in the convent. She followed the rule of Saint Benedict but without much interest or enthusiasm.

Like the other sisters at Helfta, Gertrude prayed for her neighbors in their everyday difficulties. People living in the surroundings of Helfta came with their sorrows and troubles asking the nuns for intercession and prayer. Gertrude tells about livestock that suffer frostbite in winter (Legatus divinae pietatis, Book I Chapter XIII), a monastery steward with money problems (Legatus divinae pietatis, Book III Chapter LXIX), and about deaths (for example, Legatus divinae pietatis, Book V Chapter XI, XII, XIII).

Like the other sisters, Gertrude spent most of her time in prayer, silence and work. However, in her mid-twenties Gertrude underwent a deep spiritual crisis. that made her sad and depressed for weeks.

Then, in one moment, everything changed. In the midst of her daily routine she had an experience that changed her life. Suddenly, she liked praying and obeyed the rule as carefully as possible. What happened?

A Vision on January 27,1281

On January 27, 1281, she was standing in the dormitory where all the nuns slept. She respectfully greeted an elder sister with a nod, as prescribed in the Benedictine rule (in Latin or in English ). When she raised her head again, she saw Jesus Christ as a handsome sixteen-year-old man standing nearby. He spoke cheering words familiar to her from liturgy. Gertrude became extremely happy.

Here's what she wrote about the experience:

"Dum in vigesimo sexto aetatis meae anno secunda feria ante festum Purificationis Mariae castissimae matris suae, quae feria secunda tunc fuit sexto kal. Februarii, in hora exoptabili post Completorium ... dum starem in medio dormitorii et secundum reverentiam Ordinis obvianti mihi seniori caput inclinatum erigerem, astantem mihi vidi juvenem amabilem et delicatum, quasi sedecim annorum, in tali forma qualem tunc juventus mea exoptasset exterioribus oculis meis placiturum. Qui vultu blando lenibusque verbis dixit mihi: Cito veniet salus tua; quare moerore consumeris? Numquid consiliarius [p. 60] non est tibi, quia innovavit te dolor (Responsorium I Dominicae II. Adventus)?" (Legatus divinae pietatis, Book II, Chapter II).

Jesus of Nazareth was no longer a remote, historical person to her. Instead he became a lively part of her daily routine. She talked to him. He answered her. She could see him and she could hear him. He was with her when she was praying, when she was eating, when she was working, when she was resting in the garden. He comforted her, reprimanded her, admonished her and praised her. He was present when she was sick in her bed, as she often was. He was there to help her when she was sad or scared, angry or annoyed.

Gertrude was not crazy. Modern theologicans describe her experience as the grace of an internal vision or "audition." This is not like normal seeing and hearing with the eyes and ears. Rather, Jesus Christ was present in Gertrude's soul. He was not actually there as her contemporaries were. But for her he was no less real than people she saw with her eyes or heard with her ears.

The Herald of Divine Love

Gertrude was so happy that Christ spent time with her that she began reporting her experiences.. She hoped others would also include Jesus in their daily routine. Sometimes she dictated her experiences to another sister. Step by step she and the sisters of Helfta composed a long book, called Legatus divinae pietatis (The Herald of Divine Love).

Spiritual Exercises

Gertrude wrote Exercitia spiritualia (The Spiritual Exercises), a prayerbook to assist with daily prayers, the core of the religious life, for the other sisters at Helfta. She wanted them to experience the same joy she herself felt.

In her work Gertrude answered central questions about the essence and purpose of human life. She believed that people are created out of the overflowing love of God, and after death they are destined to share this love in eternal life. On earth they are meant to act with this love.

Problems at Helfta

Gertrude was realistic enough to know that all human beings have weaknesses and imperfections. She wrote frankly about her own weaknesses and imperfections, about her anger and impatience with others. If you carefully read her very discreet descriptions of sisters living with her, you can imagine some of the rough spots in their relationships.

Life in Helfta was not free of conflicts. Since Gertrude's life was different in its intensity from the average life of the other sisters in Helfta, she suffered from the misunderstanding, envy, and jealousy of others.

Legatus, Book IV chapter XV, describes one such misunderstanding. One day, during the community prayer, Gertrude suddenly had a vision and could not move. When all the other nuns stood up, as prescribed in the Benedictine rule (in Latin or in English ), she remained seated. With reason (in Latin or in English ), one sister criticized her for this. Of course, the sister could not know that Gertrude was unable to get up.

Being blamed for disobedience was painful for Gertrude. So she begged Jesus to permit her to move during visions and auditions. After this prayer session she was always able to obey the rule.

By the end of Gertrude's life, all the sisters at Helfta agreed that she was as docile as she was quick-witted and well-educated. Gertrude was:

"Erat siquidem annis et corpore tenera, sensibus cane, amabilis, habilis et facunda, et ita per omnia docilis ut omnes audientes admirarentur. Nam cum ad scholas poneretur tanta sensuum velocitate ac intellectus ingenio praepollebat, quod omnes coaetaneas et caeteras consodales in omni sapientia et doctrina longe superabat. Sicque annos pueritiae simulque adolescentiae puro corde, avidaque liberalium artium delectatione transgrediens, a multis puerilibus quibus illa aetas aberrare consuevit, a Patre misericordiarum est custodita, cui proinde sit laus et actio gratiarum infinita." (Herald of Divine Love, prologue)

The prologue also mentions how helpful her writings were for others:

"Unde exhinc [i.e. the Vision on January 27, 1281] de grammatica facta theologa omnes libros divinae paginae quoscumque habere vel acquirere potuit infastidibiliter ruminans, cophinum cordis sui crebro utilioribus et mellitis Scripturae sacrae eloquiis impletis usque ad summum replebat, ita ut semper praesto sibi esset sermo divinus et aedificatorius; unde quoslibet ad se venientes posset satis convenienter expedire, atque cuilibet errori tam congruis sacrae Scripturae testimoniis obviare, quod a nullo penitus posset confutari. ... Unde etiam quaeque obscura infirmioribus intellectibus plana et perlucida faciens, quamplures libros omni suavitate plenos [p. 9] de dictis Sanctorum more columbino triticum recolligentis, compilavit et conscripsit ad utilitatem communem omnium in ipsis legere cupientium. Composuit etiam plures orationes favo mellis dulciores et alia multa aedificatoria documenta spiritualium exercitationum [i.e. Exercitia spiritualia], stylo tam decenti quod nulli magistrorum refutare congruit, quin delectetur in convenientia illius tamque mellitis sacrae Scripturae eloquiis condita, quod nullum theologorum sive devotorum decet ea fastidire. Unde sine omni contradictione attribuendum est dono spiritualis gratiae."

Death and Remembrance

Gertrude died on November 16 in either 1301 or 1302.

The "Herald of the Divine Love" was printed in Cologne for the first time in 1536 and gained great popularity. Gertrude's special devotion of the Most Holy Heart of Jesus was an important development in the history of Roman Catholic mystical practice. By 1678, she was so well known beyond the borders of Germany that she was recognized as a saint through the formal process of "canonization." Since 1734, the Roman Catholic church has authorized devotion to Gertrude's memory worldwide.