Saint Gertrude the Great, Virgin
November 16—Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of nuns and of the Diocese of Magdeburg, Germany
Incandescent visions of Christ drew her into the deep
Today’s saint, known as Saint Gertrude the Great, is one of the most provocative spiritual writers in the long and rich history of the Church. When just a child, she was placed in the care of Benedictine nuns, perhaps because of her parents’ early deaths. The high walls surrounding the cloister broadened the young girl’s mind, instead of confining it. For Gertrude, as for so many women of her era restricted by custom to narrow cultural lanes, a monastery-sponsored education amidst a self-governing community of women was superior to the forms of life otherwise available to them. Gertrude flourished in religious life and became well versed in the humanities, theology, and Latin, a language which she showed mastery of in her spiritual writings. At the age of twenty-five, Sister Gertrude had a jarring spiritual experience which would divide her life dramatically into two halves, “before” and “after.” “Before,” Gertrude was a faithful nun but overly interested in secular writers and knowledge for knowledge’s sake. “After,” she buried her head in Scripture, read widely in the Fathers of the Church, and melted under the high-amperage gaze beaming at her from the eyes of Christ.
Gertrude struggled to convey in words the richness of her spiritual experiences. A distillation of her visions covers five volumes known in English as the Revelations of Saint Gertrude. Metaphors, adjectives, and other superlatives flow from our saint’s pen on page after page as she tries to capture the incandescent mystery of what she sees, hears, and feels. In a heavy, syrupy style common to her era, Saint Gertrude oozes about the intense love of Christ for mankind as symbolized by His Sacred Heart. More than three centuries before the visions of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque in France, Saint Gertrude had visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus! In one vision, Saint John the Evangelist placed Gertrude close to Christ’s wounded side, where she could feel His pulsating heart. Gertrude asks John why he did not reveal the mystery of Christ’s loving heart to mankind. Saint John responds that his duty was to reveal the very person of Christ, but it was for later ages, colder and more arid in their love of God, to discover His Sacred Heart.
Gertrude lived a “nuptial mysticism”in which she was Christ’s bride and the Mass was the wedding banquet at which a chaste self-giving consummated the sacred bond of lover and beloved. Gertrude’s vowed virginity was the proof and basis of her enduring commitment to Christ, a promise made in the company of His mother, Mary, and all the angels and saints. Gertrude composed her spiritual diaries at the express command of her spouse, Christ. Their hymns, prayers, and reflections also show a profound concern for the holy souls in purgatory. Gertrude continually begged Christ’s mercy on them, and Christ responded that merely petitioning for the release of such souls was sufficient for Him to grant the favor.
In Gertrude’s visions, Jesus speaks to her almost exclusively at Mass and during the Liturgy of the Hours. This is consoling. Most Catholics meet Christ more through the Sacraments than through books, so Christ appearing in priestly vestments, holding a chalice, or standing at an altar is absolutely congruent with our experience of Sunday Mass. Apart from her writings, few details of Gertrude’s life are known. She left virtually no footprint besides her life of quiet fidelity as a contemplative nun. Like John the Baptist, she decreased so the Lord could increase. Gertrude’s alluring private revelations became common spiritual reading among the saints of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and continue to fire the imagination of all who read them today.
Saint Gertrude, as we turn the pages of your mystical revelations, we meet the true Christ, so powerful yet so close to us in His Sacred Heart. May we respond as you did to Jesus’ invitation and dedicate our lives totally to Him.