GERTRUDE THE GREAT of Helfta is one of our own Cistercian saints, for she was formed from her early youth in the traditions of our Order and assimilated the spirit of our early Fathers, notably through the writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and William of Saint Thierry. She was formed in the same tradition that we belong to, and lived out the whole of her life in a fervent community in close association with several saintly and learned sisters, including her abbess, Gertrude of Hackeborn and her blood sister, Mechtilde, the chantress, gifted with a fine musical voice in addition to her endowments of mind and grace.

These religious who were closely united with her were, like her self, uncommonly gifted with intelligence and wide learning in the best traditions of Latin monasticism, including, along with the Cistercians, the Victorines of Paris. These endowments were at the service of a life of prayerful union with God. As a result Gertrude, who entered the monastery at the age of five, received a formation marked by humanistic studies in a high intellectual as well as in a fervent and elevated spiritual culture. She was a precocious child, possessing great charm, a sweet disposition, and a lively personality so that she was warmly accepted in her community. Though she easily surpassed others in her studies, yet the spiritual maturity of the convent was such that there was no envy or jealously to cloud her years of formation. She received friendly support from her community and gave even more. However, as she became increasingly devoted to her humanistic study her life of prayer, though regular was unremarkable prior to a dramatic conversion experience in her twenty-fifth year. At that time, our Lord appeared to her and revealed something of his loving care for her. Encountering him in such a personal exchange was a life transforming experience. From that time until her death at 46 years of age, she put her relations with Jesus at the center of her very self, shifting her interests and values to the interior, as she puts it. Although she retained her humanistic culture as her eloquent Latin writings reveal, yet in compassion with her life in Christ, mere intellectual and social attainments fell away. She continued her spiritual reading based on the desire for deepening and extending her union with the Lord. She wrote of her spiritual life in order to witness to the goodness, mercy and lovable ways of her Lord. 

Because she was recognized by her companions as being endowed with qualities of spirit, character, and especially enjoyed special graces of prayer, her life experiences were preserved in writing by her community along with her own account of certain experiences. In the long annals of Christian history, she is the only woman officially designated as The Great. She illustrates by the witness of her dedicated and consecrated life the truth of the words of Jesus we have just heard in today’s gospel as he sums up the meaning of the parable of the talents: “The moral is: whoever has will be given more, whereas the one who has not will lose the little he has.” (Luke 19:26)

The contribution Saint Gertrude made to the monastic tradition in her writings grew out of her Cistercian roots. She so appropriate the spiritual teaching of Saint Bernard in his ardent love for the person of Jesus that she carried his theological insights further, and in doing so developed the fervent devotion to the Sacred Heart that was to influence so many who later on came to know her through her writings. Bernard had written of his insights into the inner life of our Lord in his S. 61.4 on the Canticle: “Through the opening of the body the hidden place of the heart is opened” thus revealing his selfless love for all who put their faith in him.  Gertrude describes in detail how the heart of Jesus so loves us that it melts from the ardor of his affection so as to enter into her heart in a mutual exchange.  She writes of this so that we too might share this transforming love through welcoming our Savior into our interior. Transmitting this message and showing in concrete detail how eagerly the Lord seeks to give himself to those who enter by loving faith into the recesses of his heart is Saint Gertrude’s gift to each of us. This is what we celebrate here today- this merciful mystery of God’s love offered to each of us in the heart of his son and made present in the Eucharist at this altar. &

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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