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Gertrude the Great

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Romans 8:37-39

When women were first allowed to enter into a monastic life, it represented great freedom. Societal expectations on women were very clear and very limited. “A woman’s convent provided an escape from male domination. . . . It gave women personal power and prestige; offered a political role as abbess or prioress; and provided the possibility for education, intellectual development, and training in the arts.”[1] It also freed them from endless childbearing, which was a risky venture in those days. Our modern Protestant view of monasteries, convents, and the like typically is not one of feminist freedom; but for a long time it was. This would have been true for all of the women visionaries we have studied so far in this series.     (And since I’ve been asked, let me say that yes, we will look at male mystics—on Maundy Thursday and in our care group readings; but since the vast majority of our Bible stories are about men, this gives us an opportunity to balance things out just a bit.)

“By the opening years of the thirteenth century, conditions for female spirituality, for deepening the devotional life of women, had changed enormously. The older Benedictine houses and even the reform movements of the late twelfth century…could not accept all the women who wanted to embrace a religious life. Furthermore, women wanted a new kind of religious life, and this made the institutional church very uneasy…. Women who could not be accommodated by existing communities with the church were often attracted to the heretical groups that were on the rise all over Europe, and the life women were trying to create for themselves was active as well as contemplative, something the church had not supported for many centuries. Women of this century wanted the opportunity to work, to a self-sufficiency not based on the income from property but on the work of their hands; they wanted a daily religious practice and the education to pursue that practice intelligently, and the opportunity to discuss spiritual ideas among themselves…. They were eager to live chaste lives in completely female communities, but they preferred not to take permanent vows of chastity, and they resisted strict enclosure.”[2]

This was the beginning of the Beguine movement, which had the goal of being in the world but not of it. In its first phase of the movement, individual women “lived scattered throughout the city, leading strict religious lives while remaining in the world. It was a spontaneous movement with no founder and no legislator, and the women were simply called ‘holy women.’”[3] They were defined not by geography but by their spirituality. Obviously, this was very threatening to the status quo and to the people who benefited from the status quo. And although I didn’t find this in my research, I’m guessing some of those threatened were the men who relying on women to have no other choice but to marry them! Eventually they did submit to the leadership of one woman, and communities began to grow up around the places where the women worked—infirmaries and hospices, but some women still lived independently. They did not take permanent vows and were not nuns. But “The emotional fulfillment that may have been lacking in the medieval notion of marriage and motherhood was found by Beguine women in their relationship with the divine and, no doubt, was reinforced by their living and working together to create a supportive environment.”[4]

The best-known German Beguine is Mechthild of Magdeburg, who I spoke about on Ash Wednesday. She had detailed and exquisite visions of intimacy with God. “For Mechthild, the spiritual journey involves the courtship between God and the soul. God woos the human spirit, seeking intimate union in the same way that two spiritually and erotically attracted souls seek unity…. God made us for love. We find our greatest happiness and fulfillment, Mechthild believed, when we fall in love with God, when we yearn for God as the lover of our souls, and discover that God already loves us.”[5] One of her famous phrases is “You are a light to my eyes…. You are a praise in my being…. Lord, you are constantly lovesick for me.”

Near the end of her life she moved to the Benedictine convent at Helfta, bringing with her the deep spiritual life she had nurtured as a Beguine. At Helfta the novices were taught grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, just as the men were taught in the new universities of the time. A 14-year-old girl named Gertrude lived at Helfta when Mechthild arrived. She had already lived there for nearly a decade, having been placed there either by devout parents or because she was an orphan. Although she was grateful for the education she received there, she called the convent a “land of unlikeness.” “As a young woman she loved the life of the intellect far more than the life of the spirit. In fact, she says she paid no more attention to her interior life than to the interior of her feet. She loved to study and became noted for her eloquence both in speech and in writing. But by her early twenties she had become tense and melancholy…. She saw herself as a nun in appearance only, and she found her intellectual interests empty and unsatisfying.”[6] She did not have Mechthild of Magdeburg’s deep, experiential spirituality. And then, just after her twenty-sixth birthday she had a vision.

According to her biography, written shortly after her death, Christ appeared to her and said, “Your salvation is at hand; why are you so consumed by grief? Have you no counselor, that you are so changed by sadness?” “When he had said these words, although she knew she was in the convent dormitory, yet it seemed to her that she was in her usual corner in the chapel where she was accustomed to say her half-hearted prayers. ‘I shall save you and deliver you. Do not be afraid,’ he said. After these words she saw the gentle hand of Christ take her own right hand as if in solemn assurance….”[7] But even as she listened to his word, she visualized a barrier between them, “a tremendous hedge set with thorns and too dangerous to surmount. Filled with the desire to be with Christ, yet convinced she cannot approach, she feels herself lifted over the hedge and placed beside him. Only then, as she looks at Christ’s outstretched hand, does she see the wound.”[8]

Gertrude clearly was very intelligent and had a fine, inquisitive mind. But she discovered that intellectual pursuits alone were not enough. They satisfied her mind but not her soul. It’s a common problem in the United Church of Christ. While some churches might thrive on emotionalism, Congregationalists don’t. We refuse to check our brains at the door, and we don’t believe things just because the pastor said they’re true, and we want our beliefs to be grounded in good scholarship. While some churches might need to add a little more intellectual rigor, UCC churches tend to have open minds but not so open on the hearts. We are unlikely to be swept away on a wave of emotions, and that’s not a bad thing. But sometimes thinking gets in the way. We’re never going to think our way through what we need to feel our way through. And deciding we believe x, y, and z, will only get us so far, especially when our hearts are breaking.

That’s one of the reasons I love Gertrude the Great’s visions. I know and love people who live exclusively in their heads, and I know and love people who live exclusively in their hearts. But I am always inspired by people who live fully in both. I know it’s an issue of balance, balancing the head and the heart. But I think it’s more than that—or at least that there’s a different way of looking at it. Some of us will always look at things first through the lens of our logic, and others of us will always look at things first through the lens of feelings. But can’t we do both? I think we need to figure out how to let our hearts inform our thinking and our minds inform our hearts. The problems of this world are too big to just do one or the other. We need both.

Gertrude, the intellectual, experienced a vision, of all things, a mystical experience that refused to be defined by the brain—and in that vision, she saw something separating her from God, a thorny hedge that she could not cross. I don’t know what that hedge represented to Gertrude, whether it was her intellectualism or something else. But I do know the feeling. I don’t always feel close to God. I go through times when I feel like there’s a giant hedge between us. When that happens, I try to name my thorny hedge. I try to name that thing that stands between me and intimacy with God.    Is it named Busyness? Is that what separates us? Is it Pride? Arrogance? My self-righteous demand for independence?

What about you? What is your hedge named? Is it named Shame? Or Rage? Or guilt over that thing you did years ago and still haven’t forgiven yourself for? Is it apathy? Or fear? What is it that makes you feel distant from God? Name your hedge. And now imagine how easy God can reach across it and draw you near. That thing you did? Forgiven. That place you hide? Seen and loved. So stop planting hedges! They don’t work, and besides, you don’t need them.

Romans 8:35-39 proclaims, Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through God who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor anger, nor fear, nor busyness, nor guilt present, nor guilt to come, nor height of arrogance, nor depth of shame, nor anything else in all creation or personal dysfunction, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. OK, so it’s a paraphrase. But it’s true!

There are many things from the church of my childhood that I have left behind, but one I still cling to is this song, which I offer as our prayer of invitation to communion: Nothing shall separate from God’s unbounded love—neither in depths below, nor in the heights above. And in the years to come God will abide with me. I am the Lord’s, I know, for all eternity. Amen.

[1] Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature, p. 84.

[2] Ibid, p. 171.

[3] Ibid, p. 172.

[4] Ibid, p. 173.

[5] Epperly, Bruce. The Mystic in You, page 69

[6] Petroff, p. 209.

[7] Ibid, p. 210.

[8] Ibid, p. 210.

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