By Ella Johnson
SAU Theological Perspective
When it was time to pick a patron saint, during my junior high confirmation class, I remember dusting off my parents’ copy of “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” and being a bit frustrated when I paged through it. Out of all of the fascinating stories I read in the book, only a few were about women. I ended up choosing Clare of Assisi. I wish it were because I admired her virtues or the fact that she was the first woman to write a Rule for a religious community, but it was probably because I liked the sound of her name.
About 10 years later, when I was in graduate school, I faced again the problem of choosing a female saint from a pool comparatively smaller than the one comprised of male saints. I sat before my doctoral supervisory committee and expressed my desire to recover the theological contributions of a medieval woman mystic, but had no idea on whom to focus. After hearing my interests in the relationship between the body and the soul and the sacraments, my advisor suggested the 13th century medieval mystic, Gertrude the Great.
I began to read about Gertrude and was hooked. I learned that she arrived at a monastery in Helfta, Saxony (modern-day Germany), as a 5-year-old. The reason for her arrival is unknown; she may have been an orphan or given as a kind of “tithe” to God by her parents, a fairly common occurrence in her day. Whatever the case, Gertrude excelled in the monastery’s school. The abbess had an expressed desire that women should learn about the liberal arts; this was something typically available only to men. However, the abbess argued that a solid education should be available for women, too, because it leads to a stronger understanding of Scripture and God’s creation. She not only wanted her nuns to receive an education in the liberal arts, but also other girls outside the convent. Young Gertrude was apparently the sharpest student the nuns had encountered; she had a love for books that surpassed anyone else they had seen.
In her adolescence, Gertrude’s love of books led her to take vows and join the convent. She reveals, in her autobiography, that she wasn’t all that interested in becoming a nun. She joined because she didn’t want to lose access to the monastery’s library (a priceless treasure in the Middle Ages). She states that during that time in her life she paid as much attention to spiritual devotion as she did to the soles of her feet! Then she had a conversion, at the age of 26, stimulated by Jesus appearing to her in a vision, leading her closer to him. After that encounter, she says, her love of learning transformed into a love of God. Whereas she used to give all of her attention to literature, she began to devote herself to Scripture. She became known as a grammarian who turned into a theologian. She also continued to have visions of Jesus, specifically of his sacred heart, especially when she received the Eucharist.
Gertrude wrote several works, only two of which survived: 1) a five-volume visionary book, “The Herald of God’s Loving Kindness”; and 2) a book of seven liturgically based “Spiritual Exercises.” In both of these books, Gertrude teaches about how God is remarkably accessible, to not only her, but to anyone who receives the Eucharist.
Gertrude writes about how the Eucharist offers a kind of re-incarnation of the Word made flesh to each communicant. In receiving the host, one encounters Christ, both fully human and fully divine. The Eucharist is, therefore, the paramount opportunity for the human person in this life to achieve union with God.
As Gertrude articulates it, when our bodies make physical contact with Christ’s humanity in the eucharistic host, our souls make spiritual contact with his divinity, concomitantly. Of course, this belief is based on the traditional doctrine of real presence, or in Gertrude’s words, of how the “fullness of the divine dwells bodily” in the sacred host.
For example, she writes a prayer in her Spiritual Exercises for “receiving communion of the life-giving body and the blood of the spotless Lamb, Jesus Christ.” The prayer petitions Jesus: “let your pleasant embodiment be for me today … eternal salvation … and the enclosing of my life … in you.” For Gertrude, when Christ incorporates the recipient of Communion into his humanity, by way of his “pleasant embodiment” in the host, the recipient is enclosed in his divinity.
I’ve been captivated by Gertrude’s confidence in how radically accessible physical and spiritual union is with God. It is not only for mystics or those who have already entered into heaven, but for everyone who receives the Eucharist, in the body, in the here and now. I think the only way I could be more excited about Gertrude’s theology, is if I had heard about it before graduate school.
(Ella Johnson has published her research on Gertrude’s eucharistic theology in her book: “This is My Body: Eucharistic Theology and Anthropology in the Writings of Gertrude the Great of Helfta,” Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2020).