Today is the Feast Day of St. Gertrude the Great, a 13th century Benedictine nun and tireless intellectual. Kerry Trotter takes a look at what it means to be great in the saintly sense, and how this particular example can be so helpful to the very vulnerable.
A couple of weeks ago, some among us on the Word on Fire staff gathered for our weekly content meeting. We bandied about blog post suggestions, perused movie openings, and flipped through the Ordo in search of November feast days.
It was there something curious emerged.
November 10: St. Leo the Great
November 15: St. Albert the Great
November 16: St. Gertrude the (you guessed it) Great.
I asked Father Steve in a most earnest-but-admittedly-sounding-a-little-like-a-wiseacre way, “What makes them so great? Aren’t they already saints?”
Father Steve’s answer surprised me: “What makes them great? Well, nothing in particular.”
To clarify, Father Steve wasn’t asserting that these saints weren’t great (lowercase “G”), but the tag of Great (capital “G”) wasn’t a formal Church title, as “saint” or “blessed” would be. Great (capital “G”) was and is determined by the scope of one’s work.
Even still, wasn’t the work of all saints great? Dusting off my very dusty journalism degree, and to the disappointment of professors everywhere, I hit up Wikipedia for answers. I needed to craft a blog around this, and I wasn’t finding anything definitive on which to hang a really brilliant point.
What I did find was this: often in ye olden days, folks were informally assigned epithets to distinguish themselves, especially in the ranks of the clergy and religious where men and women shared a handful of names. John the Wise. Peter the Short. Kerry the Procrastinator. Those who were decided to be great, that was a fantastic compliment from their peers and a testament to their influence. What was it that Matthew wrote? “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Still, a cohesive blog post this did not make.
My conundrum was great. Lowercase “G”, used in the pejorative.
This piece was supposed to run yesterday, the Feast of St. Albert the Great, also known as Albertus Magnus. St. Albert was no slouch, but I was having trouble relating to him, finding a nugget of his life that I could say, “Oh yeah, I hear that.” This Albertus was just a little too Magnus for the likes of minimus me.
There was hemming, there was hawing, there was a great deal of staring at a blank Word document, and then pausing for Pinterest breaks until it became painfully obvious that my daughter, her rousing renditions of “BaaBaa Black Sheep” piped in through the baby monitor, wasn’t going to nap (a disturbing recent trend), thus nothing would wind up getting done. And this was due the following day. I felt like I was in high school again, and I needed to piece together a research paper on “The Odyssey” having only read the Cliff’s Notes (true story).
Thankfully, I was granted a daylong reprieve, which turned out to be fortuitous. This would now run on St. Gertrude’s feast day, today, and that sparked something — something I could relate to.
St. Gertrude was born in the 13th century in Eisleben, Thuringia in the Holy Roman Empire. Not much is known of her family, so it was assumed she was an orphan. She joined a Benedictine monastery in Helfta, and quickly distinguished herself as a mystic, and an intellectual and tireless student of literature and philosophy.
Not being so well versed in the gender politics of 13th century Thuringia, I’m only assuming that women didn’t often enjoy academic pursuits, certainly not to the degree of becoming an “expert” on anything. The Church afforded women such as St. Gertrude the opportunity to use gifts, great gifts, for the fulfillment of self in Christ and ultimately the betterment of others. It’s an interesting twist for an institution that is often under the microscope for its relationship to women, and at a time where women were very much beholden to men.
Unrelated, I attended an all-girls high school run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart. This was hardly a “finishing school,” as outsiders often joked, where students entered girls but exited ladies — ladies who lunched and needlepointed and just got enough of an education to not be a total bore to their husbands.
Oofah, not even close.
This was a no-nonsense school. Tough, strict and challenging while still nurturing us at a fraught developmental time under less than ideal conditions (no boys? Oh, the humanity!). There was no cutting us slack, no coddling us because we were girls, and zero tolerance for the ditzy teen routine.
It was like boot camp at times, trudging in on a dark, wintry morning with that feeling of exhausted dread — they weren’t going to let me slide, ever, and I had logged the late night of studying to prove it.
(If you’re wondering, that “Odyssey” incident was early in my freshman year, and I paid the price.)
But St. Gertrude got me reminiscing about my high school, about how by the grace of God and some teachers’ tough love, goofy little brace-faced me found a voice and a place. For Gertrude, it was the Benedictines. For me, it was Woodlands Academy. It might not be the easiest route, nor under ideal conditions, but it got the job done. And then some.
My first week of college, with boys, I’d run into fellow students in the cafeteria or student center and they’d say, “Oh, hey, you’re in my Western Civ class. You’re the one that always raises her hand, whether you have the right answer or not.”
I took that as a compliment, and as a testament to my educators. As the mother of a toddler daughter, I have developed that prudish wince when I pass middle schools and see how girls are dressed, and grimace when I hear young women who sound as though they’ve recently graduated from the Kardashian Academy of Voice and Diction.
Letting girls slide into this lazy pattern of “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl” Malibu Stacey tropisms is something for which I get absolutely incensed. What would St. Gertrude say to that? The orphan, the mystic, the brilliant servant of God?
She is often invoked in prayers as one who aids the souls in purgatory; those who are suspended between the life that was expected of them and the ecstasy of what could be.
I propose we throw adolescent girls into that purgatorial mix, and that we ask St. Gertrude to pray for them, too. It’s a hard age, in an unforgiving time, but she is as good an example as any that even the lowliest, the meekest, the ones fondest of slinking down in their seat in the back of the classroom can crack open a book and can get a taste of what it means to be great.
Kerry Trotter is a writer and the content manager at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.