Reflection on the Feast of St. Gertrude

by Sister Mary Forman, Prioress

Readings: Judges 6:36-40; Psalm 19:8-11; Ephesians 3:14-21; Matthew 15:21-28

Happy Feast of St. Gertrud! We will soon be moving into the seasons of Advent and Christmas.  In anticipation of Nativity, we heard in the reading at Morning Praise from Gertrud’s Herald II.6 about her desire to assist Mary, the mother of God, in the birthing of her son Jesus, by means of her meditating on the mystery of the incarnation.  She began her devotion with a prayer by making the sign of the cross in terms of Ephesians 3:18: “Oh, how inaccessible, how admirable, is the height of your infinite power! How deep is the abyss of your inscrutable wisdom! How wide, how immense, is the breadth of your most desirable charity!” The words, “the breadth and length and height and depth, invoking the Pauline dimensions of divine infinity, was often used by earlier Patristic writers to describe dimensions of eternity for length, power for the height, wisdom for the depth, and charity for the breadth.  Augustine, although interpreting these dimensions differently, associates them with making the sign of the cross, which later Bernard also does and which presumably Gertrud is also doing as she recites the Trinitarian characteristics: height with power; depth with wisdom; and breadth with charity.

Gertrud next compares her littleness with God’s greatness: “How mightily the torrents of your honey-sweet divinity overwhelm my nothingness…It has been given to me, poor little speck of dust that I dare to lap up some of the drops of this infinite beatitude, overflowing so abundantly in the way I am about to relate” [103-104]. While Psalm 19:11 refers to God’s laws as “sweeter than…honey from the comb,” Gertrud envisions her Lord’s divinity like honey. Her own littleness, like a dust mote or grain of dust, is a frequent way that she describes herself. Her lapping up drops of divine beatitude is an allusion to the gospel story of the Canaanite woman’s response to Jesus, when he at first refused to heal her daughter [Matt 15:26].  The woman’s response is the source of Gertrud’s reflection: “Please, Lord,…even the dogs lap the leavings that fall from the master’s table” [Matt 15:27].

Gertrud then indicates in chronos time when she is meditating: “It was in the holy night, when the dew of divinity came down, shedding sweetness over all the earth, and the heavens were melting, made sweet like honey” [104]. Here she recalls the Second Responsory of Christmas: “Today true peace has come down to us from heaven: today throughout the whole world the heavens have dropped honey.  V: Today there has shone upon us the new day of redemption of the ancient reparation, of the eternal happiness.”  She continues with a reflection on Gideon’s experience in the book of Judges: “My soul, like a dampened fleece on the threshing-floor of the community was meditating on this mystery” [104]; thus the dew of divinity dampens her own soul.   In Judges 6:37-38,”Gideon said to God, ‘If you really mean to deliver Israel by my hand, as you have declared, see now, I spread out a fleece on the threshing floor; if there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is left dry, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have declared.’ And so it happened.” Similarly, Gertrud, like Gideon looks for a sign from God to give her service of devotion to God. In the process she recalls the Sequence Laetabundus from the Secret of the Mass of Our Lady on Saturdays of Advent, when she relates: “Through the exercise of this devotion, I was trying to give my poor services in assisting at the divine birth when, like a star shedding its ray, the Virgin brought forth her son, true God and true man” [104].  

As she so frequently does in her visions, Gertrud enters kairos time: “In an instant I knew what it was that I was being offered and what it was that I received, as it were into the heart of my soul: a tender newborn babe.  In him was hidden the supreme gift of perfection, truly the very best of gifts.  As I beheld him within my soul, suddenly I saw myself entirely transformed into the color of the heavenly babe–if it is possible to describe as color that which cannot be compared with any visible form.  Then I received in my soul intelligence of those sweetest and most ineffable words: ‘God shall be all in all’” from 1 Cor 15:28 and Hebrews 1:3.

Gertrud’s response is one of rejoicing: “I rejoiced that I was not denied the welcome presence and delightful caresses of my Spouse.  With insatiable avidity, therefore, I drank in, like deep draughts from a cup of nectar, divinely inspired words such as these…” [104] Gertrud echoes Bernard, in his commentary on the Song of Songs: “You must know that you are unworthy of that contemplation of things heavenly, spiritual, and divine which is sweet and familiar to you.  Therefore, come forth from my sanctuary, your heart, where you were accustomed to drink with pleasure deep draughts of the hidden and sacred meaning of truth and wisdom.” Gertrud continues with words of Jesus reflective of Hebrews 1:3: ‘As I am the figure of the substance of the Father, whereas Hebrews 1:3 states: “He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command,” so, Jesus asserts to Gertrud: “through my divine nature, in the same way, you shall be the figure of my substance through my human nature, receiving in your deified soul the brightness of my divinity, as the air receives the sun’s rays and, penetrated to the very marrow by this unifying light, you will become capable of an ever closer union with me.”  Her reception of Eucharist is insertion into the substance of Christ resulting in deification. Her experience resonates with that of Bernard, in his essay on Loving God: “To be thus affected is to be deified…as the air, when flooded with the light of the sun, is transformed into the same clarity of light, so that it seems to be not merely illumined, but to be light itself.”

What Gertrud is describing here is explained by the scholar Ella Johnson as follows:

Gertrude….is concerned to draw attention to the possibility of the human person’s intermingling with or even being transformed into Christ in both body and soul. This teaching is based upon her fundamental belief that when human persons perceive Christ’s humanity in Eucharistic communion in their corporeal senses, they perceive his divinity in their spiritual senses as well….[T]he language of sweetness and caressing is more than an allegory. She emphasizes the physical connotations of the imagery of taste and touch, because it is actually in physically perceiving the humanity of Christ in the Eucharist with these two senses that the body and soul of the human person will be deified and restored to the image and likeness of God.

What might it mean for us to receive Eucharist in such a way—to taste and touch both the humanity and divinity of Christ when we receive communion and see that the Lord is good?

Moreover, in her pondering the mystery of incarnation—Christ become human and divine, and in her reception of the human-divine Christ in communion, she experiences the dew of her soul’s longing fulfilled in the sweet honey of divine presence, that is, in “draughts of the hidden and sacred meaning of truth and wisdom.” Thus she receives the gift of deification, the union of her soul with that of Christ’s presence.  

Although we may not experience contemplative union each time we receive Eucharist, we can ponder the mystery of what receiving Christ holds the potential for us.  What hidden truth and wisdom is available to us not only in the Mass, but also in the Divine Office as we give ourselves over to entering into the mysteries and feasts we celebrate! What grace might visit us as we dare ask Christ to visit us in ever deeper, wider, longer and higher ways, as did Gertrud?  What will we taste and touch today that will lead us more fervently into the humanity and divinity of Christ?

Sources:

Gertrude of Helfta: The Herald of Divine Love, translated by Margaret Winkworth, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993). Book II, chapter 6, p. 103. The page number of further citations of this work will be indicated in brackets above. 

See Gertrud the Great of Helfta: Spiritual Exercises, Cistercian Fathers 49, translated by Gertrud Jaron Lewis and Jack Lewis (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1989)  Ex. IV.69, p. 60; IV.315 and 323, p. 69; Ex. V.118, p. 77; and Ex. V.207, p. 80.

Ella Johnson, This Is My Body: Eucharistic Theology and Anthropology in the Writings of Gertrude the Great of Helfta, Cistercian Studies 280 (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications/Liturgical Press, 2020) 128, 129.