Benedictine and mystic writer; born in Germany, 6 Jan., 1256; died at Helfta, near Eisleben, Saxony, 17 November, 1301 or 1302. Nothing is known of her family, not even the name of her parents. It is clear from her life (Legatus, lib. I, xvi) that she was not born in the neighbourhood of Eisleben. When she was but five years of age she entered the alumnate of Helfta. The monastery was at that time governed by the saintly and enlightened Abbess Gertrude of Hackerborn, under whose rule it prospered exceedingly, both in monastic observance and in that intellectual activity which St.Lioba and her Anglo-Saxon nuns had transmitted to their foundations in Germany. All that could aid to sanctity, or favour contemplation and learning, was to be found in this hallowed spot. Here, too, as to the centre of all activity and impetus of its life, the work of works-the Opus Dei, as St. Benedict terms the Divine Office - was solemnly carried out. Such was Helfta when its portals opened to receive the child destined to be its brightest glory. Gertrude was confided to the care of St. Mechtilde, mistress of the alumnate and sister of the Abbess Gertrude. From the first she had the gift of winning the hearts, and her biographer gives many details of her exceptional charms, which matured with advancing years. Thus early had been formedbetwen Gertrude and Mechtilde the bond of an intimacy which deepened and strengthened with time, and gave the latter saint a prepondering influence over the former.
Partly in the alumnate, partly in the community, Gertrude had devoted herself to study with the greatest ardour. In her twenty-sixth year there was granted her the first of that series of visions of which the wonderful sequence ended only with life. She now gauged in its fullest extent the void of which she had been keenly sensible for some time past, and with this awakening came the realization of the utter emptiness of all transitory things. With characteristic ardour she cultivated the highest spirituality, and, to quote her biographer, "from being a grammarian became a theologian", abandoning profane studies for the Scriptures, patristic writings, and treatises on theology. To these she brought the same earnestness which had characterized her former studies, and with indefatigable zeal copied, translated, and wrote for the spiritual benefit of others. Although Gertrude vehemently condemns herself for past negligence (Legatus, II, ii), still to understand her words correctly we must remember that they express the indignant self-condemnation of a soul called to the highest sanctity. Doubtless her inordinate love of study had proved a hindrance alike to contemplation and interior recollection, yet it had none the less surely safeguarded her from more serious and grievous failings. Her struggle lay in the conquest of a sensitive and impetuousnature. In St. Gertrude's life there are no abrupt phases, no sudden conversion from sin to holiness. She passed from alumnate to the community. Outwardly her life was that of the simple Benedictine nun, of which she stands forth preeminently as the type. Her boundless charity embraced rich and poor, learned and simple, the monarch on his throne and the peasant in the field; it was manifested in tender sympathy towards the souls in purgatory, in a great yearning for the perfection of souls consecrated to God. Her humility was so profound that she wondered how the earth could support so sinful a creature as herself. Her raptures were frequent and so absorbed her faculties as to render her insensible to what passed around her. She therefore begged, for the sake of others, that there might be no outward manifestations of thespiritual wonders with which her life was filled. She had the gift of miracles as well as that of prophecy.
When the call came for her spirit to leave the worn and pain-stricken body, Gertude was in her forty-fifth or forty-sixth year, and in turn assisted at the death-bed and mourned for the loss of the holy Sister Mechtilde (1281), her illustrious Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn (1291), and her chosen guide and confidante, St. Mechtilde (1298). When the community was transferred in 1346 to the monastery of New Helfta, the present Trud-Kloster, within the walls of Eisleben, they still retained possession of their old home, where doubtless the bodies of St. Gertrude and St. Mechtilde still buried, though their place of sepulture remains unknown. There is, at least, no record of their translation. Old Helfta is now crown-property, while New Helfta has lately passed into the hands of the local municipality. It was not till 1677 that the name ofGertrude was inscribed in the Roman Martyrology and her feast was extended to the universal church, which now keeps it on 15 November, although it was at first fixed on 17 November, the day of her death, on which it is still celebrated by her own order. In compliance with apetition from the King of Spain she was declared Patroness of the West Indies; in Peru her feast is celebrated with great pomp, and in New Mexico a town was built in her honour and bears her name. Some writers of recent times have considered that St. Gertrude was a Cistercian, but a careful and impartial examination of the evidence at present available does not justify this conclusion. It is well known that the Cistercian Reform left its mark on many houses not affiliated to the order, and the fact that Helfta was founded during the "golden age" of Cîteaux (1134-1342) is sufficient to account for this impression.
Many of the writings of St. Gertrude have unfortunately perished. Those now extant are:
* The "Legatus Divinae Pietatis", * The "Exercises of St. Gertrude"; * The "Liber Specialis Gratiae" of St. Mechtilde.
The works of St. Gertrude were all written in Latin, which she used with facility and grace. The "Legatus Divinae Pietatis" (Herald of Divine Love) comprises five books containing the life of St. Gertrude, and recording many of the favours granted her by God. Book II alone is the work of the saint, the rest being compiled by members of the Helfta community. They were written for her Sisters in religion, and we feel she has here a free hand unhampered by the deep humility which made it so repugnant for her to disclose favours personal to herself. The "Exercises", which are seven in number, embrace the work of the reception of baptismal grace to the preparation for death. Her glowing language deeply impregnated with the liturgy and scriptures exalts the soul imperceptibly to the heights of contemplation. When the "Legatus Divinae Pietatis" is compared with the "Liber Specialis Gratiae" of St. Mechtilde, it is evident that Gertrude is the chief, if not the only, author of the latter book. Her writings are also coloured by the glowing richness of that Teutonic genius which found its most congenial expression insymbolism and allegory. The spirit of St. Gertrude, which is marked by freedom, breadth, and vigour, is based on the Rule of St. Benedict. Her mysticism is that of all the great contemplative workers of the Benedictine Order from St. Gregory to Blosius. Hers, in a word, is that ancient Benedictine spirituality which Father Faber has so well depicted (All for Jesus, viii).
The characteristic of St. Gertrude's piety is her devotion to the Sacred Heart, the symbol of that immense charity which urged the Word to take flesh, to institute the Holy Eucharist, to take on Himself our sins, and, dying on the Cross, to offer Himself as a victim and a sacrifice to the Eternal Father (Congregation of Rites, 3 April, 1825). Faithful to the mission entrusted to them, the superiors of Helfta appointed renowned theologians, chosen from the Dominican and Franciscan friars, to examine the works of the saint. These approved and commented them throughout. In the sixteenth century Lanspergius and Blosius propagated her writings. The former, who with his confrere Loher spared no pains in editing her works, also wrote a preface to them. The writings were warmly received especially in Spain, and among the long list of holy and learned authorities who used and recommended her works may be mentioned :
* St. Teresa, who chose her as her model and guide, * Yepez, * the illustrious Francisco Suárez, * the Discalced Carmelite Friars of France, * St. Francis de Sales, * M. Oliver, * Fr. Faber, * Dom Guéranger.
The Church has inserted the name of Gertrude in the Roman Martyrology with this eulogy: "On the 17th of November, in Germany (the Feast) of St. Gertrude Virgin, of the Order of St. Benedict, who was illustrious for the gift of revelations."
An Unpublished Manuscript On Purgatory
At the expressed desire of the Directors of the Bulletin "Notre de la Bonne Mort", this pamphlet is published with all the reservations ordered by the Church in the decree of Urban V111, and as a purely historical document.
It was sent to that periodical by a zealous and devout missionary and is a pious document based on alleged conversations between a nun and a soul in Purgatory.
No one can deny off-hand the possibility, or in fact, the reality of such apparitions of souls in Purgatory to persons still living. Such apparitions are not rare and there are many accounts of them. They are of frequent occurrence in the lives of the Saints. We will quote only one example from the life of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, she says:"When I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament on the Feast of Corpus Christi, a person enveloped in fire suddenly stood before me. From the pitable state the soul was in, I knew it was in Purgatory and I wept bitterly. This soul told me it was that of a Benedictine, who has once heard my confession and ordered me to go to Holy Communion. As a reward for this, God permitted him to ask me to help him in his sufferings.
"He asked me to apply to him all I should do or suffer for a period of three months. Having obtained my superior's leave I did what he asked. He told me that the greatest cause of his sufferings was that in life her preferred his own interests to those of God, in that he had been too attached to his good reputation. His second defect was lack of charity to his brethren. The third was all his too natural attachment to creatures. It would be difficult for me to describe what I had to endure during those three months. He never left me and seeing him, as it were on fire and in such terrible pain, I could do nothing but groan and weep almost incessantly. My superior, being touched with compassion, told me to do hard penances, particularly to take the discipline..... After the three months I saw the soul radiant with happiness, joy, and glory. He was about to enjoy eternal happiness, and in thanking me he said he would protect me when with God."
The testimony of theologians and of historical documents are not less numerous or convincing, but let it suffice for us to mention Canon Ribet's Divine Mysticism, (Vol 11, Ch. V111) and the other outstanding works of this matter of mystical theology.
God allows these apparitions and manifestations both for the relief of the souls in question who thus arouse our pity, and to instruct us by showing us the rigor of divine justice when it comes to faults which we often treat lightly. An account of several apparitions published by Msgr. Palafox y Mendosa Bishop of Osma in Spain, bears the significant title of Light for the Living through the Experiences of the Dead. We can hardly find better expression or vindications for such manifestations of divine providence. We must always remember that these accounts of manifestations have only a human authority. Our Holy Mother the Church has not made any pronouncement regarding them. They are treated only as historical documents.
Background of The Manuscript
The manuscript contains very interesting statements about the life beyond the grave, particularly about Purgatory. The details are intermingled with much spiritual direction. Its authenticity is beyond doubt.
A nun, identified for us merely as Sister M. de L., C., of a convent at V., without warning began to hear prolonged sighs beside her. This was in November 1873. She cried out, "Oh, who are you, you frightened me. Whatever you do, don't show yourself. Tell me who you are?" No answer was forth coming. The sighs continued and even came nearer. In vain did the poor Sister multiply her prayers, communions, ways of the Cross, and rosaries. The sighs did not cease and remained unexplained until February 15, 1874, when a voice she recognized was heard saying "Do not be afraid, you will not see me in my sufferings. I am Sister M. G." Sister M.G. was a nun who had died at V., a victim to devotion and duty, February 22, 1871, at the age of 36.
The suffering soul then told her former companion whose advice she had often despised whose advice she had often despised, that she would come frequently in order to sanctify herself. The plan of God was that Sister M. L. C., by her holy life should relieve and ultermately deliver her, who in years past, had tried her patience so sorely. The answer did not lesson the fears of Sister M. de L. C., who requested her visitor to depart and never again. But it was useless. She was told that she had only to bear it as long as God willed it. This was just what she dreaded. For several years the mysterious relation continued between the living nun and the departed religious. It was Sister M. de L, C., herself, who related these events from 1874 to 1890, in the manuscript which is here given to the public.
Character Of The Author Of This Manuscript
This is a testimonial about Sister M. de. C., herself. All those who knew her were unanimous in declaring that she practiced all the religious virtues, even heroically. As director of a boarding school, she exercised a really supernatural influence over her pupils, who spoke of her as a saint. They said that not only her words but all of her actions impressed them more than those of any priest of their acquaintance could have done. They still live under the influence of her inspiration. Let us add that all the witnesses of her life were agreed that Sister M. de L. C. was endowed with a sound judgement, a keen and cultured intellect, and possessed of a great amount of common sense. In the spiritual life, she never sought the extradinary. On the contrary, she avoided it.
The manuscript shows that to the very end she had doubts about what she was obligated to listen to. She often thought it was the work of the devil. It greatly annoyed her to depart from the common way of life. She wanted to be like the rest and attract no special attention. Though she was averse to the visits she received, she profited greatly by them for her own spiritual progress. Her notes of her retreats are a sufficient evidence of this. Those who saw her life and witnessed her actions are also convinced of this.
Authority Of the Witness
In the first place it is certain that Sister M. de L.C., kept her director well informed of all that happened. He was the Reverend Father Prevel of the Fathers of Pontingy, who later became General of his congregation. The Sister's own note book shows how well she profited by her interviews with her director. A letter from him, dated November 4, 1912, sent from Hitchen, England, after a long period of separation shows us that he was well informed on all the conversations of Sister M. de L. C. with her former companion. He writes: "Tell me about your dear suffering one, who must now be long since enjoying the glory of her Beloved. Has she abandoned you? Or does she console you in your sorrows? Have you continued writing down what she says? For my part, I have kept most carefully your former notes and have re-read them many times." Clearly Father Prevel accepted the communications seriously, and we can rest assured that he had sufficent evidence for doing so.
Besides this important evidence of her director, we are fortunate in having the opinions of theologians of note, such as Canon Dubosq, superior of the Seminary of Bayeux and Promotor Fidei in the canonical process of the beatification and canonization of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, also Canon Gontier, diocesan Censor Librorum.
After examining the Manuscript carefully, these prominent priests have declared without hesitation that is contains nothing contrary to Faith, nothing that is not in accord with the true principles of the spiritual life, rather matter that will edify devout souls. They testify that Sister M. de L. C., was endowed with sound judgement and common sense and thus was protected from going astray in vivid and harmful imaginations. They were pleased at the evidence that she had done all in her power to avoid the visits, and that she protested against them, even thinking them punishment sent from Heaven. She regarded the facts so strange that she did not know what to believe about them. Frequently she chided the visitor, so that she could not have imagined or invented the manifestations imposed upon her.
They were above all impressed by the great lesson of Christian charity which was manifest during the whole period of the apparations. On the one hand Sister M. G., in her earthly life at the convent had caused Sister M de L.C., her spiritual guide, great suffering by her want of religious spirit and deportment. Yet it was to this very Sister that God ordered her to address herself after death, for deliverance from Purgatory. They noticed that the lights given to Sister M de L. C., became clearer and more distinct in proportion to Sister M. G's gradual purification. Finally they were impressed by the living Sister's great progress in the work of her sanctification. So remarkable was this that on reading the Manuscript Canon Dubosq said, "In publishing this Manuscript, as I heartily approve, you are anticipating a cause of beatification."
In a word all theologians who were consulted gave unanimous consent that Sister M de L.C's manuscript portrayed in itself proof of its authenticy, and therefore, it was of value because of both content and origin.
The Manuscript of Sister M. de L.C., which we will call for the sake of brevity, "The Manuscript of Purgatory", from a merely historical and human point of view seems entirely genuine and creditable.
The Directors of the magazine 'Notre Dame de la Bonne Mori' are happy to be able to publish so edifying and impressive a work. A voice reaching out to us beyond the grave makes known to us the justice and mercy of Purgatory, together with the instructions of a more perfect life of union with God, and will be helpful to many souls on their journey to eternity.
It is our hope that the Light made known to the living by the experience of the dead may be helpful to those seeking to lead a better life. It may even be to many of our readers a preparation for a happy death. (...)
THE TEXT OF THE MANUSCRIPT (Statements of Sister M. G.)
Our Mother Superior is in Heaven since the day of her death, thanks to her suffering and great charity.
If you were as perfect as God wishes you to be, He would be ready to bestow many graces upon you. God wants you to be holier than many others.
Father L____ is in Purgatory, because he was too fond of giving retreats and preaching in many places, instead of taking care of his parish.
If you make the intention, God will accept whatever you do, for all the souls in Purgatory, just as if applied to one particular soul.
I am the one who is suffering most at the present moment, since I was not true to my vocation.
Next to the Mass, the Way of the Cross is the best prayer. Observe the strict silence well, because I often violated it. I suffer more than Sister ___ because she was faithful to her vocation. Suffering, however, caused her to complain, as she was badly directed spiritually. I am not able to give a visible sign. God does not permit it. I am not worthy. Because I have annoyed you so much, God wants you to pray for me. You may also tell this to Sister ____ to whom I was great source of trouble and also to Mother Superior, as I made her suffer much. Poor Reverend Mother, if only she would have some Masses offered up for me. Say a few rosaries for me and make your meditations well. I never made any. Say your divine office well. I was much distracted during mine. Observe strict religious modesty everywhere since I never kept my eyes from seeing what I should not have seen.... Be obedient to Reverend Mother whom I annoyed so much....
If you could only know what I suffer! Pray for me, please. I suffer intensely everywhere. My God, how merciful You are! No one can imagine what Purgatory is like. Be kind and take pity on he poor souls.... Do not neglect the Way of the Cross. While on earth you will frequently suffer in body and soul, and often in both together.
It is so beautiful in Heaven. There is great distance between Purgatory and Heaven. We are privileged at times to catch a glimpse of the joys of the blessed in Paradise, but it is almost a punishment. It makes us yearn to see God. In Heaven, it is a pure delight; in Purgatory, profound darkness.
God loves you more than many others. Has He not frequently make it known to you?
Mother E____ is in Heaven because she has a hidden and very spiritual soul.
No, indeed I am not the devil; I am Sister M. G. and I will pray for you. Yes, I can pray even now and will do every day. You will then realize that the souls in Purgatory are not ungrateful. Those who are very guilty do not see the Blessed Virgin. It gives great joy to God when anyone is the cause of freeing a soul from Purgatory.
All you have read on this subject is true.
On Easter Sunday, I shall obtain a little relief.
If you watch carefully over yourself, God will bestow on you graces which He has never yet given to anyone else. You can offer up your office for many souls at once, if before you start the recitation, you make the intention for each soul in particular. Thus each will benefit as if you had offered it for him alone.
Purgatory is terrible for those religious who have caused trouble to their superiors. For them a special punishment is reserved similar to that which I am enduring.
March 24, 1874. Tomorrow, visit the Blessed Sacrament as often as you can. I shall accompany you. I will have the happiness of being near Our Lord. Yes, that relieves me.
March 25, 1874. I am now in the second Purgatory. Since my death, I have been in the first, where one endures such great suffering. We also suffer in the second, but not nearly as much as in the first. Always try to be a help to your superior. Do not speak often. Wait until you are questioned before you answer.
May 1874. I have been in the second Purgatory since the Feast of the Annunciation. On that day I saw the Blessed Virgin for the first time. In the first stage, we never saw her. The sight of her encourages us and this beloved Mother speaks to us of Heaven. While we see her, our sufferings are greatly diminished.
Oh, how I desire to go to Heaven! What a martyrdom we suffer once we have seen God!
What do I think? I think God permits this for your benefit and for my consolation. Listen well to what I am going to tell you. God has selected you for a special purpose. He wants you to save many souls by your advice and good example. If, by your conduct, you frustrate this, one day you will have to give an account for every soul that you could have saved. It is quite true that you are not worthy, but God permits it thus. He is the Master and distributes His graces to whomsoever He pleases.
You do well to pray to St. Michael and to urge others to do so. One is indeed happy at the hour of death when he has had confidence in some of the saints. They will be his protectors before God in that terrible moment.
God wants you to sacrifice yourself for Him without reserve. He loves you more than many others, hence He will give you many more graces.... Be careful not to lose any of the graces that He gives you. Live only for God. Try to procure His glory everywhere. What good you can do for souls! Do nothing except what pleases God. Before each action recollect yourself for a moment to be sure that what you are going to do will be pleasing to Him. All for Jesus. Love Him well.
Yes, I suffer very much, but my greatest torment is not seeing God. It is a continuous martyrdom. It makes me suffer more than does the fire of Purgatory. If later on you love God as He wants you to, you will experience a little of the pining, which makes one long to be united to the object of one's love, to Jesus.
Yes, we sometimes see St. Joseph, but not as often as we see the Blessed Virgin.
You must become indifferent to everything except what is for God. Thus you will reach the height of perfection to which Jesus calls you.
Mother I____ did not benefit by the Masses offered up.
Religious have no right to dispose of their goods. It is contrary to holy poverty.
If you say your prayers well, the souls confided to your care will be benefited by them. God never refuses graces which are asked of Him during prayers well said.
The Purgatory of religious is much longer and more rigorous than that of many people in the world, because religious abuse special graces. Many nuns are abandoned in Purgatory, by their own fault, of course, for nobody ever remembers them. Our deceased Reverend Mother has told me that God would be very pleased were the community to have a Mass said for them from time to time. Be sure to tell this to Mother Superior. God loves Reverend Mother very much. He gives her a heavy cross to prove His love for her.
No one can have a real understanding of the sufferings in Purgatory. No one thinks of them in the world. Even religious communities forget that they should pray for the poor souls and that they should inspire their pupils with this devotion. They in turn would bring this devotion to other people in the world.
Have no fear of fatigue when it is a question of serving God. Sacrifice everything for Him.
Obey Your Superior promptly. Let her turn and twist you as she wills. Be very humble. Abase yourself always even, if possible, down to the earth.
M____ is in Purgatory because by her underhand remarks she often nullified the good that the Superiors could have done.
Make it a practice to live in the presence of God with a pure intention. God seeks devoted souls who will love Him for His own sake. These are very few. He wants you to be one of His true friends. Many think they love God, but they love Him for their own sakes.
We do not see God in Purgatory. That would make it Heaven. When a soul seeks God, and out of pure love desires nothing else, He never lets that soul be deceived.
God often showers graces even where malice bounds. Why should you refuse them? Devote yourself to God. Sacrifice and immolate yourself for Him. You can never do enough for Him. It is only the overflow of our piety that we can pour out on others. Put aside all human respect, even with regard to older Sisters. Always say what is necessary if it be a case of upholding the Mother Superior. It is not His great friends that God uses to annoy and cause trouble and pain to others. Thank Him that you have not been doing this. It is better to be the anvil than the hammer. You must not grow lax in the matter of denying your body and soul, for as yet you have made but little reparation for your past. The contest for your crown is hardly begun.