She Sings Her Ode to the King

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November 16th
Saint Gertrude the Great, Virgin

Her Heart Overflows With a Goodly Theme

It is right and just that today we should sit at the feet of Saint Gertrude, that we should take time out to listen to her song, for “her heart overflows with a goodly theme as she sings her ode to the King” (cf. Ps 44:1). This humble Cistercian Benedictine of the 13th century is the only woman in the Church calendar to be honoured with the title “the Great.” Saint Gertrude the Great is a medieval woman with an astonishingly contemporary message.

O Taste and See

Saint Gertrude is a theologian in the patristic sense of the word: one who has tasted God and who communicates the taste of God and the taste for God to others. In this she is model for every priest, for the priest is called to be one who has tasted God and who communicates the taste of God and the taste for God to others. Gertrude’s soul was shaped by Sacred Scripture, by the Fathers of the Church and, more than anything else, by the daily experience of the monastic liturgy celebrated in choir. From the time of her arrival at the monastery of Helfta at the age of five, her life revolved around the Sacred Liturgy, the Church’s hourly, daily, weekly and yearly rhythm of prayer and praise.

Bride of the Word

Saint Gertrude was permeated with the Word of God. The Scriptures were her daily bread. The psalms were ever on her lips and in her heart. The Church’s sung prayer, expressed in the ancient chant, was like a deep-flowing river, irrigating her life and causing the seed of the Word to spring up, producing both flowers and fruit. Saint Gertrude developed an amazing theology touching on the sacraments of initiation, on eschatology, on the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption, on the Heart of Jesus, on the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in souls, on Our Lady and the saints, on the mystical ways of prayer and the contemplative experience of God.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Saint Gertrude’s theology is rooted in experience. This is the beauty of her contribution to our Catholic theological and mystical heritage. The focus of her contemplation was the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the pierced Heart out of which flowed blood and water (cf. Jn 19:34). Saint Gertrude was drawn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by the secret action of the Father, working in her soul through the Holy Ghost. “No one comes to me,” says the Lord Jesus, “unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44).

The Dove in the Cleft of the Rock

Like the dove who makes her nest in the cleft of the rock, so did Gertrude make her abode in the pierced Heart of the Saviour. Her intimacy with the Heart of Jesus defies description. Her prayer acquired a power so strong that it was said of her, that “the tongue of Gertrude had become the key of heaven” (Antiphon, Monastic Office).

Love Surpassing Knowledge

Saint Gertrude speaks of what she has known and savoured: the “love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:19). There is nothing dry or “heady” about her theology. On the contrary, her knowledge of God sings with tenderness. It burns with passion. It is fragrant with an unearthly sweetness and it glows with inner fire. As a consecrated virgin, Saint Gertrude lived out the bridal vocation of the Church in her own flesh. She allowed Christ to love her as Bridegroom. Her heart became one with His.

His Banner Over Me Was Love

Saint Gertrude is an example to all of us of what can happen when a soul allows herself to be loved unconditionally by the Heart of Christ. Hers was the direct knowledge of God by means of love: a love sustained by hope, a love exercised in faith. “He brought me to the banqueting house, and His banner over me was love” (Ct 2:4). The first reading for her feast was chosen for no other reason. It has to do with the experience of God in Christ.

I Found Him Whom My Soul Loves

The experience of the Father comes to us through the Son in the Holy Spirit. We experience the love of Christ by allowing Him to love us as the Bridegroom loves and cherishes the bride. “My soul clings to you, your right hand holds me fast” (Ps 62:9). Saint Gertrude yearned for Jesus Christ and He drew her to Himself. She clung to Him and He held her fast. She sought Him and He allowed Himself to be found by her, especially in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Divine Office. “I found Him whom my soul loves, I held Him, and would not let Him go” (Ct 3:4). Here again, Saint Gertrude speaks to every priest who, in the mystery of the Eucharist, finds Him whom his soul loves, holds Him, and does not let Him go.

Love Crucified

Saint Gertrude experienced a magnetic attraction to the pierced Heart of Jesus, not in a sentimental or doloristic way, but in a highly theological way. She was drawn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as to a door opening onto higher and deeper mysteries: “the breadth and the length, the height and the depth of the Father’s love” (cf. Eph 3:18), revealed in Love crucified and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Through the Heart of Jesus

Saint Gertrude was not drawn to the Heart of Jesus as much as through the Heart of Jesus, to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. Her prayer is essentially Trinitarian. Her whole being is oriented ad Patrem, and this because she is united to the Son, because she has entered through the pierced Heart of the Son as through an open door, oriented and carried as it were, by the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Every Detail A Contact With Christ

Saint Gertrude reminds us that the entire liturgy is Trinitarian: every detail, the smallest word or gesture in the sacred liturgy is a contact with Christ. In the liturgy, nothing is insignificant. Everything is invested with sacramentality, that is, with the potential to unite us to Christ, so that through Him and with Him we might pass into the fiery embrace of the Holy Spirit and the bosom of the Father. Saint Gertrude reminds us that the liturgy -- the Most Holy Eucharist and other the sacraments, but also the Divine Office -- is more than a complex of words and chants, rites and gestures.

Christ Wooing the Church

The Sacred Liturgy is a door opening onto invisible realities, “the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). The Sacred Liturgy is the Word, Christ Himself, wooing the Church, and each member of her, into an ever-deepening intimacy with Himself, until, as Saint Paul said in our First Reading, “we are filled with the utter fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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