Great Mystics

On November 19th three 13th Century German mystics are honored by the church, two Matildas and a Gert: Mechtild of Magdeburg, Mechtild of Hackeborn, and Gertrude the Great, Visionaries of the Church.

Mechtild of Magdeburg (“Matilda” is the Anglicized version of the name) was descended from nobility. She left home in her 20’s to join a Beguine community (a lay sisterhood leading religiously pious lives), and adopted a rigid austerity. She spoke harshly against the excesses of the church and the clergy, believing that greed was corrupting the message of the Gospel. She also believed the clergy were poorly trained and advocated for stricter requirements for the priesthood.

She began having visions and dreams, and wrote them down in a poetic work entitled The Flowing Light of the Godhead, one of the best examples of female authorship to survive the Middle Ages.

Mechtild of Hackeborn was the sister of the Baroness of Hackeborn, and in charge of the monastery school in the area. She was a fabulous instructor (and would instruct Gertrude the Great, mentioned below), who shared her spiritual insight, teachings, and experiences with her students. The work The Book of Special Grace, made public after her death, records these mystical visions as remembered by her beloved students. She loved to sing her visions, being called a “nightingale of Christ.”

Gertrude the Great was entrusted to the Cistercian foundation at Helfta a the age of five, and came under the tutelage of Mechtild of Hackeborn there. She quickly became fluent in Latin, was well educated in the liberal arts, and well read in literature and the sciences of the times. At the age of twenty-five she, too, began having mystical visions and dreams which continued throughout the whole of her life. At their onset she began to study Augustine, Bernard, and Hugh of Clairvaux (interestingly enough, our own Blessed Martin Luther favored these scholars as well). She went on to compose the Legatus Divinae Pietatis, widely considered one of the best products of Christian mysticism.

Gertrude the Great’s mystical visions almost all happened during the liturgy, and she felt that worship was the spring that fed her spirituality.

These three great mystics of the church are a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes the most obscure individuals hold the grandest insights. I’ve long said that the best sermons preached on any given Sunday are preached to less than fifty people.

It’s true.

-historical bits by Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon is of Mechtild of Magdeburg