The Life and Revelations of St Gertrude
The Saints birth and parentage. Her early dedication to God. Intellectual gifts. Divine communications concerning her sanctity. Our Lord declares that He finds rest and repose in her heart. Desires a holy person to seek Him there.
The thirteenth century was an eventful one for the world and the Church. Its commencement found the great orders of St. Dominic and St. Francis established in almost every city of Europe, already winning martyrs crowns, and counting their trophies won for the Lamb by hundreds and by thousands. St. Elizabeth of Hungary had sanctified a palace and edified a nation by her heroic virtue and her meek resignation in adversity. St. Thomas Aquinas and the seraphic St. Bonaventure had bequeathed such treasures to the Church, as had never before been confided to her keeping. St. Louis had died a victim to his love of Jesus crucified and his grief that the land where his Lord had died should be despoiled by the heathen and defiled by the infidel. It was, in truth, a century of Saints, and of Saints of more than ordinary note; at the close of this century, as a crowning gift, came the great and beautiful Saint Gertrude, whose history has been too little known among us, while her very name receives a continual homage of reverent love. The illustrious Benedictine Abbess was born at Eisleben, a small town in the county of Mansfield, on the 6th of January, 1263;(1) and thus, as it has been happily
remarked, a star of no ordinary brilliancy was given to the Church on the day
on which that Church was mystically led by a star to her Incarnate God. It is
said that the family of the Counts of Lachenborn were nearly related to the
imperial family of Germany; but whatever their rank or dignity may have been,
all distinct remembrance of it has long since passed away, and they are only
now remembered as illustrious because of the surpassing sanctity of their illustrious
child. Bucelinus, in his Aquila Imperii Benedictini, gives a genealogical tree
of the family of the Counts of Hackeborn, commencing with the
father of the Saint, and concluding with Fredericus, Dominus et Comes in Hackeborn, familiae suae ultimus; but there is no date by which to determine when this Count, the last of his family, passed away from earth. When the Saint attained her fifth year, she was placed in the famous Benedictine Abbey of Rodersdorf, in the diocese of Halberstadt, where she was soon joined by her younger sister, Mechtilde.(2)
1. There has been much dispute as to the precise year in which the Saint was born, though a circumstance which will be related hereafter fixes the period with tolerable certainty. In the date, as also in the etymology of her family name, we have followed the opinion of the learned Abbot of Solesmes. In Coxes House of Austria he mentions the marriage of Anne, sister of Count Hohenberg, to the famous Rodolph of Hapsburg. Beetham, in his valuable Genealogies, calls her Anne of Hochberg. The similarity of the name to that of Hackeborn suggests a possibility that the connection with the imperial
family may have been through this channel. The town of Eisleben still exists, and has, it will be remembered, the unenviable notoriety of being the birthplace of Luther. It is the capital of the county of Mansfield: the tombs of the ancient Counts of Mansfield are still preserved in the churches of St. Andrew and St. Ann. It has also a ruined castle, but, alas, no tradition of its Saint, though it may be this ruin was once possessed by her noble family.
2. A special provision is made in the Rule of St. Benedict, ch. 59. to regulate this matter. The practice of offering very young children who were dedicated by their parents to the service of God in holy religion was generally observed in the Order, until the custom was abolished by the authority of Pope Clement III. It is also expressly forbidden by the Council of Trent. (See Helyot, Hist. Reg. Orders.) When St. Benedict wrote his Rule, the Church had not legislated for religious orders. Had those regulations been enacted during his lifetime, he would have been the first to acknowledge their authority and to require his spiritual children to submit to them.
Here, under the careful training of the Benedictine Dameswho then, as now, devoted themselves with unwearied solicitude, and more than ordinary intellectual abilities, to the education of those confided to their chargethe young Countess of Lachenborn advanced in wisdom and learning, both human and divine. The high intellectual gifts with which St. Gertrude was endowed had the most ample advantages for their development. At an early age she was sufficiently conversant with the Latin tongue to read and converse in that language; her reading was extensive for an age in which literature was confined to parchment manuscripts and oral instructions. Indeed, her devotion to her literary pursuitsthough these were of the best and purest kind, since the Scriptures, the Fathers, and other theological works, were her chief studyseemed at first likely to prove a hindrance to her spiritual advancement. Yet all was overruled by infinite love and infinite wisdom. Her writings were to be the Churchs treasure in all ages, though, like stars in a stormy sky, their light may be for a time concealed from men, only perchance to shine more gloriously when they shall have emerged from this passing obscurity. Secular learning might encase the jewel, but it could not produce it; it might enhance the beauty of the pure and sparkling stream, by diverting its course through a more cultivated channel, but it could not produce the stream itself. And now the Spouse of virgins began to speak to the heart of His chosen one, and to withdraw her from those exterior occupations, no longer necessary for mental cultivation, that she might listen without distraction or hindrance to those whispers of His love which we also, despite our unworthiness, are permitted to hear and to enjoy.
The Saint has informed us herself when and how the first of these heavenly communications was vouchsafed to her. It was on Monday, the 25th of January, at the close of day, the Light of lights came to dissipate the obscurity of her darkness, and to commence her conversion. And Jesus came, as He mostly comes to His beloved ones, as she performed an act of humility and obediencedeclining to an ancient religious to fulfill a conventual observance, and doubtless from no mere habitual custom, but with deep and lowly reverence for a spouse of Christ, whom she considered incomparably her superior in virtue and sanctity.
Her sisters were not slow to perceive that their companion was specially favored by Heaven. One religious, who had long suffered from most painful temptations, was warned in a dream to apply to Gertrude for relief and to recommend herself to her prayers. The moment she complied with this injunction, the temptation ceased. Another, who feared to communicate under a similar and even more urgent trial, obtained a morsel of cloth which had been used by the Saint, and placing it near her heart, implored our Lord to deliver her by the merits of Gertrude. The favor was granted, and from that moment she never suffered from the same temptation. It would appear, indeed, that Gertrude was specially designed by Providence to assist others, even during her lifetime, by her merits and intercession, as well as by the gift of counsel with which she was singularly favored. A person whose sanctity had been long manifest, and who was specially favored by Divine communications, came to the monastery from a distant country to obtain an interview with the Saint. As she knew none of the religious personally, she prayed that whoever would benefit her soul most by their conversation might be sent to her. It was then made known to her that whoever should come and take their place beside her would be indeed the one most beloved by God, and the most holy among the religious. On her arrival, St. Gertrude came to her; but so well did she conceal any appearance of sanctity, and hide the supernatural light with which she was favored, that the stranger imagined she had been deceived and again prayed as she had done before. The same reply was once more vouchsafed to her, and she was assured that this was indeed the religious who was so dear to God.
Shortly after, the visitor had a long interview with St. Mechtilde, whose conversation she greatly preferred, and whose sanctity was more apparent. Again she inquired of God, and asked why St. Gertrude was preferred to her sister. Our Lord replied that He had indeed operated great graces in Mechtilde, but in Gertrude He had operated, and He would yet operate, far greater. Another person of great sanctity, who was praying for the Saint, felt a singular impulse of affection for her, which she believed to be supernatural. O Divine Love! she exclaimed, what is it You behold in this virgin which obliges You to esteem her so highly and to love her so much? Our Lord replied: It is My goodness alone which obliges Me; since 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 herfor 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 a 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.
After Our Lord had spoken thus to this soul, He showed her a precious stone
on His heart, in the form of a triangle, made of trefoils, the beauty and brilliancy
of which cannot be described; and He said to her: I always wear this jewel
as a pledge of the affection which I have for My spouse. I have made it in this
form, that all the celestial court may know by the brightness of the first leaf
that there is no creature on earth so dear to Me as Gertrude, because there
is no one at this present time among mankind who is united to Me so closely
as she is, either by purity of intention or by uprightness of will. They will
see by the second leaf that there is no soul still bound by the chains of flesh
and blood whom I am so disposed to enrich by My graces and favors. And they
will observe in the splendor of the third leaf that there is no one who refers
to My glory alone the gifts received from Me with such sincerity and fidelity
as Gertrude, who, far from wishing to claim the least thing for herself, desires
most ardently that nothing shall be ever attributed to her. Our Lord
concluded this revelation by saying to the holy person to whom He had thus condescended
to speak of the perfections of our Saint: You cannot find Me in any place
in which I delight more, or which is more suitable for Me, than in the Sacrament
of the Altar, and after that, in the heart and soul of Gertrude, My beloved;
for toward her all My affections, and the complacences of My Divine love, turn
in a singular manner. (3)
On another occasion, a devout person who was praying for the Saint heard these words: She for whom thou prayest is My dove, who has no guile in her, for she rejects from her heart as gall all the guile and bitterness of sin. She is My chosen lily, which I love to bear in My hands, for it is My delight and My pleasure to repose in the purity and innocence of this chaste soul. She is My rose, whose odor is full of sweetness because of her patience in every adversity and the thanksgiving which she continually offers Me, which ascend before Me as the sweetest perfumes. She is that spring flower which never fades, and which I take pleasure in contemplating, because she keeps and maintains continually in her breast an ardent desire
3. It is generally supposed, but without sufficient authority, that these words were addressed to St. Mechtilde. She may have been the holy person to whom the revelation was made, but this opinion is merely conjectural.
not only for all virtues, but for the utmost perfection of every virtue. She
is as a sweet melody, which ravishes the ears of the blessed; and this melody
is composed of all the sufferings she endures with so much constancy.
A little before Lent, as Gertrude was reading a lecture for the community, according
to the custom of the Order, she repeated these words twice: Thou shalt
love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with
thy whole strength. (Deut. 6:5). The Saint lived in a community of saints,
where more than one favored soul was vouchsafed intimate and frequent communion
with her Spouse. A sister, who was touched by the devotion with which these words were uttered, prayed that He who so loved Gertrude and had taught her to love Him so much, would vouchsafe to impart to her the same blessed lesson. Our Lord replied: I have borne her in My arms from her infancy. I have preserved her in her baptismal purity and innocence, until she, by her own free choice and will, has given herself to Me entirely and forever; and as a recompense for the perfection of her desires, I, in return, have given Myself entirely to her. So pleasing is this soul to Me, that when I am offended by men, I often enter therein to repose, and I make her endure some pain of body or of mind, which I inflict on her for the sins of others; and as she accepts this suffering with the same thanksgiving, humility and patience as she receives all that comes from Me, and offers it to Me in union with My sufferings, she appeases My anger, and obliges My mercy to pardon, for her sake, an immense number of sinners.
On another occasion, Gertrude having humbly asked the prayers of a sister, the religious complied with her request, and while praying for the Saint, heard these words: The faults which appear in Gertrude may rather be called steps in perfection, for it would be almost impossible that human weakness could be preserved from the blasts of vainglory, amidst the abundance of graces which I continally operate in her, if her virtues were not hidden from her eyes under the veils and shadows of apparent defects. Thus, even as the earth produces a richer and more abundant harvest in proportion as the laborer has been careful in manuring it, so the gratitude of Gertrude bears Me richer fruit, the more I make her see her own weakness. It is for this reason that I permit different imperfections in her, for which she is in a state of continual humiliation, sending her a particular grace for each, with which she blots them all out from My sight; and the time will come when I change these defects into so many virtues, so that her soul will shine before Me as a most glorious sun.
What these defects were, we are not told. The Saints patience in sickness and in trial was unalterable; her charity to her sisters abounded with each necessity for its exercise; and her sanctity was apparent in every action of her holy life. A special gift of prophecy or foreknowledge enabled her to give advice with promptness, and the greatest wisdom, on the most important occasions. When these gifts became known, the monastery was frequently visited by all classes of persons, who came to converse with her on spiritual subjects, or to obtain counsel in difficulties. Her deep study of Holy Scripture and of the Fathers now bore abundant fruit, and it was observed that she had a singular, and no doubt a Heaven-sent, felicity in applying what she had read and treasured in her memory to the spiritual necessities of those with whom she conversed. God and the salvation of soulsthis was the one object of her life, the one end of every action. From her humility, she had fully persuaded herself that the marvelous graces bestowed on her were given her merely for others.
This holy delusion served two important endsit saved her from every temptation to spiritual complacence, and it induced her to impart freely to others a knowledge of the revelations and other favors bestowed on her. She was simply, according to her own idea, a channel of divine grace to others; and believing this to be her end, she neither spared time nor labor for its accomplishment. Often her rest was shortened and her food forgotten when souls demanded time or anxious thought. Not satisfied even with this, she often deprived herself of the sweetness of contemplation when it was necessary to succor the tempted, to console the afflicted, or, what she desired above all else, to enkindle and increase the fire of divine love in any soul. For as iron, when placed in the fire, becomes itself like fire, thus this virgin, burning with love, seemed to be all love, such zeal had she for the salvation of all.
She believed that God would indeed be glorified thereby, and that His gifts
would thus be multiplied a hundredfold; she was absolutely persuaded that
she received nothing for herself, but that all was for the salvation of others.
She never beheld anyone whom she did not consider better than herself,
and it was on this account that she was so convinced that God would receive
more glory by the communication of His graces to them. She believed that they
merited more by a single thought, by their mere innocence, even by their purity
of heart, than she could do by all her mental powers or spiritual gifts.
Can we wonder that a vessel so emptied of self should have been filled to overflowing
with God? that the perfume of the ointment should have lingered
for so many hundreds of years in the house of God, and that it still affords
refreshment and consolation to His chosen spouses, and to the most saintly souls?
May this poor effort to extend the sweetness of that perfume be for His honor
and glory, for the honor of this blessed Saint and for the refreshment of the
little ones of Jesus!
Taken from The Life and Revelations of St Gertrude by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.
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