St. Gertrude of Helfta: the only female saint of the Catholic Church to be named “the Great.”
St. Gertrude (1256-1301) was an impressive figure of the Medieval Church regarding her learning, writings, and mystical revelations. Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) gave her the title of “the Great” to distinguish her from her abbess, Gertrude of Hackeborn. In fact, only two other persons in the Church share this title: Pope Leo (441-61) and Pope Gregory (590-604). Moreover, Gertrude was never actually formally canonized in the Church. Nevertheless, Rome approved an office and readings in her honor. Gertrude played an important role in establishing popular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in influencing pivotal saints later who would look to her as a model, and in spreading devotion to the holy souls in purgatory. The month of November, as we recall, is devoted in a particular way to the Church Suffering in purgatory.
Gertrude was born on the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January 1256 in Germany. At the age of four, she entered the Benedictine monastery school of St. Mary at Helfta most likely as an orphan by this time. She excelled in her studies and far surpassed the other students. She was well-versed and fluent in Latin and studied a wide range of topics, both secular and sacred. Gertrude was proficient in literature, philosophy, music, and miniature painting.
Yet, Gertrude felt that something was lacking. In 1280, she experienced a great desolation spiritually. Her own plans and thoughts for her future had shattered. She would later write about her spiritual crisis that she underwent for weeks. She persevered during this time not knowing how any of these difficulties would be resolved.
On 21 January 1281, everything changed in Gertrude’s life. She received a private revelation from Jesus Himself appearing as an adolescent. He told Gertrude, “I have come to comfort you and bring you salvation.” Now, all Gertrude wanted to do was to live wholly and completely for Jesus. She abandoned all worldly studies as she now saw them as useless. Instead, she used her knowledge to concentrate on the Scriptural texts, the writings of the early Church Fathers (especially St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great) and medieval theologians like Richard and Hugh of St. Victor as well as the influential Bernard of Clairvaux, who laid the groundwork for devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Gertrude wrote that her new life began on 23 June 1281 as a type of new birth in the image of Christ.
Gertrude was a prolific writer who conveyed the truths of Christ in a clear, concise, readable style. She also received visitors in the convent parlor, as was the custom of the day. She would provide spiritual guidance to those who asked for her advice, and in so doing, she influenced a tremendous number of souls. Gertrude’s conversion to a single-minded purpose in Christ solely would be very similar to another great spiritual master, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) years later. In fact, St. Teresa had great devotion to St. Gertrude, and St. Teresa has been called “the Spanish St. Gertrude” by some writers.
Although Gertrude wrote extensively, unfortunately, very few of her writings survive today. Her great achievements are The Herald of Divine Love along with her own Spiritual Exercises (although not as popular as St. Ignatius Loyola’s!). Gertrude details in her Herald of Divine Love devotion to and veneration of Christ’s Sacred Heart. Four centuries later, St. Margaret Mary Alocoque (1647-90) would receive private revelations of Jesus and His Sacred Heart with the request that this devotion be spread universally throughout the Church and the world. St. Gertrude received many revelations herself, in preparation as it were, for the fuller devotion of the Sacred Heart to be manifest and accessible as the true Fountain of Mercy years later. St. Gertrude and St. Margaret Mary stand as “disciples,” as it were, of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with Gertrude given the unofficial title of “theologian of the Sacred Heart.”
In one of her private revelations, Jesus told Gertrude that all people should know “how they would benefit from remembering that I, the Son of God and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, always stand before God for the salvation of the human race, and that should they commit some sin through their weakness, I offer my unblemished Heart to the Father for them.”
Gertrude was devoted not only to the Sacred Heart, but her visions also included the souls in purgatory. She had tremendous compassion for their suffering and desired to ease their pains by prayer and sacrifice. Gertrude saw herself deeply united to those souls. For this reason, the following prayer for the release of the holy souls in purgatory is often associated with Gertrude’s sympathy for the suffering souls:
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, and for those in my own home and in my family.
By 1298, Gertrude began to experience deteriorating health which caused her great pain daily. She wrote that “until the age of twenty-five, I was a blind and insane woman…but you, Jesus, granted me the priceless familiarity of your friendship by opening to me in every way that most noble casket of your divinity, which is your Divine Heart, and offering me in great abundance all your treasures contained in it.”
On 17 November 1301, Gertrude passed into eternal life, and her feast day is celebrated on 16 November. May St. Gertrude the Great pray for us we pray for the holy souls in purgatory asking Jesus that some drops of His Blood from His Sacred Heart alleviate their suffering as to enter into eternal union with Him, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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