Gertrude
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St. Gertrude

 

 St. Gertrude was born in the first half of the thirteen century near Eisleben (Germany), though we know little of her family. She was brought to the Benedictine convent when she was only five years old and remained there the rest of her life. Perhaps she was orphaned or perhaps her mother had died, and her father brought her there. No one really knows. The abbess who was in charge when she arrived was also named Gertrude (of Hackerborn), which has led to some confusion over the years. Abbess Gertrude had a sister, Mechthild, who lived there as well and was the novice mistress of the alumnate. Mechthild was also one of the “Helfta saints,” a group of women, many of whom were mystics, who lived in the Saxony area of Germany during this time period, and she was given the task of raising the young Gertrude. As she grew, Gertrude was influenced by her teacher and these women, but Gertrude was quite an intellectual in her own right, was schooled in Latin and enjoyed studying the scriptures and theology. She became the abbess of the nunnery when she was only thirty years of age, a post she held for forty years. Gertrude left some prayers and letters and some writings, though some have been lost in time. Her writings, “Legatus Divinae Pietatis,” or the “Herald of Divine Love” is beautifully written in Latin; her Exercises and one short book called the “Great Insinuations” or the Communications and Sentiments of Love,” are all that have remained.

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What most attracts me to her particular life, however, is how much she found nourishment from the liturgy. Her prayers and her mystical revelations all seemed to stem from the liturgy of the Eucharist and the Divine Office. She particularly loved to pray the psalms. Gertrude, like other saints, felt her body had been marked with the wounds of Christ (the Stigmata), though internally. She writes of how she repeated Psalm 103 several times each day and each phrase reminded her of the wounds she carried in her body that mirrored her beloved. She broke the Psalm into verses, beginning with “Bless the Lord, O my soul” when she lay all her sins at the feet of Jesus. The second verse, “Bless the Lord and all that he hath done for thee” accompanied what she felt were the washing away of all carnal pleasures; the third, “Who forgiveth all thy iniquities” allowed her rest in the wound of Christ’s left hand, referring to it as the cleft of the rock, a reference to the Song of Songs in which the beloved and lover share intimate union:

 

          O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff,

          let me see you face, let me hear your voice

          for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.     Song of Songs 2:14

 

During the fourth verse of the psalm, “Who redeemth thy life from destruction” she rested in his right hand and was filled with every grace and virtue, and during the fifth, “Who satisfies thy desire with good things,” she begged for purification so she would be worthy to dwell in his presence. Gertrude lived the psalms. She also had a great devotion to the heart of Jesus, which she saw revealed to her in one of her visions. She experienced her first vision of Christ when she was 26 years of age, was sometimes caught up in raptures and was even said to have had miracles associated with her intercessions.

 

Gertrude was a contemplative mystic, who ruled the abbey with strength and wisdom, but she also carried the works of charity toward all her sisters and those who sought her insights. Teresa of Avila looked to her as a role model and the King of Spain asked that she be named the patroness of the West Indies. Her feast day is November 16th.

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Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

Evelyn Underhill