SAINT GERTRUDE the GREAT (1256-1302)
Virgin, religious and mystic – Patron Saint of the West Indies
Saint Gertrude the Great, also known as Gertrude of Helfta, was one of the great mystics of the 13th century. She was born on January 6, 1256 in Germany. She eventually chose to follow the Lord by pursuing a vocation as a Benedictine Nun. Her deep relationship with the Lord in prayer led to her being hailed as a mystic. She was also regarded as a great theologian.
Although little is known about Gertrude’s childhood, it is widely accepted that at the young age of four, she was enrolled in the Cistercian monastery school of Helfta in Saxony (East Germany), under the governance of Abbess Gertrude of Hackerborn.
The Cistercian movement was an effort to bring the Benedictine religious community back to a stricter and more faithful adherence to the original “Rule” or way of life encouraged by Saint Benedict. Some sources speculate that Gertrude’s parents offered their child as an oblate, a lay person especially dedicated to God or to God’s service; while others believe she may have entered the monastery school as an orphan.
Gertrude devoted herself to her studies, and received an education in many different subjects. She was both fluent in Latin and very familiar with Scripture and the written works from the early Fathers of the Church, including Saint Augustine.
Together with her friend and teacher Saint Mechtilde, she practiced a spirituality called “nuptial mysticism”, that is, she came to see herself as the bride of Christ. Her spiritual life was a deep personal union with Jesus and his Sacred Heart, leading her into the very life of the Blessed Trinity.
In the year 1281, now 25 years old, Sister Gertrude experienced her first series of visions that would continue until the day she passed away. Her visions altered her life and she saw this moment as her new birth. Her priorities turned away from secular teachings, and she focused more on studying Sacred Scripture and theology. Her life became full with this inner awakening and she was an enthusiastic student, writing for the spiritual benefit of others.
Sister Gertrude once had a vision on the feast of John the Evangelist, which she described in her writings. As she rested her head near Jesus’ wound on His side, she could hear the beating of His Heart. Also, within her many writings, and according to tradition, she wrote down the words which our Lord Jesus had given her to be offered for the holy souls in Purgatory – a prayer which is to be prayed from the heart and which has become one of the most famous prayers for the suffering souls.
Our Lord told Sister Gertrude that when prayed with a true contemplation for the suffering which the souls must endure for their purification, one thousand souls would be released from purgatory each time the prayer is said devoutly. This prayer is offered to God even to this day by many of the faithful:
“Eternal Father, I offer You the Most Precious Blood
of Your 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.”
Throughout her lifetime, Sister Gertrude produced numerous writings, although only a few still exist today. One of her longest surviving works is Book 2 of The Herald of Divine Love. Her other standing works include her collection of spiritual exercises and her many prayers.
On November 17, 1302, Sister Gertrude passed from this life and joined her Eternal Bridegroom forever.
Although Saint Gertrude was never formally canonized, Rome approved a liturgical office of prayer and readings in her honor. To separate her from Abbess Gertrude of Hackerborn, Pope Benedict XIV gave her the title “the Great”, making her the only woman saint to bear this title.
Saint Gertrude’s life is another reminder that the heart of the Christian life is prayer – private and liturgical, ordinary or mystical, but always personal.
We commemorate her feastday on November 16.
(From catholicnewsagency.com, saints.sqpn.com, franciscanmedia.org, catholic.org/saints and newadvent.org)
(The following prayer is from the Collect of the Roman Missal for Saint Gertrude)
“O God, who prepared a delightful dwelling for Yourself in the heart of the Virgin Saint Gertrude, graciously bring light, through her intercession, to the darkness of our hearts, that we may joyfully experience You present and at work within us.
“Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”