Gertrude was born on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256. At the age of four, she entered the monastery school at the monastery of St. Mary at Helfta, where she was confided to the care of St. Mechtilde, and joined the monastic community in 1266.
At the age of twenty-five, she experienced the first of a series of visions that continued throughout her life, and which changed the course of her life. Her priorities shifted away from secular knowledge and toward the study of Scripture and theology. Gertrude devoted herself strongly to personal prayer and meditation, and began writing spiritual treatises for the benefit of her monastic sisters. Gertrude became one of the great mystics of the 13th century. Together with her friend and teacher St. Mechtild, she practiced a spirituality called “nuptial mysticism,” that is, she came to see herself as the bride of Christ.
Gertrude produced numerous writings, though only some survive today. The longest survival is known in English today as The Herald of Divine Love or The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness, partly written by other nuns. There also remains her collection of Spiritual Exercises. A work known as Gertrudian Prayers is a later compilation, made up partly of extracts from the writings of Gertrude and partly of prayers composed in her style.
One of the most esteemed woman saints of the Christian West, she was a notable early devotee of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Book 2 of the Herald of Divine Love is notable within the history of Christian devotion because its vivid descriptions of Gertrude’s visions show a considerable elaboration on the long-standing but ill-defined veneration of Christ’s heart. This veneration was present in the belief that Christ’s heart poured forth a redemptive fountain through the wound in His side; an image culminating in its most famous articulation by St Bernard in his commentary on the Song of Songs. The women of Helfta—Gertrude foremost, who surely knew Bernard’s commentary, and to a somewhat lesser extent the two Mechthilds – Mechthild of Magdeburg and Mechthild of Hackeborn — made this devotion central to their mystical visions. Saint Gertrude had a vision on the feast of John the Evangelist. She was resting her head near the wound in the Savior’s side and hearing the beating of the Divine Heart. She asked Saint John if on the night of the Last Supper, he had felt these pulsations, why he had never spoken of the fact. Saint John replied that this revelation had been reserved for subsequent ages when the world, having grown cold, would have need of it to rekindle its love.
On this day, lift before God:
- those who are orphaned.
- all who experience visions and visual disturbances.
- all mystics and those who find their work inspiring.
- all who pray for those who have died and all who are grieving.