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Dec 2016


Sharlet Francis Xavier looks at the life of St Gertrude the Great, a German theologian and mystic.

Early Life

Little is known about Gertrude’s early life. It is thought that she was born in Eisleben, modern Germany on the feast of the Epiphany, 6th January 1256. We know that at the age of five, she entered the monastery of St. Mary at Helfta, to be schooled under the direction of its abbess. This may seem young to us but it was not unusual in those days. Gertrude was a very good scholar and an extraordinary student. She was fascinated by study and says in her memoirs that when she was young she had a strong passion particularly for literature, music and the art of painting miniatures. Over the years she received a thorough education in a range of subjects that included Latin, rhetoric, Scripture, Liturgy and the Fathers of the Church.

Great Mystic

After studying at the monastery she decided to dedicate her life to the Lord totally by becoming a religious sister. She continued to study and pray and joined in the life of the community. Her transformation came in 1281, when at the age of twenty-five she started experiencing a series of visions of Jesus that continued throughout her lifetime. These had a profound impact on her and Gertrude committed herself to the study of Scripture and theology. In her writings she described her prayer life before these visions to be ‘negligent’ but afterwards she began a life of intense mystical prayer with exceptional missionary zeal. She devoted herself to writing about the truths of the faith in a simple and clear way that could be appreciated by everyone, not just the scholars. Gertrude became one of the great mystics and spiritual writers of the 13th century. It is said that together with her friend and teacher St. Mechtilde, she practiced a spirituality called "nuptial mysticism," that is, she came to see herself as the bride of Christ.

Her writings

Gertrude was a prolific writer and wrote numerous books but most of these were lost when the monastery was destroyed. Her longest surviving work is called The Herald of Divine Love. Her Spiritual Exercises also survive and these are helpful for anyone who wants to draw closer to the Lord through prayer and meditation. Pope Benedict XVI called her spiritual exercises, “a rare jewel of mystical spiritual literature.” (General Audience 6/10/2010) As she developed her spiritual writing, the visions of Jesus continued and she experienced an ever-closer communion with Him. This stirred up a great desire for God in all those around her who experienced the tangible presence of God when she was near.

The Sacred Heart

Gertrude was one of the earliest known devotees of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She helped people to understand that there is a stream of love flowing from the heart of Jesus. It is said that St Philip Neri and St Francis de Sales both used her prayers regularly and recommended them to others. She also received the stigmata, the painful marks that resembled the wounds of Jesus on her hands and feet. She was grateful for everything that she received from the Lord and wrote, “"You flooded me with your gifts of such beatitude that even were I to live for a thousand years with no consolation, neither interior nor exterior, the memory of them would suffice to comfort me, to enlighten me, to fill me with gratitude.”

Souls In Purgatory

One of the intentions close to her heart was for the souls in purgatory and she urged everyone to pray for them. She is therefore invoked for the suffering souls in purgatory and to help living sinners to be transformed. The following traditional prayer is attributed to St. Gertrude: "Eternal Father, I offer You the Most Precious Blood of Your Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen."

Her Death

Gertrude died at Helfta, northern Germany around 1302 and her feast day is celebrated on November 16th. Pope Benedict XIV gave her the title "The Great" to recognise the importance of her spiritual and theological insights.

Prayer For Souls in Purgatory

Eternal Father, I offer You the Mos Precious Blood of Your Divine Son Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.