The Prologue of The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness obviously shows the importance of the title given to the whole work, and how the work received this title. Actually, the Lord himself gave this title to the work, as a child receives a name from his parents. Here it is in its original version: Legatus memorialis abundantiae divinae pietatis, which the English version of the Cistercian Fathers Series translated: The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness. Every word is important, but our attention focuses undoubtedly on the word “pietas”. This word is dear in Latin and in the Christian tradition, but it is difficult to understand now exactly what it used to mean. Whoever wants to experience the pietas hidden in The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness must necessarily try to understand this meaning. Maybe the work will be a bit dry, but it is worth it.


   In The Herald, pietas is used 242 times, as follows:


Prologue : 8 uses in  5   pages of the Sources Chrétiennes edition:

Livre 1   : 20          -           52                     -

Livre 2   : 44          -           63                     -

Livre 3   : 62          -          167                    -

Livre 4   : 50          -          235                    -

Livre 5   : 57          -          130                    -

Missa     : 1            -          12                      -


These numbers clearly show that of the five books of The Herald, the greatest density of the use of the word pietas is in Book 2, if we consider the number of printed pages. And we know that Book 2 is the only one totally written by Gertrud herself. The Prologue also, with eight uses in five pages, immediately draws the attention of the readers to this omnipresent manna "which will give them the foretaste of my overabundant loving-kindness"(P4,14-15[1]). After such an observation, it seemed impossible to identify the meaning of pietas in The Herald without taking time to look at the immediate linguistic context of these 242 uses. Let us look at the result of this survey.





As the title of this paragraph indicates, we won’t look at the general context of pietas, but only at its immediate context. It means that our survey will deliberately ignore many nouns such as amor, caritas, bonitas, suavitas, sapientia, clementia, misericordia, miseratio, compassio, dignatio, delectatio, deliciae, etc, though they are all connected to pietas and they are very numerous in The Herald. However, it seems to me they are less important than another category, more immediate, which counts one noun, eight adjectives and two verbs:


1. Abundantia is the noun most often used, and actually almost the only noun in the immediate context of pietas. We must keep in mind that it is an integral part of The Herald title: Legatus memorialis abundantiae divinae pietatis. Consequently, right from the beginning we know that pietas is characterized by abundance. In many cases, this abundance becomes overabundance (superabundantia). We are here in the order of volumes and quantities. From this point of view, pietas lacks nothing.


2. Of the eight adjectives which qualify pietas, the most used is undeniably divina, with 55 uses, against 26 for gratuita, 14 for incontinens, 13 for supereffluens, 12 for benigna, 10 for liberalis, 10 for dulcis, and 8 for largiflua[1]. If we add to this essential list another list of adjectives present in the immediate context of pietas, but a bit less used, such as inaestimabilis, ineffabilis, immensa, ingenita, indeficiens, naturalis, mellea, we begin seeing around divina pietas a kind of halo of pure grace (gratuita, liberalis), which extent and volume are such that it is beyond any grasp (immensa, largiflua, inaestimabilis, ineffabilis, indeficiens, supereffluens), and that God, in his very nature, can, as it were, hardly hold back (ingenita, naturalis, incontinentissima). And we perceive that this overwhelming wave of divine garce has all the characteristics of goodness (benigna) and sweetness (dulcis, mellea[2]) manifested to us in Jesus Christ.


3. Two verbs, cogere and confidere, are also in the immediate context of pietas. The first points to the influence of pietas on God himself. The second indicates the required conditions for people to be able to receive and benefit from the divina pietas. We will meet both of them again later in our study.





The Herald overwhelmingly celebrates pietas as divina. The title again, right from the beginning, has probably informed the readers that they must not expect to find in The Herald a balanced use of pietas, referring sometimes to God and sometimes to humankind. On the contrary, the very rare exceptions in which it is found in relation to humankind are an obvious evidence that its emphasis is deliberately on God himself, and more specifically on Jesus Christ[3]. The divina pietas manifested in Jesus Christ is the most divine characteristic of what is divine. The numbers themselves are convincing: of the 242 uses of pietas, only 24 do not relate directly to God. They break down as follows: 12 refer to the Virgin Mary, 6 to Gertrud herself, 2 to the abbess Gertrud of Hackeborn, 1 to a dead nun, 1 to the daughters of the abbess Gertrud of Hackeborn who, after her death, grieved her with filial affection, 1 to the "spiritual exercises", and a last 1 to the "emotions of gentleness" (pietas) against which we have to keep watch.


These 24 uses of pietas for subjects others than God call for some comments:


1. First we must note that it is not because pietas is applied to other subjects than God that it is not divina. On the contrary, it seems that it is so much about something which, in God and Jesus Christ, is the most divine, that the only persons who can totally partake in it are those who can give themselves to it without any further obstacle, in this case four women: the Virgin Mary, Saint Gertrud herself, the abbess Gertrud of Hackeborn, and a dead nun. We can also notice that these four women have overcome the obstacle of death. Does this mean that the praise of pietas could not be achieved except at the cost of this passage?


2. We must be very attentive to the fact that though pietas is applied six times to Gertrud, it is not part of her virtues, which are very numerous, presented in the large portrait of chapters 5 to 12 in Book 1, though we can find in them suavitas, humilitas, caritas, etc.


3. Another observation whose importance must not be underestimated is this: not once in Book 4, which is the book of feasts par excellence, do we find tribute paid to the pietas of the saints, except that of the Holy Virgin Mary.


With all these comments, we are even more convinced that The Herald is a huge staging of a divina pietas which presents itself as the most specific characteristic of divine love. We could almost say that Pietas is here the name of God, the one which allows love to reveal its identity with an amazing and incomparable virtuosity.





Fourteen times in The Herald, the divina pietas is characterized as incontinens, of which six times with the superlative incontinentissima. One might say that it is not a lot. That would be true if we had not already noticed in the immediate linguistic context of pietas the notion of "abundance" and even of "overabundance". Incontinens and abundantia, incontinentissima and superabundantia, thus converge towards the idea of "over" which God does not resist. The pietas of God is too great for him to be able to hold it back! It overflows, as if he could not master it. We are here facing a truth which is not new in the Christian tradition, but that has been brilliantly staged by Saint Gertrud and her confidents: the powerlessness of God the Almighty, two things that can go together only through love.

The verb cogere, which is also found in the immediate linguistic context of pietas, and which is joined to two other verbs, compellere and devincere, confirms and strengthens the irrationality and foolishness of this truth. Not only does God not resist his own pietas, but it is in himself, so to speak, that we find the subject and object of a struggle, from which he emerges both as "defeated" (devictus) and victorious. It is this unbelievable paradox that the Legatus aims to show us, so that the readers can give themselves to it, likewise without any resistance.





An overabundance which cannot hold itself back inevitably leads to an overflowing. This is evoked through the adjective supereffluens used 13 times in The Herald. It is used either in its simple form (effluens), or in the superlative (supereffluentissima), or as a noun (supereffluentia). We can easily consider it as being part of the immediate linguistic family of divina pietas, and through one more syllable - flu[4] -, it introduces an image which is fundamental to the correct understanding of pietas and Gertrud’s whole message: the image of liquidity. The Herald seeks nothing indeed but to draw its readers into the stream of divina pietas which is often characterized by its immensity. It is the inexhaustible "abyss" (abyssus) of the divine tenderness, the ‘torrent” of the divine pleasure promised, "the ocean" (pelagus) where one must learn how to swim, "the flood" (inundatio) of divine mercy. Gertrud does not have enough words to praise the work of the waters in which she asks to perish, to sink, totally submerged in a death by love that she constantly desires. This is seen in this prayer, part of the fourth Exercise, where there are the most expressive images of liquidity, with a lyricism pregnant with violent loving desire:


"What am I, my God, love of my heart? Alas, alas, how unlike you I am! Behold, it is as if I were a tiny droplet of your goodness, and you the full ocean of total gentleness. Ah! O love, love, open, open on me, the very little one, the viscera of your loving-kindness (pietas). Pour on me all the cataracts of your most gracious fatherliness. Break over me all the fountains of the great abyss of your unlimited mercy. Let the depth of your charity absorb me. Let me be submerged into the abyss of the ocean of your most indulgent loving-kindness (pietas). Let me perish in the deluge of your living love just as a drop perishes in the depth of the ocean’s fullness. Let me die, let me die in the torrent of your immense compassion, just as the little spark of fire dies in the stream’s strongest current. Let the raindrops of your cherishing-love envelop me. Let the cup of your love carry my life away. Let the secret counsel of your wisest love bring about and perfect glorious death in me through life-sustaining love. There, there, I will lose my life in you where you live eternally, o my love, God of my life. Amen." (Spiritual Exercise 4 p.69[2]. Ex 4:331-347).


This prayer drew our attention, not only because of its impressive series of images of liquidity, but also because it places both partners in the same realm of symbolic correspondences, in which the aqueous and liquid element is precisely what makes the correspondence possible between the one who prays and the One who is prayed to. Through the images, it also leads both to union. We notice indeed that the one who prayed considered herself as "a tiny droplet of your goodness", before the One she invoked as "the full ocean of total gentleness". And again: "the drop" which wishes to perish "in the deluge of your living love." Between both partners, the symbolic element is thus the same. The difference is only at the level of quantity: tiny for one, immense for the other. Either in the Exercises or in The Herald, we very often find this interplay of symbolic correspondences characterized by the same difference, until the very last pages of Book 5, in which, through an anticipated vision of her own death, Gertrud again perceived herself as "a tiny raindrop"(Book 5:32,8,6) as the whole work ends, leading the reader for the last time to the horizon of the "rivers of divine goodness"(Book 5:36,1,20).


At this point, it would be too early to study further the theme of liquidity. We will come back to it at the end of our study, when we deal with the effects of Eucharistic communion. Then we will be more able to see the ramifications and advantages of what we no more than touch upon here.




If The Herald reveals to us a God being "incontinent" with pietas, does it reveal to us anything about what God expects from us, so that already here below, we may receive a foretaste of his divina pietas ? We need to make a threefold distinction:


1. The Prologue tells us very early about the necessary conditions for a fruitful reading of The Herald: "If anyone wishes to read this book with a devout intention of spiritual progress..."(Prologue 2 p.31. P 2,9-10 = Si quis cum devota intentione spiritualis profectus in hoc libro legere desideravit). Now, this is clear and straightforward! We understand that a "devout intention"[5] is required. The nuance brought by the adjective devota is not insignificant, but it calls for reservations, as we read in Book 3,20 p.78 (L3,18,20) that people can lack devotio though not being deprived of the attention and esteem of the pietas Dei:

"I could wish my chosen did not think me so cruel, but would believe that I would receive it as good, even as excellent, if they show me some service at great cost. For instance, someone offers a sacrifice to God at great cost when he has no taste for devotion (qui cum non habet saporem devotionis) but still serves God in prayers, genuflections and the like, and beyond this trusts in the benign loving-kindness of God, that he will however accept it with pleasure" (et super his confidit de benigna pietate Dei, quod tamen placite illud acceptet).


2. If God cannot restrain his divina pietas from overflowing, as we have seen, this huge overflowing must be received in an empty[6] receptacle able to restrain it. Paradoxically, the more pietas will find people able of “restraint”, which actually means self-restraint, the more it will reveal itself. This is how we must understand the continentia required, it seems. God is as much "unrestrained" with his pietas, as people must be "restraint" to hold it. Two particularly suggestive passages of The Herald evidence it:

. The first is part of Saint Gertrud’s portrait. Compared to the heaven in which God dwells, Gertrud’s mira continentia takes the place of the moon (Book 1,9,1 p.63. L1,9).

. The second is a light she received from God, a day when she was trying to understand "by what rationale some abound in such richness of spirit in the service of God while others remain so dry." Here is the answer she received from God, as was reported by Gertrud’s confidante:


"The heart was created by God to hold pleasures just as a pot that holds water (ad continendas delectationes, sicut vas quod continet aquam); but if the pot holding (continens) water pours it out through tiny holes, eventually it can become so empty that the pot too remains dry. So if the human heart holding pleasure (sic cor humanum continens delectationem) pours it out through the physical senses, that is, by seeing and hearing and also doing what it wants through the other physical senses, it can pour out so much that the heart will remain empty of pleasure in God. Anyone could experience this in themselves. When one wants to see something, or speak a single word in which there is little or no profit, if he does it at once he thinks nothing of it, for it slips out like water. But if he determines to hold it back because of God, (si vero propter Deum continere proponit), it grows in his heart so much that he can hardly control it. Thence when a person has learnt to control himself in such matters, he becomes used to taking pleasure in God, and the harder the effort to do this, the more fruitfully he begins to take pleasure in God." (Book 3,30,36 p.116. L3,30,36)


The verb continere is used five times in this passage, which is obviously in the same spirit as the previous one, and maybe also written by the same person. Both texts speak about the holding back or the “restraint” (continere, continentia) of the physical senses, in order to keep the pleasure in God. But if we lack continentia, shall we be deprived of the pietas? The whole Herald urges us to answer "no", for the divina pietas is neither subjected to the human continentia nor to the human devotio. Continentia and devotio help a lot to experience it, for sure, but in so far as this pietas is divina, it is also gratuita (this word is used 26 times), absolutely free to spread the overabundance of its flood in profusion, as it wills, and when it wills (Prologue 1).


3. The immediate linguistic context of the divina pietas allows us to assert that human confidentia (used 22 times) is its favorite soil. Conversely, the lack of confidentia is its greatest obstacle. As we have seen, a lack of devotio or of continentia deprives people of pleasure in God, but they do not deprive God from exercising his pietas towards people. On the contrary, the lack of confidentia, without going so far as to deprive God of the outpouring of his pietas on people, nevertheless delays its total overflowing. This is obvious in a comparison made by the Lord himself between the confidentia of his beloved Gertrud and the lack of confidentia of another person:


"I put off an answer concerning what you desire for so long because you, unlike my beloved, have no trust in what my freely-given loving-kindness deigns to work in you (quia non confidis in his quae in te gratuita pietas mea dignatur operari). She is well rooted in strong trust, and in everything trusts fully in my loving-kindness (sicut illa mea facit, quae in forti confidentia bene radicata, in omnibus de mea pietate plene confidit). Therefore all that she desires from me, I never deny her. " (Bok 1,10,5 p.68-69. L1,10,5,9-14)


We can see that this passage is at the end of a chapter in which confidentia stands as the first star in the heaven of Gertrud’s holiness. It shines so brilliantly that the writer of Book 1 considered it more as a "gift" than as a "virtue": "How extraordinarily there shone in her, not the virtue but rather the gift of trust (non dico virtus, sed potius donum confidentiae)..." (Book 1,10,1 p.66. L1,10,1,1-2)


Therefore we cannot doubt any longer that in The Herald, the divina pietas is affected most of all by the presence or absence of human confidentia. At least it seems to be more affected by it than by devotio and continentia. We can illustrate this with another example, in which the pietas Dei is not paralyzed by the lack of confidentia this time. But strong human confidentia is so powerful over the pietas Dei that the Heart of Christ is pierced by it:


"On Holy Innocents’ day while she was being hampered by the turmoil of her thoughts in her preparation for communion, she was asking divine help on this. This was the answer she received from God’s most courteous mercy: "If anyone, attacked by human temptation, takes refuge with confident hope under my protection, he is one of those of whom I say: One is my dove, as if chosen from thousands; with a single glance of her eyes she has wounded my divine heart through and through, so much so that, if I knew I could not help her, it would be such a source of sorrow to my heart that all the delights of heaven could not assuage it. For in my body which is united to my divinity, my chosen have always an advocate who compels me to have compassion on their various needs." She replied "My Lord, how can your spotless body, in which you have never had any contradiction, compel you to have compassion on us in our anxieties that are so various?" To this the Lord replied, "It is easy to persuade one who is understanding. For the apostle said of me, “He had to be made like his brethren in every respect, that he might become merciful”?" The Lord added, "The single glance of my chosen one with which she had pierced my heart through and through is the sure trust that one ought to have in me, a trust that I truly have the power, the knowledge, and the will to be faithfully at her side in everything. This trust acts with such force on my loving-kindness that it is quite impossible for me to leave her " (Unus oculorum electae meae quo transvulnerat Cor meum, secura confidentia est quam habere debet de me, quod vero possim, sciam et velim sibi in omnibus fideliter adesse : quae confidentia tantam vim facit pietati meae, quod nullatenus possum ipsi abesse). She said, "My Lord, since trust is such a sure good, which no one can possess unless you have given it, how can someone who lacks it be at fault?" The Lord replied, "Anyone at all can overcome his faintheartedness to a certain extent, at least on the evidence of Scripture. For he can say to me, if not with his whole heart at least with his mouth, that prayer of Job’s: "Even if I have been plunged into the abyss of hell, you shall free me from there ", and that other prayer, "Even though you kill me, yet shall I trust in you ", and others like it." (Book 3,7 p.38-39. L3,7)


This page is extremely poignant, as this time it is the pietas Dei which admits defeat by the confidentia. As we had seen this pietas going through a struggle in God, in which God was defeated, this time it is itself defeated by human confidentia. It is so much defeated that the Divine Heart of Jesus Christ is pierced. Does this mean that eventually, humankind will be victorious over God? Yes, answered the "elect child" (prolis electae) that we have been reading. The power of love is to be willing to be defeated by the trust of the one it loves. God cannot resist it. His Heart is pierced by it, it liquefies, and torrents of pietas overflow into the valley of humankind, whatever be the depth of its wretchedness (Book 2,1,1 p.100. L2,1,1).


These are the most obvious characteristics of pietas in The Herald. To perceive its originality even more deeply, we would need to consult the cultural, patristic and liturgical culture in which Saint Gertrud and the nuns of Helfta lived. We thus could see that this way of speaking about the divine love as pietas is undoubtedly one of the most important characteristics of their message.






[1] My translation

[2] in Gertrud the Great of Helfta, Spiritual Exercises, Translation, Introduction, Notes and Indexes by Gertrud Jaron Lewis and Jack Lewis, Kalamazoo : Cistercian Publications, 1989, Cistercian Fathers Series 49.

[1] . These adjectives are sometimes used as nouns: supereffluentia, liberalitas, dulcedo. They are also often used in the superlative: incontinentissima, supereffluentissima, liberalissima, benignissima, dulcissima. It is one of the characteristics of the style used at Helfta. See Pierre Doyère, « Introduction », SC 139, pp. 25-26.


[2] . Dulcis is in the order of contact and taste which, in The Herald and in reference to Saint Bernard, calls for the image of honey (mellea) which overflows (melliflua). To understand correctly gentleness in Gertrud, see P.Doyère, « Introduction », SC 139, p.27.


[3] . When the adjective divina does not qualify pietas, pietas is often used with a possessive (pietas mea, pietas tua, pietas sua). The Herald uses the possessive adjective 111 times with pietas; 29 times as pietas tua in Book 2 only. In any case, whenever pietas is divina or is accompanied with a possessive, it refers almost always to the pietas of the Lord Jesus Christ.



[4] . From fluo, fluere: to pour, to flow out. Gertrud and the nuns of Helfta are fond of the vocabulary of overflowing. They often add it to ordinary adjectives: pietas is thus not only supereffluentissima, but also largiflua (8 times), and melliflua, suaviflua, etc.


[5]. The devota intentione is the contrary of «vain curiosity» which the Lord attacks in Book 5,34,1,19-24: «If someone, pressed by vain curiosity (Qui vero curiosa instigatur elatione), comes behind me and looks over my shoulder to examine and check the text of my book, for sure I will not put up with this nuisance for long, and for his shame, I will reject him by my divine power without hesitation. » 


[6]. Book 4,26 p.394. L4,26,9,26-28: «I require nothing from you but to come to me empty (evacuata) that I may fill you; for it is from me that you receive all which makes you agreeable in my sight. »