st.Gertrude the Great-Benedictine mystic

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  st.Gertrude the Great

Feast Day : November 16




Patronage: against rats; West Indies



Gertrude was born on January 6, 1256, near Eisleben in Saxony, Germany. Nothing is known of her parents, except that they were well-to-do. Gertrude was orphaned and at age five was placed in the Benedictine convent at Rodalsdorf, where she became a student of St. Mechtilde. She became a nun in the same monastery, and was elected abbess in 1251. The following year she took charge of the monastery at Helfta, to which she moved with her nuns. Gertrude was such a devoted student that later she repented for neglecting her prayers in order to study more. She wrote and composed in Latin. She was especially devoted to the Sacred Heart, and wrote prayers with Mechtilde. On January 27, 1281, Gertrude had her first vision of Christ, who appeared to her as a 16-year-old youth. The vision appeared as she raised her head from prayer at twilight. Christ told her that her salvation was near at hand, and he would welcome her tenderly. Thereafter for 20 years, Gertrude had at least one vision of Christ a day. He often urged her to come to him through his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who would be her protector. Only once did the visions cease—during an 11-day period when he punished Gertrude for a “worldly” conversation. Gertrude was so humble that she wished no outward manifestation of these visions, as she did not want to appear special. After Mechtilde’s death in 1298, one of the nuns received this revelation from Jesus: “I have done great things in Mechtilde, but I will accomplish still greater things in Gertrude.” Jesus bestowed seven graces upon her, and confirmed his promises by revealing his heart and telling her to extend her hands. When she withdrew them, she saw on one hand seven gold ringlets, one on each finger and three on the signet finger. In visions, Gertrude saw Jesus also give his mother his Sacred Heart, and also kneel down before her. She also had numerous visions of Mary. Once Gertrude prayed to Mary, asking her to fill her heart with virtues. In a vision, Mary came and planted in Gertrude’s heart symbolic flowers: the rose of chastity, the lily of purity, the violet of humility, the sunflower of obedience, and others. Gertrude also saw Mary appear in the presence of the Holy Trinity. In another vision on the Feast of the Assumption, she saw Mary invite her to take her place on the heavenly throne, explaining that she could offer Gertrude’s merits to God for the privilege. Mary ascended to heaven, conducted by Jesus and amidst rejoicing saints and angels. Gertrude died in Hefta on November 17, 1302. According to lore, Mary came and supported her during her dying, and helped her soul to heaven. She was buried alongside Mechtilde. In 1342, the monastery was transferred to New Helfta inside the city walls of Eisleben, but there is no record of any translation of the relics and remains of the two saints. Many of Gertrude’s writings are lost. Extant are Legatus Divinae Pietatis (Herald of divine love), Exercises of St. Gertrude, and the Liber Specialis Gratiae (Book of special grace) of St. Mechtilde, all written in Latin. Her mysticism is that of all the great contemplative workers of the Benedictine Order. Legatus Divinae Pietatis comprises five books containing her life story and accounts of many of the favors granted her by God. Only book two of the five is her work, with the remainder being compiled by members of the Helfta community. The seven “Exercises” range from the work of the reception of baptismal grace to the preparation for death. Gertrude exhibits a profound knowledge and understanding of liturgy and Scripture, and uses rich symbolism and allegory to convey her message. Central to her work is her devotion to the Sacred Heart. The superiors of Helfta appointed renowned Dominican and Franciscan theologians to examine the works of Gertrude. Her writings were approved and propagated. St. Teresa of Avila chose Gertrude as her mentor and guide, and Gertrude’s works were favorably viewed and recommended by SS. John of the Cross and Francis de Sales. Gertrude never was canonized, but in 1677 her name was inscribed in the Roman Martyrology, and Pope Clement XII (r. 1730–40) decreed that her feast should be observed by the entire Church. In art she is depicted as an abbess, sometimes with a mouse and sometimes holding a flaming heart. She is considered to be the forerunner of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in devotion to the Sacred Heart and is the only woman saint to be called “Great.” The seven mystical rings are commemorated by the Church in St. Gertrude’s Office, in the third antiphon at Lauds: “My Lord Jesus has espoused me to Him with seven rings, and crowned me as a bride.” Gertrude is especially invoked for living sinners and souls in purgatory. In a vision, Jesus had told her that a certain prayer would release 1,000 souls from purgatory each time it is said. The prayer was extended to include living sinners as well: “Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.”

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