St Gertrude, the Catholic Church and Women

The last time I blogged about St Gertrude, the Benedictine nun of Helfta whose Revelations are a staple of mystical literature, I received a scolding from one of my readers. This morning, therefore, I contented myself with re-reading the article on Gertrude in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which you can read for yourself here (link opens in new window). Inevitably, I had a quiet chuckle over the author’s dismissive attitude to what he calls Gertrude’s ‘inordinate love of study’ and his suggestion that Fr Faber (of London Oratory fame) might be an excellent guide to the life of ‘a simple Benedictine nun’. It reminded me of an argument I had had with another Gertrude, my Junior Mistress at Stanbrook, whose  lively mind and warm heart made her one of the most wonderful friends I’ve ever had (and I have been blessed with many).

Our argument centred on another article in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, the one on ‘Woman’. Again, you can read it for yourself here (link opens in new window). My problem with the article was not so much what it says (which is so absurd that it is not even insulting) as with its lasting effect on the thought patterns of generations of Catholics, especially Catholic clergy. The online version now carries a warning note to the effect that it would be advisable to read John Paul II’s ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’ as well as the article in question. D. Gertrude maintained that the influence of the Catholic Encyclopedia article was now null and void; I maintained that it wasn’t, and that as soon as one tried to give practical effect to the idea that women were not, as the article asserts, intellectually and spiritually inferior, one was dismissed as a ‘feminist’ — as though all feminism were the same.

I seem to remember that both D. Gertrude and I became quite heated. Quotations flew back and forth, until very quietly, but with an enormous smile, D. Gertrude admitted that she agreed but wanted me to argue my case. That is a side of Benedictine life for women that doesn’t quite fit the hagiographer’s idea of what life in the cloister should be like. We do not enter monasteries to become less real, to bury every talent of mind and heart that God has given. We enter monasteries to seek God, and we do so as real people, with all the gifts (and limitations) with which each of us is endowed by nature and grace. St Gertrude at Helfta, D. Gertrude at Stanbrook, both typify for me the kind of woman that I think the institutional part of the Church still has difficulty with: learned, shrewd, holy; and in D. Gertrude’s case, blessed with a temper that was easily roused and just as easily converted to a bear hug. The kind of woman, in fact, one is the better for having known and nonplussed that others in the Church ignored for much of their lives.

Note: The date of St Gertrude’s feast varies according to the calendar in use, some keeping it on the 16th, others on the 17th, because of conflicts with other saints’ days.


17 thoughts on “St Gertrude, the Catholic Church and Women”

  1. Thank you Sister for something about Women which isn’t about militancy, but the whole person, who is valued and loved by God, in true equality.

    I suspect that like many men, who were brought up Catholic, I used to hold some the sort of bias that you describe and that is contained in the article you drew my attention to.

    The saving grace as far as I can see for me, was that once I went out into the world, I quickly realised that my perceptions were flawed and that women had the same strengths and weaknesses as men. In fact, in may ways, women were more peacemakers in the face of men’s often aggressive attitudes towards women. That women for generations bore such things with grace and still remained essentially loving is something to Praise God for.

    When I joined the Army in the 1960’s. Women were subject to being treated as second class. They were consigned to supporting roles in accordance to the stereo typical attitudes at the time. But, many female soldiers demonstrated their abilities to lead, inspire and command, but knew that their was that glass ceiling preventing them from progressing and developing to allow wider employment. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that they started to be integrated and even allowed to bear arms.

    Now, they are recognised to be just as proficient as men in all military spheres although there remain some restrictions on what they can do. They are not supposed to be on the front line fighting, nor can they be military parachutists. However, they can serve alongside those doing these things, which defeats the object of the discrimination as they are effectively doing exactly the same job as the men they work with. It’s plainly a nonsense, and I hope that sense will prevail in the future to remove this final bar to their progress.

    The Anglican church as you know, still has some issues with the Ministry of women, particularly as we approach the vote at General Synod for Women to be consecrated as Bishops. I understand that people hold sincere beliefs, founded on their interpretation of scripture and historic precedent – but I can’t accept that the ministry of Women should be held back by such views. We need to work together in love and grace, which has sadly been missing from much of the debate to arrive at a compromise that allows all traditions to flourish and grow within the Church of England.

    I can’t believe that Jesus Christ came into the world to restrict women to inferior roles within life or within his Church. I hope and pray that one day, all Churches and faiths will welcome women as being of equal value in the eyes of God.

    • Dear UKViewer. I am not going to hijack this post and make it about Women’s ministry, but can I just say for clarity, that the discussions in Synod this week are NOT about whether Women should be bishops, that has been done, and decided. IT is about HOW it is going to be worked out. My prayer is that it will be to keep all parties in the C of E, in a way that is best for ALL, not just for some.

    • Also not wanting to hijack this post, but I would take serious issue with the suggestion that Churches that don’t want to ordain women as bishops (or anything else, for that matter) want to restrict them to “inferior roles” or deny that they are “of equal value in the eyes of God” – the old Catholic Encyclopedia notwithstanding! If this is how it is seen, then I suspect that the problem is one of clericalism as much as anything else.

  2. Learned, shrewd and holy, I am so fortunate that I too benefitted from women like this, when I was a child, as well as through my life. My current spiritual director comes into this category and is an enormous help, support and challenge.

  3. Another *splendid* post, that itself once more embodies what it describes. So many religious women that I’ve been blessed to know — cloistered and not cloistered : OSB, OCD, OSsS, SMG, RSM, CJ, & the list could be longer — have struck me as one of the church’s greatest, and least recognised, sources of strength. If my own morale is low, I remember them.

  4. D.Gertrude of Stanbrook was a character as well as having many other wonderful attributes. My greatest memory of her was her wonderful use of English language and love of Mary le bone ! The glint of laughter in her eyes was carefully used to full effect/affect. RIP

  5. It’s always sad to be reminded how much men fear women and have feared us down the ages. Paul obviously had his own psychological difficulties, but even he managed to admit that ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female’!

    As an Anglican I am ashamed of all this angst about women bishops. Just substitue ‘black’ for ‘women’ and see how it reads. Honestly, Jesus must weep over us more and more.

    Thank you for writing about The Gertrudes….both sound marvellous!!

  6. Excellent blog post and comments.

    Yesterday, I read the post, and the Catholic Encyclopedia articles on St. Gertrude the Great, and only part of the entry, “Woman”. More careful reading is needed. I hope to be able to do so today when I return from Holy Mass.

    From this vantage point, on the question of woman’s place in the Church, I do wonder if there is significance in the ‘manhood’ of Jesus. I usually think of Jesus in his humanity, representing us all, male and female, etc. I wonder if ideas about women derive from identifying with the maleness of Jesus and making femaleness – Other.

  7. Thank you for all your comments, which have taken us in some interesting directions. I would love to post a series on Christology, but I’m not sure my readers would! The old Catholic Encyclopedia has many virtues, but it would not be my first point of reference for a number of subjects (classic British understatement).

    Anglican friends know that I try to avoid commenting on anything to do with the internal workings of their Church, but we do keep all in our prayers.

    As regards Margaret’s point, yes and no. It depends, in part, on whether you see the maleness of Christ as being, in the theological sense, essential or accidental.

    • Thank you, Sr. Catherine. I will look into that further.

      If not the Catholic Encyclopedia, then may I ask what is considered a good source for reference?

    • Sr, I would be interested in reading a series on Christology. I have no problem with Jesus being a man. I like men but, like women, are all born of woman!

      One of the things I am interested in is the essential essence of our beings (man and woman).

  8. I’m delighted by this manifest enthusiasm for Christology (3 people agreeing on the blog constitutes a mass movement). Whether I can find time to write the number of posts required, and whether I am courageous enough to withstand the hammering I’d undoubtedly receive (especially from those who don’t read what I write but suspect I’m wrong anyway) is, of course, another matter. I will think, and when I have thunken, you will see. 🙂

    Margaret, there is a newer version of the Catholic Encyclopedia; but I’d begin with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and take up the references in the footnotes, gradually going on to the larger works needed, and always accepting that none of us is equally versant in history, theology, ethics and so on.

  9. Thank you, Sr. Catherine. A good place to begin, I agree.

    We shall all defer to the good discretion, and schedule, of the Blog Mistress as to upcoming posts, and are thankful for her thinking on the matter.

    We keep you in our prayer.

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