Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Matilda, God's Nightingale
"The Liturgy is a Great School of Spirituality"
H.H. Benedict XVI
September 29, 2010
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak to you about St. Matilda of Hackeborn, one
of the great figures of the monastery of Helfta, who lived in the 13th
Her religious sister, St. Gertrude the Great, in Book VI of the work "Liber
specialis gratiae" (Book of Special Grace), in which are narrated the
special graces that God granted St. Matilda, says thus: "What we have
written is very little compared with what we have omitted. Only for the
glory of God and usefulness of our neighbor do we publish these things,
because it would seem unjust to us to maintain silence about the many
graces that Matilda received from God not so much for herself, it seems
to us, but for us and for those who will come after us" (Matilda von
Hackeborn, Liber specialis gratiae, VI, 1).
This work was written by St. Gertrude and by another sister of Helfta
and it has a singular history. At the age of 50, Matilda was going
through a grave spiritual crisis, together with physical sufferings. In
these conditions she confided to two sister-friends the singular graces
with which God had guided her since her childhood, but she did not know
that they were writing it all down. When she found this out, she felt
profoundly anguished and troubled. But the Lord consoled her, making her
understand that what had been written was for the glory of God and the
good of her neighbor (cf. Ibid., II,25; V,20). Therefore, this work is
the main source from which to obtain information on the life and
spirituality of our saint.
With her we introduce ourselves to the family of the Baron of Hackeborn,
one of the most noble, rich and powerful families of Thuringia, related
to emperor Frederick II, and we enter the monastery of Helfta in the
most glorious period of its history. The baron had already given one
daughter to the monastery, Gertrude of Hackeborn (1231/1232 -
1291/1292), gifted with an outstanding personality. [She was] abbess for
40 years, able to give a peculiar stamp to the monastery's spirituality,
leading it to an extraordinary flowering as center of mysticism and
culture, and a school of scientific and theological formation. Gertrude
offered the nuns high intellectual instruction, which enabled them to
cultivate a spirituality founded on sacred Scripture, on the liturgy, on
the patristic tradition, on the Cistercian Rule and spirituality, with
particular predilection for St. Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St.
Thierry. She was a true teacher, exemplary in everything, in evangelical
radicalism and apostolic zeal. Matilda, from her youth, received and
enjoyed the spiritual and cultural climate created by her sister, adding
later her personal stamp.
Matilda was born in 1241 or 1242 in the castle of Helfta; she was the
baron's third daughter. When she was seven years old, she and her mother
visited her sister Gertrude in the monastery of Rodersdorf. She was so
fascinated by the environment that she ardently desired to be a part of
it. She entered as a pupil and in 1258 she became a nun of the convent,
which in the meantime had been moved to Helfta, on the property of the
Hackeborn. She was outstanding for her humility, fervor, kindness,
purity and innocence of life, the familiarity and intensity with which
she lived her relationship with God, the Virgin and the saints. She was
gifted with lofty natural and spiritual qualities, such as "science,
intelligence, knowledge of human letters, a wonderfully soft voice:
Everything made her adequate to be a real treasure for the monastery in
all aspects" (Ibid., Proemio).
Thus, "God's nightingale" -- as she was called -- though very young,
became the director of the monastery's school, director of the choir,
and mistress of novices, services which she carried out with talent and
tireless zeal, not only for the benefit of the nuns, but for all those
who wished to appeal to her wisdom and goodness.
Enlightened by the divine gift of mystical contemplation, Matilda
composed numerous prayers. She was a faithful teacher of doctrine and
had great humility; she was a counselor, consoler, a guide in
discernment: "She, one reads, "distributed doctrine with so much
abundance as had ever been seen in the monastery and oh! we fear greatly
that something similar will never be seen again. The nuns met with her
to listen to the word of God, as they would a preacher. She was the
refuge and consoler of all and she had, as a singular gift of God, the
grace of revealing freely the secrets of each one's heart. Many people,
not only in the monastery, but also strangers, religious and laymen,
arriving from afar, attested that this holy virgin had freed them from
their sorrows and that they had never experienced so much consolation as
they did by her side. She also composed and taught so many prayers that
if they were all collected they would surpass the volume of a psalter"
(Ibid., VI, 1).
In 1261 a five-year-old girl named Gertrude arrived at the convent: She
was entrusted to the care of Matilda, who was only 20, who educated and
guided her in the spiritual life until she made of her not only her
excellent disciple, but her confidant. In 1271 or 1272 Matilda of
Magdeburg also entered the monastery. Hence the place received four
great women -- two Gertrudes and two Matildas -- a glory of German
In her long life spent in the monastery, Matilda endured constant and
intense sufferings, to which she added the very harsh penances chosen
for the conversion of sinners. In this way she took part in the Lord's
passion until the end of her life (cf. Ibid., VI, 2). Prayer and
contemplation were the vital soil of her existence: the revelations, her
teachings, her service to her neighbor, her journey in faith and in love
have their root and context here. In the first book of the work "Liber
specialis gratiae," the writers gather Matilda's confidences indicated
on the feasts of the Lord, of the saints and, especially, of the Blessed
Virgin. Impressive is this saint's capacity to live the liturgy in its
various components, including the simplest, bringing it into daily
monastic life. Some images, expressions and applications perhaps are
distant from our sensibility but, if one considers monastic life and her
task of teacher and choir director, one notes her singular capacity as
educator and formator, who helped the sisters to live intensely, from
the liturgy, each moment of monastic life.
In liturgical prayer Matilda highlighted particularly the canonical
hours, the celebration of holy Mass, above all holy Communion. At that
moment she was often raised in ecstasy in profound intimacy with the
Lord in his most ardent and gentle heart, in a stupendous dialogue, in
which she prayed for interior illumination, while she interceded in a
special way for her community and her sisters. At the center were the
mysteries of Christ to which the Virgin Mary referred constantly in
order to walk on the path of sanctity: "If you desire true sanctity,
stay close to my Son; he is sanctity itself who sanctifies everything"
(Ibid., I, 40). In her intimacy with God the whole world was present,
the Church, benefactors, sinners. For her, heaven and earth were united.
Her visions, her teachings, the circumstances of her existence are
described with expressions that evoke liturgical and biblical language.
Hence one understands her profound knowledge of sacred Scripture, her
daily bread. She takes recourse to it constantly, either savoring the
biblical texts proclaimed in the liturgy, or using symbols, terms,
landscapes, images and personages. Her predilection was for the Gospel:
"The words of the Gospel were for her a wonderful nourishment and
aroused in her heart feelings of such sweetness that often because of
her enthusiasm she could not finish the reading. ... The way in which
she read those words was so fervent that it aroused devotion in
everyone. Likewise, when she sang in the choir, she was completely
absorbed in God, transported by such ardor that at times she manifested
her feelings with gestures. ... At others, raised in ecstasy, she did
not hear those who called her or moved her and it was hard for her to
recover the sense of exterior things" (Ibid., VI, 1).
In one of her visions, Jesus himself recommended the Gospel; opening to
her the wound of his most gentle heart, he said to her: "Consider how
great is my love: If you want to know it well, you will not find it
expressed more clearly anywhere than in the Gospel. No one has ever
expressed stronger or more tender feelings than these: As my Father has
loved me, so have I loved you (John 15:9)" (Ibid., I, 22).
Dear friends, personal and liturgical prayer, especially the liturgy of
the hours and holy Mass, are the root of the spiritual experience of St.
Mechthild of Hackeborn. Allowing herself to be guided by sacred
Scripture and to be nourished by the Eucharistic Bread, she followed a
path of intimate union with the Lord, always in full fidelity to the
Church. This is for us also a strong invitation to intensify our
friendship with the Lord, above all through daily prayer and attentive,
faithful and active participation in the holy Mass. The liturgy is a
great school of spirituality.
Her disciple Gertrude describes with intense expressions the last
moments of the life of St. Matilda of Hackeborn, very harsh, but
illumined by the presence of the most Blessed Trinity, of the Lord, of
the Virgin, of all the saints, and also of her blood sister Gertrude.
When the hour arrived in which the Lord wanted to take her with him, she
asked him to be able to live a bit longer in suffering for the salvation
of souls, and Jesus was pleased with this further sign of love.
Matilda was 58 years old. She lived the last stretch of her journey
characterized by eight years of grave illnesses. Her work and her
reputation for holiness spread widely. When her hour arrived, "the God
of Majesty ... only sweetness of the soul that loves him ... sang to
her: 'Venite vos, benedicti Patris mei' ... Come you blessed of my
Father, come to receive the kingdom ... and he associated her to his
glory" (Ibid., VI, 8).
St. Matilda of Hackeborn entrusts us to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to
the Virgin Mary. She invites us to praise the Son with the heart of the
Mother and to praise Mary with the heart of the Son. "I greet you, O
most venerated Virgin, in that most gentle dew, which from the heart of
the Most Blessed Trinity was diffused in you; I greet you in the glory
and the joy with which you now rejoice eternally, you who, preferred to
all the creatures of earth and heaven, were chosen even before the
creation of the world! Amen" (Ibid., I, 45).
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Pope greeted the people in several
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis today, we focus on the life of Saint Matilda of
Hackeborn, one of several important thirteenth-century figures of the
convent of Helfta in Saxony. Entering there at an early age, Matilda was
formed in an intensely spiritual and intellectual atmosphere founded
upon Sacred Scripture, the liturgy, and the patristic tradition. This
climate, along with the gift of divine illumination that she received
through her mystical contemplation, enabled her to compose numerous
prayers and be of counsel and consolation to many. Distinguished by her
humility and intelligence, and by the intensity with which she lived her
relationship with God and the saints, Matilda became the director of the
convent’s novices, its choir, and its school. In this way she also
became the spiritual guide of Saint Gertrude the Great, another
important figure of Germanic monasticism. Dear friends, Saint Matilda’s
life of prayer, guided by Sacred Scripture and nourished by the Holy
Eucharist, led her to an intimate union with Christ, expressed in her
devotion to his Sacred Heart. May we too grow in that devotion, through
the power of her intercession.
I am pleased to greet the seminarians and staff from the Venerable
English College and the new students and staff from the Pontifical Irish
College, and I offer prayerful good wishes for their studies. I also
welcome the members of the Christ Child Society from the Diocese of
Toledo, Ohio, accompanied by Bishop Leonard Blair. Upon all the
English-speaking visitors present at today’s audience, especially the
pilgrim groups from Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Nigeria, Oceania, the
Philippines, and North America, I invoke God’s abundant blessings.
© Copyright 2010 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[He added the following comments in Italian:]
I address a cordial thought to Italian-speaking pilgrims. In particular,
I greet affectionately the faithful of the Diocese of Belluno-Feltre,
accompanied by their pastor, Bishop Giuseppe Andrich, and gathered in
Rome to pray at the tomb of the Servant of God John Paul II for the
occasion of the anniversary of his death.
I greet the students of the "Maria Mater Ecclesiae" International
Pontifical College of Rome, assuring each one of my remembrance in
prayer, so that the Lord will always fill them with his gifts of grace.
In addition, I greet the participants in the pilgrimage of youth of the
Focolare Movement, promoted on the occasion of the beatification of
Chiara Badano and I invite them, following the example of the new
blessed, to continue in their commitment of adherence to Christ and to
Finally I greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. Today's feast of
the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael and the upcoming feast of
the holy guardian angels, moves us to think of the provident care with
which God looks after each human person.
Feel the presence of the angels beside you, dear young people, and let
yourselves be guided by them, so that your whole life is enlightened by
the Word of God.
You, dear sick, helped by your guardian angels, unite your sufferings to
those of Christ for the spiritual renewal of human society. And you,
dear newlyweds, often take recourse to your guardian angels, so that you
can grow in the constant witness of an authentic love.
[He concluded the audience with this appeal in English:]
My thoughts also turn to the grave humanitarian crisis which has
recently struck Northern Nigeria, where some two million people have
been forced to flee their homes because of severe flooding. To all those
affected I express my spiritual closeness and I assure them of my
© Copyright 2010 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
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