In every age, Saint Gertrud’s readers have had to face her style. The outward appearance seemed so hard to some of them – actually perhaps because she is too tender – that they were not able to taste the fruit. Not all of them were as wise as Mr. Olier, who gave the advice to a penitent to go on reading her, “notwithstanding the little distaste she felt”.
. Coming up against the exterior form, they also came up against its deeper meaning, and saw nothing in these "revelations" but "oddities, insipidness, foolishness, nonsense, and childishness".
. But most of them received her message and learned how to decipher it thanks to the keys provided for by the child. Neither can we enter the play of The Herald without knowing its keys. In this conference we shall be especially attentive to one of them, that Gertrud called the “alphabet of pictures” (Book 2,24,1 p.172. L 2,24,1,13-14), in other words, the ABCs of pietas as it reveals itself.
The child/Herald often expresses herself on the validity of these pictures (imaginationes, similitudines), especially in three major passages, located at strategic places of her work: the Prologue (Prologue 6 p.33-34. P 6), the last chapter of the Prima Pars (Book 2:24 p.172. L 2,24), and the last chapter of the Secunda Pars (L 5,36). It is obvious that the first function of these pictures is to make communication possible between author and reader. In this sense, their function is symbolic just as any verbal or written language. They are the exterior form chosen by pietas to put itself within reach of the reader, without however hiding its embarrassment to have to reveal, with such an alphabet, what "cannot share any trace of material imagery; he alone who eats it will still hunger for more" (Book 2,24,1 p.172-173. L 2,24,1,16-17).
However clumsy this written form may be to express the inexpressible of love-pietas, Gertrud is nonetheless aware that it is an appropriate and conductive means to operate a movement in the readers, so that they "may achieve personal experience in their inmost being of ampler graces" (tracti in intimis suis ampliora experiantur, Book 2,24,1 p.172. L 2,24,1,12). We find an echo of that by the writer of Book 5,36, when she recommends to "people of little experience, unable to swim by themselves in the torrents of the divine loving-kindness (in profluvio divinae pietatis)", to read "this little book". "It will be for them a vehicle to choose the right way. As they become delighted seeing the graces granted to others, and are thus, as if led by the hand, attentive to reading, to meditation, and to contemplation, they thus begin to taste in themselves how sweet the Lord is" (L 5,36,1,20-25). Pietas invites us to a journey, to a change of place. By an alphabet of pictures, it reveals itself to the eyes of the readers to make them hunger for it, and to introduce itself in their bodies as bread does (L 5,33,1,6.13). It is easy to notice the privileged place of taste in Gertrud, and we can say that in the whole Herald, she relies on the theme of the chewing of pictures, which are ground through reading to become "a hidden manna, .... throughout the journey of this exile, until with uncovered face we reflect the glory of the Lord, and are transformed from brightness to brightness, by your most delightful Spirit ". (Book 2,24,1, p.173. L 2,24,1,15.18-22)
Perhaps no one has better understood the value of Gertrud’s images as icons, than Maria-Teresa Porcile. Here are long excerpts from a conference she gave at the annual general meeting of the CFC (the Cistercian French speaking Commission of Liturgy) in 1990:
"We cannot enter the realm of Mysticism with the criteria of a rational and academic theology, but rather through the image and the symbol (...). To do so, let us first get rid of this natural and always threatening tendency to consider the word "image" as imagination, as unreality (...). Let us approach Gertrud from her own symbolic language, her visions, her images, and her apocalyptic and eschatological language. Let us not consider her anymore as part of 'the past', of the Middle Ages, but rather in the perspective of the future. In a certain way, Gertrud is a surrealist. Surrealism does not upset images, it does not dissect them to analyze them ... as does cubism, which enlarges the space... Surrealism works differently with reality. It makes a "surreality..." (p.233-234) (...)
There are numerous texts in which Gertrud speaks of this recreation through the power of images, but it is actually always the work of the Lord (...). This gradual transformation from images to images allows her to reach the goal of all contemplative and Christian life: the vision of the face of the Lord. Gertrud hungers and thirsts for this face "(p.248-249).
About Gertrud’s visions, Maria-Teresa makes a connection between the language of The Herald and the book of Revelation:
"The vision is a literary genre specific to the apocalyptic and to eschatology. Is not the apocalyptic a world of revelations and visions? Gertrud also expresses herself with an astonishing evocative power (...). The criterion of understanding the vision is neither the certainty nor what is tangible, but it is in the inner pondering of what is described.
"...The language of the book of Revelation ...tells us about a victory over the limits of time and space ... that is why it is the language of eschatology ... Whoever expresses oneself through visions ... is victorious over all limits and borders.
"Through vision, one sees at another level with a different intensity, one sees from within... one is in relation with what is seen, and this establishes communion and similarity. Eastern Christianity, which teaches us how to look at icons, knows this well.
"...the major condition for participating in the liturgy of the Lamb, is to have wings, eyes all over, and to repeat unceasingly "Holy, Holy, Holy ". That is what Gertrud is experiencing (pp.250-252)."
The Lord had to struggle to have Gertrud consent to write. And even after she gave her consent, she was always on her guard regarding this work of writing, for she did not want to deceive either God or her readers. This restraint brought her to draw up a "list of observations which have the value of principles on the meaning and scope of her visions".
. For instance, after the narrative of what she considered "the sweetest of visions" (Book 2,21,4 p.158. L 2,21,4,1-2), she noted: "I am well aware that out of the fullness of your loving-kindness (ex abundantia pietatis), your unsearchable omnipotence is accustomed to adjusting with the greatest care the vision of yourself and your embrace and kiss, together with other manifestations, to fit the place, the time and the individual." (Book 2,21,4 p.159. L 2,21,4,12-16)
Besides, Gertrud was attentive never to expose without any explanation her images and visions, and on this point her restraint goes so far as to plead against herself in order to defend the truth. Chapter 14 of Book 4 is a good example: during the morning office, Gertrud heard Noah’s story, followed by the response Benedicens ergo, which aroused her fervor, as usual. She then said to the Lord: "... it would be for me a great favor, if you would teach your handmaid how to devote myself greatly to you by building an ark for you during this week" (Book 4,11 p.342. L 4,14,3,1-4). The Lord granted her the request and taught her how to build an ark in her heart, very pleasing to him. But Gertrud was worried: "As I have asked this instruction of you so earnestly, I cannot feel certain that you, O best of teachers, have taught it to me." (Book 4,14 p.343. L 4,14,5,1-4) The rest of the dialogue is worth being quoted in full:
"You ought not to esteem it less because I have given it to you on account of the earnest desire you expressed; for I have created your senses for my service. Was it not a more wonderful thing to say, 'Let us make man to our image and likeness', when I created him with deliberation and counsel, than to say, when I created other things: 'Let there be a firmament', or 'Let there be light?' She replied: 'If I availed myself of this authority to introduce this exercise for the benefit of others, someone else might introduce other things, which might not be an effect of your divine grace.' Our Lord replied: 'Add this caution: whoever knows in his heart that his will is so united to mine as never to dissent from it, either in prosperity or adversity, and who acts and suffers in all things purely for my glory, may certainly affirm that whatever he learns interiorly is from me, if it is useful to others, and not contradictory to Scripture." (Book 4,14 p.343-344. L 4,14,5,5-27).
The interest of this page is to show us how much Saint Gertrud was "aware of the dangers of deceptive imagination".
. The Herald would certainly not have the same authority if Gertrud had not been constantly on her guard. She understood that her alphabet of pictures and the explanations she gave were a challenge for her readers, but she did not doubt that the omnipotence of God could adjust them to fit the place, the time, and the individual. (Book 2,21,4 p.159. L 2,21,4,15). She then could plead against herself and let the Lord defend her. This passage highlights criteria of discernment worthy to be remembered. Besides, it indicates a positive way of considering the senses and sensitivity, which was not taken for granted at that time. In many ways, it is also an example of a very good interaction, according to E. Goffman: each actor saves his face by saving the face of the other, thanks to a tactic of "mutual renunciation", which is a real "reversed bargaining, through which each one strives to give the advantage to the other", and "let the positive judgments come from the others". Thus we see Gertrud saving face by distrusting herself for the advantage of the face of the readers, and the Lord saving face by distrusting any inspiration that might scorn humankind created in his image and likeness. This double distrust, from the Lord and Gertrud, saves the face of the Herald/child that it conceived. Thus readers have all the necessary keys to save the face of this "elect child", and so the face of Gertrud and of the Lord.
The Herald’s defense of pictures uses also Scripture. Here are two evocative examples:
1) The first is about "Master Hugh" (= Hugh of Saint-Victor) who wrote this in his discourse On the Inner Man:
"Holy Scripture, in order to engage the speculative powers of lower beings, and to come down to the level of human frailty, describes invisible reality by means of the forms of visible things, and impresses their memory on our minds by the beauty of outward forms which arouse our desire. This is why it speaks sometimes of a land flowing with milk and honey, sometimes of flowers, sometimes of perfumes; sometimes the singing of people, the chorus of birds, symbolize the harmony of celestial joys. Read the Revelation of John and you will find Jerusalem variously described as decorated with gold and silver and pearls, and various other gems. We know, of course, that none of them is there where, all the same, nothing can be altogether lacking, for nothing of that kind is there by substance (per speciem), but all of them are present by analogy (per similitudinem). (Book 1,1,4 p.41. L 1,1,4,5-15)
The explicit reference to the book of Revelation has the advantage of giving an eschatological character to the pictures of The Herald, as Maria-Teresa Porcile highlighted: Gertrud "is not part of the past but rather of the future, of the promise, and of eschatology." She " creates a surreality."
2) In Book 4, 12 (L 4,12,3,1-14), it is more the prophetic than the apocalyptic genre which justifies the use of "mystical symbol " and "pictures":
"As she was wondering why the Lord, this time as so often, was teaching her through such a material vision, He reminded her what is sung on this feast day, about the closed door that the prophet Ezekiel foresaw in spirit, and He told her: 'As in the past the mode and economy of my incarnation, my passion, and my resurrection were signified in advance to the prophets through mystical symbols and the pictures of reality (per mysticas rerum species et similitudines), so also today spiritual and invisible realities cannot be expressed to the human mind except through pictures of the realm of the senses (per rerum cognitarum similitudines). That is why no one must despise what is revealed to him through the symbol of material realities (per imaginationes rerum corporalium), but rather everyone must strive to be worthy of perceiving and tasting, through material pictures, (per corporalium rerum similitudinem) the goodness of spiritual delights."
Once again, we notice in this passage that the alphabet of pictures must lead to the science of taste. But readers will achieve it only if they refrain from "despising" (a nullo debet vilipendi, L 4,12,3,10), and if they "strive" for it (studere debet, L 4,12,3,12). This is in the same line as the advice constantly given by The Herald to whomever wishes to experience the divina pietas in its act of revelation.
. See Pierre Doyère, « Introduction », SC 139, p.20.
. Quoted by J. HOURLIER and A. SCHMITT, « Introduction », SC 127, P.21.
. Maria-Teresa PORCILE, « Sainte Gertrude et la liturgie », Liturgie CFC, 1990/4, pp.220-255.
. Cyprien VAGAGGINI, Initiation théologique à la liturgie, T 2, Biblica, Bruges-Paris 1963, p.209.
. Cyprien VAGAGGINI, op. cit., p.210.
. Erving GOFFMAN is an American sociologist who has studied at length interactions in daily life. He has shown how everyone tries to «save face », and how societies have established «rites of interaction» to save face. Experience has showed that it is always dangerous to save face at the expense of others’ face. The only way to succeed is to save face by saving the others’ face. See La mise en scène de la vie quotidienne, T 1, La présentation de soi, et T 2, Les relations en public, Paris, Minuit, 1973. Les rites d’interaction, Paris, Minuit, 1974.