Academic journal article Magistra

Bodily Language in the Spiritual Exercises of Gertrud the Great of Helfta1

Academic journal article Magistra

Bodily Language in the Spiritual Exercises of Gertrud the Great of Helfta1

Article excerpt

The Documenta spiritualium exercitionum of Gertrud the Great, thirteenth century visionary of the Benedicitine-Cistercian abbey of Helfta, teaches the devotional experience of an embodied kind of unio mystica. The text prescribes seven recommended spiritual practices, freely based on patterns of oral formulae and bodily sensation from the Bible and liturgical rites. By evoking the memory of the experiences of such ritualized activity in the minds and bodies of its readers, the words of the Exercises intend to draw attention to the activity of the grace of God present from baptism up to the preparation for death in the Christian life of the human person.

Several aspects of the language of the text are, indeed, significant. The Exercitia is composed in astute medieval Latin prose, a language uncommon and unknown to many other female authors of its day. In addition, the words of each exercise are intended to be recited aloud, even corporeally and communally performed (in accord with its liturgical inspiration as well as medieval reading practice), rather than mentally contemplated.2 Moreover, the Exercises are written almost entirely from a female perspective, using feminine grammatical endings in the Latin original or replacing masculine nouns with feminine ones.3 To be sure, such meditations differ from the psalms and liturgical prayers, which address God from the viewpoint of a male sinner or male devotee. All of these features illustrate that the Exercitia is both the product and implement of a carefully constructed interpenetration between the corporeal and the textual.

This article explores the bodily quality of the language of Gertrud's Spiritual Exercises. It isolates the text's frequent reference to the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and highlights how it is based upon newly prominent ideas about the human person and the manner in which knowledge of God is gained. The next consideration will be the priority given to the particular sense of taste within the Exercises. It then concludes by citing evidence which suggests that the bodily kind of language found in Gertrud's Exercitia corresponds to themes found within the writings of other contemporary women religious. This allows for a further reenvisioning of how medieval women authors chose to deal with the longstanding association of the female with the flesh.4

Body Language in Gertrud's Exercitia

Body or sensory language to discuss how humans know and join to the transcendent God is derived from the Bible and has indeed had a long tradition in the history of the church.5 Gertrud of Helfta's own use of this language constitutes an essential part of the Exercises' vocabulary. The desire to see God, hear God's words, smell the life God gives, taste God's sweetness, and embrace God is reiterated throughout, as direct contact with the divine remains her goal. Noteworthy about Gertrud's use of the language is that it implies a doctrine of the "spiritual senses" which is significantly different from the concept taught by other late antique and medieval theologians.

In order to grasp what is distinctive about the way Gertrud uses this language in the Exercitia, one must first understand something about the alternatives. The doctrine of the spiritual senses first developed by Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-252) and its later revision by Latin theologians like Augustine of Hippo (354-430) present important options. In fact, textual evidence in Gertrud's extant writings, Herald of Divine Love and Spiritual Exercises, demonstrates that she read and interpreted the theories written down by both authors.6

The concept worked out by Origen is fundamentally dualistic and intellectualistic. In common with Middle Platonism, his model is predicated on basic cosmological and anthropological assumptions, opposing spirit to material body, and knowledge of spiritual things to knowledge of material things. God, who is pure spirit, exists apart from all material intermixture, and therefore is not discernable by the corporeal senses. …

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