Archive, Reviews

Gertrud von Helfta, Botschaft von Gottes Güte

Published in Collectanea Cisterciensia, 77 (2015), 426-8

Happy the medieval author who finds a mediator of the stature of Mother Abbess Hildegard Brem! This volume contains her German translation with en-face Latin text of the first two books of Gertrud of Helfta’s Legatus divinae pietatis. It succeeds in a brave balancing act, addressing two different audiences at once: both general readers and Latinists keen to refer to Gertrud’s own prose. Novices are taken by the hand in a dedicatory epistle that begins, ‘Dear reader’. There is nothing precious in the use of this venerable form. Informally, but without condescension, Abbess Brem traces the foundations of Gertrud’s work and shows why the Legatus is worth reading. The letter is a seasoned scholar’s invitation to invest time and energy in engaging with a major work of literature, in the tradition of the noblest kind of teaching, which communicates enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.
The epistle is followed by a readable introduction. It positions Gertrud in context and discusses her legacy. Helfta, it turns out, was used as a collective farm in communist DDR. From these ruins, Abbess Brem conjures up the living stones which Gertrud found on arriving at the monastery gate in 1261, five years old. Women of exceptional intelligence and spiritual gifts lived side by side here during Gertrud’s lifetime. We are shown how the environment moulded and refined the young nun as a scholar and writer, but also as ‘a most sensitive human being, open to all that is beautiful and good’. It is impressed on us that Gertrud’s ambition was to live to benefit others. She wanted to pass on gifts received. Her desire to disappear in a chain of transmission, to be a channel of grace, is made explicit in Abbess Brem’s choice of title for the book. The Latin Legatus is translated generically as Botschaft (‘annonce’), neatly avoiding customary variations on the word ‘herald’. Why? Because, we are told, the Legatus is not so much Gertrud as her book. She is not the legate of God’s goodness, but the legate’s mouthpiece and scribe. If we accept this perspective, persuasively presented, we find ourselves, as readers, side-by-side with Gertrud, not over against her. Thus the exercise of reading opens onto an experience of communion. Further on in the introduction, salient themes in Gertrud’s teaching are succinctly but carefully expounded: the centrality of the Heart of Jesus; the notion of suppletio; the Trinitarian character of prayer.
The translation itself is readable, elegant, and fluent, inventive, but always responsibly so. Gertrud asks the reader’s indulgence on account of sometimes convoluted phrases. She was trying, after all, to speak the ineffable! Abbess Brem’s translation clarifies without excessive interpretation. It makes Gertrud intelligible in contemporary language without dumbing her down. The Latin text is transcribed from Dom Doyère’s 1968 edition published in the Sources Chrétiennes. The translator says she has corrected a few typographical errors. Unfortunately, a few others have crept in to replace them. That is a matter of cosmetic detail, however, and does not detract from the great value of the volume. Heiligenkreuz’s Be&Be Verlag is to be congratulated on their courage in publishing a good bilingual edition, solidly bound, at such an affordable price. This reviewer began reading without any particular attraction to Gertud’s spirituality. This volume converted him. May it give joy and inspiration to others, too, who now have the full text of the Legatus at their disposal. Abbess Brem’s translation of Book 3 was published, likewise by Be&Be, last Christmas.