The title of this conference may upset some of you. Gertrud is not a “star” in the usual meaning of the word. She is a saint. So would the use of this word be unwarranted? Probably, if we were not aware of the difference between theater and holiness. Actually, I use the concept of “star”[1], boldly, I admit, in order to emphasize the kind of holiness highlighted in The Herald. Besides, this concept is not totally foreign to the literary genre of her work. Gertrud and her sisters willingly used scenarios to invite readers to enter the play of the divina pietas. It is up to the readers to benefit from them most, by letting themselves be chosen as actors, with the necessary commitment required.





At that time, Vitae usually presented their heroes/heroines as if Adam had not sinned. But here it is different. The Herald Of God’s Loving-Kindness does not hide from the public the failings of the star that it stages. This is consistent with the general ambiance of healthy authenticity which radiates from The Herald. Any kind of deceit is excluded. Gertrud was not a saint when she appeared on the stage, but she became one through consenting to the partnership proposed to her by “a young man. He was lovely and refined, and looked about sixteen; his appearance was such as my youth would find pleasing (Book 2,1,2 p.101. L 2,1,2,3-6). This was on the evening of January 27th, 1281, the day of her conversion. It was Christ, whom she recognized thanks to "the glorious gems of those wounds" (Book 2,1,2 p.101. L 2,1,2,27-28) which he bore on the hands. Gradually, he initiated Gertrud to the play of his divina pietas.


So here is something amazing that we must keep in mind: the star of The Herald has the right to have failings... and to be caught failing! or in other words, her "failings" have a role to play in pietas. Their worth is even recognized, as they let people experience pietas (Book 1,3,7 p.48-49. L 1,3,7; Book 3,82, 1 p.227. L 3,82,1; L 4,2,2; L 5,1,26; L 5,4,20). In this respect, Gertrud’s work echoes the major concerns of contemporary hagiography which, according to Dominique Bertrand, "is no longer about sublimeness, but about the presence of grace in the depth of humanity. To hide darkness is to obliterate the strength of grace"[2]. The messenger (the Holy Spirit), by choosing Gertrud, gives to the recipient (the reader) a star who can "by her example, strengthen the confidence of anyone living here on earth." Gertrud explained herself in her Herald:


"To what merits of mine, to what decisions of yours, my God, are we to attribute the fact that your love, heedless of its own riches but rich in condescension – a precipitate love, I say, which does not wait for a judicious decision and cannot be comprehended by human reason – that this love, my sweetest God, made you take leave of your senses (dare I say it?) as if you were drunk? In your madness you united two such total opposites. Or, to phrase it with greater dignity, the innate, natural loveliness of your goodness, utterly permeated with the sweetness of love, making you not merely a lover but wholly Love itself, whose more natural flow you directed toward the salvation of humanity, persuaded you to summon the farthest-flung, most miserable specimen of the human race – one devoid of all gifts of grace and fortune, of despicable life and conduct – from the far reaches of her complete worthlessness to keep company with royal – no, divine – grandeur, so that every creature living on earth might grow in confidence (confidentiam). What I hope and desire for every Christian is that, because of the honor due to my Lord, no one may be found who is worse than I am when it comes to distorting God’s gifts and scandalizing neighbors." (Book 2,8,3 p.122. L 2,8,3)


By choosing Gertrud, the director thus wished to “convince” the readers to be "confident". And we remember that it is the human confidentia which has the best hold on the divine pietas. More than the ability to welcome, confidentia exercises a power of "conviction" on pietas which compels it to manifest itself.


It would be worth studying The Herald from the angle of what Leonardo Boff calls "the integration of the negative”[3]. We could see how the "wonder", in Gertrud’s case, is not the holiness acquired at the beginning, but the holiness gained by her realistic awareness of her darkness. Gertrud was not born "as a light for the nations" (Prologue 3 p.32. P 3,4; and Book 3,64,3 p.181. L 3,64,3,12), but she aimed toward it. We must not conclude that The Herald delights in keeping the readers’ attention on the failings, darkness, and sin of the human person. Let us say rather that the serene joy which radiates from it is of the same vein as the Gospel which shows Jesus eating with sinners and saying: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance " (Lk 5:31-32). The "star", chosen by the Holy Spirit to team up with Christ, is from among the sick and the sinners, for the overflowing river of divine tenderness is in store for them. Seeing her "play"[4] with Christ, the sick and the sinners must also be "convinced" to be "confident".

Against such a criterion of choice, we could say that saints are inclined to overestimate their sins and failings. In his "Introduction" to The Herald, Pierre Doyère very skillfully refuted this argument:


"When (the mystics) confess their misery with terms expressing an extreme shame, hagiographers and moralists do not fail to warn against the exaggeration due to the very quality of their virtue of humility. This is a misunderstanding. Saints do not consider themselves from the point of view of an ideal of perfection proposed to their efforts, and then evaluate if they are close to it or if they have even accepted it. The misery which makes them groan and which is revealed to them in the same light as they see - even so dimly - the divine transcendence, is not the misery of their virtue nor of their intention. More deeply and more absolutely, it is the misery of their beings, not as an abstract and metaphysical knowledge, but as a vital reaction before the Presence of the divine Being. A moralist may not very well deny himself/herself drawing a curve of perfection going from ascesis to reach contemplation, from humility to ecstasy: but in a mystic, true humility is not at the root of ecstasy, it is its fruit. This relation has been well perceived, thanks to a special light, by the author of Book 1: she understood that it was the grandeur itself of the divine gifts which produced Gertrud’s humility; the more powerful was God’s action in her, the more she humbled herself as deeply as she could by the recognition of her own infirmity (L 1,4)"[5].


To consider Gertrud’s darkness is also to consider how the Lord reprimanded and corrected her. We do not have time to study this at length, but it is worth identifying in The Herald a constant that speaks volumes about the way the pietas Dei worked with her: the correction of the star almost always happened by an extra gentleness, and Gertrud recognized that "the sweet love of your loveliness always attracted me more greatly than the harsh punishment I deserved ever castigated me " (Book 2,2,2 p.104. L 2,2,2,17-19). In another passage she admitted:


"How often, when at the instigation of evil I have in word or deed allowed some gift I had formerly offered up to you, when there was an opportunity, to escape through euphoria or depression, I have been myself snatching that gift away from you (as if I were pulling out your teeth) and offering it to your enemy! In the midst of all this you would seem to look at me with such kindly serenity as if you, being completely incapable of deceit yourself, thought that I was doing this as a gesture of affection! Hence you have so often led me out of such a state to so great a sweetness of loving agitation that I do not believe you could ever, by terrifying me with threats, induce me to long so much to correct and keep careful watch over myself." (Book 2,13,1 p.135. L 2,13,1,30-40)


The experience of her vileness and nothingness, in the light of the pietas Dei, led Gertrud to identify what we are used to consider as one of her greatest originalities: suppletio. "It is one of the fruits of her formation in the school of the liturgy", wrote Cyprien Vagaggini[1], who saw in this suppletio the "inseparable combination of God and man, grace and human effort”:


This practice consisted in “pondering on the merits of Jesus Christ, on His sorrows, desires, prayers, on the love of His most holy humanity; to uniting herself to them and offering them to the Father, so that they may supply for her unworthiness, her negligences, her faults, her sins. Gertrud frequently had recourse in the same way to the merits of the Madonna and of the saints.

"Having done this, notwithstanding the strong awareness of her own unworthiness and the little value of her ascetical efforts in preparing herself for her encounter with God in the liturgical action, she was perfectly at peace. There is in her not only the slightest trace of a Jansenistic or Pelagian or semi-Pelagian mentality, but not even of a subconscious overestimation of voluntarist effort of man in his relations with God. Without blemish of laxness[2] or quietistic tendency, her psychology is peacefully ruled by the consciousness of the sovereignty of grace and of the suppletio that Christ affords to the poor human efforts of all those who are united to him with sincere good will and purity of heart."[6]


Aware of her vileness, and confident in the infinite prodigality of the pietas Dei, Gertrud became this free-hearted woman described in Book 1. The description of her virtues would also require to be studied at length, as it is very uncommon in medieval hagiography. In a previous conference, we spoke about the "confidence" (confidentia), which was like the first star in the sky of her holiness. Let us add here "the freedom of heart" (libertas cordis) about which the Lord expressed himself in a very surprising way:


"There also shone in her such great nobility of spirit[3] (libertas spiritus) that she could never bear anything which was against her principles for any time at all. In this respect too the Lord praised her to a certain religious who inquired in his prayer what pleased him most in this woman he had chosen. The Lord replied, 'The nobility[4] of her heart' (libertas cordis). The man was very surprised at that and, as if undervaluing that quality, he said, 'I thought, Lord, that she had already achieved greater knowledge and ardent love as well, with the help of your grace.' The Lord replied: 'What you thought is true, too; but she has done so by means of the gift of nobility[5], which is such a blessing that through it she reaches highest perfection by the direct route. For hour by hour she is found fit for my gifts, as she never allows anything to find a place in her heart which could be an obstacle to me." (Book 1,11,7 p.73. L 1,11,7)





Gertrud was not only aware of her darkness, she was also aware of her light and of her mission "to be a light for the nations". At the border between these two realities, she had an accurate awareness which protected her from discouragement and presumption. This is evidenced in her way of referring to her "littleness" before God and humans. Let us understand correctly: I no longer mean the feeling of her "worthlessness", related to the experience of her failings and sins, but the feeling of her "littleness". This feeling is hardly separable from the previous one, but it is nonetheless completely different, as in itself it is not related to sin. This feeling surfaces in exclamations such as the following:


"O the grandeur of that infinitesimal speck of dust (minutissimi illius pulveris), which the chief Jewel of the nobility of heaven takes out of the dusty chaff to place at his side! O the perfection of that tiny flower (illius flosculi) which the sun’s ray itself coaxes out of the swamps as if to make it shine out brightly!" (Book 2,9,2 p.125. L 2,9,2,1-5)


The Herald and her Spiritual Exercices are peppered with diminutives that we should not consider as a mere literary trick. It is precisely the sign of Gertrud’s experience of the pietas Dei, as we have already noted: "tiny droplet" of the divine goodness (minima guttula bonitatis tuae), the saint wished to disappear in "the full ocean of total gentleness" which she had the mission to announce.[7]


The logical consequence of this accurate feeling is confirmed with regard to cooperation[8]. Both free of Pelagianism and laxness, Gertrud understood she had to measure her "part" in proportion to her "littleness". It is like the "little one" of the Gospel[9]: the infinitely Great One recognizes his image and likeness in the little ones. The very little one cooperates very little, but to the eyes of the infinitely Great One, this “littleness” is the best measure of cooperation with the Infinite. Without the intention and reality of this "littleness", the infinitely Great One is as it were paralyzed, and the divina pietas cannot manifest itself. Let us give a few examples:


1) As for poverty, Gertrud is confirmed by the Lord in her interpretation of Mathew 25:40 :


"Whether she slept, or ate, or received anything else whatsoever that was useful, it was her joy to spend it all for the Lord, seeing him in herself and herself in him, according to the Lord’s command, 'Whatever you have done to one of the least of my creatures you have done to me.' She reckoned herself, because of her unworthiness, to be the most worthless and the least of all his creatures, and so whatever she allotted herself she considered that she had allotted to the least of God’s creatures (minimo Dei). How great a welcome this found in the divine courtesy God revealed to her in the following way. Once when her work had given her a headache and she was trying to relieve it, with God’s praise in mind, by sucking an aromatic drug, the kind Lord kindly and gently bent down to her and made believe that the smell of that drug was refreshing him. Then after a while he straightened up with sweetened breath and said before all the saints with a proud and eager expression as if he were boasting, 'Look at the present that my bride has just given me!' But she found an infinitely greater joy when she had rendered some similar service to one of her neighbors, just as a miser finds great joy in receiving a hundred marks in return for a penny." (Book 1,11,10 p.75. L 1,11,10,14-32).


2) As for a "full, conscious, and active participation" in the liturgical celebrations, we should read again Book 3, 25. Gertrud, sorry to see the obstacle of her frailty impeding her desire "to offer the individual notes and words with concentration", understood that the Heart of Christ, "the sweetest instrument of the ever-worshipful Trinity" stood at her side "as a faithful servant who stands always ready by his lord to carry out whatever he pleases". And the Lord added:


" divine Heart recognizes human frailty and instability, and earnestly hopes, ever waiting with inestimable desire, that you, if not by words at least by a gesture (si non verbis, saltem aliquo nutu), may entrust to it the task of compensating for you and completing what you cannot complete on your own (committas sibi supplendum pro te ac perficiendum quidquid per te minus perficere potes)". (Book 3,25,2, p.93. L 3,25,1.2)


3) As for penance, a nice example of "dramatic cooperation" is given in Book 4,7 p.330. Gertrud, fearing to neglect, one day or another, the long penance that the Lord had imposed on her, heard him reply:


"Why should you fail in so easy a matter? I will accept the least thing which you do with this intention, if it be only to lift a pebble or a straw from the ground, to utter a single word, to show kindness to any one, to say the Requiem aeternam for the faithful departed, or to pray for sinners or the just". (Book 4,7 p.330. L 4,7,2,4-11)


Further on, seized with skepticism on the ability of human beings to do good, she said, quoting Genesis 8:21: "...the heart of man is so prone to evil, that scarcely an hour passes in which he does not sin in many ways!" And the Lord replied:


"Why should you think this so difficult? I, God, would be so pleased that if humans were determined to do a little as far as possible (aliquantulum), I the Almighty, would be willing to help them (cooperare), so that my divine Wisdom would undoubtedly be victorious". (L 4,7,3,8-14.[6])


Aliquantulum and cooperare: here are the two important words which express precisely the "role" of the star, and of anyone ready for the dramatic "cooperation" of the divina pietas.


4) Regarding preparation for communion, one day Gertrud desired to obtain for others a gift similar to the one she had received. The Lord said to her: "I grant it to them, but I leave to their own free will when they wish to be arrayed" (p.126). And when she asked what was necessary to receive this gift, he replied:


"At whatever future time, turning towards me a pure heart and entire will, they invoke my grace with even the least word or groan (minimo verbo vel gemitu), they will immediately appear in my sight in the same splendid apparel which you have requested for them with your prayers". (Book 3,34,2 p.126. L 3,34,2,4-10)


5) As for thanksgiving, let us quote the first lines of Book 2,11, wonderful for their theological aptness[10]. We will use them further on:


"How often, and in how many different guises, have you communicated the sensation of your saving presence to me! In what an immense blessing of sweetness have you consistently gone before me in my littleness, (parvitatem meam), especially during the first three years, but more especially whenever I am permitted to share in your blessed body and blood. Since I am totally incapable of answering once in a thousand times, I trust in that everlasting, immense and unchanging goodness by which, O shining ever-tranquil Trinity, all that is owing is paid to you in full out of your own resources, by them and in them. I fling myself, like a tiny speck of dust (quasi pulvis exiguus) on this mercy, through him who sits at your right hand while sharing my nature. I offer you the thanks that you have made possible through him in the Holy Spirit, for all your benefits..." (Book 2,11,1 p.129. L 2,11,1,1-12)


We could give many other examples. The ambiance of The Herald is totally marked with the graciousness of the pietas. The only partner it requires is a life in "littleness". The only achievement it seeks is an answer worthy of this "littleness". What wonderful dealings of grace, in which the "least" is at the best place to "cooperate" with the Immense, and thus to experience the divine tenderness.[11]


[1] Cyprian VAGAGGINI osb, Theological Dimesnions of the Liturgy, Collegeville : The Liturgical Press,1976, p.759

[2] The text has lassitudinal, which seems to be an error of translation

[3] Note that the Latin has libertas, which is usually translated as freedom in English

[4] ibidem

[5] ibidem

[6] Here translated from the French, the English edition having a different text




[1] . The word « star » is part of Erving GOFFMAN’s sociological vocabulary of. He wrote: « When we examine a routine the presentation of which requires a team of several actors, we often notice that a member of the team is highlighted, he is the star at the first place and the center of attention. We can see a borderline case of it in the traditional court life: a room full of courtiers is designed just as a live picture, so that the eye, from any place in the room, is led to the center of the attention, that is the king. The royal star of the performance can also be dressed in louder colors and sit higher than all the others.» Goffman made the connection between this notice and «the importance of the notion of court» in social life, with what he called «the strictly ceremonial roles» and the «prestige consumption». Cf. La mise en scène de la vie quotidienne,  T 1, pp. 99-102. 


[2]. Dominique BERTRAND, in an unpublished conference given at Cîteaux, on October 17th, 1988, on the occasion of a project of publication of Saint Bernard’s works in Sources Chrétiennes



[3] . Leonardo BOFF,  François d’Assise, Paris, Cerf 1986, pp. 173-200.


[4] . The theme of play in The Herald would also be worth of study. Cf. Book 1, 10,2 and Book 4,2,3.


[5]. SC 139, pp. 39-40.


[6] . Cyprien VAGAGGINI,  op. cit., p. 759.



[7] . For examples of this feeling of littleness, see Book 1,11, 10 and Book 2,18.



[8] . Gertrud often uses the word cooperatio to express her active relationship with the Lord. Cf. SC 127, p.106, n. 6, et p. 152, n. 4.


[9] . Mk 9:41 ; Lk 19:17 ; John 6:9.


[10] . Along the same line, see in Spiritual Exercices 6. SC 127 : Exercices 6,179-197. 274-285. 372-379.


[11] . It seems that the studies done so far on Saint Therese of Lisieux’ theological doctrine have not yet highlighted enough her relation with the nuns of Helfta, especially with Saint Gertrud. Therese however made an explicit reference to her, to justify an action which went along the line of Book 1,11,10 (cf. Sainte Thérèse de l’E.J et de la sainte Face, Derniers entretiens, Annexes, Desclée et Cerf 1971, p. 36). It is the evidence that she did read The Hearld, if not completely, at least in part. The dialectics of «extreme littleness and infinite greatness», dear to Therese (see F.-M. LETHEL, Connaître l’amour du Christ qui surpasse toute connaissance, Venasque, Ed. du Carmel 1989, pp. 492-513) had already a follower six centuries before: Saint Gertrud of Helfta.