Monastic Saints – St. Mechtild of Helfta – 19 November

St. Mechtild of Helfta (ca. 1240-1298)

[This is a series on saints from the Benedictine family (Benedictines, Cistercians—“the Benedictine order and its branches,” to attempt a translation of Peter Lechner’s “Benedictiner-Ordens und seiner Verzweigungen” in the subtitle of his martyrology).  There used to be a commemoration of all saints of the Benedictine family on 13 November.  But even in the days when the liturgical calendar was much more heavily festooned with saints’ feastdays, I suspect there were many monastic saints who had been lost to memory.  This series tries to introduce or re-introduce us to at least a few in this monastic cloud of witnesses.]

[The following is adapted from several sources, mostly from the Catholic Encyclopedia Online entry for Mechtild.]

Born ca. 1240 into the noble family of Hackeborn at the ancestral castle of Helfta, near Eisleben, Saxony.  She is variously identified as St. Mechtild (or Mechtilde, Mechtildis, etc.) of Helfta (the monastery of her vows and where she died on 19 November 1298), of Hackeborn (her family name), and might be Mechtild of Wippra, since the barons of Hackeborn were also lords of Wippra, and it was customary for members of that family to take their name indifferently from either, or both of these estates.  Her sister was the saintly and illustrious Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn, not to be confused with St. Gertrude the Great, about whom more below.

Another confusion to avoid between similarly-named saints is between Mechtild of Helfta and Mechtild of Magdeburg. The latter lived and worked as a Beguine in Magdeburg, Germany.  Due to controversies she encountered in Magdeburg, Mechtild of Magdeburg spent her final years at the same monastery of Helfta where the younger Mechtild of Hackeborn/Helfta lived.  It is not clear whether Mechtild of Magdeburg took monastic vows in the Helfta community or merely spent her final years there as a kind of religious refugee.

[Also a bit unclear in my mind—writing now as Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B., i.e., not sufficiently informed about canon law in this period—is whether the community at Helfta identified itself as Benedictine or as part of the Cistercian reform of the Benedictine charism.  It seems the Helfta nuns “followed the Cistercian constitution without belonging to the order.”  The Cistercians are credited as the first religious institute to develop a sense of a religious order in the modern understanding, which was a recent development and might have still involved some confusion, especially for communities not created as daughter houses of already-established Cistercian communities.  Too, the character and charism of women Cistercians was still in flux at the time.  Since the nuns at Helfta already exercised considerable influence because of their aristocratic backgrounds, their learning, and, above all, their holiness, perhaps they were able to bypass these new canonical considerations.  So, St. Mechtild is identified here as a Benedictine influenced by the Cistercian reforms.  Complicating matters further, however, the Helfta community was under the spiritual direction of Dominicans from Halle after 1271.  Whoever says the Middle Ages were static hasn’t read much history.  Though this was a period of unusually rapid variety and development in matters concerning consecrated religious life and other newly-developing charisms.]

When Mechtild von Hackeborn was seven years old, having been taken by her mother on a visit to her elder sister Gertrude, then a nun in the monastery of Rodardsdorf, Mechtild became so enamoured of the cloister that her parents yielded to her entreaties and, acknowledging the workings of grace, allowed her to enter the community.  Here, being highly gifted in mind as well as in body, she made remarkable progress in virtue and learning.

Ten years later (1258) she followed her sister, who, now abbess, had transferred the monastery to an estate at Helfta given her by her brothers Louis and Albert.  Mechtilde was soon distinguished for her humility, her fervour, and that extreme amiability which had characterized her from childhood. While still very young, she became a valuable helpmate to Abbess Gertrude, who entrusted to her direction the novitiate and the choir. Mechtilde was fully equipped for her task when, in 1261, God committed to her prudent care a child of five who was destined to shed lustre upon the monastery of Helfta. This was that Gertrude who in later generations became known as St. Gertrude the Great. 

Gifted with a beautiful voice, Mechtilde also possessed a special talent for rendering the sacred music over which she presided as domna cantrix. Indeed, Divine praise was the keynote of her life.  In this she never tired, despite her continual and severe physical sufferings, so that in His revelations Christ was wont to call her His “nightingale”.  Souls thirsting for consolation or groping for light sought her advice; learned Dominicans consulted her on spiritual matters. At the beginning of her own mystic life it was from St. Mechtilde that St. Gertrude the Great learnt that the marvellous gifts lavished upon her were from God.

Only in her fiftieth year did St. Mechtilde learn that the two nuns in whom she had especially confided had noted down the favours granted her, and, moreover, that St. Gertrude had nearly finished a book on the subject. Much troubled at this, she, as usual, first had recourse to prayer.  She had a vision of Christ holding in His hand the book of her revelations, and saying: “All this has been committed to writing by my will and inspiration; and, therefore you have no cause to be troubled about it.” He also told her that, as He had been so generous towards her, she must make Him a like return, and that the diffusion of the revelations would cause many to increase in His love; moreover, He wished this book to be called “The Book of Special Grace”, because it would prove such to many. When Mechtild understood that the book would tend to God’s glory, she ceased to be troubled, and even corrected the manuscript herself. Immediately after her death it was made public, and copies were rapidly multiplied, owing chiefly to the widespread influence of the Friars Preachers.  Boccaccio tells how, a few years after the death of Mechtilde, the book of her revelations was brought to Florence and popularized under the title of “La Laude di donna Matelda”. It is related that the Florentines were accustomed to repeat daily before their sacred images the praises learned from St. Mechtilde’s book.

With that of St. Gertrude, the body of St. Mechtilde most probably still reposes at Old Helfta though the exact spot is unknown.

Mechtild might also be the Matelda of Dante’s “Purgatorio.”  After ascending seven terraces of a mountain, on each of which the process of purification is carried on, Dante, in Canto xxvii, hears a voice singing: “Venite, benedicti patris mei”; then later, in Canto xxviii, there appears to him on the opposite bank of the mysterious stream a lady, solitary, beautiful, and gracious. To her Dante addresses himself; she it is who initiates him into secrets, which it is not given to Virgil to penetrate, and it is to her that Beatrice refers Dante in the words: “Entreat Matilda that she teach thee this.” Most commentators have identified Matilda with the warrior-countess of Tuscany, the spiritual daughter and dauntless champion of St. Gregory VII, but all agree that beyond the name the two have little or nothing in common. She is no Amazon who, at Dante’s prayer that she may draw nearer to let him understand her song, turns towards him “not otherwise than a virgin that droppeth her modest eyes”. In more places than one the revelations granted to the mystics of Helfta seem in turn to have become the inspirations of the Florentine poet. All writers on Dante recognize his indebtedness to St. Augustine, the Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Bernard, and Richard of St. Victor.  These are precisely the writers whose doctrines had been most assimilated by the mystics of Helfta, and thus they would the more appeal to the sympathies of the poet. The city of Florence was among the first to welcome St. Mechtilde’s book. Now Dante, like all true poets, was a child of his age, and could not have been a stranger to a book which was so popular among his fellow-citizens. The “Purgatorio” was finished between 1314 and 1318, or 1319 — just about the time when St. Mechtilde’s book was popular. This interpretation is supported by the fact that St. Mechtilde in her “Book of Special Grace” (pt. I, c. xiii) describes the place of purification under the same figure of a seven-terraced mountain. The coincidence of the simile and of the name, Matelda, can scarcely be accidental. For another among many points of resemblance between the two writers compare “Purgatorio”, Canto xxxi, where Dante is drawn by Matelda through the mysterious stream with pt. II, c. ii. of the “Liber Specialis Gratiae”. The serene atmosphere which seems to cling about the gracious and beautiful songstress, her virgin modesty and simple dignity, all seem to point to nun of Helfta rather than to the stern heroine of Canossa, whose hand was thrice bestowed in marriage. Besides, in politics Dante, as an ardent Gibelline, supported the imperial pretensions and he would have been little inclined to sing the praises of the Tuscan Countess. The conclusion may therefore be hazarded that this “Donna Matelda” of the “Purgatorio” personifies St. Mechtilde as representing mystic theology.

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