Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Gertrude of Helfta

My good friend Fran sent the following essay for Worthy Women.

As I think about worthy women, thoughts just keep coming to me over and over again, fed by a potentially unhealthy, but steady diet of church news. Reading about the frequently criticized work, and position of women in the LCWR, my mind keeps traveling back to the 13th century. Some might imagine as this era as the good old days, when nuns knew their place. I am imagining a saint and mystic of the Middle Ages, one deeply associated with devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in the context of the recent assessment by the CDF of the LCWR.

Saint Gertrude, also known as Gertrude the Great, or Gertrude of Helfta was born in what is now Germany, in 1256.

In a move not unusual for her time, she was brought to a monastery to be raised at the age of 5. It was in that monastery that she grew up, among women, books, music, liturgy, and God. It was in that monastery that she became a mystic and a visionary.

Gertrude was a particularly bright child, with an appetite for learning, and she ardently pursued all manner of studies. In fact, her first studies were more secular in nature, and it was only after a vision, a mystical experience of God, that she began to focus on God alone.

Once we get beyond the fact that she was a woman at a time when women were often little more than property, we can take in other facts. In Gertrude’s era, books were hand-copied parchment and other texts, yet she was well read. That must have been no small feat. Her studies included Scripture, theology and the early church. Gertrude also had interests in music and art, and of course, the liturgy that was so much a part of her life. It was out of this foundation that the saint also became a mystic and a writer. The incubator for her work was a community that was one of women.

Today we can look to Gertrude’s published works, The Herald of Divine Love, and The Exercises. There is some evidence today that she was not the sole author, but that they were authored in community. The Book of Special Grace, which is attributed to Gertrude’s sister and former Beguine, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, may have also been written that way. Devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus are thought to have come out of mystical experiences by Gertrude and Mechtilde, as well.

During Gertrude’s time, monasteries and communities were often isolated and separated, with news and information flowing slowly, if at all, from one place to another. The distance between Rome and these many monastic outposts in this pre-Reformation world had a profound impact on how these communities lived the Gospel. These women were not docile and passive, but they actively pursued knowledge, lived their faith and ultimately expressed so much in writing.

In the Middle Ages many communities of women were likely often without a priest in residence at all – or at least for significant periods of time – including Gertrude’s. What was the knowledge and practice of liturgy in these enclosures? Most importantly, what about the Eucharist? We don’t truly know all that there is to know, and may never will. Having said that, I see a picture emerging of strong women, focused on communal life as lived in Christ. This was true to the Church and teachings in a full and rich sense. It remains so today.

One of the criticisms in the current situation is that many women religious have forgotten their place in the church and the world. The assessment from the CDF says that they do not stand by enough of the moral teachings, and they tend to focus on issues that are in question. I wonder what those critics would say to a woman such as Gertrude? What was her place in that world, or in our own? There is a great tradition of women mystics in the Middle Ages that would challenge the many might find challenging if they scratched the surface.

If one of the concerns against the LCWR is that they are more self-centered than God-centered (which I do not agree with), it makes me wonder how the CDF would treat Gertrude the Great and her companions? These women were strong, bold, bright and extremely focused on God. They fought against all kinds of challenges to make their way in the world, and they prevailed.

We are called to live Eucharistic lives, centered on the great Sacrament. What happens when due to having no priest, the Eucharist is not available? This was a reality in the 13th century and it remains a reality today. What happens then? I am not saying – I am truly not saying – that anything goes. We all know that Catholic moral theology instructs us to know that the ends never justify the means. But what are we to do? How are we to live? Some feast and others starve?

The life of Gertrude the Great, also known as Gertrude of Helfta, gives us a unique look into the rich communal life of women religious. This look offers us great food for thought and prayer about how we live eucharistically and communally today. There is a world of remarkable women, hiding in plain sight in the Church, then as now. Thanks be to God.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, Guest Writers, Saints, Two Weeks of Worthy Women. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Gertrude of Helfta

  1. Pingback: My empty word file mocks me and other tales of writing | There Will Be Bread

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