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Letter to Women

God and the Human Being
in the Writings of Gertrud of Helfta

By Gertrud Jaron Lewis

Published in (Vox Benedictina 8/2 (Winter 1991), 297–322.)
republished on our website with the author’s permission

Tradition in the Catholic Church throughout the centuries has been used as a stringent and weighty argument in many key decisions. In doing so, however, the Church unfortunately has all but ignored one half of her own tradition, i.e. our feminine Christian history. To be sure, a number of women were canonised by the Vatican if they – from the curia’s point of view – could serve as examples for the rest of us. In their vitae and legends, most often written by clergymen, these women – and notably Mary heading their procession – were usually represented as spineless, submissive, and asexual.

One way to revitalise our lost history is to pay much more careful attention to the contributions of women in the Church.(2) Because not very many women saints left behind documents of their own, the writings of the holy women that are extant become all the more essential. The works of the thirteenth-century Helfta scholars,(3) of whom St. Gertrud is one, offer us such an important focus of studies. The following considerations are based exclusively on the writings of Gertrud von Helfta (1256–1301/02). They represent an attempt to contribute to the on-going discussion of “women in the Church.”

What is extant of the voluminous work of Gertrud of Helfta is the Legatus divinae pietatis (consisting of five so-called “books,” the second of which was written by Gertrud herself, while the others were composed by her sisters in community following her own dictations or ruminations) and the Spiritual Exercises.(4)

God in the Writings of Gertrud von Helfta

Gertrud’s rich metaphors, while firmly rooted in the imagery of the religious prose of her time, account for the beauty of her poetic language of mysticism. A lengthy passage will convey an impression of Gertrud’s hymnic prose:

O eternal solstice, secure abode, place of total delight, paradise of perennial pleasures, flooded over with rivers of inestimable voluptuousness! One is attracted by the spring-like greening of a manifold beauty, charmed by a sweet sound, all the sweeter by melodies of the musicians; one is refreshed by the fragrance of vital spices, inebriated by the free flowing sweetness of inner savour, and changed by the miraculous tenderness of secret embraces! O three times happy, four times blessed, and – if one may say so – a hundred times saintly are those who let themselves be moved by the guidance of your grace and deign to approach with innocent hands, pure hearts, and clean lips. O what sight, what sound, what fragrance, what taste, what feeling! But how little of this can my embarrassed tongue stammer! Although – favoured by divine grace in spite of my faults and negligence – I was able to enter there, [but] I am as if surrounded by a thick shell and probably cannot understand anything. For even if all the capabilities of angels and human beings were united in one worthy science, it still would not suffice to form a single word that could, even distantly, come close to express adequately such extraordinary excellence (L. II, viii, 5).

The “eternal solstice” (an image also to be found in St. Bernard of Clairvaux) sets the tone for this passage. Images of flowering and greening are combined with the fragrance of pleasant spices – often to be found in Gertrud’s work. We then read of the metaphorical drunkenness, of the conjuring up of symbolic numbers, and again and again encounter superlatives. The author also enumerates all the spiritual senses, but finds that even they are unable to express the ineffable mystical experience. After the unusual image of the “thick shell” of her negligence which she cannot break, the writer then states, with St. Paul, that not even all angelic or human tongues combined could satisfactorily express the enormity of her experience.

The topos of ineffability relates to the experience of the divine in Gertrud’s work. Thus most images in her writing make an – often frustrated – attempt to express something about God and about the mystical relationship between God and the human being. For the ineffable can only be approached by means of analogies and metaphors.(5) Some of Gertrud’s images are routine for mediaeval mystics, although no less impressive for all that, and some metaphors have become so common in the Church’s liturgical language that we scarcely stop to think about them any more. Thus, mystical experiences stand behind such images as “God is light,” “Christ the sun,” “the divinity as an abyss,” and “the eternal solstice” found in the above quotation.

Gertrud of Helfta does not compose a systematic theology.)6) Even her representation of the Trinity is given in the context of a meditation in which God becomes present in order to alleviate human frailty: God Father the Almighty [Deus Pater – sua divina omnipotentia], God the Son as the inscrutable Wisdom [Filius Dei – inscrutabilis sapientia], and the Holy Spirit as God’s benevolence [Spiritus Sanctus – benignitas ipsius] (L. IV, xxv, 1, 1–11).

Of perhaps special interest in our context is the fact that the mediaeval mystics felt quite comfortable with the notion of the feminine aspects of God. Something which has been overshadowed for the past three millennia of the Judeo-Christian religion is that the image of God as male is not a literal statement of fact but, rather, an analogy.(7) It is therefore essential to recall that anything said about God is nothing more than an attempt to express a certain aspect of the divine. To try to understand God by means of analogous feminine aspects is to make the concept of God viable for women as well.(8) This desire for an added dimension to our concept of God is nothing new and certainly not limited to the past few decades.(9)

In her spiritual writings, Gertrud of Helfta (like many rnediæval authors) uses abstract terms to denote the divine, such as “goodness,” “kindness,” “mercy,” “peace,” and “truth” – terms with a feminine gender in Latin. But her use of imagery is still more specific. Numerous similes show Christ as a mother: Christ in his wisdom acts like a wise mother (L. IV, v, 4, 13ff.); shields us from harm like a protective mother (L. III, lxxxiii, 1, 4ff.); takes care of us like a mother (L. V, xxvii, 4, 8 ff.); loves like a mother (L. III, lxxi, 2, 2ff.); and is even jealous like a mother (L. III, lxiii, 1, 11ff.).(10) Sometimes Gertrud combines the notion of motherliness with that of fatherliness to great effect. Offering paternal protection, “the Lord” presses her like a mother against her breasts so that she is safe from dangers during the hazardous ocean voyage of life (L. V, xxv, 3, 6ff.), and similarly we find elsewhere juxtaposed the benignitas paterna with the quasi mater (L. IV, xiii, 1, 8ff.). She also uses the image of the pelican, much favoured in mediaeval writings, ”who opens his side to nurse the young ones with blood from his fatherly heart, as St. Gertrud rephrases the account (L. III, xviii, 12,12).

This pelican image forms part of the metaphoric motif of the Deus lactans (i.e. the nursing God) which itself is connected with the theme of the Sacred Heart that played a major role(12) in the writings of the Helfta mystics, as Caroline Walker Bynum has shown. While many of us may have been repelled from devotion to the Sacred Heart devotion through the (mainly nineteenth-century) iconographic kitsch of a thorn-crowned heart placed on the garment of a feeble Christ image, the Middle Ages understood this theme quite differently because it was believed that mother’s milk consisted of a mixture of blood and milk. Hence Christ’s bleeding side wound is seen as his motherly source of our spiritual food.(13)

There are further metaphors of God, more or less stereotypical and favoured in St. Gertrud’s time, such as the many images based on the Song of Songs (in which St. Bernard was a major influence on the Helfta nuns). Gertrud’s formulations of bridal images strike us in general as emphasising a mature relationship between the “spouses” in their union of love. But she also breaks the cliché-like sameness of many bridal metaphors with an occasional suggestive erotic image, as when she uses the analogy that serious sins are as much an obstacle to divine love as a “much folded garment of the spouse impeding the marital embrace” (L. III, lxxxvi, 1, 13ff.).

In Gertrud’s writings the terms “God” and “Christ” are usually interchangeable. But occasionally we find a distinction made: thus, Christ lets her understand that the sight of God is unbearable for human weakness and is only accessible in the life after death (L. IV, liv, 3). But Gertrud also reports two high points in her mystical life – both seen in connection with the Eucharist – when Christ so—to-speak presents her to the Father (L. IV, xxviii, 1, 4ff. and IV, xxxvi, 2, 3ff.). Her positive image of God leads Gertrud to state that it is impossible for God’s loving kindness not to show mercy to a human being (L. III, lxxii, 3, 4f.). In fact, God is whatever anyone may need at any given time: mother, friend, spouse (L. IV, I, 2).

A typical passage for Gertrud is her visionary image of the Trinity presented in a scene of a solemn liturgical feast which is celebrated in the heavenly court in honour of Mary. She here succeeds in describing the joy of the trinitarian God without a trace of banality:

The entire Trinity erupts in joy – deep as an abyss, overflowing, and benevolent – and as if moved by admiration sings most clearly ... (L. IV, xlviii, 12, 25ff.).

Gertrud’s images are most often characterised by a special dignity. In contrast to the representations of the suffering Christ figure as found in literature and art of the Gothic period, Christ in her writings is usually seen as the king (L. IV, iii, 1, 10 etc.). To be sure, she does not ignore Christ’s passion, as is amply shown in her Spiritual Exercises (especially “Life in Death”, E. VII) and in a detailed vision account of Christ’s scourging (L. IV, xv, 4). But in general, her work reflects more the image of the triumphant Christ on the cross, as depicted in Romanesque art”, than the late mediaeval Man of Sorrows picture.

The incarnated Son of God longs for the human being (L. IV, v, 4, 6ff.), entices the human being with his love as a fox lures his prey (L. III, xxi, 1, 15). He encourages the human being, as Gertrud shows in one of her most beautiful images, to soar through heavenly contemplation high up above himself to my face like a fast eagle supported by the seraphic wings of daring love .... (L. III, lxxiii, 1, 16ff).

Gertrud’s accent lies on Christ’s humanity and humanness, as is typical for the piety of the thirteenth century. She paints a benevolent Dominus who occasionally smiles at or is even amused at us humans (L. 111, xxx, 12, 3, etc.); he is shown “in a benign cheerfulness” (Filius Dei cum benigna hilaritate: L. IV, xxiv, 1, 14) and with “a serene face” (L. IV, xxxv, 1, 11 and similarly xxix, 1, 6). Jesus is her friend and her spouse who tenderly caresses her chin – a gesture that is repeated like a motif in her Legatus (e.g. IV, ii, 12, 9; V, i, 15, 7f. and iii, 1, 18 etc.). Christ is the beloved and loving God made Man who conveys both dignity and nobility to us humans.

The Human Being in Gertrud von Helfta's Work

A) The Deified Human Being

It is Gertrud’s understanding of humankind that makes her unique among the mediaeval women mystics. For Gertrud von Helfta herself speaks as a confident Christian monastic without acknowledging the Church’s patriarchy. Thus she writes the entire Spiritual Exercises from a female perspective, expressed through the feminine grammatical endings in her Latin original. Such female prayer is – unfortunately – unusual for women in the Church even now, because for centuries women have been expected to pray under a male persona in absolutely all liturgical prayers. At the same time, Gertrud freely adapts well-known Bible passages so that as a woman she can identify with them. She sees herself, for instance, in the parable of the prodigal son as the “prodigal daughter” (E. IV, 184), and she takes the place of St. John by leaning her own head against Christ’s chest in a visionary scene of the Last Supper (V, xxxii, 2, 3).

Gertrud seems to do all this quite naturally and without being aware of the uniqueness of her self-confident femininity, for she neither explains herself nor does she make any excuses. At the same time, it would be missing the point to interpret her unabashed femininity as a naiveté caused by a life spent within monastic enclosure. For the Church’s misogyny was so ubiquitous that a woman as intelligent and well-read as Gertrud von Helfta could not possibly have missed it. And yet, she is unbroken in her female self-confidence.(15)

It may well be Gertrud’s unerring femininity that caused a much delayed and very jagged reception of her work during the last 700 years.(16) It is also very likely because of her unabashed womanliness that Pierre Doyère, her modern editor and translator, has in mind when he derogatorily speaks of her puérilités.(17)

To be sure, Gertrud’s writings also carry the inevitable humility topoi that we find in all contemporary monastic works (e.g. L. III, xxiii, 1, 7). She sees herself as a “worm on the sand of laxity” (L. II, vi, 1, 5f.), as “dust” (L. II, ix, 2, 1) and the like. But the fact that she as a woman was chosen and made to write does not come up as a problem at any place. When she mentions weakness, she speaks of “human frailty” (L. IV, vii, 2, 2), rather than using the cliché of feminine weakness.(18)

The discussion of the following text passages that deal with the image of the human being relates to both men and women. But we may assume that woman is really in the foreground of Gertrud’s thoughts since the text is a testimony to her own experiences and insights.

Of central importance is the incomparable dignity of the human being. In many metaphors and similes the author points to the significance of the individual in the eyes of God.

When she describes herself in yet another passage as resting against Jesus’ chest in the famous pose of St. John,(19) she believes she ought to free herself from the embrace in order to serve God more actively (L. III, v, 1). But Jesus encloses her in his arms, again stating that he cannot live without her. He explains this with the analogy of an amputated limb of the body which one would not miss if it had never been there; but since it had been a part of the body, it is sorely missed. Alluding to the idea of the mystical body of Christ,(20) Gertrud thus emphasises the irreplaceability of the individual.

Like most of her contemporaries, Gertrud von Helfta sees a dichotomy between body and soul (e.g. E. VI, 612f.) and she understands the body as the soul’s prison (e.g. L. V, xxix, 1, 10). Nevertheless the human being as a whole is accepted by Christ as an image of the divine. In an account of a visionary scene which starts with a reference to Genesis 1: 26 Ad imaginem quippe Dei factus est homo, she explains:

And then [the Lord] kissed her eyes and ears, and also her mouth and heart, her hands and feet, and each time he repeated in a pleasant chant the same words with which he renewed in her soul the divine image and likeness in the most dignified way (L. IV, xiv, 7, 11ff.).

The entire creation and the creator share in this nobility and perfection, as is stated elsewhere (L. I, viii, 1, 17).

The decisive cause for Gertrud’s positive image of humankind is Christ’s incarnation. For by becoming human, Christ “in his spring-like youthful beauty” has ennobled human nature and made it worthy to be given as a gift to the Father (L. IV, xli, 1, 7-18). Christ’s incarnation is, in fact, a major theme in Gertrud’s work. But while she does not dwell on particular events in Jesus’ life, as do many other writers of her time, her interest centres on the divine human being, the God made man, who in his humanity exemplifies God’s greatness and at the same time invites all human beings to participate in the divine nature, thus literally “deifying” us humans.

Many passages in Gertrud’s writings express this thought. In one of the hymnic passages of the Exercitia (VI, 180) for instance, Gertrud calls to Christ: “You who are seated in my flesh at the right hand of the Father” and similarly “you, in my flesh, are God and King” (E. VI, 106f.). In her second book of the Legatus (II, xi, 1, 10), she writes “he who is with God in my substance” and, as she formulates elsewhere, the “bodily substance [is taken] from our earth” in order that Christ be able to espouse the human being (E. III, 103f.). Thus Christ’s incarnation is the prerequisite for the bridal metaphors: only the Son of God made man enables her to understand herself as Christ’s spouse.(21) In her interpretation of the Incarnation, Gertrud even goes as far as to claim that through his humanity Christ is literally forced to be merciful to us humans (L. III, vii, 1, 11ff.). And it is here that Gertrud bases the important notion of “making amends” (suppletio) which plays a thematic role in her writings (e.g. L. II, v, 4, 1–4) and in many spiritual works of her time.

Christ’s incarnation sanctifies humankind. Christ’s humanity within the Trinity enables the human being to participate in the divine (L. II, xi, 1). And the Son of God deifies us humans through his bridal love: “I am giving you all my saintliness, both of my divinity and my humanity” (L. III, xviii, 1, 6ff.). Thus the human being is even elevated above the angels as “the Lord” tells Gertrud in one of her vision dialogues (L. III, ix, 4, 22). And Gertrud emphasises that all humans are the younger offspring of the firstborn Son of God (L. IV, iii, 7, 12ff.).

Gertrud von Helfta herself fully realised this human dignity in her life. Her sovereign attitude is based on the liturgical word “to serve is to reign” (E. IV, 108f.). In that she knows herself standing on an equal footing with Jesus she is not a hireling who serves her master abjectly (L. II xiii, 1, I1f.). And while the mystery of the incarnation grants this dignity to all humans, Gertrud is herself conscious of having been especially chosen (e.g. L. IV, iii, 2, 7ff.). But she also insists that any human being whose will conforms with God’s will and who strives for the glory of God can equally be chosen (L. IV, xiv, 5, 16ff.).

St. Gertrud’s firm belief in her special standing is based on her mystical experience of January 27, 1281, of which the Book Two of the Legatus gives testimony. This text is a hymn of jubilation, praise and gratitude “from the deepest abyss of humility” for the angelic life that she has been granted since that day of her conversion. It was then that Gertrud became conscious of the divine presence within her soul in which Christ treated her like a friend and a spouse, and where he found his delight from then on (L. II, xxiii, 5). Except for one short interval, the knowledge of God’s presence in her soul from then on never left her (L. II, xxii, 1, 13f.). The author repeatedly refers to St. John 14: 23 in this connection: “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.” And in one of her typical paradoxical formulations she states: the more manifest her unworthiness becomes, the more brilliantly shines the glory of the divine loving kindness within her (L. II, xxii, 1, 20ff.).

Gertrud’s conscious participation in Christ’s divinity and the firm knowledge of her chosenness account for her sovereign attitude as revealed in the many courtly expressions of her prose: The one who shares the King’s bed must be called Queen (L. III, viii, 1, 30f.); Christ the Emperor made her his Empress (L. IV, ii, 15, 12f.); Christ awaits the commands of his Domina regina (L. III, xxxiii, 1, 3f.); and many other similar images. Though humble, Gertrud shows no false shame, for she knows that her chosenness is not the result of her own achievements but solely a gratuitous gift of grace (L. II, xx, 10, 4f.). She freely acknowledges the working of the Holy Spirit in her and understands herself as a divine tool (L. 11, xx, 2, 16).

B) The Human Being as Priest

For a proper evaluation of Gertrud von Helfta’s image of humankind, her understanding of the priesthood needs to be discussed. In her view, the priesthood belongs to the entire Church, for as “the Lord” had told her, “Does not the promise I once made to St. Peter belong to the entire church?” (L. 1, xiv, 4, 5f.). In this context then Gertrud speaks of her own specific vocation to the priesthood. Grounds for her claim are given in two passages where the mystic sees herself as Christ’s representative. It is here that she surpasses by far her previously reported statements about her chosenness.

II is in the Third Book of the Legatus (xii, 2) where we find a scene that begins with a topos of ineffability because “it is impossible to put this down in writing.” During an experience of a mystical union, Christ grants St. Gertrud the grace of transfiguration, that is, she becomes transfigured – just as Jesus was on Mount Tabor – “so that both her body and her soul appear miraculously in glory brilliant as lightning.” This is to say, she does not witness a transfiguration as a spectator, as did the three apostles, but rather she herself is being transfigured just as Christ before her.

The second passage is found in Legatus Book Four when Christ tells Gertrud that "all those who entrust themselves to your prayers or who think they might wish your intercession, will thereby receive salvation in the same way as the Israelites did who were bitten by poisonous snakes and were healed by looking at the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the desert upon my command" (L. IV, ii, 10, 14ff.).

The elevated salvific serpent (cf. Num. 21: 4–8), which in John 3: 14 is interpreted as a foreshadowing of the Saviour on the cross, is here equated with Gertrud. Just as the Israelites were saved by looking at the serpent, all those will be saved who make use of Gertrud as an intermediator. The passage again suggests a parallel between Christ and Gertrud.

It is before this background of Gertrud’s full identification with Christ that the passages in which the mystic speaks of her own priestly power of binding and loosing must be understood. The most explicit report of Gertrud’s spiritual ordination is given within a liturgical context. During the gospel reading in the Easter octave, when she heard that Christ breathed the Holy Spirit onto his disciples, she too asked for God’s Spirit. And then the text reads:

Thereupon the Lord breathed on her and gave her, too, the Holy Spirit and said: Receive the Holy Spirit within you: For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. To that she replied: Lord, how can this be, since this power of binding and loosing has been given to priests alone? The Lord answered: Whenever you, by the judgment of my Spirit, deem anyone as not guilty, I too will hold this one as not guilty; and whose cause you judge as guilty, he will also appear guilty before me. For I will speak through your mouth (L. IV, xxxii, 27–37).

The text refers verbatim to John 20: 22f., i.e. the calling of the apostles to the priesthood, and Gertrud applies this passage to herself. Curiously enough, she specifically questions “the Lord” whether he really means what he is saying, for she wants to be doubly sure. And, in fact, she is reassured that this priestly power has been granted to her.

There are a number of similar passages in the Legatus. In Book One of Gertrud’s vita, the scene resembles the giving of the sacrament of ordination. Christ again uses the passage of binding and loosing – this time from Matthew 16: 19 – and then we read:

And touching her tongue, he says to her: See, I have put my words into your mouth [Jer 1: 191]. And I am confirming with my truth all the words that you, under the guidance of the Spirit, will say to anyone for my sake. And whenever you promise something to anyone through my goodness, I will certainly confirm it in heaven (L. I, xiv, 4,11–15).

Gertrud, moreover, receives the assurance that she will never misjudge (ibid. 4, 19ff.), for God will speak through her (ibid. 5, 10ff.). In Book Four we then read that St. Peter, whom she sees in a vision in his papal vestments, confirms her priestly calling with reference to the same Matthew passage and that he blesses Gertrud with his own hand (L. IV, xliv, 2, 1ff.). Essential components of the sacrament of priesthood are thus given.

In the Second Book of her own Legatus, Gertrud reports how she actually made use of her power of binding and loosing in her office as spiritual counselor. Her grace-given certainty of discernment enabled her to help those afflicted by guilt:

You moreover assured me, the utmost unworthy one: everyone who comes to me with a sorrowful heart and in spiritual humility to reveal a mistake, and whose mistake will be deemed large or small by me, will be judged correspondingly as guilty or not guilty by you, merciful God (L. II, xx, 2. 3ff.).

The text leaves little doubt that Gertrud von Helfta is convinced she was called to function as a confessor.(22) Other similar situations show Gertrud committed to such priestly functions as preaching and spiritual counselling. “The Spirit prompted what she said”(Acts 6: 1), writes the author of her vita (L. I, i, 3, 14), and she devotes an entire chapter (L. I, xii) to Gertrud’s pastoral activities. Starting with the Rule of St. Benedict (64), the biographer compares Gertrud favourably with the apostles: Gertrud is a skilled and convincing speaker and rarely has bored listeners; she usually gets what she bargains for, even from stubborn people; sometimes her words of wisdom are shocking for her sisters in community so that some of them even prayed that she might lose her zealousness, but Christ defended Gertrud’s passion for the good cause. And the author of the vita concludes this section by stating that often a single word from Gertrud’s mouth was more efficient than lengthy homilies by famous preachers:

Moreover, she talked so pleasantly and compellingly, in such skilled speech and convincingly, efficient and full of grace, that most people who heard her were moved in their hearts and converted in their wills and testified in truth that God’s Spirit spoke out of her (L. 1, i, 3, 10“15).

Thus a great number of people from outside the monastery sought Gertrud’s help. Her extraordinary gift of discernment enabled Gertrud to give satisfying answers to many different questions and solve the problems of those who came for advice (L. I, xi, 12).

Gertrud was specifically called to function as an intermediary between God and humankind. After she offered her own will to God, Christ designated Gertrud’s heart as a source for his grace (L. III, xxx, 2, 16ff.). Her heart was to be, as it were, a connecting link to lead the fullness of grace from the divine heart to her fellow human beings (L. III, lxvi, 1, 1ff.). And the biographer assures us how seriously Gertrud took this task:

… she saw herself as a connecting link through which according to a secret divine plan, grace could flow to the chosen ones of God (L. 1, xi, 1, 8f f.).

Gertrud’s awareness and acceptance of this intermediary function explain why she freely talks about the graces bestowed on her (ibid. 35ff.).

Gertrud’s main intention in her priestly mission is to encourage frequent communion – in contradiction to the official attitude of the contemporary clergy. She argues that Christ gave us this sacrament precisely so that we repeatedly receive communion in memory of him, for this is how he intended to remain with us since he is delighted to be with humankind (Prov. 8: 31). Therefore nobody must impede others, either by words or suggestions, for instance from receiving communion, as occasionally happens (L. III, lxxvii, 1): the value of communion is incomparably higher than abstaining from this sacrament (L. IV, xiii, 5). And the communicant’s intention of revealing the divine goodness by receiving the sacrament overshadows his personal unworthiness. With this critical statement, Gertrud relies on a direct divine illumination for which she praises God (L. II, xix, 2).

In connection with this crucial issue, an episode in Gertrud’s life gains special meaning. During an absence of their confessor, Gertrud once takes over his function and advises all those who come to her for counsel to receive communion. Thereafter it is revealed to her in a vision how all the Helfta sisters who followed her advice were richly showered with graces, but how those who abstained through fear and did not trust Gertrud’s advice were left with empty hands. Her priestly decision was thus confirmed (L. IV, vii, 4).

Gertrud’s discussions about communion basically plead for daily communion which was permitted to the clergy in daily mass, but ruled out for nuns and lay people.(23) Gertrud complains in her prayers about the huge advantage enjoyed by priests in this matter, and is given the response that for many priests there is no real merit in their daily communion because it has become routine for them (L. III, xxxvi, 1) – a most frustrating answer, as we can sense even now.

The vita tells us how Gertrud protested against the many signs of extraordinary grace given to her, how she saw herself as dust and ashes and unworthy of her priestly powers. But, the biographer explains, “the Lord” confirmed her priestly functions by telling her:

All those who are downcast and sad and who humbly and truly seek to be consoled by your words, their expectations will never be thwarted, for I, God, am living in you (L. I, xiv, 5, 20–23).

Gertrud’s priesthood, then, is based on God’s presence in her soul which, in the Helfta women’s understanding, is the only indispensable prerequisite for an ordination.

For Gertrud’s call to the priesthood does not simply rely on a silent agreement between her divine friend and herself. Her sisters in community know of Gertrud’s priestly function and recognize it fully and publicly. Thus Domna M. (presumably Mechthild von Hackeborn) sees in a vision the confirmation of Gertrud’s role as a mediator (L. I, xiv, 6, 7ff.). Gertrud, who sometimes doubts her own calling, has asked the other Helfta nuns to help her in properly discerning her priestly vocation (L. I, xvi, I, 1ff.). All the answers that are given to her sisters, be it in prayers or visions, confirm incontestably Gertrud’s priestly position and they confirm that Christ, with whom Gertrud is mystically united, fully supports her and that her priestly task will remain with her until the end of her life (ibid.). The biographer closes this discussion with the lapidary statement: “One thing therefore, is certain: this gift flows from God” (L. I, xvi, 3, 4f.).


C) Inner Freedom (24)

Gertrud’s own libertas cordis (freedom of heart) is described by her biographer in this crucial passage:

Freedom of spirit shone so brightly in her that nothing at all that was contrary to her conscience was tolerable to her for even a moment. And God commended her for this, for when a certain devout person asked in prayer what was most pleasing to God in this chosen one [i.e. Gertrud] he received the answer: Her freedom of heart. But much surprised, and as if belittling this response, the person said: I reckon, Lord, that she had through your grace already achieved a greater knowledge and fervent love of you. The Lord [replied]: It is, indeed, as you have thought; but this happened by means of that grace of freedom which is so good that it leads directly to supreme perfection. For she is found ready to receive my gifts at any hour because she never permits her heart to cling to anything that would be an obstacle for me (L. I, xi, 7).

Gertrud herself acknowledges this gift of grace – i.e. her inner freedom – on several occasions (e.g. E. VII, 495) and she sees it as a consequence of conscious ascetic striving. We here encounter the key terms of abnegare, abstrahere, abstinere, adnihilare and the image of the shaking loose of all enslaving fetters that chain us to the human condition. To be sure, she does not advocate an asceticism for its own sake but rather as a process of becoming free for God. The important mystical term of vacare, i.e. the emptying of the self in order to make possible the Spirit’s in-dwelling, is combined with the term freedom in the Legatus (IV, xlviii, 15, 24).

Gertrud’s inner freedom renders her carefree. The terms securus (which originally meant “without care”) and liber (i.e. free), are often joined together in her writings. But her carefree attitude is based on full confidence in God and has nothing in common with a naive ignoring of burning problems. On the contrary, we find again and again how much she was aware of the frequent wars in the Germany of her time (e.g. L. IV, lii, 5, 3); how she was involved in helping to solve the many difficulties her own community encountered (L. III, xvi, 1, 12); and how much she was burdened by the real needs of the people who came to her for advice. Moreover, like many of her sisters in community, she herself often falls ill: she once even suffered from the plague (L. III, iii, 1, 26). But all this cannot detract from her unconditional freedom for God.

Admittedly, Gertrud’s words and acts are often radical. Her carefree attitude excludes any trace of fear, even though there was ground for caution at a time when heretics were already persecuted by the official Church. Her writings, indeed, testify to a highly critical stand against many of the aberrations in a Church that badly needed an inner reform. Thus she objects to the cult of relics (L. IV, lii, 3, 4ff.); she speaks against payments for indulgences (L. III, xi, 1 and others); and she prays to God the creator that he simultaneously be a reformer (E. I, 220). And of course, as has been shown, she claims priestly functions for herself – even though women had long since been excluded from the priesthood by canon law – and she ignores the petty ruling of the Church restricting communion for lay people.

Gertrud von Helfta was a personality who had found herself and God in herself, and who then lived a life which unconditionally followed her convictions. This is how she obtained an inner freedom which not only made her overcome fear and worries but which also expressed itself in a subtle humour and in her magnificent jubilus. Both need to be mentioned briefly because they not only characterise Gertrud’s personality but they also are an important aspect of her images of God and the human being.

Some of the examples Gertrud gives are sure to have struck even her contemporaries as funny. In Book Two of the Legatus she wants to show how very lukewarm she was in her monastic zeal before her decisive inner conversion took place, and she says that she then used to care about her soul as little as she cared about the soles of her feet (L. II, ii, 1, 5f.). In a discussion of various forms of prayers she comes up with the unusual simile that string music was at any rate more pleasant than the bleating of sheep and oxen (L. IV, lvi, 1, 11f.) – and we can only hope that she did not refer to her community’s liturgical choir. She sees herself as worthless as a scarecrow but – like the scarecrow – still in charge of a task to perform (L. I, xi, 3, 4ff.). When she explains how each part of the human body is essential for participating in the glorification of God, she hesitates when she comes to speak about the work of her hands because manual labour seems irreconcilable with her intellectual work; she however finds a sly solution by suggesting that “the Lord” may accept her holding the book while reading as an appropriate manual activity (L. IV, xliv, 1, 20ff.).

While some of the saints leave us with an impression of a rather negative, joyless life, Gertrud sees herself as “happy, carefree, and liberated” (E. VI, 790f.). Her joyous attitude explains the eminent place that the praise of God is given in her work. The mystical jubilus, a song of joy and praise which she brings to perfection, can be found repeatedly in her work. Perhaps the best version is given in the sixth spiritual exercise (E. VI). This jubilus is a hymnic praise of God comprising the entire universe in which Gertrud’s considerable poetic talent finds its most beautiful expression.(25)

In conclusion, we can only deplore the fact that the Church of her time did not pay heed to Saint Gertrud. We would be part of a happier and more equitable Church today if in our Christian tradition women like Gertrud had been listened to. Moreover, much of the suffering which occurred as a result of the Protestant Reformation could, indeed, have been avoided had there been an earlier inner reform for which Gertrud and others had called. In the event, it took several centuries for Gertrud von Helfta to be officially accepted. But while her canonisation in 1734 rehabilitated her as one of the great mystics in the Church – and the only German saint with the epithet “the Great” – her radical ideas have all but been ignored. Judging by her complex work, I cannot help thinking that if Gertrud von Helfta were alive today, she would be at the forefront of the current struggle of women within the Church.

Gertrud Jaron Lewis

End Notes

1. The following is a loose English adaptation of an essay published in Geist und Leben 63 (1990) 53–69, a version of which was presented at a “Peregrination” in Toronto, January 19, 1990.

2. For a recent comprehensive survey of a feminist-oriented research into the tradition of the Church, see Kari Elisabeth Børresen, “Women’s Studies of the Christian Tradition,” in Contemporary Philosophy: A New Survey, v. 6, eds. Guttorm Floistad and Raymond Klibansky (Dordrecht/Boston /London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990): pp. 901–1001.

3. See the newly revised comprehensive work on the Helfta women by M. Jeremy Finnegan, The Women of Helfta: Scholars and Mystics. 2nd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press 1991).

4. The Legatus (i.e. The Herald of Divine Love) and Exercitia are available in a bilingual (Latin-French) critical edition by Jacques Hourlier, Pierre Doyère [and others]: Œuvres spirituelles, Sources chrétiennes 127, 139, 143, 255, 331 (Paris: Cerf, 1967–1987). At the point of writing, only the Exercitia is available in English translations, the most recent of which is that by G.J.L. and Jack Lewis: Gertrud the Great of Helfta: Spiritual Exercises, Christian Fathers Series 49 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications 1989). All text references in this paper will be to the Sources chrétiennes edition; L=Legatus, E=Exercitia.

5. The mystics’ typical dilemma of not being able to express their experiences and yet feeling compelled to do so – hence their wide use of metaphors and analogies – has been much discussed. For a basic study of this theme, see Alois Maria Haas, “Die Problematik von Sprache und Erfahrung in der deutschen Mystik,” in Grundfragen der Mystik (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1974): pp. 73–104.

6. See also Sabine B. Spitzlei, Erfahrungsraum Herz: Zur Mystik des Zisterzienserklosters Helfta im 13. Jahrhundert, Mystik in Geschichte und Gegenwart 1, 9 (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog 1991): p. 61.

7. A convincing case has been made by contemporary theologians for the hardships suffered by women because of this one-sided analogy. To have tailored the image of the divinity to fit the needs of the patriarchal society is, of course, a travesty of God who, by definition, transcends all.

8. For those who are comfortable with the image of God as Father, there is no reason to change. But there are many people – not only a great number women but also many Natives, for instance – who associate paternity with oppression and for whom the concept of a male God is repugnant. It is surely of benefit to all to realise that we are incapable of describing God except by analogy. If we limit the analogy to one gender, we implicitly limit the limitlessness of God.

9. We find feminine God images in the works of Hildegard von Bingen, Elisabeth von Schönau, Bernard de Clairvaux, and Anselm of Canterbury. For an early study, see André Cabassut, “Une dévotion médiévale peu connue – la dévotion à Jesus notre mère” Revue d’ascétique et de mystique 25 (1949) 234–245 which has been reprinted in an English translation as “A Mediaeval Devotion to Jesus our Mother” Cistercian Studies 21(1986): 345–355. See the more comprehensive work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

10. The image of the jealous God who demands sole claim of Gertrud is repeated in L. I, xvi, 5, 7ff.

11. The image goes back to the Physiologus, a work which originated in second-century Alexandria and which became very popular in the Middle Ages and was extant in three German versions dating from the eleventh and twelfth century (cf. Wiener Prosafassung XX, 2ff.): “The Pelican is a bird which lives in the solitude of the River Nile, whence it takes its name. … The Pelican is excessively devoted to its children. But when these have been born and begin to grow up, they flap their parents in the face with their wings, and the parents, striking back, kill them. Three days afterward the mother pierces her breast, opens her side, and lays herself across her young, pouring out her blood over the dead bodies. This brings them to life again” (The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts , tr. T.H. White (1954; rpt. New York: Putnam’s, 1960): p. 132).

12. The Sacred Heart devotion is first mentioned in the life of Lutgard of Aywières: see Vita Lutgardis 1, 14.

13. See Bynum, Jesus as Mother, 191ff. and Hugo Rahner, “Grundzüge einer Geschichte der Herz-Jesu-Verehrung” Zeitschrift für Askese und Mystik 18(1943): 61–83.

14. A beautiful example of the victorious Christ on the cross is given in the so-called Gero-Kreuz in the cathedral of Cologne, a Romanesque crucifix that stems from the tenth century.

15. See Bynum and Finnegan and their similar findings for the Helfta women in general.

16. See Pierre Doyère, “Succès posthume” in Œuvres spirituelles (SC 127): pp. 14–38 and in an article that attempts to fill the gaps in Doyère’s survey: GJ.L., “Zur Rezeption des Werkes Gertruds von Helfta,” in Kontroversen, alte und neue 6 (Gottingen: Niemeyer 1986): pp. 3–10.

17. Dictionnaire de spiritualité 6 (1967): 334.

18 The passage that Bynurn quotes does not necessarily translate as “weak woman” (p. 207), even though the French text also translates it as “faiblesse,” for the Latin word tenera with which Gertrud refers to herself rather suggests “tender, soft.”

19. The Christ-St. John topos was much favoured both in mediaeval literature and art. While its artistic representation can be found in relatively early manuscript illuminations, it was not until the late Middle Ages that it is found in sculpture. There are still quite a number extant today.

20. The image of the corpus mysticum is frequently found in Gertrud’s writings, but usually in reference to the Church (e.g. L. III, xvii, 3, 13ff.).

21 See also Doyère Œuvres spirituelles (SC 127), p. 208, n. 7.

22. Doyère’s comments at this point state the official position of the Church in view of the mystic’s claim to priesthood: “Il ne s’agit pas d’un rôle sacramental, mais de grâces de lumière et de persuasion pour mettre au point dans des consciences timorées les problèmes de la culpabilité et du pardon …” (Œuvres spirituelles (SC 139), pp. 310f., n. 1). The history of the sacrament of confession, however, shows that at the time of Gertrud von Helfta, there was still great uncertainty as to whether a priest was the only one authorised to administer this sacrament. In the chapter “Prolonged Struggle to Suppress Confession to Laymen” of A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church (Philadelphia: Lea, 1896), Henry Charles Lea explains how the opinion in the Church of the high Middle Ages varied from one authority to the next (v. 1, pp. 217–226). For instance, he quotes Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200–1280) as stating that “confession to laymen is valid, if it is not motivated by contempt of religion, and in case of necessity laymen and even women have authority from God to grant absolution” (p. 222, quoting Alberti Magni in IV. Sent. Dist. xvii, Art. lviii) [Italics mine].

23. See Bynum, “Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century” Women Studies 11 (1984) 179–214 and Karl Boeckl, Die Eucharistie!ehre der deutschen Mystiker des Mittelalters (Freiburg i.B.: Herder 1924): pp. 58–66.

24. For further treatments of this topic see also Lillian Thomas Shank, “The Christmas Mystery in Gertrud of Helfta” Cistercian Studies 24 (1989): 324–337, esp. pp. 336f. and G.J. Lewis, “Libertas cordis: The Concept of Inner Freedom in Saint Gertrud the Great of Helfta” Cistercian Studies 25 (1990): 65–74.

25. Gertrud’s jubilus passage has been published separately in Vox Benedictina 1 (1984): 237–247.

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