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We must now go back to the time when the Abbess Gertrude was in full strength and activity at the age of thirty-three. In that year, 1265, there arrived at the convent of Hellfde an infirm, worn-out Béguine, a namesake of two inmates of the convent—Matilda von Hackeborn and the Lady Matilda of the choir. The Béguine went by the name of Matilda of Magdeburg.
It would be interesting to know as much of her history as she related to the nuns of Hellfde. As it is, we have but an outline of 24 it. We know thus much, that for Christ’s sake she had “renounced worldly honour and worldly riches.” She had evidently been brought up, writes Preger, “under the influence of court life and of knightly company, and we see that she was accustomed to the manners of noble ladies, and to the language of the higher classes. There is a chivalric tone in her expressions which seems to link her words with the knightly poetry of her time, a poetry then at the height of its cultivation. And as in her words, so in her actions—there was a freedom and powerful independence which betoken high birth.”
Yet of her family and of her birthplace nothing is known. The date of her birth we know, the year 1212. Apparently her home was not far from Magdeburg. We are told of her brother Baldwin, later a Dominican friar, that from a child he had been “brought up in all good manner of living and in virtuous habits.” Matilda, therefore, had no doubt been carefully educated.
Others said of her, “that from her childhood she had led an innocent, unsullied life.” Of herself she says, “that in her earliest childhood her sins were many and great. But that even 25 then, whenever she had a trouble and was sad, she prayed to God. I knelt down before my Beloved, and said, O Lord, now I am unhappy. Can it be for Thy glory that I should go away uncomforted! But I was the most simple and ignorant of any who ever desired to walk in the way of life. Of the malice of the devil, I knew nothing; of the misery of the world, I knew nothing whatsoever; and the false profession of people who are called spiritual was also unknown to me.
“But I must say this for the honour of God, that one day in my twelfth year, when I was all alone, I received the greeting of the Holy Ghost, unworthy sinner as I was, in such overflowing measure, that I never afterwards could endure the thought of committing a great and deadly sin. This blessed greeting was repeated day after day, and it filled me with love and sorrow. I had learnt from God alone what is Christian faith, and I made it my rule of life; thus my heart was kept pure, but of the mysteries of God I knew nothing as yet.
“Whilst during my youth I lived with my friends and relations, amongst whom I was the best beloved, the mysteries of God remained unknown to me. But during that time I long 26 had the desire that, without any fault of mine, I might be despised by the world, whilst meanwhile the sweetness and honour of the world seemed greater to me day by day.”
This is all we can learn of the early years of Matilda in her unknown home; but we have in few touches a picture of a rare and simple nature, humbled by the sense of sin, but proud enough to desire to be despised; sweet enough also to be loved with unusual love, and to find it a delight.
In the year 1235, at the age of twenty-three, she tore herself from those who thus loved her and went to Magdeburg, where she only knew one person, a friend of her family. But she avoided this one friend, lest he should persuade her to give up her determination to live alone for God. She asked to be received in a convent, but she was refused. She was unknown and without any means, and she was looked upon with suspicion and contempt. She had her desire. She was alone and despised.
“But God,” she says, “never forsook me. He filled me so continually with the sweetness of His love, He drew me into such intimacy with Himself, and He showed me such unspeakable wonders of His heart, that I could 27 well afford to lose the world and all that is in it.”
What were the further wanderings of Matilda we do not know, but it was only a little while after her refusal at the convent that she became one of the persecuted order of the Béguines.
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