Blessed Gertrude of Altenburg

by Fr. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.


God sometimes asks the prophets to do something that looks absurd in the eyes of men to teach a lesson about listening to and discerning God’s will. The unusual prophetic word or gesture has potential to captivate the thick-headed and make them think. Here is a comical example with a serious point: imagine taking the passage from St. James we have just heard and reading it aloud to a cage of monkeys at the zoo:

Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18)

What would happen? Nothing would happen except that it would give a brutal illustration of St Paul’s verse: “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Animals certainly cannot do this; with us, it is hit-and-miss. As Psalm 73 puts it, all of us can lack spiritual understanding and discernment: “I was stupid and ignorant, I was like a beast toward Thee.” And our Lord not infrequently reproached the apostles for their lack of comprehension. 

The life of Blessed Gertrude of Altenburg (1227-1297), virgin of our Order, fits in the category of things understood only with spiritual discernment or wisdom. She spent practically her entire life in a Norbertine cloister—from age one until seventy. She was raised in the convent, entrusted to the nuns by her mother, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. At age twenty-four she became prioress, serving in that office for about fifty years. This is a largely uneventful and unfulfilling life, by worldly standards, and we have to stand back and ask where it comes from. A sceptic might say that many people spend their lives doing crazy things in the name of religion and this is just another example. 

But not everyone who does something “crazy” in the name of religion or of God can claim that God started it, that God shot first—and then, as St John of the Cross says, after wounding us, He ran away and expected us to chase after Him. But this is exactly what Jesus did. And this is what the virgin saints are responding to. 

Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
you fled like the stag
after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone. (John of the Cross: “The Spiritual Canticle,” stanza 1)

The life of virginity, like the life of celibacy, is not mainly a human choice but a response to God’s excessive and foolish love for us. As St Paul says: God loved us when we were His enemies, when we were dead in sin, through the foolishness of the cross. Jesus empties himself and takes the form of a slave to do all of this. It sounds like an incredible joke. But it is real. It really happened. And some respond to it by saying to the Lord: You excessive, foolish, self-emptying God! I’m yours, for life. I’ll meet your infinite excess and foolishness with a little of my own. And that is the life of virginity, and the life of celibacy. 

During and after Second Vatican Council, the Church reaffirmed in the strongest and most glowing terms how virginity and celibacy are ‘precious gifts of divine grace’ that bring spiritual fruitfulness into the world. In 1967, Pope Paul VI addressed all of the typical objections against priestly celibacy in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, saying that for those “who cannot ‘receive this precept’ and who do not know or have forgotten it is a ‘gift of God,’ and who moreover are unaware of the higher reasoning involved in this state of life,” they will never get it and always criticize it. Time and again, in other words, people go to the zoo. And we have to wonder if St Peter’s words apply here: “[these men] like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, [revile] things that they do not understand …” (cf. 2 Pt 2:12).

Our own times are certainly no improvement over the 1960s. We have trouble thinking in terms other than crude material terms. No one wants to hear about sacrament and symbol and men representing Christ and women representing the Church. No one can receive the words of St Paul, that “He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him” (1 Cor 6:17). What does that mean? To the unspiritual, it means nothing at all. To those who receive the gift, it means everything. 

Over the last few years the same objections against celibacy have returned, the same ones Pope Paul dealt with a generation ago. Discussions at the highest levels of the Church have reached our ears. Is celibacy something that the Church should continue to insist upon for her clergy, even in mission territories? Is it psychologically healthy? etc. It reached such a flashpoint that in 2020, Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah coauthored a book explaining why it is so important (a book prepared even faster than Sara prepared the three measures of fine meal to make bread cakes for Abraham’s three unexpected visitors, such was the urgency). 

The fact that there is a debate at all is demoralizing, and a sign of ingratitude. It sounds like something you cherish (the “precious gift”) is always hanging by a thread, like we’re talking about something of minor importance that we can take or leave.

But whether we marry or not is not of minor importance. How you are going to express your most intimate affectivity for the rest of your life is a big deal. God knows it’s a big deal, and this is why He goes absolutely beyond the bounds in showing His love for us. Nothing else could get us to say yes and to keep on saying yes for life. This is why Blessed Gertrude’s example is so striking: her entire life was spent in the convent. And that is a big deal. And what is an even bigger deal is that she got it right without having tasted the things of this world. Once she recognized the gift she bought the field in which she found it and called it home.  

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