Book review by Judith Lampard
[Published by METHODIST RECORDER, March 27, 2020]
SISTER Elizabeth Ruth Obbard’s latest book in the series “For Everyone”, which aims to make classic spiritual texts accessible and relevant for modern readers, is Beloved of My Heart – the Writings and Prayers of St Gertrude the Great for Everyone. It follows the pattern for these books, which works well. There is a useful introduction to the life and influence of the subject and some examples of their own devotional material. The author also provides delightful, simple illustrations.
St Gertrude the Great was a German mystic, whose influence is only now being properly appreciated. She is described as a teacher and model of monastic discipleship.
Perhaps surprisingly, she did not become an abbess nor hold a similar high profile role in her community: for the whole of her life she just remained a nun, though one who exerted a quiet, significant, influence on her contemporaries.
Gertrude was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256 and died on November 17 in 1301 or 1302. She entered the Monastery of Helfta in Saxony as a child oblate at the age of four and appeared not to have had any known relatives. As a substantial dowry would have been required by the monastery, the author suggests an intriguing possibility: that Gertrude may have been a “love-child” of noble or royal parentage, whose parent did not want to “own” her. Obviously this is just speculation, but Sister Elizabeth explains how such infant children of noble families at this time might be betrothed to a suitable partner, or promised to a monastery, so that parents might feel that the child’s future was secured.
After Gertrude had made her profession of vows of Obedience, Stability and Conversion of Manners, she spent a number of years in routine monastic life, until at the age of 25 she experienced an encounter with Jesus, described as a “conversion”. Methodists might find a similarity with the conversions of John and Charles Wesley, for Gertrude’s life was changed; her routine monastic life became a life of fervour.
Gertrude’s devotional life was very different from ours, but the author points out some areas of similarities. It was unexpected, at an ordinary time, not a feast day, that she met Jesus. At a later date, when she was enjoying the beauty and peace of the garden she was aware of God’s gracious presence, as we may be too. She was motivated by her sense of justice, which inspired her compassion for her contemporaries.
St Gertrude the Great wrote “Spiritual Exercises” to sustain her own conversion and to help others, and these form the major part of this book. The vocabulary and imagery she uses are very different from our own modern day spiritual practices. While it is interesting to read them and imagine the community which used them, they may not be of much practical use to those of whose devotional life comes from different sources.
But once again, we are indebted to Sister Elizabeth for giving us a glimpse of another way of holiness, as we search for our own.
Judith Lampard is a local preacher in the City Road circuit.