Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Gertrude the Great: A Woman Finding Her Place

Gertrude the Great (born 6 January 1256)


Denied any "official" role in the Christian church, either as priests, as officials and administrators, or as trained theologians, women nevertheless found a number of ways to participate in the religious life--not only in expected ways, through worship and participation in church festivals and celebrations, and as cloistered nuns, but also in unexpected ways, as the life and work of Gertrude of Helfta, ultimately awarded the honorific "the Great," clearly demonstrates.

For many women, the monasteries of the Middle Ages seem to have served as  "cities of ladies," offering them strong female models and bonds, as is the case with Gertrude at the monastery of St. Mary of Helfta.* When Gertrude entered St. Mary's at the age of four, it was under the direction of Gertrude of Hackeborn, who had made the convent into a center for learning. Gertrude of Hackeborn's sister, Mechthilde, ran the institution's school, trained and directed the choir, and experienced a series of mystical revelations, preserved in The Book of Special Grace. Late in her life, the mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg joined the monastery and this remarkable group of women where she also came to influence the younger Gertrude.

An anonymous painting of
Gertrude the Great,
illustratng her devotion to
the Sacred Heart
During her relatively brief life (she died around the year 1302, at age forty-five or forty-six), Gertrude the Great produced a number of works, all in Latin, including The Herald of Divine Love, her Teachings of Spiritual Exercises, and a compilation of meditations and prayers, the Gertrudian Prayers.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a Vatican address "On St. Gertrude" which makes special note of the significance of all-female communities like that of Helfta:
St. Gertrude the Great, about whom I would like to speak today, takes us also this week to the monastery of Helfta, where some of the masterpieces of feminine Latin-Germanic religious literature were created. Gertrude belonged to this world; she was one of the most famous mystics, the only woman of Germanic descent to be called "the Great" because of her cultural and evangelical stature. With her life and thought she influenced Christian spirituality in a singular way. She was an exceptional woman, gifted with particular natural talents and extraordinary gifts of grace, of most profound humility and ardent zeal for the salvation of her neighbor, of profound communion with God in contemplation and readiness to help the needy.
In Helfta she is systematically compared, so to speak, with her teacher Matilda of Hackeborn . . . ; she was associated with Matilda of Magdeburg, another Medieval mystic; she grew up under the maternal, gentle and exacting care of Abbess Gertrude. From these three sisters of hers she acquired treasures of experience and wisdom; she developed them in her own synthesis, following her religious itinerary with unlimited trust in the Lord. She expresses the richness of spirituality not only in her monastic world, but also and above all in the biblical, liturgical, patristic and Benedictine world, with a most personal stamp and with great communicative effectiveness.
There are many excellent studies of medieval women mystics. On Gertrude the Great and the monastery of Helfta, I particularly recommend Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff's Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, which also contains selections from the visionary texts. And for an unparalleled discussion of Gertrude and her visions in context, see Bernard McGinn's The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism: 1200-1350, volume 3 of his multi-volume The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.

Gertrude the Great was canonized in 1667. Her feast day is 16 November.

*There is some confusion about whether the monastery at St. Mary's belonged to the Benedictine or Cistercian order. The matter is clarified by McGinn: while the institution was intended--and founded--as a convent of Cistercian nuns in 1229, a Cistercian General Chapter had decided, in 1228, to forbid "further foundation or incorporation of houses for women into the order." Thus, as McGinn explains,  the institution "remained technically a Benedictine convent, though one that used the gray habit of Cistercian nuns and followed their usages" (3:267).