On November 16th, the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1302). In a General Audience on October 6, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of her as “one of the most famous mystics, the only German woman to be called ‘Great’, because of her cultural and evangelical stature: her life and her thought had a unique impact on Christian spirituality… She was in close communion with God both in contemplation and in her readiness to go to the help of those in need.”
From the age of five until her death, she spent her whole life in the Monastery of Helfta. For the first twenty years of her life in the monastery, nothing exceptional occurred in her life. She led a life of quiet service, prayer, and study. As Pope Benedict XVI shares, she described herself as having a “strong, determined, ready and impulsive temperament. She often says that she was negligent; she recognizes her shortcomings and humbly asks forgiveness for them. Some features of her temperament and faults were to accompany her to the end of her life, so as to amaze certain people who wondered why the Lord had favoured her with such a special love.”
During the Advent of 1280, she began to have anxiety about the vanity of her temperament and faults. As Pope Benedict XVI tells us, “on January 27, 1281, … the Lord with his illumination dispelled her deep anxiety. With gentle sweetness he calmed the distress that anguished her… From that moment her life of intimate communion with the Lord was intensified.” She began to have mystical encounters with the Lord, especially with His Divine Heart, which were collected into a set of three books Gertrude the Great of Helfta: The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness.
One of her encounters with the Lord illuminates the experience of Adam and Eve “in the beginning,” before the Fall, as taught through St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB). In the first section of TOB (Original Man), St. John Paul II speaks of the mutual encounter of Adam and Eve before the original sin. Adam and Eve saw the original meaning of the body as the revelation of the person. Without the distortion of sin or lust, Adam saw the person of Eve in and through her body and vice versa. As St. John Paul II tells us in TOB, “They see and know each other, in fact, with all the peace of the interior gaze, which creates precisely the fullness of the intimacy of persons” (TOB13:1). They experienced true intimacy (“into-me-see”) with the other as God had created, but not only were they meant to experience true intimacy with each other, of which this “interior gaze” is an encounter, God’s desire was that all of humanity would experience that true intimacy with Him.
The desire for intimacy with God was planted deep into the hearts of Adam and Eve. Even though they sinned and turned their gaze away from God, the longing for intimacy with Him still remained. That longing for God still remains in our hearts, too. It is this longing for the gaze of the divine that St. Gertrude the Great describes in Book 3 of Gertrude the Great of Helfta: The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness. She longed to receive Christ in the Eucharist, but came to this particular Mass very weak. Feeling unworthy to receive she said to the Lord, “‘How willingly would I receive you now, life of my soul, spiritually at least, if I had had the time to prepare myself at all.’ The Lord replied, ‘The gaze of my divine loving-kindness will prepare you most fittingly.’ This done, the Lord seemed to direct his gaze, like the rays of the sun, into her soul saying, ‘I shall fix my eyes on you.’ In these words she understood a threefold effect, like the sun, that the divine gaze brings about in the soul, and also a threefold way in which the soul should be prepared to obtain it.
For first, the gaze of the divine loving-kindness, like the sun, rendered the soul dazzling white and purified from all stains, whiter than snow. The effect is acquired through humble acknowledgment of one’s own faults.
Secondly, the gaze of the divine loving-kindness softens the soul and makes it fit to receive spiritual gifts, just as wax is softened by the heat of the sun and is prepared for imprinting by some seal. This result the soul obtains through devout concentration.
Thirdly the gaze of the divine loving-kindness makes fertile the soul with the varied flowers of the virtues, just as the sun makes the earth fruitful, to produce different kinds of fruit. This result is obtained through the faithful trust with which a person entrusts her whole self to God and trustingly trusts in the overflow of his loving-kindness, that all things, both favorable and unfavorable, may work together for good.” (132)
The Lord desires to fix His divine gaze upon us. His gaze purifies us when we acknowledge our faults, it softens us to receive the gifts of the Lord through concentration on Him, and His gaze makes our soul fertile with virtues when we entrust our entire selves to Him. The divine gaze St. Gertrude experienced with the Lord and her gazing upon His body in the Eucharist prepares her to receive His Body in communion. St. Gertrude’s encounter with the Lord and the “peace of the interior gaze” which Adam and Eve experienced in the beginning is the gaze of intimacy for which we all long. May St. Gertrude the Great intercede on our behalf to help us open to the Lord’s divine gaze and to enter into deeper intimacy with Him.
Jen Settle came to the Theology of the Body Institute as the Certification Course Manager from Des Moines, Iowa in 2008. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Parish Ministry with an emphasis in Education and a Master of Ministry degree from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Jen worked in Catholic parish life for fifteen years as a Director of Religious Education and Adult Faith Formation, as well as teaching Theology of the Body throughout the state of Iowa. In 2011, Jen became the Director of Programs for the Theology of the Body Institute. She now directs the Internship, Certification and Clergy Enrichment Programs