St. Gertrude the Great was a German abbess, a mystic and an early adherent to the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She had many writings which still resonate nearly 700 years later about her struggle to reconcile her humanness with her role as a bride of Christ. Her title “the Great” was conferred by Pope Benedict XIV in the 17th century making her the only woman saint to be called “the Great”. This attribute refers to her prowess as a theologian and writer; and to distinguish her from Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn under whom Gertrude the Great lived and learned until succeeding her as abbess in about 1286.
St. Gertrude was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256 in Eisleben, Germany. Although not much is known about her parents, it is believed that they followed a common practice of those times, and gave Gertrude to God at age 5 taking her to a nearby Benedictine nunnery. It was here that young Gertrude received a formal education in Latin and sacred Literature. She also met her confidant and mentor St. Mechtilde (Matilda). Gertrude’s insights and leadership by example resulted in her becoming Abbess of Helfta at the young age of 30 – and she would lead the nunnery for another 40 years.
Gertrude was known to be incredibly smart and a quick study developing skills in not only Latin and literature, but also philosophy and the arts. She would later write that her intellectual successes came to be a distraction from more spiritual pursuits calling them a “tower of vanity and curiosity”. Her objectives became more focused on Christ and spirituality after the first of a series of mystical visions at the age of 25 which she believed started a new stage in her life, a “new birth”.
One of Gertrude’s visions occurred on the Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist. During this vision, St. Gertrude envisioned resting her head on the heart of Jesus and hearing the beating of His Sacred Heart. This vision may have influenced her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which she promoted in her teaching and writing.
St. Gertrude composed all of her written work in Latin, but most of the documents perished during the destruction of the Monastery of Helfta; however, these important works remain which provide valuable insights into lives even today:
The Legatus Divinae Pietatis (Herald of Divine Love) – consists of 5 Books about the life of St. Gertrude and descriptions of her visions and veneration of the Sacred Heart. It’s a collaborative work with Volume 2 written by St. Gertrude and the other 4 Volumes written by other nuns at the Abbey.
The Exercitia spiritualia (The Exercises) – 7 exercises to assist St. Gertrude and the other sisters at Helfta with daily prayers; and in the struggles of the human condition. Pope Benedict XVI called The Exercises a “rare jewel of mystical spiritual literature”.
St. Gertrude influenced countless followers and saints during her lifetime, and after her death via her writings – some of the most prominent Saints she touched include St. Teresa and St. Francis de Sales. She and her mentor St. Mechtilde were known for their practice of nuptial mysticism, i.e. mystical marriage that was described by St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross to designate that mystical union with God which is the most exalted condition attainable by the soul in this life.
St. Gertrude also continues to influence nuns across the world like those in the Federation of St. Gertrude. This series of monasteries in the northern U.S. and Canada have their history in the Benedictine abbeys of Europe. Read more about their work on their website referenced below.
St. Gertrude is known as the Patroness of the West Indies after a petition to the Holy See by King Philip IV of Spain. She is often called upon for intercession for the Souls in Purgatory. She died on November 17, 1302 (or 1301). Her Feast Day is celebrated on November 16th in the Roman Catholic Church.
St. Gertrude Prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
O Sacred Heart of Jesus,
fountain of eternal life,
Your Heart is a glowing furnace of Love.
You are my refuge and my sanctuary.
O my adorable and loving Savior,
consume my heart with the burning fire
with which Yours is inflamed.
Pour down on my soul those graces which flow from Your love.
Let my heart be united with Yours.
Let my will be conformed to Yours in all things.
May Your Will be the rule of all my desires and actions.
All websites were accessed on or about 11-16-2021 and are considered to be useful, reliable and secure, but users should view the websites at their own discretion. The author or the website https://www.churchwonders.com is not responsible for those sites’ code or content.
Butler, Alban Rev. The Lives of Saints: Complete Edition. New York. Catholic Way Publishing, 2015.
Bartholomew’s World – St. Gertrude the Great – https://bartholomew.stanford.edu/authors/gertrude.html
Casanova, Gertrude. “St. Gertrude the Great.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 16 Nov. 2021 – https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06534a.htm
Catholic.org – St. Gertrude the Great – https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=424
Daily-Prayers.org – Prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus –
EWTN – St. Gertrude the Great discussed in an General Audience by Pope Benedict XVI – https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/st-gertrude-the-great-20985
Federation of St. Gertrude – https://federationofstgertrude.org/saint-gertrude/
Cabrera, Miguel. St. Gertrude. 1763. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas. Public Domain.