Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Gertrude
"Only Woman of Germanic Descent to be Called 'the Great'"
H.H. Benedict XVI
October 6, 2010
Dear brothers and sisters,
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, of whom I spoke in last Wednesday's audience; 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.
She was born on Jan. 6, 1256, feast of the Epiphany, but nothing is
known about her parents or the place of her birth. Gertrude wrote that
the Lord himself revealed to her the meaning of this first uprooting.
She said that the Lord said: "I chose her for my dwelling because it
pleases me that everything that is pleasing in her is my work. [...]
Precisely for this reason I removed her from all her relatives so that
no one would love her for reasons of blood relationship and I would be
the only motive of the affection that moves her" (The Revelations, I,
16, Siena, 1994, p. 76-77).
At the age of 5, in 1261, she entered the monastery for formation and
study, as was frequently the custom at that time. She spent all her life
there; she herself points out the most significant stages. In her
memoirs she recalls that the Lord preserved her with generous patience
and infinite mercy, forgetting the years of her childhood, adolescence
and youth, spent, she writes, "in such blindness of mind that I would
have been capable [...] without any remorse, of thinking, saying or
doing everything I would have liked to do and where I would have liked,
if you had not preserved me, either with an inherent horror for evil and
a natural inclination to good, or with the external vigilance of others.
I would have behaved like a pagan [...] and that even though you willed
from my childhood, from my fifth year of age, that I dwell in the
blessed sanctuary of religion to be educated among your most devoted
friends" (Ibid., II, 23 140s).
Gertrude was an extraordinary student; she learned everything that could
be learned of the sciences of the Trivium and the Quadrivium; she was
fascinated by learning and dedicated herself to worldly study with ardor
and tenacity, achieving scholastic successes beyond all expectations. If
we do not know anything about her origins, she tells us much about her
youthful passions: literature, music and singing, miniature art
captivated her; she had a strong character, determined, decisive,
impulsive; often negligent, she says; she acknowledges her defects and
humbly asks for forgiveness of them. With humility she asks for advice
and prayers for her conversion. There are features of her temperament
and defects that stayed with her until the end, to the point of
astonishing some persons, who wondered how it was possible that the Lord
preferred her so much.
From being a student she then consecrated herself totally to God in the
monastic life and during 20 years nothing exceptional happened: study
and prayer were her main activity. Because of her gifts, she stood out
among her sisters; she was tenacious in consolidating her learning in
various fields. However, during Advent of 1280, she began to feel
displeasure in all this; she became conscious of her vanity and on Jan.
27, 1281, a few days before the feast of the Purification of the Virgin,
towards the hour of Compline, the Lord illumined her dense darkness.
With gentleness and kindness he calmed the turmoil that anguished her,
turmoil that Gertrude saw as a very gift of God "to pull down the tower
of vanity and curiosity that, woe is me, even bearing the name and habit
of a religious, I had been raising with my pride, and at least thus find
the way to show me your salvation" (Ibid., II, 1, p. 87).
She had a vision of a youth who, taking her by the hand, guided her to
surmount the tangle of thorns that oppressed her soul. In that hand,
Gertrude recognized "the precious imprint of those wounds that abrogated
all the deeds of accusation of our enemies" (Ibid., II, 1, p. 89), she
recognized the One who on the cross saved us with his blood, Jesus.
From that moment, her life of communion with the Lord intensified, above
all in the most significant liturgical seasons -- Advent-Christmas,
Lent-Easter, feasts of the Virgin -- even when illness made her unable
to go to the choir. This is the same liturgical humus of Matilda, her
teacher, which Gertrude, however, describes with simpler and more
lineal, more realistic images, symbols and terms, with more direct
references to the Bible, to the fathers, to the Benedictine world.
Her biography indicates two directions from which we could define a
particular "conversion" of hers: in her studies, in the radical step
from worldly humanistic studies to theological studies, and in monastic
observance, with the change from a life that she describes as negligent
to a life of intense, mystical prayer, with exceptional missionary
ardor. The Lord, who had chosen her from her mother's womb and who from
her childhood had allowed her to participate in the banquet of monastic
life, called her again with his grace "from external things to the
interior life, and from earthly concerns to love of spiritual things."
Gertrude understood that she had been far from him, in the region of the
dissimilar, as St. Augustine says: From having dedicated herself with
too much eagerness to liberal studies, to human wisdom, neglecting the
spiritual science, depriving herself of the pleasure of true wisdom, now
she is led to the mount of contemplation, where she leaves the old man
to be clothed with the new. "From grammarian she becomes a theologian,
with the tireless and careful reading of all the sacred books that she
could have or obtain, she filled her heart with the most useful and
sweet sentences of sacred Scripture. Hence she always had at her
disposal an inspired or edifying word with which to satisfy anyone who
came to consult her, and at the same time the most appropriate
scriptural texts to confute any erroneous opinion and silence the tongue
of her opponents" (Ibid., I, 1, p. 25).
Gertrude transformed all this into the apostolate: She dedicated herself
to writing and spreading the truths of the faith with clarity and
simplicity, grace and persuasion, serving the Church with love and
fidelity to the point that she was useful and welcome for theologians
and the pious. From this intense activity of hers, little remains, also
because of the circumstances that led to the destruction of the
monastery of Helfta. In addition to the "Herald of Divine Love" or "The
Revelations," we still have the "Spiritual Exercises," a rare jewel of
mystical spiritual literature.
In religious observance, our saint was "a firm pillar [...], a most firm
advocate of justice and truth," says her biographer (ibid., I, 1, p.
26). With her words and example she enkindled great fervor in others. To
the prayers and penances of the monastic rule she added others with such
devotion and confident abandonment in God, that she enkindled in those
who met her an awareness of being in the Lord's presence. And, in fact,
God himself made her understand that he had called her to be an
instrument of his grace. Gertrude felt unworthy of this immense divine
treasure; she admits to not having protected it and appreciated it. She
exclaims: "Woe is me! If you had given me as a memento of yours,
unworthy as I am, even one thread of cotton, I should have however kept
it with greater respect and reverence than I have had for these gifts of
yours!" (ibid., II, 5, p. 100). However, acknowledging her poverty and
unworthiness, she adheres to the will of God, "because," she affirms, "I
have taken such little advantage of your graces that I cannot decide to
believe that they were given to me for myself, your eternal wisdom not
being able to be frustrated by anyone. Hence, let it be, O Giver of all
good, who have freely given me such undeserved gifts, that, reading this
writing, the heart of at least one of your friends be moved by the
thought that zeal for souls has induced you to leave during such a long
time a gem of such inestimable value in the midst of the abominable mire
of my heart" (ibid., II, 5, p. 100f).
In particular, two favors were more loved by her than any others, as
Gertrude herself writes: "The stigmata of your saving wounds that you
engraved in me, as precious jewels, in the heart, and the profound and
saving wound of love with which you marked me. You flooded me with so
much joy with these gifts of yours that, even if I had to live a
thousand years without any interior or exterior consolation, their
memory would be enough to comfort me, illumine me, fill me with
gratitude. You also wished to introduce me into the inestimable intimacy
of your friendship, opening to me with many signs that most noble
sanctuary of your divinity that is your Divine Heart [...] To this heap
of benefits you added that of giving me as advocate the most holy Virgin
Mary, your Mother, and of recommending me often to her affection as the
most faithful of spouses could recommend to his own mother his beloved
wife" (Ibid., II, 23, p. 145).
Turned toward the endless communion, she concluded her earthly life on
Nov. 17, 1301 or 1302, at almost 46 years of age. In the Seventh
Exercise, that of preparation for death, St. Gertrude writes: "O Jesus,
you who are immensely loved by me, be always with me, so that my heart
will remain with you and your love persevere with me without the
possibility of division, and my passing be blessed by you, so that my
spirit, free from the ties of the flesh, may immediately be able to find
rest in you. Amen" (Esercizi, Milan, 2006, p. 148).
It seems obvious to me that these are not only historic things of the
past, but that the existence of St. Gertrude continues to be a school of
Christian life, of the straight path, which shows us that the center of
a happy life, of a true life, is friendship with Jesus the Lord. And
this friendship is learned in love for sacred Scripture, in love for the
liturgy, in profound faith, in love for Mary, so that one will
increasingly really know God himself and thus true happiness, the goal
of our life. Thank you.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In
English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechesis today focuses on Saint Gertrude the Great, a remarkable
figure associated with the monastery of Helfta, where so many
masterpieces of religious literature were born. Saint Gertrude is the
only woman of Germanic descent to be called "Great", an honour due to
her exceptional natural and supernatural gifts. As a youth, Gertrude was
intelligent, strong and decisive, but also impulsive. With humility she
asked others for advice and prayer. Eventually, she experienced a deep
conversion: in her studies she passed from worldly pursuits to the
sacred sciences, and in her monastic observance she moved from concern
with external things to a life of intense prayer. In her writings, she
sought to explain the truths of the faith with clarity and simplicity,
while not failing to develop spiritual themes associated with Divine
Love. In her religious practice, she pursued prayer with devotion and
faithful abandonment to God. Dear friends, may we learn from Saint
Gertrude the Great how to love Christ and His Church with humility and
faith, and to cultivate our personal prayer through an intense
participation in the Holy Mass and the sacred liturgy.
I am pleased to welcome all the English speaking pilgrims and visitors.
In particular, I extend greetings to the Candidates for Diaconate
Ordination from the Pontifical North American College, along with their
families and friends, to the new students and staff at the Pontifical
Beda College, and to the pilgrims from Corpus Christi Parish, Dublin.
May your time in Rome and your visit to the Successor of Peter bring you
peace and joy. Upon all of you, I invoke Godís abundant blessings.
© Copyright 2010 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[He concluded with the following remarks in Italian:]
Finally, I address an affectionate thought to young people, the sick and
newlyweds. Tomorrow the Church will celebrate the feast of Our Lady of
the Rosary. October is the month of the holy rosary, which invites us to
appreciate this prayer so dear to the tradition of the Christian people.
I invite you, dear young people, to make the rosary your daily prayer. I
encourage you, dear sick, to grow in confident abandonment in God's
hands, thanks to the recitation of the rosary. I exhort you, dear
newlyweds, to make of the rosary a constant contemplation of the
mysteries of Christ.
[Translation by ZENIT]
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