The Nightingale of Helfta

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In Sinu Patris

In the monastic calendar today is the feast of Saint Mechtilde of Hakeborn. Known as "the nightingale of Helfta" for her beautiful voice, Saint Mechtilde was fascinated by what she called the cor Dei, the heart of God. The Beloved Disciple speaks of it in his Prologue: "No man has ever seen God; but now His only-begotten Son, who abides in the bosom of the Father, has brought us a clear message" (Jn 1:18). (The same theme of the Son abiding in sinu Patris -- in the bosom of the Father -- runs through all the writings of Blessed Abbot Marmion.) For Mechtilde, as for Saint Gertrude, her student and friend in the thirteenth century Abbey of Helfta, there was but one way into the bosom of the Father: through the pierced side of the Son. Both saints would have us know that the soul who desires to abide in the bosom of the Father must enter through "the narrow gate that leadeth to life" (Mt 7:14), that is, the sacred side of the Crucified, opened by the soldier's lance (Jn 19:24).

Clusters of Holiness

We keep the feast of Saint Mechtilde only a few days after that of Saint Gertrude (November 16th), the friend with whom she shared her quest for God and her experience of fruitful union with the Divine Bridegroom. This suggests that holiness, like grapes, grows in clusters. It pleases the Holy Spirit to communicate His graces from one heart to another. There are no saints in isolation. Saints Mechtilde and Gertrude were not alone in their passion for Christ. They burned with the same love for the Word of God. They hastened to the same abbey church, day after day, to exercise their baptismal priesthood by singing the monastic liturgy they so loved.

Laboring at Charity With Chaste Love

The holiness of Saints Mechtilde and of Gertrude flourished within a Eucharistic organism: a living body assembled by the Holy Spirit around one Altar, for the offering of one Victim, by one Priest. Their holiness flourished in a community of women who were not only mothers and sisters by virtue of the same monastic consecration, but also friends. For them, fraternal charity took on the very human expression countenanced by Saint Benedict in the Holy Rule: "making allowance for one another's weaknesses, whether physical or moral; laboring with chaste love at the charity of the brotherhood; loving their abbot with sincere and humble charity" (RB 72:5, 8, 10).

The Gift of Friendship in Christ

The monastery of Helfta, assisted by the friars of the mendicant Orders, radiated the charism of "friendship in Christ" well beyond its enclosure walls into the wider Church, giving holiness a human face. Friendship forged in the praise of God, in listening to His Word, and in partaking of the adorable Body and Blood of Christ from the same altar, is not the friendship of perfect agreement on all things, nor is it the friendship of sentimental attraction. It is, rather, a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Body of Christ, making the voice of the Body sweeter, and making the face of the Body lovelier. It creates a lasting bond among souls: the bond of a single-hearted passion for Christ.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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