The Life and Revelations of Saint Gertrude the Great The Life and Revelations of Saint Gertrude the Great

The Life and Revelations of Saint Gertrude the Great

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THERE is perhaps no Order in the Church which at once commands our admiration and wins our love like that of the great Order of St. Benedict. Even heresy has offered its poor meed of praise in attempting to transplant it to a foreign soil, and is fain to shelter its feeble imitation of religious life under the name of the great Patriarch of the West, claiming a patron in the Church, because none can be found outside its pale. It stands, like a primeval forest, by the great river Time— its roots extending deep and wide, and forming an unshaken barrier to the ever-surging waves: its branches extending far and high, and affording shelter and protection in the wildest storms.

Peace and strength are the essential characteristics of its Rule and its children; prayer and love, the source and the support of these, its most manifest glories. And of this spirit St. Gertrude is the perfect realization; aPax vobiscumis breathed into the soul in every revelation and in every action of that greatest of Saints. Her strength is the calm, beautiful strength of peace; for perfect peace alone can exist where the soul is stayed upon the Unchangeable, and thus can no longer be shaken by the transitory blasts which disturb the less perfect.

This work has been undertaken with feelings of no ordinary affection. There are few Orders in the Church which are not indebted in some degree to the Benedictine, but none more deeply than that of the poor one of Assisi, who found in the Benedictines his first and kindest supporters; and when his second Order was established, itwas they who gave a temporary home and a holy example to the gentle Clare de Scefi and her young sister Agnes. We can scarcely turn over a page in the history of the Friars Minors or the Poor Clares without finding how this kindness has been continued and increased. May this offering to the great Order of St. Benedict be accepted by his devoted children as a humble though a poor return for their unwearied love!

A recent review of theGertrudenbuch von P. Maurus Wolter, which is attributed to a Father of the Order, enters so fully into the peculiar merits and sanctity of St. Gertrude, that we cannot forbear an extract. Would that its eloquent and spiritual words had found a less ephemeral resting place than the pages in which it is inserted!

“St. Gertrude, in the most extensive sense, was a daughter of the cloister.Officiumandsacrificium, the Scriptures and the Liturgy, are the two wings by which pure souls fly to God in monastic life. The Missal and the Breviary are the two fountains of liturgical devotion from which they may draw the pure waters of life. These waters and those wings were well understood and appreciated in the Middle Ages; and in the sixty thousand convents which sent up praise to God,sicut incensum in conspectu ejus, during the lifetime of St. Gertrude, there was not one being who more fully grasped these two means of perfection, or turned them to greater advantage, than Our Saint. Through them she became thegrosse Aebtissinn; through them, directed by the tender, loving spirit of the Rule, she became the most perfect and striking exponent of thespiritof St. Benedict that can be found in the lives of the Saints of God.”

Nor is he less eloquent in speaking of the great restorations, or rather, we should say, advancements, of his Order; of St. Martin’s, consecrated once more to its ancient uses, where, by the piety of the widowed Princess Catherine of Hohenzollern, the children of St. Benedict, with the special blessing of the Holy See, are leadinglives of no ordinary fervor and devotedness, under the guidance of their holy Prior Dom Wolter; where the ancient and miraculous image of the Mother of Sorrows is venerated once more by thousands of devout pilgrims—and of Solesmes with its Abbot, whose European fame for learning is only equalled by his cloistral fame for sanctity; where “sixty God-praising monks chanted together the Gregorian choral song” in the curious old church of the monastery; “where joyful obedience, brotherly love and studious attention to the never-wanting guest are beautifully combined with, and enhanced by, genuine and ardent zeal for ecclesiastical discipline and authority, with a devotion to literature, and an anxiety for its advancement, which can hardly be surpassed.”

The history of the labors of Abbot Gueranger would almost require a volume. Perhaps his chiefest eternal fame, and his brightest reward, will be for the government of his monastery, the foundations he has effected and his persevering efforts, in the face of opposition which would have crushed any ordinary mind, in planting the Roman Liturgy in France, in place of that which at least bore a tincture of independence of the Holy See, and a trace of rationalism.

We read in the Book of Genesis that Adam and Eve heard “the voice of the Lord God walking in Paradise at the afternoon air.” And we can scarcely doubt, that hadthey preserved their original innocence, the Creator would have found His delight in conversing with the creature, and would have communicated Himself continually and familiarly to the beings to whom He had Himself given existence. Sin prevented the continuance of that which would have constituted man’s highest felicity; but where sin is subdued and banished from the soul by that all-victorious grace which has triumphed over man’s perverseness, and made his very fall an occasion of mercy, there we might reasonably hope and expect that such favors would again be renewed. The artist loves to gaze upon the creation of his genius; the poet, to muse upon the offspring of his fancy; the philosopher, to ponder on the discoveries of his intellect; the artificer, to admire the works of his hands; the mother finds her joy in the simple affections of her children; the bride, her only pleasure in the caresses of her bridegroom. Each loves with a special affection that which has emanated from his genius, or is so united to him by ties of consanguinity as to be a part of his being. And shall it be supposed that the great Father is less loving than His children; that He who has hidden some, chosen amongst many, to be His brides, will love them less, and find less pleasure in converse with them, than those in whom He has Himself implanted the deep and ardent feelings of earthly love?

We know how freely our Divine Lord conversed with His disciples when on earth; and we may find a remarkable similarity between this converse, as recorded in the holy Gospels, and that which we find in the Revelations of St. Gertrude. He instructed them by parables; and these parables were remarkable for their simplicity, and, if we may use the term, for their homeliness. The kingdom of Heaven is likened to a householder: where shall we find a more ordinary comparison? It is likened to leaven: what more familiar? It is described as a treasure hidden in a field: what more simple? And yet these ordinary, familiar and simple comparisons are explained in words as ordinary and simple. We shall find it so in the Revelations of this Saint; and even as the instructions given to the Apostles were not intended solely for themselves, so also our loving Master permits us to know and to be instructed by what He vouchsafed to communicate to one of His most blessed Saints.

After His Resurrection, we find no change in His manner of addressing His disciples, unless, indeed, there be a deeper tenderness in His words and actions. He is anxious that they should dine when wearied with their long night’s fruitless toil, and He Himself provides their meal; for when they come to land, they see “hot coals lying, and a fish laid thereon, and bread.” Ah! Who but Jesus would have had these “hot coals” ready, and provided not only necessary food, but even the luxury of fire? And so we find in the life of this dear Saint, that she also is invited many times to mystical repasts, wherein not her body, but her soul is fed, and not her soul only, but also the souls of all those who are privileged to read or hear of these mysterious banquets.

And yet in reading the lives of those Saints who have been favored with intimate communications from their Spouse, there are few persons who do not select, on the most arbitrary principles—or rather, on no principles whatsoever—certain circumstances which they consider improbable, and certain communications which they think unlikely or even unreasonable; and these they reject and condemn, while they believe and accept what seems to their judgment possible or true. But who shall limit the condescension of a God who has died of love? Who shall say He may condescend so far to His creatures, but no further? Who shall say He may communicate Himself in this fashion, but not in that? Who shall venture to lay down rules for the Spirit, which “breatheth where He will?” “Who among men is he that can know the counsel of God? Or who can think what the Will of God is? For the thoughts of mortal men are fearful, and our counsel uncertain. For the corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the earthly habitation presseth down the mind that museth upon many things. And hardly do we guess aright at things that are upon earth: and with labor do we find the things that are before us. But the things that are in Heaven, who shall search out? And who shall know Thy thought, except Thou give wisdom, and send Thy Holy Spirit from above?”

Nay, rather let us listen in reverent awe when God permits us the favor of hearing these blessed communications which He has been pleased to make to those whom He has admitted to this singular intimacy with Himself. If we are privileged to have patrons who hold high places at court, let us thankfully avail ourselves of their condescension in admitting us to the intimacy of the King, in allowing us the privilege of being sharers in His most hidden counsels, and of knowing, as only His beloved can, the secrets of His love. It is remarkable that those only whom God has favored with a more than ordinary intimacy have invariably been distinguished for simplicity. Whether it is that the Almighty wills to confound the wisdom of the wise, by admitting those whom they might contemn, to a share in His most signal favors, or whether it is that such are more peculiarly fitted to be recipients of His grace, we would not even conjecture; yet such appears to be the ordinary rule of spiritual life.

Perhaps few, if any, were so favored with the intimacy of Our Lord as the Saint of whom we write. His absence was an exceptional case, His presence her ordinary enjoyment. The whispers of His love were heard alike in the stillness of the night, in the psalmody of the choir, in the ordinary duties of religious life, and in the lessacceptable and more trying moments spent in converse with strangers. The Dove seemed ever whispering in her inmost soul; or rather, might we not say that she lay ever in the Wounded Heart of her Spouse—the true home of His beloved ones; and there what other speech could fall upon her listening ear save the accents of that voice, whose lowest murmur ravishes the very Seraphim in trance of ecstatic praise?

And when Jesus vouchsafes to speak as a friend to his friend—nay, rather, as a spouse to his bride—why should we be amazed that His converse should be of that familiar and tender nature which characterizes the human love which He has sanctioned, and which has become pure and holy since He, through His Church, has elevated it to the dignity of a Sacrament? Nay, long before this elevation and dignity was vouchsafed to human love, such intercourse—even in an inspired volume—is taken to typify that which exists between the soul and God.

The words, “My love, My dove, My beautiful one!” were addressed to the bride long before the Bridegroom had appeared as the Incarnate God. And why, when He has vouchsafed to become man, when He has participated in human griefs, and hallowed human affections—oh, why should His accents be less loving, or His voice sound less sweetly in the ear? When the day breaks, and the shadows pass away, shall we not also hear those accents, and behold that Face, and obtain some share in these favors, which even here are vouchsafed to more pure and saintly souls?

The Revelations of St. Gertrude indeed differ from, of rather are distinguished above, those of other Saints, in the familiarity and frequency of these heavenly communications. We shall not read of marvelous miracles, of ecstatic flights, of long-continued raptures, of prophetic announcements, though such events are recorded occasionally; the Saint—if we may be permitted the expression—lived at home with her Spouse; and hence her life was one continued and almost uninterrupted succession of the highest states of spiritual life.

Were an apology needed for the familiar terms in which this intercourse is described by herself in the one precious book in which she records these favors, or by others, in the continuation of the subject by one of her Religious, we might easily quote many passages, even from Scripture, where such expressions are used and therefore sanctioned. If it be objected that the frequent embraces of love which she received from her Spouse are too familiar a token of tenderness from a God to His creature, let us remember that He permitted Magdalen to kiss His feet, and the beloved Apostle to lie upon His bosom. Is He not still Man, and does not His Human Heart still love us with a human love? Why, then, may not the condescension which the Son of God practiced when on earth be continued by Him when in Heaven? Why, if He were pleased that His Feet should be kissed and anointed by a repentant sinner, should He not still accept the love of those who perform spiritually a devotion which they cannot perform corporally? And wherefore should we suppose that the Fountain of Love should be less loving than the poor little channels through which He permits the impetuous torrent of His charity to flow—channels which only serve to chill that spring which at its source has never ceased to burn?

If our love were purified—if we had no carnal taint in our affections—if the slimy trail of the serpent had not stained and darkened within us God’s most precious gift, that which He declares Himself to be—we should not so easily doubt or mislike these marvelous manifestations of His most marvelous charity. Why should not the virgin Gertrude rest in mystic rapture upon the bosom of Jesus, when Jesus Himself every day permits those who are incomparably less worthy to receive Himself within them?

But enough of this. Let us rather apologize for our own coldness in believing, than for God’s love in giving; and let us thank Him that He has found souls even upon earthwho will permit Him to love as He desires to love; who will, as far as creatures may, love as He asks to be loved.

“I wish men could be persuaded to study St. Gertrude more than they do,” was the exclamation of one whose own soul burned with no ordinary love. And why does he desire this? Because of her bright, free, joyous spirit; because she loved God so purely and so entirely, that the narrow mistrusts of those who love Him less never for an instant found place in her blessed soul. A loving heart will always be a thankful heart; and so the continual incense of thanksgiving which ascended from the heart of Gertrude before the Eternal Throne was but the fragrant aroma of the love which burned daily deeper and brighter within her.

30 October
Ravenio Books

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