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Catholic Heroes… St. Gertrude The Great

November 15, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In Christian spirituality, prayer has many types and forms. There are prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, and petition. There are vocal prayers and mental prayers. Again there are liturgical prayers and private prayers. Only one woman in the history of the Church has been called great, St. Gertrude the Great, a Benedictine nun, known for her wisdom on prayer.
Information about Gertrude’s parentage has not been preserved, but she was born in Eisleben, Thuringia, on January 6, 1256, about 140 miles southwest of Berlin. Perhaps her parents were devout and consecrated Gertrude, since she was only four years old when she entered the Benedictine — some claim Cistercian — monastery of St. Mary in Helfta.
Some confuse Gertrude the Great with Gertrude of Hackeborn, who served as the abbess of the same monastery.
The abbess Gertrude placed the young Gertrude under the care of St. Mechtilde, the younger sister of the abbess.
St. Mechtilde and little Gertrude immediately developed a close relationship. Gertrude was a most adept student, who easily grasped the intricacies of Latin, Scripture, and later the fathers of the Church such as St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Gregory the Great. She became a prolific and accomplished writer so she must have excelled at rhetoric as well.
All her academic success seemed as straw to Gertrude when she received her first divine vision in 1281. As she recalled:
“Although I was certain of my bodily presence in that place, nevertheless it seemed to me that I was in choir in that corner where I was accustomed to make my lukewarm prayers, and that there I heard these words, ‘I will save and deliver you. Fear not.’ When He had said this I saw His fine and delicate hand take mine as though solemnly to ratify this promise, and He went on. ‘You have licked the dust with my enemies and sucked honey from the thorns. Now come back to me, and my divine delights shall be as wine to you’.”
He lifted her over the barrier of a thorny hedge to place her by His side.
“I then recognized, in the hand that had just been given me as a pledge, the radiant jewels of those sacred wounds which have made of no effect the handwriting that was against us.”
After this divine visitation, Gertrude applied herself with all her being to grow in holiness and knowledge of God. Although her attention to academic subjects was not inordinate, from the time of that vision, her study of Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Church fathers became even more intense. Thus she turned from secular studies to those of theology.
She particularly spent time studying the Church’s liturgy and doing private reading. She continued to receive more visitations and the other contemplative nuns with whom she lived were told by our Lord to seek Gertrude’s assistance in their petitions.
One nun, who suffered terrible temptations, had a dream during which our Lord told her to ask Gertrude for her prayers. The temptations ceased as soon as Gertrude began praying for her.
Likewise, another nun, a victim of spiritual turmoil, touched a cloth used by Gertrude to her heart and immediately peace filled her soul.
Yet another of the sisters learned of Gertrude’s sanctity and its nature from God Himself:
“[She] contains and perfects in her soul those five virtues which please Me above all others, and which I have placed therein by a singular liberality; she possesses purity, by a continual influence of My grace; she possesses humility, amidst the great diversity of gifts which I have bestowed on her — for the more I effect in her, the more she abases herself; she possesses a true benignity, which makes her desire the salvation of the whole world for My greater glory; she possesses true fidelity, spreading abroad, without reserve, all her treasures for the same end.
“Finally, she possesses a consummate charity, for she loves Me with her whole heart, with her whole soul, and with her whole strength, and for love of Me, she loves her neighbor as herself.”
In 1294, Gertrude became abbess of the monastery, serving in that position for forty more years. She demonstrated the above virtues by her zeal for souls and her love for the sisters as she cared especially for those suffering either physically or spiritually.
For those in need of repentance, she agonized, offering up her pains until the person repented. She believed her personal sacrifice for the individual was more efficacious than any scolding or reprimanding would be.
As the years progressed, our Lord continued His visits to St. Gertrude and her love for Him became deeper and deeper. She recorded her experiences and her growing love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She wrote extensively, with The Herald of Divine Love begun on Holy Thursday 1289. There she describes her vision and the essence of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus 400 years before St. Mary Margaret Alacoque. She also wrote her Collection of Spiritual Exercises which are grounded in Church liturgy.
Included in her writings is the vision she had on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. She reflected on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, then reclining on His side near His wound, she rested her head and could hear the beating of His Sacred Heart, wounded for love of us. She also experienced a ray of light shining forth from His side, nearly 700 years before St. Faustina received the image of Divine Mercy.
She predicted the return of frequent Communion, development of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and an increase in devotion to St. Joseph. Furthermore, she was fervent on the benefits of the suffering, explaining that “adversity is the spiritual ring with which the soul is betrothed to God.”
St. Gertrude has been recognized as one of the great saints for her writings on increasing piety for women — nearly 300 years before St. Teresa of Avila wrote her Interior Castle.
Around 1291, St. Gertrude became ill, with her health declining for the next decade. She died at the Helfta monastery near Eisleben around 1302 and her feast is celebrated on November 16.
Although she was never formally canonized, Pope Innocent XI added her name to the Roman Martyrology in 1677. Pope Clement XII directed the Western Church to celebrate her feast as well.
Dear St. Gertrude, restore in all Christians a deep love of prayer and communion with God. Help us to understand all forms of prayer and ways of praying that we will give proper reverence to our Creator in both the public prayer of the liturgy and our own private prayer of contemplation. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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