Mechtilde : biography

- 1298

Mechtilde's model of the soul's ascent provided the inspiration for his poetic treatment of the Mountain of Purgatory's seven terraces, one for each virtue (or more accurately one each for the purging—or detachment from—each of the seven vices) at the top of which she appears in his closing cantos of the second book of his Divine Comedy.

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. 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.

Dante 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. 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. Many scholars, however, deem it more likely that the figure of Matelda in Dante's Divine Comedy had been inspired by the mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg.

The Book of Special Grace

At the age of 50, Mechtilde went through a grave spiritual crisis, as well as physical suffering. She learn that two nuns in whom she had especially confided had noted down the spiritual favours granted her. Much troubled at this, Mechthilde, 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 He wished this book to be called The Book of Special Grace, because it would prove such to many. When the saint understood that the book would tend to God's glory, she ceased to be troubled, and even corrected the manuscript herself. Some authorities believe that one of the authors was St. Gertrude the Great. 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. promoting the devotion to the superabundant divine mercy of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is related that the Florentines were accustomed to repeat daily before their sacred images the praises learned from St. Mechtilde's book. St. Gertrude to whose devotedness we owe the Liber Specialis Gratiae exclaims: "Never has there arisen one like to her in our monastery; nor, alas! I fear, will there ever arise another such!" Four centuries later, printed chapbooks in the emblem style had made the devotion so widespread in Europe even in lands where the Protestant reformed churches were in the ascendency, it was elevated under this name to a universal feast on the liturgical calendar with Mass and Office proper composed by a French cleric St. John Eudes (another female religious St. Mary Margaret Alacoque spread the devotion among urban illiterate lay faithful of France with numerous testimonies of her supernatural visions of Christ's passion imagined as an inflamed pierced heart, encircled with thorns.)

She died in the Monastery of Helfta, on November 19, 1298. Her feast is celebrated on the anniversary of her death. With that of St. Gertrude, the body of St. Mechtildis most likely still reposes at Old Helfta, though the exact spot is unknown.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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