Gertrude the Great (1256 – c. 1302) was a German Benedictine nun at the monastery of St. Mary at Helfta. She was a mystic who was known for her devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus. Among her written works is a collection of Spiritual Exercises.

A few weeks ago we saw a comparison of the soul to a housewife by the Flemish nun Beatrijs of Antwerp. Gertrude the Great brings us another striking image. Although Gertrude was especially devoted to the sacred heart of Jesus, the Lord instructed her not to forget the other parts of his body. In the Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude, there follows an unusual account of Jesus’ body as a spiritual monastery.

A nun in Gertrude’s monastery writes:

One day, while she was singing Vespers, the Lord said to Gertrude:


Behold My Heart,—let it be your temple; then go through the other parts of My Body, and arrange for the other parts of a monastery wherever it seems best to you; for I desire that My sacred Humanity should henceforth be your cloister. . . .


Then Gertrude, obeying the commands of God, chose the Feet of her Spouse for her lavatory; His Hands for her work-room; His Mouth for her reception-room, or chapter-room; His Eyes for her school, in which she could read; and His Ears for her confessional.

I confess that I would never have thought of a lavatory in relation to Christ’s body. Call me crazy, but it just wouldn’t occur to me.

However, I love this passage in the Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude because it is such a beautiful image of intimacy. We draw from it the lesson that wherever we go, we can always be spiritually enclosed — housed, sheltered, protected. I think it helps us inhabit the biblical idea that our life is in Christ. Think about it — if Christ is our cloister, our shelter, then we are always in him. We are always just where we should be. We are always home.

Can you imagine making Christ’s humanity your cloister or shelter today?


Beatrijs of Nazareth (c. 1200 – 1268), a Flemish Cistercian nun, was prioress of the Abbey of Our Lady of Nazareth in Brabant (present-day Belgium). She is often studied in the context of the beguine movement since she received her education from beguines before becoming a nun. In the mid-thirteenth century, Beatrijs wrote The Seven Manners of Loving, a mystical treatise that describes the soul advancing in love for God.

I’m drawn to the striking imagery that mystics often use to describe spiritual growth. Beatrijs of Nazareth does not disappoint! In one passage of her treatise, she likens the soul to a housewife putting everything in order. Although housework seems down to earth, it characterizes a very advanced kind of love in Beatrijs’s treatise.

In the sixth manner, as the bride of our Lord advances and climbs into greater holiness, she feels love to be of a different nature, and her knowledge of this love is closer and higher.

The soul has advanced this far because she has prepared her house for love . . .

And you may see that now the soul is like a housewife who has put all her household in good order and prudently arranged it and well disposed it; she has taken good care that nothing will damage it, her provision for the future is wise, she knows exactly what she is doing, she acquires and discards, she does what is proper, she avoids mistakes, and always she knows how everything should be.

I suppose that calling anyone or anything a “housewife” sounds a little out of date today. I wouldn’t want to be called that! And Beatrijs’s standards for housework seem impossibly high. But I do like the image of the soul bustling around preparing and making room for love.

The rewards of this spiritual work are great. When the inner house is ready, love moves in, and the soul is able to have a “close comprehension of God.”

And then love makes the soul so bold that it no longer fears man nor friend, angel or saint or God himself in all that it does or abandons, in all its working and resting. And now the soul feels indeed that love is within it, as mighty and as active when the body is at rest as when it performs many deeds.

Does Beatrijs’s household imagery resonate with you? Can you picture your soul bustling around preparing an inner home for love? For more examples of this kind of imagery in medieval devotional literature, see the post Finding Christ in the Kitchen by Louise Campion.

For more on Beatrijs of Nazareth, see, among other sources, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature by Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff.


In last week’s contemplative profile, we looked at two sources on the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. Historically, this prayer has been thought to be a response to Paul’s instructions to “pray continually.”

St. John Chrysostom also advises the Christian to pray constantly because prayer vanquishes our enemy. The Jesus Prayer sounds so gentle; yet many of the Church Fathers speak of prayer as a weapon. In fact, they often use a violent imagery that has mostly fallen out of favor today. If nothing else, this imagery impresses on us the efficacy of prayer in our lives. Chrysostom says:

Prayer is the cause of salvation, the source of immortality, the indestructible wall of the Church, the unassailable fortress, which terrifies the demons and protects us in the work of righteousness… Prayer is a great weapon, a great protection. Zealous prayer is the light of mind and soul, a constant, inextinguishable light. Therefore during prayer our bitter enemy floods our mind and drenches our soul with a measureless filth of thoughts and collects together qualities of things which had never entered our heads…


By this remembrance (the Jesus Prayer) a soul forcing itself to this practice can discover everything which is within, both good and bad. First it will see within, in the heart, what is bad — and later — what is good. This remembrance is for rousing the serpent, and this remembrance is for subduing it. This remembrance can reveal the sin living is us, and this remembrance can destroy it. This remembrance can arouse all the enemy hosts in the heart, and little by little this remembrance can conquer and uproot them. The name of the Lord Jesus Christ, descending into the depths of the heart, will subdue the serpent holding sway over the pastures of the heart, and will save our soul and bring it to life. Thus abide constantly with the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the heart swallows the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one.

Read more.

Reflection: Have you ever thought of prayer in the forceful and passionate terms of St. John Chrysostom?


Most of you are probably familiar with the words of the Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

This prayer originated with the Desert Fathers and Mothers as a form of unceasing prayer, as Paul urges in 1 Thess 5:17.

How does one pray the Jesus Prayer? Have you ever tried it? St Gregory of Sinai (1260s-1346), an Eastern Orthodox monk, gives many instructions, including these:

Sitting in your cell, remain patiently in prayer, according to the precept of the Apostle Paul. Collect your mind into your heart and send out thence your mental cry to our Lord Jesus, calling for His help and saying: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me’ until you are tired. When tired, transfer your mind to the second half and say: ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon me!’ Having many times repeated this appeal, pass once more to the first half.

Centuries earlier, the Church Father John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407) indicated that this prayer was to be said not just while sitting quietly but also while going about the many tasks of monastic and daily life. It is to be repeated until it becomes part of one’s very being:

I implore you, brethren, never to break or despise the rule of this prayer… A monk when he eats, drinks, sits, officiates, travels or does any other thing must continually cry: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me!’ so that the name of the Lord Jesus, descending into the depths of the heart, should subdue the serpent ruling over the inner pastures and bring life and salvation to the soul. He should always live with the name of the Lord Jesus, so that the heart absorbs the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one…

Read more about the Jesus Prayer at and Orthodox Mysticism.

Reflection: Do you pray the Jesus Prayer? How has it shaped your spiritual life?


I don’t know whether the American writer and essayist Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) can really be called a contemplative — although she did ask God to make her a mystic. She has been described as a devout believer and also as a “turbocharged Catholic.”

Reading O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, which she wrote in 1946-1947, I was interested in what she says about the intersection of faith and writing. She wrote the journal while studying writing and working on her first novel. In the journal, she begs to know and want God and also to become a “fine writer.” Where do these two desires intersect? In radical dependence on God. O’Connor writes:

My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us. I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from.


Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.


If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try — that is the point. And at every dry point, I will be reminded Who is doing the work when it is done & Who is not doing it at that moment.

Read more about Flannery O’Connor here. Read her Prayer Journal here.

For reflection: Where do faith and writing intersect for you?


In last week’s post, we saw that the English mystic Walter Hilton likened prayer to fire. He continues this analogy in a letter to a layperson. He writes a beautiful description of what he calls the “mixed life:” a life marked by a rhythm of labor and prayer.

[T]he will and desire you have toward God is like a little coal of fire in your soul. It gives you a certain amount of spiritual heat and even light, but it is quite little, and threatens to grow cold in idleness and want of fuel. At that point it is good that you should put against it some sticks of wood—good labors of the active life. And if it seems for a time that these duties shroud or overshadow the coal of your desire, that it does not burn as cleanly and fervently as you would want, then do not be fearful, but rather be patient awhile.


Then blow at the fire—after doing your proper duties and service, go alone to your prayer and meditation, and lift up your heart to God, praying him of his goodness that he will accept the work that you have done as unto his pleasure.

I’m encouraged by Hilton’s conviction that the active life is a way to serve God.


Walter Hilton (c. 1340 – 1396) was an Augustinian canon and a mystic. He was the first person to write a treatise on mysticism in the English language.


I love the vivid images medieval mystics use to describe God and prayer. A case in point is the writing of the English mystic Walter Hilton. In his treatise providing instruction on prayer and the contemplative life, Hilton writes a beautiful passage likening prayer to fire:


If you pray in this way, you can pray well: for prayer is nothing else than a mounting desire of the heart into God through withdrawal from every earthly thought. And this is why it is compared with a fire, which by its own nature mounts from the earth, always up into the air. In just the same way, your desire in prayer, when it is touched and illumined by that spiritual fire which is God, by nature always mounts to Him from Whom it came.


Notice that Hilton, in the last line of the passage, emphasizes that our desire to pray to God always comes from God.



Walter Hilton (c. 1340 – 1396) was an Augustinian canon and a mystic. He was the first person to write a treatise on mysticism in the English language.



Have you ever thought of writing as a duty? The 12th-century German visionary Hildegard of Bingen introduced this idea to me. In the preface to her best-known work, the Scivias, Hildegard describes a series of visions God gave to her. One of these visions included the instruction to write down all that she had seen. But Hildegard hesitated. In the passages below, Hildegard recounts what happened when she refused the duty God gave her to write down her visions:


But I, although I had seen and heard these things, nevertheless because of the doubt and bad opinion and divers remarks of men, refused for a long time the duty of writing, not in obstinacy but in humility, until I fell on a bed of sickness, cast down by the scourge of God, until at length I was compelled to write by many infirmities.


When Hildegard didn’t write, she fell ill! Finally, she began setting down her visions:


I said and wrote [these visions and words] not according to the curious invention of my heart, nor of any man, but as I saw, heard, and perceived them in a heavenly way, through the secret mysteries of God. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, “Cry aloud therefore, and write thus.”


It took Hildegard of Bingen ten years to write down her visions, and they still inspire and challenge the Church today. Let that be an encouragement if you, like me, are a slow and sometimes reluctant writer.


Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess, a visionary, and a writer. Read a selection of her visions here.

Reflection: Have you ever felt that God has given you the duty to “cry aloud” and write something? Have you ever hesitated or refused?



This month we’ve been looking at the letters of the 14th-century mystic and reformer Catherine of Siena. In a letter to a Dominican laywoman, Catherine writes a wonderful passage on the melding of contemplation and action. She doesn’t mince words when describing how Christians are to behave. Loving our neighbor, Catherine says, is the only proper response to God’s love for us:


You know that every virtue receives life from love, and love is gained in love, that is, by raising the eye of our intellect to consider how much we are loved by God . . . Loving God we embrace virtue out of love, and we despise vice out of hatred.


So you see that it is in God that we conceive virtues and in our neighbors that we bring them to birth. You know indeed that you give birth to the child charity that is in your soul in order to answer your neighbor’s need; and that you give birth to patience when your neighbor does you harm. You offer prayer for all your neighbors, and particularly for the one who has wronged you. This is the way we ought to behave . . .


Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a member of the Dominican Order of Penance. She was a mystic, a reformer, and an adviser to popes. Her written work includes over 300 letters and a contemplative treatise, The Dialogue. Read more here.

Read Catherine’s letters here.


In last week’s Contemplative Profile, we looked at a letter of St. Catherine, the 14th-century mystic, in which she describes three kinds of prayer. In that same letter, Catherine encourages her niece, a nun, to persevere when faced with difficulties praying. Let’s take her words to heart when we have our own struggles. Catherine writes:


If you encounter different kinds of struggle in your prayer, or if you experience confusing darkness of mind (this is the devil making the soul feel that her prayer is not pleasing to God), you ought, nevertheless, never give up on account of struggles and darkness, but rather to stand firm with courage and perseverance, remembering that the devil does this to draw you away from your mother, prayer, and that God permits it to test the courage and constancy of your soul.


God allows this also so that in your struggle and darkness you may know that of yourself you are nothing, and may know, through the good intention in which you remain, the goodness of God who is the giver and the preserver of a good and holy will.


Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a member of the Dominican Order of Penance. She was a mystic, a reformer, and an adviser to popes. Her written work includes over 300 letters and a contemplative treatise, The Dialogue. Read more here.

Read Catherine’s letters here.