Thursday, November 16, 2017

Medieval Mystic

Saint Margaret of Scotland (1046-1093)
Queen, Patron of Scotland

Readings of the day: RB 38
Mass: Wisdom 7:22b-8:1; Resp. Psalm 119; Luke 17:20-25

Solemnity of Saint Gertrude, Federation of Saint Gertrude, USA:
Mass: Songs 8:6-7; Eph. 3:14-19; John 15:1-8

With a captive audience, I share an anecdote. Today is my Name Day—and as Italians say on such an occasion—Auguri! Buon onomastica! Before my perpetual monastic profession with the Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel, OR, I asked the prioress if I could receive a new monastic name. She agreed and asked me to submit three names for her consideration. Every morning I would add to the list of names that I considered—Gemma, Hilary, Cecilia, etc.—but none seemed quite fitting. Then, on November 16, 2006, I was showing an icon of Saint Gertrude the Great to a group of university students who were visiting the monastery. I shared with them Gertrude’s entrance to the monastery and subsequent conversion—a story which gave me hope for my own life. While explaining some of Gertrude’s human traits, namely, impatience, and as M. Marnau writes, “perhaps a certain harshness and intolerance with the lukewarm (directed, more often than not, against herself)…” I was overwhelmed and knew that Gertrude the Great was to be my patron. There would be no compromising…it would be Gertrude, or I would continue to be called by my baptismal name. I compiled the list of names and submitted it to the prioress: 1. Gertrude 2. Gertrude 3. Gertrude. On November 16, 2007, Saint Gertrude the Great of Helfta became my patron. I give thanks. May God be praised!

To provide a brief biography of Saint Gertrude, I also share with you part of a paper I wrote a few years back:

Gertrude the Great’s place of birth and family of origin are well described as a mystery. She relates the following details about her early life: “…from infancy, in my fifth year to be precise, you [God] chose me to be formed among the most faithful of your friends, to live in the household of your holy religion” (The Herald of Divine Love, II, 23). The household of holy religion that Gertrude entered in 1261, was the community of nuns at Helfta, Germany, who lived according to the Rule of St. Benedict. The monastery was a thriving center of spirituality and study. B. McGinn describes the environment at Helfta: “The ancient monastic ideal of combining the love of learning and the desire for God was alive and well at Helfta” (The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism—1200-1350, 267). The communal life at Helfta revolved around the daily rhythm of the Divine Office, lectio divina, work, and study. 

Welcomed by the community of nuns at Helfta, Gertrude entered the monastery school. She possessed many gifts and was well-liked by other students in the school. Gertrude’s biographer writes:

Even at this tender age, she already possessed the wisdom of a mature person. She was amiable, clever, and eloquent, and so docile that she was admired by all who heard her. As soon as she was admitted to the school, she showed such quickness and intelligence that she soon far surpassed in learning and knowledge all the children of her own age and all her other companions as well. Gladly and eagerly she gave herself to the study of liberal arts. And so the years of her childhood and youth were passed with a pure and innocent heart, and she was preserved by the Father of mercies (2 Cor. 1:3,4) from the many vain trivialities which often lead young people astray (cf. Wisdom 4:11-14) For this, may praise and thanks be given him for ever! (The Herald of Divine Love, I, 1.)

Even so, Gertrude was not always open to encountering God, or letting God encounter her. It is reasonable to think that if a person is placed within the environs of a thriving and loving monastic community and school at such an early age, the youngster would readily and fully embrace monastic values. Alas, simply living in the monastery does not make a person a Benedictine, [or a Cistercian] that is, one who does not “get too involved in purely worldly affairs” (RB 4:20). This is true of Gertrude who did not fully live monastic life until roughly twenty-four years later after entering the monastery! It was in her twenty-sixth year that St. Gertrude had her day of salvation, when the Lord appeared to her and “resolved to disperse the darkness of [her] night” (The Herald of Diving Love, II, 1). Until that time, she was worldly and prideful, and, according to her testimony, “alas, I was—in vain—bearing the name and wearing the habit of a religious” (II, 1).
So, Gertrude’s being open to the God of love was a process and not something that was taken for granted. Her conversion was the beginning of the mystical dimension of her life. From the age of 24, then, “her love of learning now became desire for knowledge of God…In those days she could never tire of the sweet pleasure she found in the contemplation of God and in the study of Scripture…” (I, 1, 53). Gertrude became solely focused on encountering God and letting God encounter her. Gertrude received the grace of encounter, of growing in intimacy with the God who gives himself unconditionally, whether we are recognize it or not.

Set me a seal on your heart.
Songs 8:6b

May Christ dwell in your heart through faith; that you rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Eph. 3:17-19

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 
John 15:7-8

Pope Benedict XVI, on Saint Gertrude the Great, General Audience, Saint Peter’s Square, Oct. 6, 2010:

St Gertrude the Great, of whom I would like to talk to you today, brings us once again this week to the Monastery of Helfta, where several of the Latin-German masterpieces of religious literature were written by women. Gertrude belonged to this world. She is one of the most famous mystics, the only German woman to be called “Great”, because of her cultural and evangelical stature: her life and her thought had a unique impact on Christian spirituality. She was an exceptional woman, endowed with special natural talents and extraordinary gifts of grace, the most profound humility and ardent zeal for her neighbour’s salvation. She was in close communion with God both in contemplation and in her readiness to go to the help of those in need…
St Gertrude’s life lives on as a lesson of Christian life, of an upright path, and shows us that the heart of a happy life, of a true life, is friendship with the Lord Jesus. And this friendship is learned in love for Sacred Scripture, in love for the Liturgy, in profound faith, in love for Mary, so as to be ever more truly acquainted with God himself and hence with true happiness, which is the goal of our life.

Saint Gertrude the Great


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