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.