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The Nun Gertrude.
It is of interest to trace in the convent of Hellfde the results of the work and the teaching of the Abbess Gertrude and of the Béguine Matilda. It was not in vain that the abbess had given to the Scriptures such a place of honour, and had so diligently studied them, and insisted upon their study. Nor was it in vain that Matilda of Magdeburg had spoken and written of the free grace of God, and of the love of Christ that passeth knowledge.135
This teaching was the beginning of a stream of life and light, which became deeper and wider as it flowed along. And we find in the next book written in the convent a clearer and fuller confession of the truth. This book, written in part by the Nun Gertrude, in part by an unnamed sister, consists of five separate books, together called Insinuationes divinæ pietatis. Of four of these books little can be said, except that they consist chiefly of the visions and revelations of the authoress, and accounts of visions seen by the Nun Gertrude. It is in the second of the five books, the only one written by Gertrude herself, that we find that which repays the trouble of sifting the true from the false, and the gems of marvellous lustre from the dust-heaps in which they lie buried.
A translation of some of the most remarkable passages in this second book has already been given, as mentioned above, in the book, “Trees Planted by the River.” But a few more short extracts will perhaps add to the proof of Gertrude’s clear and simple trust in Christ, as revealed in the Gospel.
“When I consider,” she writes, “the character of my life from the beginning and onwards 136 I have to confess in truth it is a history of nothing but grace, grace without the smallest deserving on the part of one so unworthy as I am. For Thou didst of Thy free grace bestow upon me clearer light in the knowledge of Thyself, and Thou didst lead me on by the alluring sweetness of Thy love and kindness. I was more attracted by Thy love, than I could have been driven by the punishment which, on the part of Thy holy justice, was due to me.”
“The great power and sound strength of Gertrude’s mind,” writes Preger, “could not allow her to satisfy herself with the visions in which she had a share. She sought a firmer foothold for her new life, a source which should lastingly and invariably satisfy her inmost being. And with the whole energy of the mind, which had formerly been absorbed in secular learning, she gave herself to the study of the Holy Scriptures, and of such commentaries as she could find to explain them, amongst others those of Augustine and Bernard.
“How deeply she felt the value of the treasures laid up for her in the Scriptures, we learn from the joyful inspiration which filled 137 her soul when reading them. ‘She could not,’ writes the unnamed nun, ‘drink in enough each day of the wonderful sweetness she found in meditating on the Word of God, and in searching for the hidden light which she found in it. It was sweeter to her than honey, and more lovely than the sound of the organ, and consequently it seemed as though her heart was filled with an almost unceasing joy.’
“‘She copied out from the Scriptures and from commentators whole books of extracts, which she wrote for the convent sisters; and was often employed from early in the morning till late at night in endeavouring to write explanations of difficult passages, so as to render them more intelligible to her sisters. For it was a part of her nature to lead on others in the same path, and to work for those around her, so as to exercise a wholesome influence, forming them and helping them.
“‘She also provided other convents which had few books with extracts from the Bible. Thus the Scriptures were the Alpha and Omega of her thoughts. All her reflections, warnings, and consolations had a Bible passage as their source. It was astonishing, her friend said, how invariably the right word from the Scriptures 138 was ready to hand in each case; and whether she reproved or counselled, she made use of the witness of Holy Scripture as that which no one might dare to gainsay.
“‘This universal tendency of her mind to draw others into the enjoyment of that which she possessed, and to work for this end, explains how instantly and willingly she would tear herself away from silent contemplation, to use any occasion that presented itself for active work for others. To return to contemplation again was then easy for her.’
“We perceive from this remark the breadth, and at the same time the strength, of her mind, as well as the harmony of her inner and outer life. This is not contradicted by the fact that her friend mentions as her chief fault a certain impatience and vehemence, for which she often blamed herself. It arose from her strong impulse to work for others.”
Preger further remarks: “It was in the ninth year after her conversion, 1289 and 1290, that she wrote that remarkable book which forms the second of the five books of the Insinuationes. It consists of confessions in forcible language, from the heights of the strongest feeling and the clearest perception. 139 At the same time, the great gifts with which she was endowed shine the more brightly from their accompaniment of the most touching humility. This book, together with her ‘Practices of Piety,’ a book of prayers, belong to the most beautiful products of mystical literature.
“In her case, a progress from legal bondage to ever-increasing liberty of spirit is clearly marked. When once her new spiritual life had had its beginning in evangelical faith, it followed from the strength and wholesome soundness of her mind, that the unfolding of this spiritual freedom should proceed in spite of the opposition of religious tradition, and should prove victorious. It is of the greatest interest to trace this progress as far as we have the means of doing so.”
This onward path from asceticism, self-chastisement, and bitter sorrow over the fallen Church, to calm and happy communion with Christ, was remarked by others, and the passage from bondage to liberty was a cause of joyful thanksgiving to herself.
“At all times,” writes her anonymous friend, “she rejoiced in such assured confidence, that neither calamity, nor loss, nor any other 140 hindrance, nay, not even her sins or shortcomings, could overcloud it; for she had always the full and firm assurance of the rich grace and mercy of God. If she felt herself stained by daily sins, it was her custom to take refuge at the feet of Christ, to be washed in His Blood from all spot and stain.”
It will be remarked that Gertrude had not yet fully apprehended the great truth that the worshipper once purged has no more conscience of sin, that “by one offering Christ hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified,” and that for this reason there is no repetition of sacrifice. For “without shedding of Blood is no remission,” and the Blood of expiation once shed, can be shed no more for ever.
But it may be that Gertrude, like many now, confused the recalling of that blood-shedding which put away sin, a recalling which gives comfort when we feel that we have sinned afresh, with the actual cleansing, once and for ever, in the precious Blood of Christ—the actual cleansing never to be repeated, but the comfort and peace founded upon it a constant experience, which the heart may rejoice in on every fresh occasion of the confession of sin.141
“When she felt,” continues her friend, “the marvellous power of the grace of God, she did not betake herself to penances, but, committing herself freely to the drawing of that grace, she yielded herself as an instrument for loving service, free to receive all that God gave, and to be used by Him for His work.”
It is further remarked that she looked upon God’s gift of grace in His Son as so immeasurable and marvellous, that all human endeavour and doings vanished to a point when compared with it, and were not worth mentioning.
And with regard to her own assurance of faith, she saw that also was a gift of God’s free grace bestowed on her in spite of her undeservings. It would seem as if this strong faith and sense of God’s unutterable love, had led her entirely beyond the land of bondage in which her fellow-Christians were living. She was as a child at liberty in the Father’s home.
On one occasion when taking a walk, she fell down a steep place, and getting up unhurt, she said, “O my beloved Jesus, how well it had been for me had that fall brought me quickly home to Thee!” And when the sisters 142 who were with her said in wonderment, “Would you not be afraid to die without the sacrament?” she answered, “I would desire the sacrament if I were dying, but far, far more do I desire the will of my God and His appointment for me. That is the best preparation for death; for however I die, my hope is in the mercy that will never fail me. Without that I should be lost, whether I died suddenly, or with a sure knowledge beforehand that the time was come.”
For she no longer regarded herself as apart from Christ, but as in Him, and as one in whom He dwelt, and therefore looked upon herself as belonging to Him, and, consequently, instead of mortifying her body, she looked upon taking food or rest as something done for the Lord.
“Not,” says Preger, “that in regard to others she had fully cast aside the prevailing belief in the merit of works, but in her own case she saw but her own sin and God’s free grace. And with regard to the works of others, she considered no value attached to them if they were done with a view to reward. Those good works, she said, which people do from habit, have a black mark set against them; those 143 done for Christ’s sake, and by His power, a red mark. But the red mark has a black mark across it, if there is any thought of gaining merit by those works. They have a golden mark when they are done simply for His honour, with no other aim in view.”
It should be remarked also that Gertrude entertained strong misgivings with regard to the common practices of exciting devotion by appeals to the senses. The erection of mangers at Christmas, and the representations in pictures and images of the sufferings and the death of Christ, appeared to her useless and dangerous. She feared that true personal intercourse with God in the Spirit and in truth, would be hindered by these means.
Nor did she share the devotion of her contemporaries to relics of any sort. “The Lord has shown me,” she said, “that the most worthy relics which remain of Him are His Words.”
“In such a soul,” writes Preger, “in which Christ was so entirely the central point, it was natural that Mary should recede into the background. It is true that the spirit of the age was not wanting in the influence brought to bear upon her, and the cult of Mary does not 144 disappear, therefore, from the pages of her book. But she tells us that she was filled with bitter grief when, on one of the festivals of the Virgin, she heard a sermon which contained nothing but the praises of Mary, and of the value of the Incarnation of the Lord not a word. After this sermon, as she passed by the altar of the Virgin, she could not feel in her heart the sweet devotion to her which she had sometimes known. She was roused into a sort of displeasure with Mary herself, because she seemed to her to stand in the way of her Beloved.”
It is a painful example of the arguing of an enlightened conscience with a conscience shackled and enslaved by superstition. She imagined the Lord would have her salute His Mother, and her heart answered “Never.” And at last she resolved the difficulty by the belief that in doing that which she was unwilling to do, rather than that which would have satisfied her heart, she was pleasing the Lord Himself.
It is useful for us to follow these conflicts of a heart devoted to Christ, with the awful power of generally accepted evil teaching. The spirit of the age is not at any time the 145 Spirit of God. How much power does the spirit of unbelief, of lukewarmness, of corrupted Christianity, exercise upon us?
It matters little that the errors are of a different order. If Mary stood in the way of Christ in the days of Gertrude, is there nothing that amongst “enlightened Protestants” stands now between the soul and the Saviour? Is there nothing believed and taught amongst us which blinds the eyes of lost and helpless sinners to their need of a Saviour? nothing which blinds the guilty to their need of the Atoning Blood? nothing which turns the eyes from Christ, the Coming One, to look for a millennium, not of His Presence, but rather a time when grapes grow on thorns, and figs on thistles?
To return to Gertrude, groping her way from the dim twilight around her to the glorious Gospel day. She was once told that there was to be an indulgence of many years proclaimed to those who were willing to sacrifice their riches to buy it. For a moment Gertrude wished she had “many pounds of gold and silver.” But the Lord spoke to her heart and said, “Hearken! By virtue of My authority receive thou perfect and full forgiveness of all 146 thy sins and shortcomings.” And she saw at that moment that her soul in the eyes of God was whiter than snow.
When, some days later, this confidence still filled her with joy, she began to fear lest she had deceived herself. “For,” she thought, “if the Lord really gave me that white raiment, surely I must have stained it many times since then by my many faults.” But the Lord comforted her, saying, “Is it not true that I always retain in My hand a greater power than I bestow upon My creatures? Hast thou not seen how the sun by the power of its heat draws out the spots and stains from the white linen that it bleaches, and makes it whiter than it was before? How much more can I, the Creator of the sun, keep in stainless whiteness the soul upon whom I have had mercy, pouring forth upon it the warmth of my burning love?”
Here, again, we see that Gertrude arrived at the right sense of perfect forgiveness, though it was rather the Love of Christ than His bloodshedding which gave her this assurance. She no doubt had an unclouded belief in the expiation made by His blood, as we see from other passages in her book. But in resting her 147 assurance on His love, if that were (as happily it was not) the whole ground of her confidence, she would have failed in the possession of unchanging peace. She would have rejoiced at the moments when she realised His great love, and have feared and trembled when the sense of it was overclouded by sin and infirmity. The Christian taught of God looks back to see how Christ once bore his sins in His own body on the cross, and looks up to see Christ in glory as the proof that those sins are for ever put away. He rests upon these unchangeable facts—all the more, therefore, realising the marvellous love of the Divine Saviour who died for him, and rose again for his justification.
Gertrude did seek and find this solid foundation. “The longing for certainty,” writes Preger, “characterises her inner life. Her powerful mind could only be satisfied in the firm grasping of evident truth. This led her to feel the necessity of immediate intercourse with God.” And when she had the assurance of knowing the will of God, she acted, therefore, with an extraordinary decision and promptness. The sisters were astonished at the suddenness of her determinations, and the 148 speed with which she carried them out. They suspected at first that she was self-willed, but they came afterwards to the conclusion that she was carrying out the will of God.
In the last years of her life her longing to depart and to be with Christ became so intense, that she fought against it as a mark of an impatient spirit. “But,” says Preger, “to what clearness and assurance of Divine truth she had been led, we see from the joyful confidence with which she looked forward to death and judgment.” In the last chapters of her book of prayers, before mentioned, we find a passage with which it is well to conclude the history of her spiritual life.
“O Truth, Thou hast for Thine inseparable companions Justice and Equity. In number, measure, and weight Thy judgment stands firm. That which Thou weighest, Thou weighest in a perfect balance. Woe is me, a thousandfold woe, if I fall into Thine hands and there should be found no substitute to take my place.
“O Love Divine, Thou wilt provide the substitute. Thou wilt answer for me. Thou wilt undertake my cause, that I may live because of Thee.149
“I know what I will do. I will take the cup of salvation. The Cup, which is Jesus, I will place in the empty scale. Thus—thus all my deficiency will be made up, all my sin covered, all my ruin restored, and all my imperfection will become more than perfect.
“Lord, at this hour (six o’clock) Thy Son Jesus was brought to judgment. Thou didst lay upon Him the sin of the whole world, upon Him who was sinless, but who was called to render account for my sin and my guilt. Yea, O my God, I receive Him from Thine hand as my companion in the judgment; I receive Him, the Most Innocent, the Most Beloved, Him who was condemned and slain for love to me, and now Thy gift, O my loving God, to me.
“O blessed Truth, to come before Thee without my Jesus would be my fear and terror, but to come with Him is joy and gladness. O Truth, now mayest Thou sit down on the judgment-seat and bring against me what Thou wilt. I fear nothing. I know—I know that Thy glorious face will have no terror for me, for He is with me, who is all my hope and all my assurance. I would ask, how canst Thou now condemn me when I have my Jesus as 150 mine, that dearest, that truest Saviour, who has borne all my sin and misery that He might win for me eternal pardon.
“My beloved Jesus, blessed Pledge of my redemption, Thou wilt appear before the judgment-seat for me. By Thy side do I stand there. Thou the Judge, and Thou the Substitute also. Then wilt Thou recount what Thou didst become for love of me, how tenderly Thou hast loved me, how dearly Thou hast bought me, that I through Thee might be righteous before God.
“Thou hast betrothed me to Thyself; how could I be lost? Thou hast borne my sins. Thou hast died, that to all eternity I might never die. All that is Thine Thou hast freely given me, that I through Thy deserving might be rich. Even so, in the hour of death, I shall be judged according to that innocence, according to that purity, which Thou hast freely given me, when Thou didst pay the whole debt for me by giving Thyself. Thou wert judged and condemned for my sake, that I, poor and helpless as I am, might be more than rich in all the wealth that is Thine, and mine through Thee.”151
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