Saint Gertrude the Great on Bringing Comfort and Joy to the Heavenly Christ

“More Brilliant than the Sun," a weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy 

The series so far:
PART 1: The Plan of the Heart of Jesus to Drive Back the World's Darkness
PART 2:  What Do We Really Mean By “The Heart of Jesus”?
PART 3:  Devotion to the Heart of Jesus and its Roots in Holy Scripture
PART 4: The Heart of the Savior in the New Testament
PART 5: 
 The Heart of Jesus Manifest in His Tender Affections and Compassionate Love
 The Heart of Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross
PART 7:  From Easter Onward: The Heart of Jesus Lives in His Church
PART 8:  The Flowering of Love for the Heart of Jesus in the Middle Ages

PART 9: Saint Gertrude the Great on Bringing Comfort and Joy to the Heavenly Christ

Saint Gertrude the Great justly may be called the first of the saints to anticipate the fullness of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Born in Germany in 1256, and probably orphaned at an early age, Gertrude was placed with the Benedictine nuns at age 5 at their abbey in Helfta. There she became a friend and confidante of St. Mechtilde of Hackeborn, and, like her, received many private revelations from our Lord.

In St. Gertrude’s writings we see the devotion to the Heart of Jesus come to full flower, not only through these extraordinary revelations, but also through her profound commentary upon them. Saint Gertrude had been well trained in theology, having read widely in the Fathers and in the works of St. Bernard. She drew upon this rich background to help her interpret the revelations and graces she received. In fact, Christ Jesus told her that her writings would become a “herald” of His Divine Love, and that He would use her to be a channel of His grace to many souls: “I desire to have in your writings incontrovertible proof of my divine love, as I propose through them to do good to many souls in these modern times” (The Herald of Divine Love. New York: Paulist Press, 1993, p. 48 — remember that for people in the 13th century, their own era was seen as “these modern times”!)

Confidence in Divine Mercy
Saint Gertrude’s spirituality is characterized by confidence in Divine Mercy, abandonment to Divine Providence, an earnest desire for mystical union with the Heart of Jesus, and a desire to comfort Him for all of His sufferings and sorrows. These movements generally take place in Gertrude’s soul in an atmosphere of joy and thanksgiving, and in the context of the cycle of feasts of the Church’s liturgical year.

The Sacred Heart appeared to St. Gertrude under many aspects or representations: as a treasure house of all good, as a lute played by the Holy Spirit, as a fountain of refreshing streams for the souls in Purgatory, and even as an altar upon which Christ offers Himself in the Holy Eucharist. In her writings, the soul of Gertrude and the Heart of Jesus seem to contend with each other to outdo one another in love. There are numerous passages that speak of her desire to comfort, relieve, refresh, and quench the thirst of her divine Lord — and for His part, Christ manifests the tenderness of His gracious love for her. She hardly knows how to explain this mystery of divine condescension.

A beautiful and simple example can be found in her work Insinuationes Divinae Pietatis (III.46, from The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1983, p. 240-241):

One night, as she was occupied in thinking how she could arrange some straw as a sepulchre for the crucifix, at the commemoration of the Passion after vespers, the God of love ... [led her to understand] that when we take pleasure in such things for the love of God, His Divine Heart is pleased thereby ... She replied: “If thine immense goodness can find pleasure in this, what dost Thou say of [devout meditation on] the verses in which all Thy passion is commemorated?” “I take the same pleasure in them,” replied Our Lord, “as a person would who was conducted by his friend, with marks of tenderness and friendship, to an agreeable garden, where, while breathing the fresh air and sweet odour of the place, he would also have the pleasure of admiring its beautiful flowers, hearing a concert of exquisite music, and of refreshing himself with the rarest and most exquisite fruits.”

In this vein, several times the Lord tells Gertrude, implicitly or explicitly, that she can comfort Him for the rejection of His love that He suffers from sinful men. She learns that she can give Him spiritual refreshment in four ways: (1) by praying for the conversion of sinners, and building up the Church, (2) by bearing the Cross patiently with Him, (3) by performing works of penance and piety with love, and (4) by the practice of the virtues. These teachings were given to St. Gertrude in the form of what theologians call “private revelations,” intended, first of all, for her own sanctification. Nevertheless, it is clear from the Lord’s words to her about His plan for the dissemination of her writings that Christ ultimately intended these revelations for a wider audience, as a channel of graces for countless souls.

Solace and refreshment
Saint Gertrude was convinced that her prayers, penances, devotions, and good works could bring real solace and refreshment to her Lord in Heaven, who in some mysterious way experiences something analogous to “suffering” from His “ineffable longing,” “hunger,” and “thirst,” to do good for souls.

Two more examples will suffice; first, this one taken from The Herald of Divine Love, III.67 (Paulist Press edition, p. 230-231):

She was praying one day for people who had harmed the community by pillaging, and were causing great trouble in other ways also, when the loving and merciful Lord appeared to her. It seemed to her as though one of his arms were causing him great pain; it was twisted as though it were dislocated and almost helpless. And the Lord said: “Consider what torture I should feel now if someone were to hit me with a blow of the fist on this arm. I am afflicted by just such pain by all those who, without compassion on the peril to which the soul of your persecutors are exposed, frequently recount the defects of these their enemies and the injuries they have inflicted. They do not remember that these people too are members of my body (cf. I Cor. 12). All those, on the other hand, who are moved by loving compassion and who implore me in my mercy to convert them and to reform their lives from error, are like those who put soothing ointment on this arm. And as for those who are kind enough to advise them to amend their ways, they are like skilful doctors who gently manipulate the arm and restore it to its natural position ... because they belong to the body of the church, of which it is my glory to be the head. ... [A]s long as they can still be reconciled to the Church by absolution, my love obliges me to take care of them, as I have an ineffable desire for their repentance and I long for their conversion to me.

Such vivid, poetic expressions of Christ’s intimate care and solicitude for the salvation of souls permeate the writings of St. Gertrude. In this passage, the “wounds” and “burdens” which Christ receives are evidently the wounds caused by sin to His Mystical Body, the Church. Through our care for the conversion and sanctification of souls, therefore, in some mysterious way we can truly comfort the glorified Christ in and through our care for His Mystical Body.

A second example can be found in Insinuationes (IV. 15). One time, St. Gertrude inquired of the Lord how she could perform the corporal works of mercy in a spiritual way, since the nuns at Helfta lived in poverty, and had little to give away. Jesus replied (p. 357, with reference to Mt 25:31-46):

As I am the Salvation and Life of the soul, and as I continually hunger and thirst for the salvation of men, if you endeavour to study some words of Scripture every day for the benefit of others, you will bestow on Me a most sweet refection. If you read with the intent of obtaining the grace of compunction or devotion, you appease My thirst by giving me an agreeable beverage to drink. If you employ yourself in recollection for an hour each day, you give me hospitality; and if you apply yourself daily to acquire some new virtue, you clothe Me. You visit Me when sick, by striving to overcome temptation, and to conquer your evil inclinations; and you visit Me in prison and solace my afflictions with the sweetest consolations when you pray for sinners and those in purgatory.

In short, Christ revealed to St. Gertrude that she can refresh and comfort Him, in some mysterious way, in His glorified state. It is the Lord Jesus in Heaven who asks her to assuage His spiritual “thirst” and “hunger,” to give Him “rest,” and to relieve His “afflictions” by caring for the souls of the lost, and performing sincere works of piety. And as mentioned numerous times in The Herald, the source of His tender care for her and for all humanity is His Sacred Heart.

Joy and delight
From St. Gertrude onward, an impressive array of saints and other holy souls of the Church down through the centuries both believed and taught that the heavenly Jesus still has an affective longing and thirst for the good of souls, and that it is possible for us to bring additional joy and delight to His glorified Heart. The list includes Bl. Julian of Norwich, St. Jane de Chantal, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Claude de la Colombière, the Ven. Bernard de Hoyos, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Bl. Dina Bélanger, and St. Faustina Kowalska. Earlier in the 20th century, the idea was endorsed by the great Dominican theologian Reginald Garrigou Lagrange, OP, in his essay “Consolare il Cuore di Gesù?” (Vita Cristiana, no. 16, 1947, p. 30): “the loving adoration due to Our Lord is for Him an accidental joy (beatitudo accidentalis) that many souls refuse him.” Here “accidental” is a philosophical term meaning “extra” or “additional” joy, that is, additional to the essential joy in His Heart that comes from the beatific vision in His human soul of His Father in Heaven.

The question of how the glorified Jesus can be said to “thirst” or “long” for our love and receive “joy” from us was addressed also by other notable theologians in the 20th century. They generally argued that the risen, ascended, and glorified humanity of Jesus is “impassible” (that is, He cannot literally “suffer” in any way in Heaven), but He is not “insensible” to our response of love to Him today (Andrea Tessarolo, SCJ). Gerald Vann, OP, for example, wrote in The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God (New York: Alba House, 1994, p. 89-90):

How can there be longing, desire still in Christ, since he is glorified and in the state of beatitude wherein all desires are fulfilled? But the answer is, I think, that Christ longs for the presence with him of His Body which is the Church in the same way that, according to St. Thomas [Aquinas], the soul in glory longs for the resurrection of the flesh; a longing, a desire, which is welcomed as part of the total love story, and because — unlike our human desires on earth — it has in it the certainty of fulfilment.

Accidental happiness
Louis Verheylezoon, SJ, offered the following reflections on the effects of our loving acts of reparation on the Heart of Jesus in Devotion to the Sacred Heart (p. 89):

True, [Christ’s] happiness is complete, nothing is wanting. His essential happiness caused by the intuitive vision of the Divinity, and by His hypostatic union [i.e. personal union] with it, cannot increase. But in addition to that He enjoys an accidental happiness that is capable of being augmented. It is augmented whenever He is afforded a new joy. For if He is no longer liable to suffering and sorrow, He can still feel joy. Now it is certain that each act of [our loving] reparation is for Him the source of a new joy. If He suffers no longer on account of the harm done to Him, He is certainly not insensible to the good done to Him, nor to the tokens of love given to Him. Thus we have the consoling certainty that by our acts of reparation we really rejoice His Heart and increase His happiness.

What an amazing mystery this is! As we have seen over the course of this web series so far, the New Testament implies, and great Catholic saints and theologians explicitly affirm, that each one of us can bring joy and delight to the Heart of our Savior! We can do so especially, Fr. Verheylezoon wrote, by our loving acts of “reparation” to His Heart, that is, by returning His love with our love. But to explore this mystery in greater depth, we will need to move on from our survey of the witness of the Middle Ages, and explore the life of the saint who played a pivotal role in the plan of the Sacred Heart to drive back the world’s darkness: Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque.

This series continues next week with Part 10: "Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque and Reparation to the Sacred Heart."
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