Saint Mechtilde of Hackeborn (1240/1241 – 19 November 1298) was a Saxon Christian saint (from what is now Germany) and a Benedictine nun. In the modern Benedictine calendar, her feast is celebrated on the anniversary of her death, November 19. She died in the monastery of Helfta.
Birth and Baptism
Born Matilda von Hackeborn-Wippra, in 1240 or 1241, she belonged to one of the noblest and most powerful Thuringian families; her sister was the illustrious Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn. The family of Hackeborn belonged to a dynasty of Barons in Thuringia who were related to the Hohenstaufen family and had possessions in northern Thuringia and in the Harz Mountains. Some writers have considered that Mechtilde von Hackeborn and Mechtilde von Wippra were two distinct persons, but, as the Barons of Hackeborn were also Lords of Wippra, it was customary for members of that family to take their name indifferently from either, or both of these estates. So fragile was she at birth, that the attendants, fearing she might die unbaptized, hurried her off to the priest who was just then preparing to say Mass. He was reported as a person of "great sanctity," and after baptizing the child, is reported to have made a statement to this effect, judged by some to be prophetic: "What do you fear? This child most certainly will not die, but she will become a saintly religious in whom God will work many wonders, and she will end her days in a good old age."
When Mechtilde was seven years old, having been taken by her mother on a visit to her elder sister Gertrude, at that time a nun in the Cistercian monastery in Rodersdorf, she became so enamoured of the cloister that her pious parents yielded to her requests and allowed her to enter the alumnate. Here, being highly gifted in mind as well as in body, she made remarkable progress in virtue and learning.
Ten years later (1258) she followed her sister, who, now abbess, had transferred the monastery to an estate at Helfta given her by her brothers Louis and Albert. As a nun, Mechtilde was soon distinguished for her humility, her fervour, and that extreme amiability which had characterized her from childhood and which, like piety, seemed almost hereditary in her clan. She joined the convent and eventually became the headmistress of the convent school. Mechtilde was employed in the convent looking after the library, illuminating scripts, and writing her own texts in Latin. Mechtilde wrote many prayers. In 1261, the abbess committed to her care a child of five who was destined to shed glory and fame upon the monastery of Helfta. This was Gertrude who in later generations became known as St. Gertrude the Great.
Musical and spiritual gifts
She was famous for her musical talents and was called the “Nightingale of Helfta”. Gifted with a beautiful voice, Mechtilde also possessed a special talent for rendering the solemn and sacred music over which she presided as domina cantrix. All her life she held this office and trained the choir with indefatigable zeal. Indeed, divine praise was the keynote of her life as it is of her book; in this she never tired, despite her continual and severe physical sufferings, so that in His revelations Christ was wont to call her His "nightingale". Souls thirsting for consolation or groping for light sought her advice; learned Dominicans consulted her on spiritual matters. At the beginning of her own mystic life it may have been from St. Mechtilde that St. Gertrude the Great learnt that the marvellous gifts lavished upon her were from God.
The Lord would say to Mechtild: "Everything you have and by which you can please me you have from me and through me." In one extraordinary vision she perceived that "the smallest details of creation are reflected in the Holy Trinity by means of the humanity of Christ, because it is from the same earth that produced them that Christ drew his humanity."
While Julian of Norwich (1342 - about 1416) is the most famous English author to employ the idea of God as mother, the concept did not originate with her. St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) had already fostered devotion to 'our Lord, our Mother' in his widely used Orationes. The Cistercians and Carthusians spread it by the use of these prayers in their monasteries; and women such as Marguerite d'Oyngt (d. 1310 ) and Mechthild of Hackeborn took it up.
In the description of her visions Mechthild von Hackeborn appears throughout as a person of even temper and great sweetness of disposition. In her revelations Christ, the Virgin, and other members of the hierarchy of heaven enter as living realities. She is particularly fond of the angels, whom she loves to picture as the associates of men on earth and in heaven.
Devotion of the Three Hail Marys
Mechtilde was distressed over her eternal salvation and prayed that the Most Holy Virgin would assist her at the hour of death. The Blessed Virgin appeared to her and reassured her, saying: "Yes, I will! But I wish, for your part, that you recite three Hail Marys every day, remembering in the first the power received from the Eternal Father, in the second the wisdom received from the Son, with the third one the love that has filled the Holy Spirit". The Blessed Virgin taught her to pray and to understand especially how the Three Hail Marys honor the three persons of the Blessed Trinity.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Mechthilde and Gertrude of Helfta, became ardent devotees and promoters of Jesus’ heart after it was the subject of many of their visions. The idea of hearing the heartbeat of God was very important to medieval saints who nurtured devotion to the Sacred Heart. Women such as Saint Mechtilde and Saint Gertrude (d. 1302) perceived Jesus’ heart as the breast of a mother. Just as a mother gives milk to nourish her child, so Jesus in the Eucharist gives us his life blood.
In one vision, Mechtilde reported that Jesus said, "In the morning let your first act be to greet My Heart and to offer Me your own. Whoever breathes a sigh toward Me, draws Me to himself."
One of the visions recounted by Mechtilde states that Jesus having appeared to her, commanded her to love Him ardently, and to honor His Sacred Heart in the Blessed Sacrament as much as possible. He gave her His Sacred Heart as a pledge of His love, as a place of refuge during her life and as her consolation at the hour of her death. From this time Mechtilde had an extraordinary devotion to the Sacred Heart, and she received such great graces from It that she was accustomed to say that if she had to write down all the favors and all the blessings which she had received by means of this devotion, a large book would not contain them.
In another, Jesus himself recommended the Gospel. Opening to her the wound of His most gentle heart, He said to her: "Consider how great is my love: If you want to know it well, you will not find it expressed more clearly anywhere than in the Gospel. No one has ever expressed stronger or more tender feelings than these: As my Father has loved me, so have I loved you (John 15:9)". Her accounts of these visions were later compiled in the Liber Specialis Gratiae.
The Book of Special Grace
At the age of 50, Mechtilde went through a grave spiritual crisis, as well as physical suffering. She learned 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.)
Mechtilde 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.
Dante's Donna Matelda
Critics have long been perplexed as to one of the characters introduced by Dante in his Purgatorio under the name of Matelda. After ascending seven terraces of a mountain, on each of which the process of purification is carried on, Dante, in Canto xxvii, hears a voice singing: "Venite, benedicti patris mei"; then later, in Canto xxviii, there appears to him on the opposite bank of the mysterious stream a lady, solitary, beautiful, and gracious. To her Dante addresses himself; she it is who initiates him into secrets, which it is not given to Virgil to penetrate, and it is to her that Beatrice refers Dante in the words: "Entreat Matilda that she teach thee this."
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.
She is usually represented with scales and sword.
The Sisters of St. Benedict’s of Ferdinand, Indiana, sponsor a "Mechtilde of Hackeborn Sacred Music Series", supported through an endowment established by the Verkamp Family in honor of Sister Mary Aquin and Sister Mary Ann Verkamp.