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A Truly Great Woman

Saint Gertrude the Great (6 January 1256 – 16 November 1302) was a German Benedictine nun, mystic, and theologian. As of the publication of this article (2021), she is the only female to be called “The Great.” The title is bestowed upon a person whose intellectual influence within the Church was so profound that its impact continues to echo for generations after their death.

Gertrude of Helfta was born 6 January 1256 in Eisleben, Thuringia. When she was 5 years old, she was placed into an orphanage. This is not unusual for this time period since many women often died while giving birth. She became proficient in philosophy, literature, singing and miniature painting, but noticed that something was still missing.

As often is the case in the lives of young women of deep devotion, a crisis developed within her; she was lost, lonely, and depressed. All of the plans she had made for herself began to crumble.


One evening during Advent 1281, as Gertrude made her way down the hall of the monastery, she bowed as a Sister passed by. When the ‘Sister’ stopped she saw that it was Our Lord who was appearing before her. Gertrude described Him in these words,

“He is more beautiful than all the children of men.”

Gertrude was awestruck by seeing Jesus standing before her, especially as she had been suffering spiritual aridity for some time. He said:

“Thy salvation is at hand. Why are you so consumed by sorrow?”

From that point forward, she had eyes only for the Word of God in Holy Scripture and the works of the Church Fathers.

In recounting her conversion experience at the end of her life, Gertrude relates,

“Until the age of 25, I was a blind and insane woman… but you, Jesus, deigned to grant me the priceless familiarity of your friendship by opening to me in every way that most noble casket of your divinity, which is your divine Heart, and offering me in great abundance all your treasures contained in it.”


Her studies shifted exclusively to the study of Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, and theological works. She truly became a theologian and began to write short treatises and works for her fellow sisters. These became spiritual treasures to those who were fortunate enough to read them.

From Theologian to Mystic

Gertrude experienced many mystical experiences where Jesus would reveal His infinite love and ask her to spread it among the faithful, especially to those suffering and for sinners. She would write these mystical experiences down for the benefit of the faithful.

While in prayer one day Gertrude again saw Jesus who was carrying a great building on His shoulders. He explained its meaning to her saying:

“Behold with what labour, care and vigilance I carry this beloved house, which is none other than that of Religion. It is everywhere threatened with ruin, because there are so few persons who are willing to do or to suffer anything for its support and increase. You, therefore, should suffer with Me in bearing it; for all those who endeavour, by their words or actions, to extend religion, and who try to establish it in its first fervour and purity, are so many strong pillars which sustain this holy house and comfort Me by sharing with Me the weight of this burden.”


Another day, after she had received Communion, Gertrude offered the Host for the souls in Purgatory. Upon requesting that some souls may be released from Purgatory, Gertrude tried to divide the Host into small particles within her mouth to designate the number of souls thus released. Our Lord then revealed to Gertrude His immense mercy with these words:

“In order that you may know that My mercy is above all My works, and that the abyss of My mercy cannot be exhausted, I am ready to grant you, through the merit of this life-giving Sacrament, more than you dare ask Me.”


Saint Gertrude’s demeanour was always joyful and her countenance was always in a smile. She exuded humility and loved all she encountered. It was this indomitable spirit of joy that led others to Jesus. Indeed, Christ said to her:

“It would be good to make known to men and women how they would benefit from remembering that I, the Son of God and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, always stand before God for the salvation of the human race, and that should they commit some sin through their weakness, I offer my unblemished Heart to the Father for them.”


A Special Friendship

Saint Gertrude turned to Jesus, as she would to an earthly father, with the complete trust of a child. No petition was too small or too great. On one occasion, when she had lost a needle in a pile of straw, she asked the Lord to find it for her:

“It would be in vain that I would search for this needle and so very much a waste of time. If You would be so kind, find it for me!”


She turned her head, groped with one of her hands and immediately found the needle. Our Lord delighted in her simplicity and innocence, and always rewarded her faith in Him with gifts affirming that faith.

Another time Saint Gertrude was visited by St. John the beloved Apostle with Jesus by his side. A stunned Gertrude exclaimed:

“My most amiable Lord, how can this be that You present Your most beloved disciple to me, an unworthy creature?” Whereupon Our Lord responded with, “I wish to establish between him and you an intimate friendship; he shall be the Apostle, to instruct and to correct you.”


Saint John then spoke to Gertrude,

“Come, Spouse of my Master, together let us lay our heads on the most tender bosom of the Lord, in which all the treasures of Heaven and earth are enclosed.”


Upon hearing this Gertrude then placed her head upon the chest of Jesus with John by her side, as she listened to the beating of His Sacred Heart. Looking into the eyes of Saint John, she asked him why he didn’t record the experience in the Gospel. He answered saying that this detail had to be reserved for subsequent ages when the world, having grown cold, would need to rekindle its love for Christ’s Sacred Heart.

The Famous “Purgatory Prayer”

Purgatory is a consequence of sin that God upholds for our own benefit. However, as any parent, teacher, or caretaker of children would tell you, holding them accountable for the consequences of their actions is no fun for anyone; it brings no satisfaction and often causes pain for the person in charge of upholding the standard.

God’s relationship with His children in Purgatory is no different. In a vision to Saint Gertrude, He confided that He longs for the faithful on earth to plead for mercy for the suffering souls. He uses the metaphor of a king who imprisoned a friend for justice’s sake, but internally hopes that someone will beg for mercy for his friend.

In another vision, Jesus gave her a prayer and a promise that each time it is prayed, He would release 1,000 souls from Purgatory. Gertrude used the prayer herself and also wrote it down.

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen


Her Final Hours

By 1298, Saint Gertrude’s health was failing. She offered all of her sufferings in love and in unity with Christ’s sufferings for the edification and salvation of all souls.

As is fitting for one who obtained so much for the Holy Souls, she died on 16 November 16, 1302, in the middle of the month liturgically dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory.