SAINT GERTRUDE, VIRGIN
The Liturgical Year – Ven. Dom Prosper Guéranger
The school which is founded upon the rule of the great Patriarch of the Monks of the West, began with St. Gregory the Great. Such was the independent action of the Holy Spirit who guided it, that in it women have prophesied as well as men. It is enough to mention St. Hildegarde and St. Gertrude, with whom we may fitly associate St. Mechtilde and St. Frances of Rome. Any one who has tried modern methods will find, on making acquaintance another atmosphere, and is urged onward by a gentle authority which is never felt, but which allows no rest. He will not find that subtlety, that keen and learned analysis, he has met with elsewhere, and which rather weary than aid the soul. The pious and learned Father Faber has brought out, with his characteristic sagacity, the advantages of that form of spirituality which gives the soul breadth and liberty, and so produces in many persons effects which some modern methods fail of producing No one, says he, can be at all acquainted with “the old-fashioned Benedictine school of spiritual writers, without perceiving and admiring the beautiful liberty of spirit which pervades and possesses their whole mind. It is just what we should expect from an order of such matured traditions. St. Gertrude is a fair specimen of them. She is thoroughly Benedictine A spirit of breadth, a spirit of liberty, that is the Catholic spirit; and it was eminently the badge of the old Benedictine ascetics. Modern writers for the most part have tightened things, and have lost by it instead of gaining. By frightening people, they have lessened devotion in extent; and by overstraining it, they have lowered it in degree.
In any case, there are many ways, and every way is good which brings men back to God by a thorough conversion of heart. But we are sure that those who may be led to commit themselves to the guidance of a saint of the old school will not lose their time; and that if they meet with less philosophy and less psychology on their way, they will be subdued by the simplicity and authority of her language, and be moved and melted as they contrast their own souls with that of their saintly guide. And this blessed revolution will take place in almost every, soul that follows St. Gertrude in the week of Exercises she proposes to them, if only they really desire to draw yet more closely the ties which unite them to God, if their intention be fixed aright, and their souls truly recollected in God. We may almost venture to assure such persons that they will come forth from these Exercises transformed in their whole being. They will return to them again and again with ever increasing pleasure; for they will have no discouraging memory of fatigue, nor of the slightest constraint laid upon their liberty of spirit. They will feel confounded, indeed, to be admitted so near the inmost heart of so great a saint; but they will also feel that they have been created for the same end as that saint, and that they must bestir themselves, and quit all easy, dangerous ways, which lead to perdition.
And if we be asked whence comes that wonderful influence which our Saint exercises over all who listen to her, our answer would be: from her surpassing holiness. She does not prove the possibility of spiritual movement and advance; she moves and advances. A blessed soul, sent down from heaven to dwell awhile with men, and speaking the language of the heavenly country in this land of exile, would doubtless, utterly transform those who heard its speech. Now St. Gertrude was admitted to such familiar converse with the Son of God, that her words have just the accent of such a soul; and this is why they have been and are like winged arrows, which pierce and wound all within their range. The understanding is enlarged and enlightened by her pure and elevated doctrine, and yet St. Gertrude never lectures or preaches ; the heart is touched and melted, and yet St. Gertrude speaks only to God ; the soul judges itself, condemns itself, renews itself by compunction, and yet St. Gertrude has made no effort to move or convict it.
And if we ask what is the source of the special blessing attached to the language of St. Gertrude, the answer is, that it blesses because it is so impregnated with the divine Word, not only with the revelations which St. Gertrude received from her heavenly Spouse, but with the sacred Scriptures and the liturgy of the Church. This holy daughter of the cloister drank in light and life day by day from the sources of all true contemplation, from the very fountain of living waters which gashes forth from the psalms and the inspired words of the divine Office. Her every sentence shows how exclusively her soul was nourished with this heavenly food. She so lived into the liturgy of the Church that we continually find in her revelations that the Saviour discloses to her the mysteries of heaven, and the Mother of God and the saints hold converse with her on some Antiphon, or Response, or Introit, which the Saint is singing with delight, and of which she is striving to feel all the force and the sweetness.
Hence that unceasing flow of unaffected poetry which seems to have become quite natural to her, and that hallowed enthusiasm which raises the literary beauty of her writings almost to the height of mystical inspiration. This child of the thirteenth century, buried in a monastery of Suabia, preceded Dante in the paths of spiritual poetry. Sometimes her soul breaks forth into tender and touching elegy; sometimes the fire which consumes her bursts forth in transports of fervour; sometimes her feelings clothe themselves quite instinctively in a dramatic form; sometimes she stops short in her sublimest flights, and she who almost rivals the seraphim, descends to earth, but only to prepare herself for a still higher flight. It is as though there had been an unending struggle between the humility which held her prostrate in the dust and the aspirations of her soul, panting after Jesus, who was drawing her, and who had lavished on her such exceeding love. In our opinion the writings of St. Gertrude lose nothing of their indescribable beauty, even when placed beside those of St. Teresa. Nay, we think that the saint of Germany is not unfrequently superior to her sister of Spain. The latter, full of impetuous ardour, has not, it is true, the tinge of pensive melancholy which colours the writings of the former; but St. Gertrude knew Latin so well, and was so profoundly versed in the letter and the spirit of the holy Scriptures, that we do not hesitate to pronounce her style superior in richness and in force to that of St. Teresa.
Still we pray the reader not to be frightened at the thought of being placed under the guidance of a seraph, when his conscience tells him that he has still so much to do in the purgative way, before he can venture to enter upon paths which may never open to him on earth. Let him simply listen to St. Gertrude, let him fix his eye upon her, and have faith in the end she proposes to him. When the holy Church puts in our mouths the language of the Psalms, she knows full well that that language is often far beyond the feelings of our soul; but if we wish to bring ourselves up to the level of these divine hymns, our best method is certainly to repeat them frequently in faith and humility, and await the transformation they will assuredly effect. St. Gertrude detaches us gently from ourselves, and brings us to Jesus by going before us herself, and by drawing us after her, though at a great distance. She goes straight to the heart of her divine Spouse, and she might well do so; but will it not be an inestimable blessing if she bring us to his feet like Magdalen, penitent and transformed by love?
Even when she writes for her sisters alone, let us not suppose that these exquisite pages are useless to those of us who are living in the midst of the world. The religious life, when expounded by such an interpreter, is a spectacle as instructive as it is striking. Need we say that the practice of the precepts of the Gospel becomes more easy to those who have well pondered and admired the practice of its counsels? What is the Imitation of Christ but a book written by a monk for the use of monks; and yet who is not familiar with its teaching? How many seculars delight in the writings of St. Teresa; and yet the holy Carmelitess makes the religious life the one theme of her teaching.
We will not now speak of her wonderful style of expression. We are so unused to the decided and elevated language of the ages of faith, that some readers, accustomed to modern books alone, may be startled, and even pained, by St. Gertrude. But what is the remedy for this inconvenience? If we have unlearned the language of that antique piety which fashioned saints, surely our best way is to learn it again as soon as we can; and St. Gertrude will give us wonderful help in doing so.
The list of the devoted admirers of her writings would be long and imposing. But there is an authority far higher still—that of the Church herself. That mother of the faithful, ever guided by the Holy Ghost, has in her holy liturgy set her seal upon St. Gertrude. The Saint herself, and the spirit which animated her, are there for ever recommended and glorified in the eyes of all Christians, in virtue of the solemn judgment contained in the Office of her festival.
The life of Gertrude the Great, as she has merited to be distinguished among the Saints of the same name, was humble and obscure. (1256—1302). At five years of age she entered the Abbey of Helfta near Eisleben, and there she remained hidden in the secret of God’s face. For several centuries, by an error which has also found its way into the Legend of the feast, she was confounded with the Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn, who governed the monastery during our Saint’s life-time, and was herself favoured with divine gifts. It was not until Gertrude’s sublime Revelations, contained in the five books of the Legatus divinae pietatis, or Legate of divine love, had at length been published, that in 1677 her name was inscribed in the Roman Martyrology. In the following century (1738) Clement XII, ordered her feast to be celebrated, as a Double, by the whole Church. The West Indies chose her as patroness; and a town in New Mexico bears her name.
In order to furnish the faithful with an expression of their piety towards St. Gertrude, we offer them the following beautiful Hymn, Antiphon and Collect, taken from the Benedictine Breviary.
O, Gertrude, shrine of the Divinity, united to the Spouse of virgins; grant us to celebrate the chaste love of thy espousals. Scarcely hadst thou completed thy fourth year when thou wast espoused to Christ, and didst flee to the shelter of the cloister. Thou didst put from thee the breast of thy nurse, and seek the divine kiss of thy Spouse. Like a fair spotless lily thou dost give forth a perfume which gladdens heaven; and the splendour of thy virgin beauty draweth to thee the King of Saints. He who dwelleth in the bosom of the Father, surrounded with everlasting glory, deigns to take his repose in thy love. Thou woundest Jesus with love; and he woundeth thee in return, and deeply graveth on thy heart the marks of his sacred Passion. O peerless love, O wondrous interchange; he it is who breatheth in thy heart, and thy life hangeth on the breath of his mouth. Let the blessed choirs of virgins sing thy praise, O Jesus, Spouse of virgins; and equal glory be ascribed to Father and to Paraclete. Amen.
O most worthy spouse of Christ, on whom the prophetic light hath shone, whose heart an apostolic zeal inflamed, whose head the wreath of virgins hath crowned, whom the glowing fire of divine love consumed.
O God, who hast prepared for thyself a dwelling-place of delights in the most pure heart of the blessed virgin Gertrude ; deign, we beseech thee, through her merits and intercession, to wipe away all stains from our hearts, that they may become meet abodes of thy divine majesty. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O revealer of the Sacred Heart, what better prayer could we offer in thine honour than to say with thee to the Son of the Blessed Virgin:
O thou my soul’s calm untroubled Light! 0 dawn of morning, soft-gleaming with thy beauteous light, become in me the perfect day. 0 my Love, who dost not only enlighten but deify, come unto me in all thy might; come and gently melt my whole being. May all that is of me be destroyed utterly; may I wholly pass into thee, so that I may no more find myself in time, but may be already and most intimately united to thee for all eternity. Thou hast first loved me; it is thou who hast chosen me, and not I who have first chosen thee. Thou art he who of his own accord runneth towards his thirsting creature; and on thy kingly brow gleams the fair splendour of the everlasting light, how me thy countenance, and let me gaze upon thy beauty. How mild and full of charms is that face, all radiant with the rosy light of the dawn of the divine Sun! How can the spark live and glow far from the fire that gave it being? Or how can the drop of water abide far from the spring from whence it was taken? 0 compassionate Love, why hast thou loved a creature so defiled and so covered with shame, but that thou hast willed to render it all fair in thee? O thou delicate flower of the Virgin Mary, thy goodness and thy tender mercy have won and ravished my heart. O Love, my glorious noontide, to take my rest in thee, gladly would I die a thousand deaths. O Charity, O Love, at the hour of my death thou wilt sustain me with thy words, more gladdening far than choicest wine. Thou wilt then be my way, my unobstructed way, that I may wander no more nor stray. Thou wilt aid me then, O love, thou queen of heaven; thou wilt clear my way before me to those fair and fertile pastures hidden in the divine wilderness, and my soul shall be inebriate with bliss; for there shall I see the face of the Lamb, my Spouse and my God. 0 Love, who art God, thou art my best beloved possession. Without thee neither earth nor heaven could excite in me one hope, nor draw forth one desire: vouchsafe to effect and perfect within me that union which thou thyself desirest: may it be the end, the crown, and consummation of my being. In the countenance of my God thy light beameth soft and fair as the evening star. O thou fair and solemn Evening, let me see thy ray when my eye shall close in death. O Love, thou much-loved Evening-tide, at that dread moment let the sacred flame, which burneth evermore in thy divine essence, consume all the stains of my mortal life. 0 thou my calm and peaceful Evening, when the evening-tide of my life shall come, give me to sleep in thee in tranquil sleep, and to taste that blissful rest which thou hast prepared in thyself for them that love thee. With thy serene, enchanting look vouchsafe to order all things and prepare all things for my everlasting espousal. O Love, be thou unto me an eventide so bright and calm, that my ravished soul may bid a loving farewell to its body, and return to God who gave it, and rest in peace beneath thy beloved shadow!