Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mechthild of Hackeborn, the "Nightingale of Christ"

Mechthild of Hackeborn (died 19 November 1298)

In 1240 or 1241, Mechthild von Hackeborn-Wippra was born in the castle of Helfta, in Saxony, the younger sister of a woman we have met before, Gertrude of Hackeborn, who was abbess of the convent of St. Mary of Helfta for forty years, from 1241 until 1291.

A fresco representation of
Mechthild of Hackeborn
(if you look at this hard enough,
it will freak you out)
When she was about seven years old, Mechthild entered the convent--as historian Bernard McGinn tells us, Mechthild became "the chantress of the house and a teacher and spiritual guide for the younger nuns," including a five-year-old girl named Gertrude, who joined the community in 1261. The Cistercian convent of Helfta was supported by Saxon nobility, women like Gertrude and Mechilde of Hackeborn; the younger Gertrude was a "girl of unknown parentage."* She would grow up to become a woman we have also met, Gertrude the Great.

As for Mechthild, she was recognized not only for her beautiful voice (in one of her visions, Christ called her his nightingale), but she trained the convent's choir, acting as its director. 

Within the protected walls of their convent, the spiritual lives of the nuns of Helfta flourished. In 1281, Gertrude of Hackeborn experienced a profound vision of Christ; in 1289, she began to write her account of this vision, eventually embedding it into her Legatus memorialis abundantiae divinae pietatis, or The Memorial Herald of the Abundance of Divine Love

In 1291, during a serious illness, Mechthild revealed her own visions to her sister and began recording them in the Liber specialis gratiae, or Book of Special Grace. After Gertrude's death in 1292, Mechthild added an account of her sister's life. As Richard Emmerson describes the Book of Special Grace:
Rich in allegory, the seven parts chronicle Mechthild's life and death [the account of her death is added after her death, obviously], her visions, the special graces she experienced, her teachings concerning the true devotion to God and the virtuous life, and fragments of a correspondence with a female friend.
In his extended discussion of what he regards as the "distinctive form" of the mysticism of the women of Helfta, McGinn spends considerable time devoted to Mechthild's most important symbol, the cor Iesu (or cor Dei), the "heart of Christ." For Mechthild, the heart of Christ is "the source of nourishment," "the place of entry and incorporation into God," and a "vital connection," the "living engine that works to unify God and human." Jesus offers her his Sacred Heart as a pledge of his love, as a sacred refuge for her, and as a source of consolation, especially in the hour of death.

In his General Audience for 29 September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI offered an address on the life of St. Mechthild of Hackeborn, which you can access by clicking here. (Interestingly, he confuses Gertrude of Hackeborn and Gertrude the Great, identifying "Gertrude the Great" as Mechthild's sister . . . Oops.) 

I honestly have not been able to find an accessible and affordable English translation of Mechthild's Book of Special Grace in print.  But here's a link to an online book of "selections" from Mechthild of Hackeborn from the Internet Archive. (Or you can spend $497.76 for a print copy of a 1979 edition of a Middle English translation of her work, Booke of Ghostly Grace--I'm not kidding about the price. Why the 76 cents????) 

Update: Since I posted this blog entry, I have learned that the noted scholar Barbara Newman is in the process of completing a translation of The Book of Special Grace, "the first ever in modern English." The book will be published in the Paulist Classics of Western Spirituality series and is tentatively scheduled for 2017.

For his discussion of Mechthild, I have relied here on 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.

*As I noted when I posted about the convent at Helfta earlier this year, 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).