What does it mean to be great? If we think of those historical figures that we have graced with the suffix “Great,” what comes to mind? They are mostly rulers and conquerors. Think Alexander the Great, Charlemagne (French for “Charles the Great”), Peter the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and the list goes on.
What about within the Church? The most commonly known are Popes—Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, and now John Paul the Great—who steered the Church through troubled times and left a legacy of teaching. There is, of course, a scholar in these ranks, Albertus Magnus, which indicates the importance of the medieval scholastic synthesis achieved by the Dominicans, by both Albert and his pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Looking at this list, some commonalities emerge. The title of greatness is given to those achieve a measure of success in expanding civilization and stabilizing society, and its equivalent in the Church. Also, largely, there are no women. There is of course the secular exception of Catherine the Great of Russia. The Church has a single woman in the ranks of the great: St. Gertrude the Great (1236-1302).
This is surprising for a number of reasons. Unlike Catherine the Great, St. Gertrude does not fit the model of measurable success, in society or the Church, as she did not alter the course of worldly or ecclesiastic affairs. She also is not widely known, even within the Church. Her life is simple by all accounts. She was raised at the Benedictine monastery of Hefta in Germany by Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn and her sister, the mystic St. Mechtilde, received an excellent education there, and spent her days in peace at Hefta (it is now generally accepted that the lives of these two Gertrudes have been somewhat conflated, such as attributing to Gertrude the Great the role of abbess). Why then does she occupy the place of the sole woman to be called great within the Church?
Praise for Gertrude can be found from the highest source. In the accounts of Gertrude’s life, Jesus Himself is reported to have provided testimony of her greatness: “I have borne [Gertrude] in my arms from her infancy … and she, by her own free choice and will, has given herself to Me entirely and forever. As a recompense for the perfection of her desires, I, in return, have given Myself entirely to her.” And further: “There is no creature on earth so dear to Me as Gertrude, because there is no one at this present time amongst mankind who is so closely united to Me by purity of intention and uprightness of will…. You can find Me in no place where I delight more, or which is more suitable to Me, than in the Sacrament of the Altar, and after that, in the heart and soul of Gertrude, My beloved.” Remember that Gertrude lived in the thirteenth century, a time of many great saints!
In Herald of Divine Love, translated and adapted with the title The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the Great, Gertrude also provides us with her own insight into the great work Jesus was doing in her soul:
How powerfully and exuberantly are the most delicious torrents of Thy most sweet Divinity pouring themselves forth on me, vile worm that I am, crawling in my negligences and sins, since it is permitted to me … to speak, according to my poor capacity, of the ravishing sweetness and inconceivable delights by means of which those who unite themselves to God become one spirit with Him.
Though the account mentions that Jesus kept her in His arms from infancy, Gertrude realized that her liberal education led to some vanity and she experienced a major turning point at the age of 25. This “conversion” destroyed her “vainglory and curiosity” and instilled in her a profound humility, desiring “ardently that nothing shall ever be attributed to her,” a “generosity of heart” more pleasing to Christ than all else, and a deep union with Christ so that she never turned her eyes from Him. That moment began her extraordinary visions of Christ, which were confirmed by revelations about Gertrude to St. Mechtilde. Like many other mystics, she also suffered a series of trying illnesses, which furthered her humility and abandonment.
Many saints have been highly influenced by Gertrude, which in turn gives us more insight into her greatness. She became a model and guide for St. Teresa of Avila and many other Discalced Carmelites, especially in France, who sought to imitate her abiding communion with Christ. Her prayers, in particular, have left a lasting imprint on the Catholic tradition. St. Philip Neri, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Alphonsus Liguori all used them and taught them to others. One of her prayers, an act of oblation, takes us to the center of her spirituality:
Accept, O compassionate Jesus, this my prayer with that exceeding love wherewith Thou didst endure a bitter Death, and didst offer it, together with all the fruit of Thy most sacred Humanity, to God the Father on the day of Thine Ascension; and by the depth of those Wounds which scarred Thy Flesh and pierced Thy hands and feet and Heart, I beseech Thee, raise me up, who am steeped and sunk in sin, and render me well-pleasing to Thee in all things. Amen.
Gertrude’s revelations and prayers show how actively the humanity of Christ continues to intercede for us to the Father and how we should share in that through our prayers. Her prayer for the souls in purgatory is also quite well known, which links her focus on oblation to her love for the holy souls.
Fr. Frederick William Faber, a friend of Bl. Newman, drew upon her writing extensively in his book, All for Jesus, holding her up as a spiritual model for us in the modern world. I will let Fr. Faber provide us with a beautiful summary of her spirituality:
The spirit of St. Gertrude was so eminently a spirit of oblation and of familiarity… I will now mention some of her methods. Sometimes she offered her actions in union with the mutual love of the Three Divine Persons of the Adorable Trinity. Sometimes she offered the pains and tears of Jesus for the negligences of her actions. Sometimes she made her oblation in union with the efficacious prayer of Jesus, and in the virtue of the Holy Ghost, for the emendation of her sins and the supply of her omissions…. In union with her thanksgiving she offered back to God what He had given, and using the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a sweet-thrilling organ, she sounded it in the virtue of the Paraclete, and accompanying it with her songs, she sang to God praises on behalf of all the creatures in heaven, on earth, and beneath the earth, which have been, are, or ever shall be.
The great Benedictine reformer, Ven. Dom Guéranger of Solesmes, recognized in her a Benedictine genius, saying that “she drank in light and life day by day from the sources of all true contemplation, from the very foundation of living waters which gushes forth from the psalms and inspired words of the divine Office” (“Introduction” to Gertrude’s Spiritual Exercises). It is precisely in and through the words of the liturgy that Jesus predominately spoke to her. Consequently, Gertrude provides a model for how to keep the Church’s feasts and to venerate the saints.
Guéranger also comes closest to specifically answering the question of Gertrude’s greatness. Her “wonderful influence,” he said, which she “exercises over all who listen to her” is found in “her surpassing holiness…. A blessed soul, sent down from heaven to dwell awhile with men, and speaking the language of the heavenly country in this land of exile, would, doubles, utterly transform those who heard its speech” (ibid.). According to Guéranger, Gertrude’s greatness consists precisely in her outstanding holiness, her modeling of the heavenly life to us during her life on earth!
Gertrude’s greatness can be found in the fact that her mysticism serves as an outward expression of the essence of the Christian life, what should be happening under the surface in each of our lives. Her spiritual greatness shows us the meaning of greatness: not in doing great earthly deeds, but allowing oneself to be subsumed into the life of Christ. Living at the height of Christian culture in the thirteenth century, she witnesses that greatness does not consist in the exterior expansion of civilization. Greatness is not found merely in buildings, even if as magnificent as the Gothic cathedrals; not merely in learning, even if as sublime as scholasticism; not in warfare, even if conducted by saints; greatness is holiness and must inspire all else that we do. As Jesus is said to have testified of her: “She has one desire: to know the good pleasure of My Heart…. Her whole life is an unbroken chain of praise consecrated to My honor and glory.” Gertrude realized that she must make her life an oblation, uniting it to Christ’s sacrifice to the Holy Trinity, and, as the “Herald of Divine Love,” she invites us to do the same.