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Viator 44 No. 2 (2013) 175200. 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.


Ella Johnson

Abstract: This article examines the mystical language of sensation in the writings of Gertrude the Great of
Helfta (12561302). In particular, it considers Gertrudes gustatory language in the context of that presented
in the reception history (Wirkungsgeschichte) of the established Christian spiritual tradition, especially
innovations made by each Augustines and Bernards rhetoric of taste. The article argues that Gertrude
leaves behind the more dualist aspects of their rhetoric by exploiting their more affirmative concepts of the
bodily forms of knowing. Such body affirmative concepts fundamentally form the vocabulary that Gertrude
uses to articulate a unique, somatic journey from human knowing to divine wisdom, as well as the carefully
crafted discussion of Eucharistic devotion from which it flows. Thus, the article ultimately reveals the
linguistic strategies and singular ideas that make Gertrude strike out on her own in relation to conventions
that precede her and even to her contemporary thirteenth- and fourteenth-century religious women.
Keywords: Gertrude of Helfta, Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, sensory language, taste, touch,
wisdom, liturgy, Eucharist, epistemology.

Inspired by the language of Scripture,
writers throughout Christian history have
drawn extensively from vocabulary of the five bodily senses to discuss God and how
humans know God.
When it comes to the sense of taste, in particular, authors from
the Latin tradition, like Augustine of Hippo and Bernard of Clairvaux, made use of the
fact that, in its Latin verb form, sapere, is the root for the Latin word for wisdom,
sapientia. But, for these Christian writers, more is at stake in the sapere/sapientia
correlation than simply a shared etymological root. This is due to the belief that it is
through the sense of taste, in particular, that human persons make the most direct
physical contact with the body of God. To taste (sapere) the body of God in Eucharis-

Systematic Theology, St. Bernards School of Theology and Ministry, 120 French Road, Rochester, NY,
14618. I am grateful to Professor Robert Sweetman for his advice and discussion on an earlier version of
this article. I also owe special thanks to the two anonymous referees for their helpful comments.

The following abbreviations are used:HGLK IIIGertrud the Great of Helfta, The Herald of Gods
Loving Kindness, Books One and Two, trans. Alexandra Barratt (Kalamazoo 1991); HGLK IIIGertrud the
Great of Helfta, The Herald of Gods Loving Kindness, Book Three, trans. Alexandra Barratt (Kalamazoo
1999); Le HrautLe Hraut, ed. and trans. Pierre Doyre et al., 4 vols., Gertrude dHelfta:Oeuvres
spirituelles. Sources chrtiennes 139, 143, 255, 331, Srie des texts monastiques doccident 25, 27, 48 (Paris
19681986); Les ExercicesLes Exercices, ed. and trans. Jacques Hourlier and Albert Schmitt, Gertrude
dHelfta:Oeuvres spirituelles. Sources chrtiennes 127, Srie des texts monastiques doccident 19 (Paris
1967); SBOBernard of Clairvaux, Sancti Bernardi Opera, eds. Jean Leclercq et al., 8 vols. (Rome 1957
1977). For works contained within the SBO, the following abbreviations are used:Conv.Sermo ad clericos
de conversione; Dil.De diligendo Deo; Div.Sermones de diversis; SCCSermo super cantica canti-
corum; SDDSermo de diversis; SentSententiae; SCPierre Doyre et al., eds. and trans., Gertrude
dHelfta:Oeuvres spirituelles, Sources chrtiennes, vols. 139, 143, 255, 331 (Paris 19681986); SEGer-
trude the Great of Helfta, Spiritual Exercises, trans. and ed. Gertrud Jaron Lewis and Jack Lewis (Kalama-
zoo 1989). Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own.
For recent work on the importance of the doctrine of the spiritual senses in religious writing and theol-
ogy in the later Middle Ages, see Boyd Taylor Coolman, Knowing God by Experience:the Spiritual Senses
in the Theology of William of Auxerre (Washington, DC 2004); Rachel Fulton, Taste and See that the Lord
is Sweet (Ps. 33:9):the Flavor of God in the Monastic West, Journal of Religion 86 (2006) 169204;
Rosemary Drage Hale, Taste and See, for God is Sweet:Sensory Perception and Memory in Medieval
Christian Mystical Experience, Vox Mystica:Essays on Medieval Mysticism in Honor of Professor Valerie
M. Lagorio, ed. Valerie Marie Lagorio and Anne Clark Bartlett (Cambridge 1995) 314; Gordon Rudy,
Mystical Language of Sensation in the Later Middle Ages, Studies in Medieval History and Culture 14 (New
York 2002). For an important recent study in early Christianity, see Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting
Salvation:Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination, Transformation of the Classical Heritage 42
(Berkeley 2006).

tic communion is to gain wisdom of God (Sapientia). Therefore, discourse about the
gustatory experience of the Eucharist offers us a conspicuous opportunity to examine
how writers throughout Christian history have thought about and attempted to articu-
late the journey from human sensory knowledge to divine wisdom.
This article explores gustatory language of wisdom in the writings of Gertrude the
Great of Helfta (12561302) in relation to that presented in the reception history (Wir-
kungsgeschichte) of the established Christian spiritual tradition. While still unknown
to many, Gertrude is an important figure in this tradition for several reasons. She is the
only woman in Christian history with the honorary title, the Great, attributed to her
not only because she is a great visionary, but also a great theologian of the Middle
Living with Mechthild of Hackeborn and Mechthild of Magdebrug at the
Benedictine/Cistercian convent of Helfta during its heyday of visionary, liturgical and
scholarly activity,
Gertrude stands as a symbol of the many other medieval women
religious who experienced visions, and taught and wrote theology within their
communities. Yet, Gertrude distinguishes herself from many of her female
contemporaries in the way that she writes her visionary literature in skilled Latin
prose, rather than the vernacular. Moreover, her theology, which is innovative in many
ways, is founded upon and interlaced with liturgical tropes and theological themes
from the established Latin spiritual tradition.
Gertrudes extant works are: Legatus memorialis abundantiae divinae pietatis (The
Memorial Herald of the Abundance of Divine Love), consisting of her autobiography
and visionary accounts, and Documenta spiritualium exercitionum (Teachings of Spir-
itual Exercises), containing seven liturgically-based meditations. Written during her
thirties and forties (in the 1280s and 1290s),
and arising out of the self-consciously
literary convent at Helfta, Gertrudes writing is highly erudite and astute. It evinces
familiarity with the works of Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bede, Bernard of
Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, and Albert the Great, in addition to
those of the women from her own community (e.g., Mechthild of Hackeborn and
Mechthild of Magdeburg).
Of course, Gertrude does not write in the scholastic mode

Indeed, theological approbation of Gertruds writings came immediately after her death, first from
those who knew her. Mary Jeremy Finnegan, The Women of Helfta:Scholars and Mystics (Athens1991) 96.
Finnegans work (n. 3 above) is the standard account on the Helfta monastery. For the community at
Helfta, see also Anna Harrison Oh! What Treasure is in this Book? Writing, Reading, and Community at
the Monastery of Helfta, Viator 39 (2008) 75106. A great deal of scholarly attention has focused on the
liturgical devotion in the visionary writings of Gertrude and the nuns of Helfta. See for example eadem, I
Am Wholly Your Own:Liturgical Piety and Community Among the Nuns of Helfta. Church History 78
(2009) 579; Hilda Graef, From Other Lands:St. Gertrude, Mystical Flowering of the Liturgy, Orate Fra-
tres 20 (1945/46) 171174; eadem, Gertrud von Helfta, Der siebenfarbige Bogen. Auf den Spuren der
groen Mystiker, ed. Ernst Schoenwiese (Frankfurt 1959) 318333, eadem., Mditation et clbration. A
propos du mmorial de sainte Gertrude, La liturgie et les paradoxes Chrtiens, ed. Jean Leclercq (1963)
170204; Jean Leclercq, Liturgy and Mental Prayer in the Life of Saint Gertrude, Sponsa Regis 32 (1960)
15; Maria Teresa Porcile Santiso, Saint Gertrude and the Liturgy, Liturgy 26 (1992) 5384; Cyprian
Vaggagini, The Example of a Mystic:St. Gertrude and Liturgical Spirituality, in idem, Theological
Dimensions of the Liturgy (Collegeville 1976) 740803.
See Michael Bangert, Demut in Freiheit:Studien zur geistlichen Lehre im Werk Gertruds von Helfta
(Wrzburg 1997) 251. See also Harrison, Sense of Community (n. 4 above) 53 n. 3.
Theresa A. Halligan, The Community at Helfta. Its Spirituality and Celebrated members, in eadem,
The booke of gostlye grace of Mechtild of Hackeborn (Toronto 1979) 3435. See also Miriam Schmitt,

reserved to men of her day; instead, she structures her theological reflections, vision
narratives and pious prescriptions according to the liturgical calendar and her devotion
to it.
In fact, communal celebrations of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy
of the Hours are the most common sources of Gertrudes visions and ecstasies, and
therefore, are also the inspiration of her visionary writing.

This article examines how Gertrudes liturgically-based, gustatory language relates
to innovations made by each Augustines and Bernards rhetoric of taste. The article
argues that Gertrude leaves behind the more dualist aspects of both Augustines and
Bernards use of sensory language by exploiting the more affirmative concepts of the
bodily forms of knowing found within their writings. Such body affirmative concepts
fundamentally form the vocabulary that Gertrude uses to articulate a unique, somatic
journey from human knowing to divine wisdom, as well as the carefully crafted
discussion of Eucharistic devotion from which it flows. Thus, while deepening our
general understanding of the journey from human knowing to divine wisdom in the
theological discourse and devotional instruction of the Christian tradition, the article
ultimately reveals the linguistic strategies and singular ideas that make Gertrude strike
out on her own in relation to the conventions that precede her and even to her
contemporary thirteenth- and fourteenth-century religious women.
In order to grasp what is distinctive about the way Gertrude uses the language of
taste and the innovative teachings which generate therefrom, we must first understand
something about the alternatives available to her in the reception history (Wirkungs-
geschichte) of the established tradition. I have chosen to focus on the language of
sensation in the writings of Augustine and Bernard not only for their influence on the
medieval West, but also for their influence on Gertrude. I will then note some of those
themes I have found to be taken up and/or reinterpreted by Gertrude.
To the extent that Augustine allows for metaphorical language of the spiritual
senses, he applies sight to the rest of the senses (i.e., hearing, smelling, taste and
touch). In De Trinitate, for example, he says: Let us, therefore, rely principally on the
testimony of the eyes for this sense of the body far excels the rest, and comes closer to

Gertrud of Helfta:Her Monastic Milieu (12561301) and her Spirituality, Cistercian Monastic Women
Hidden Springs, ed. John A. Nichols and Lillian Thomas Shank (Kalamazoo 1995) 476.
See Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism:Men and Women in the New Mysticism (1200
1350) (New York 1998) 270; Vaggagini, The Example of a Mystic (n. 4 above) 740803; Graef, From
Other Lands (n. 4 above) 171174.
Felix Vernet says that few works of mysticism are more overtly liturgical than the Helfta literature;
Felix Vernet, Medieval Spirituality, (London 1930) 220223, 270. Sabine Spitzlei identifies Mechthild and
Gertrude as liturgical mystics; Sabine Spitzlei, Erfahrungsraum Herz:Zur Mystik des Zisterzienserinnen-
klosters Helfta im 13. Jahrhundert, (Stuttgart-Bad Canstatt 1991) 77. Moreover, Anna Harrison ob-
serves:The Helfta literatures portrayal of these women suggests that the nuns were quick to embellish a
particular liturgical celebration with questions peculiar to each and to delve into details of the observance
that especially intrigued them. The physical objects Mechthild and Gertrud saw and handled, the words they
chanted and heard, seeped into their imagination. They gave rise to and became the stuff of visions, which
suffused communal song, reception, or a gospel reading with complex layers of meaning, and which
charged everyday routine with sometimes exalted, sometimes elaborate, and often deeply personal signifi-
cance. Anna Harrison, Sense of Community Among the Nuns of Helfta (Ph.D. diss., Columbia Univer-
sity 2007) 158159.

spiritual vision, though it differs from it in kind.
Moreover, in this development,
Augustine subordinates the sight of the mind or spiritual vision to divine illumination.
This is because, like the Middle Platonist Origen, Augustine says that God is only per-
ceived by the part of the human personthe inner manwhich, like God, is also
immaterial spirit. In his treatise, On Seeing God, Augustine declares: The Lord is
spirit (2 Cor 3.17), and whoever adheres to the Lord is one spirit [with him] (1 Cor
6.17). Hence, the person who is able to see God invisibly can adhere to God

Yet, despite his regard for sight and hearing as the most appropriate of the senses to
discuss God and how humans know God, gustatory and tactile imagery is omnipresent
in Augustines writings. Certainly, the very fact that Augustine uses such lowly lan-
guage reveals a contrast with Origens Middle Platonic conceptions. Augustines lan-
guage of taste is especially evident in his Confessions and Ennarrationes in Psalmos.
He makes use of the sapere/ sapientia correlation, for example, when he comments on
Colossians 3.1: If you have risen with Christ, show a taste for the higher wisdom.

To discuss sapientia, Augustine not only uses language of tasting, but also lan-
guage of sweetness (suavitas, dulcedo). For instance, he exclaims: O Wisdom,
most sweet light of the purified mind!
In Augustines usage here, wisdom is like a
seasoning that makes what otherwise is tasteless and bitter (amarus), taste sweet
(suavis). Christ, he says, was made sweet in order to overcome the separation be-
tween God and humanity, and to liberate humanity in its bitterness. Commenting on
Psalm 33.9, Augustine instructs: Listen to the psalm: taste and see that the Lord is
sweet. He was made sweet (suavis) to you because he liberated you. You had been
bitter (amarus) to yourself when you were occupied only with yourself. Drink the
sweetness (dulcedinem); accept the pledge from so great a granary.
Augustine uses
the language of tasting and sweetness again to convey both a Christological and
soteriological meaning in his commentary on Psalm 134.3 (Praise the Lord, for he is

Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Stephen McKenna (Washington, DC 1963) 316. Itaque potissimum
testimonio utamur oculorum. Is enim sensus corporis maxime excellit, et est visioni mentis pro sui generis
diversitate vicinior. Augustine, De Trinitate XI.1.2, PL 42.985.
Dominus enim spiritus est, unde qui adhaeret Domino unus spiritus est. Proinde qui potest Deum
invisibiliter videre, ipse Deo potest incorporaliter adhaerere. Augustine, Epistola 147.15.37, PL 33.613.
Translated and quoted here from Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism:Gregory the Great through the
Twelfth Century (New York 1994) 232.
Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York 1950) 728. Si resurrexistis cum Christo,
quae sursum sunt sapite. Augustine, De civitate Dei 20.10, PL 41.675. See also Augustine, De Trinitate
5.2.3; Augustine, Confessions 6.1, 10.40.65, 11.11.13; Augustine, Sermones 43.7.9.
O suavissima lux purgatae mentis sapientia! Augustine, De libero arbitrio 2.16.43, PL 32.1264. See
John C. Cavadini, The Sweetness of the Word:Salvation and Rhetoric in Augustines De doctrina christi-
ana, De doctrina christiana:a Classic of Western Culture, ed. Duane W. H. Arnold and Pamela Bright
(Notre Dame 1995) 164181. Sweetness is also important to Augustine in his Confessions, particuarly in
his prayers to Sapientia; see Augustine, Confessions 1.4.4, 2.6.3, 3.8.16, 7.3.5, 9.1.1, 10.3.4, 10.17.26,
11.19.25, 13.23.33. See also Franz Posset, The Sweetness of God, American Benedictine Review 44
(1993) 143178, esp. 147155.
Factus est tibi suavis, quia liberavit te. Amarus tibi fuisti, cum praesumeres in te. Bibe dulcedinem,
accipe pignus tanti horrei. Augustine, Sermones de Scripturis, sermon 145.5, PL 38.794. Trans. Fulton,
Taste and See (n. 2 above) 182. See also Franz Posset, Christi Dulcedo:The Sweetness of Christ in
Western Christian Thought, Cistercian Studies Quarterly 30 (1995) 143178, esp. 147155; Fulton, Taste
and See (n. 2 above) 169204; Hale, Taste and See (n. 2 above).

good; sing to his name because it is sweet). He invites those who taste Christ to
praise him:

Indeed, he would be good (bonus), but he would not be sweet (suavis) if he did not allow
you to taste (gustare) him. And yet, he offered himself to men (homnibus), when he sent
bread from heaven and gave his son, who is equal to him and who is what he is himself, to
be made man and to be killed for men, that through that which you are (ut per hoc quod tu
es), you might taste that which you are not (gustes quod non es). Indeed, it was a great thing
for you to taste the sweetness of God (gustare suavitatem Dei), that sweetness so distant and
exceedingly high, when you were cast down so low and lying in the utmost depths. Into this
great separation you were sent a mediator He himself is the mediator, and thus he was
made sweet (inde factus est suavis).

For Augustine, then, Christ tastes sweet (suavis), rather than bitter (amarus), because
of his salvific mediation between humanity and divinity. Christ overcomes the
metaphysical gap or great separation between humanity and divinity, so that,
through that which you are (ut per hoc quod tu es), you might taste that which you
are not (gustes quod non es). It becomes clear, therefore, that Augustine uses lan-
guage of taste, and accepts the material bodiliness implied by it, to convey the notion
that the Incarnation of Christ makes the incorporeal Logos accessible to embodied
human beings. Due to his belief in the body as essential to human nature, Augustine
does not entirely eschew the lowly language of taste. Rather, at times, he deems it
It seems right to conclude, then, that, fascinated though Augustine is by the body,
his accounts of the spiritual senses invariably gravitate toward language of the
higher more spiritual sense of sight and hearing. Moreover, by assimilating these
two senses to the illuminated mind, his writing reproduces the Origenist dualist
conception of the spiritual senses as intellective agents of learning. Influenced as it is
by his Neo-Platonic training, Augustines rhetoric of sight and hearing keeps with the
established dualistic idea that language of touch and taste is base and inappropriate to
discussions of how humans know God. However, we have also considered innovative
and more integrative aspects of Augustines language of the spiritual senses. Indeed,
deriving from his belief of body as essential to personhood, Augustine introduces the
possibility of a physical kind of knowledge and approach to God. This is particularly
clear in the continuous relationship he posits between the physical and spiritual sense
of sight and also in his indication of a bodily, ritual kind of knowledge of the visible
Word. As complex as his concept of the spiritual senses is, it Augustines use of lan-
guage of the lowly senses that provides the foundation for Bernards almost exten-
sive use of lowly sensory language to discuss how the human person knows and
achieves union with God.

Forte esset bonus et suavis non esset, si tibi non daret posse gustare. Talem autem se praebuit
hominibus, ut etiam panem de coelo miserit, et Filium suum aequalem, qui hoc est quod ipse, dederit homi-
nem faciendum, et pro hominibus occidendum; ut per hoc quod tu es, gustes quod non es. Multum enim ad
te erat gustare suavitatem Dei; quia remota erat illa et nimis alta, tu autem nimis abjectus et in imo jacens. In
magna ista separatione missus es Mediator Ipse est Mediator, inde factus est suavis. Augustine,
Ennarrationes in Psalmos, In psalmum CXXXIV, par. 5, PL 37.17411742; trans. Fulton, Taste and
See (n. 2 above) 177.

Familiar with the writings of Augustine among others, Bernard certainly knows the
basic idea and tradition of the spiritual senses.
Though he does not theorize about the
subject in any systematic sense, he frequently draws sensory language from the Bible,
especially in his well-known commentary on the Song of Songs, to discuss the human
persons encounter with God.
When he uses such imagery, he upholds the estab-
lished idea, common to both Origen and Augustine, that the spiritual senses belong to
the inner, spiritual person, and that they are analogous to, yet distinct from the
corporeal senses. Just as the corporeal senses allow the human person to perceive
material things, the spiritual senses allow the human person to perceive spiritual
thingsi.e., to know God.

In addition, like the works of Augustine before him, Bernards writing often rank
sight as more noble and appropriate to God than the other senses.
He also keeps
with the traditional pattern by subordinating the sight of the mind to divine illumina-
and by associating truth with sight.
As is the case in Augustines work, these
instances in Bernards texts seem to be based on the assumption that God is best per-
ceived by the part of the human personthe inner manwhich, like God, is also
immaterial spirit. In his Sermon 31 on the Song, Bernard says: My opinion is that of
the Apostle, who said that he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him
(1 Cor. 6.17) God is spirit (John 4.24), who is lovingly drawn by the beauty of that
soul whom he perceives to be guided by the Spirit, and devoid of any desire to submit
to the ways of the flesh, especially if he sees that it burns with love for himself.

On Bernards use of and familiarity with Origen and Augustine, see Jean Leclercq, Aux sources des
sermons sur les Cantiques, Receuil dtudes sur saint Bernard et ses crits (Rome 19621969) 275319,
esp. 281283; Rudy, Mystical Language (n. 2 above) 140141 n. 1; Jean Prosper Theodorus Deroy,
Bernardus en Origenes:Enkele opmerkingen over de invloed van Origenes op Sint Bernardus Sermones
super Cantica canticorum (De Toorts 1963). Michael Casey summarizes scholarship on Bernards written
sources in A Thirst for God:Spiritual Desire in Bernard of Clairvauxs Sermons on the Song of Songs,
Cistercian Studies Series 77 (Kalamazoo 1988) 2232. Jean Leclercq shows that the corpus Origenianum
was held and diffused at Clairvaux, Signy, Pontigny, and St. Thierry during the 13th c.; see Jean Leclercq,
Origne au XII sicle, Irenikon 24 (1951) 425439. Bernards seventy-fourth Sermon on the Song of
Songs is modeled on Origens description of the Words visit to the soul; see Bernard of Clairvaux, SCC
Several scholars have noted the concept of spiritual senses within Bernards writings. See Jean Mou-
roux, Sur les critres de lexprience spirituelle dapres les Sermons sur le Cantique de Cantiques, Saint
Bernard Thologien, Analecta Cisterciensia (Rome 1953) 251267; Jean Leclercq, De quelques procds
du style biblique du S. Bernard, Receuil dtudes sur saint Bernard et ses crits (Rome 1962) 260263;
Casey, A Thirst for God (n. 15 above) 296298, 231234; Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2
above) 4565.
Bernard asserts that just as the body, that is the exterior man, will receive back its life and sense at
the time of the resurrection, so too will the soul or interior man receive back its life and sense; that is
knowledge and love. (Et sicut corpus, id est exterior homo, in resurrectione sua vitam et sensum recipiet,
ita et in resurrectione sua vitam et sensum anima, id est interior homo, recipit, id est cognitionem et amo-
rem.) SDD 116:1316, SBO 6, 1:393. Trans. Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2 above) 52. See
also SDD 10, SBO 6, 1:122124.
Bernard explicitly ranks the five corporeal senses in three places, SDD 10, SBO 6, 1:122124; SDD
116, SBO 6, 1:393394; and in Sent 3:73, SBO 6, 2:108112. In each of these places, he ranks sight as the
highest sense. See also SCC 28.45 for a priority given to sight.
See SCC 41.3 and 45.56.
See esp. SDD 116; SCC 50.8.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs II, trans. Kilian J. Walsh, Cistercian Fathers Series 7
(Kalamazoo 1976) 129. Id loquimur quod Apostolus dicit, quoniam QUI ADHAERET DEO, UNUS
SPIRITUS EST Itaque in spiritu sit ista coniunctio, qui SPIRITUS EST DEUS, et concupisicit decorem

While Bernard uses language of sight to discuss the human persons intimate union
with God, he cannot be said to favour such language. In fact, in a number of places,
given the textual legacies available to him, it is as if he instinctively chooses to focus
primarily on the references to the lowly senses of taste and touch. This is certainly
the case when examining how he appropriates especially the sense of taste found
within Augustines eclectic sensory language.

Yet, Bernard uses such language to express his own, innovative ideas about the
immediate relationship between God and the human person in this life. On the Song,
for example, Bernard comments that the bride, who, while in her earthly life, can only
hope for life in heaven and the clear and everlasting visio Dei, can still enjoy a taste
or kiss of her divine Bridegroom in the shadow of contemplation.

She says: And his fruit is sweet to my taste, suggesting the taste of him she received in
contemplation when sweetly inspired by love. But that was in shadow, because in a mirror
and in a riddle. A time will come however when the shadows will wane and even entirely
fade away with the advance of dawn, and a vision that is clear, as it is everlasting, will steal
upon her, bringing not only sweetness to her taste but fulfillment to her heart, yet without
surfeit: In his longed-for shadow I am seated, and his fruit is sweet to my taste.

In a similar vein, Bernard often cites Psalm 33.9 (Taste and see that the Lord is
sweet; Gustate et videte quam suavis est Dominus) to articulate how the taste of
union with God, in this life, precedes and anticipates something of the sight of God
in the next life. For instance, he writes: There [in heaven] will be fulfillment; here
there is a taste. Therefore, taste and see that the Lord is sweet.

It seems, then, that Bernard follows in Augustines footsteps by referencing the lan-
guage of sight, tasting and sweetness as it appears in Psalm 33.9. Yet, unlike Augus-
tine, Bernard makes an important distinction between the sense of sight and the senses
of touch and taste. Sight allows the human person knowledge of things at a distance,
by means of a medium other than a body, while taste and touch are mediated because

animae illius quam forte adverterit in spiritu ambulantem, et curam carnis non perficientem in desiderio,
praesertim si sui amore flagrantem conspexerit. SCC 31.6, SBO 1:223.
Bernards doctrine has correspondence with the reception history of Gregory the Greats work, but a
comparison between Bernard and Gregory is outside of the bounds of this study. Bernard Mcginn assumes
that Bernards concept of the spiritual senses is a version of that found in Origen, Augustine, and Gregory
the Great. Though his assumption of a continuous and coherent concept of the tradition of the spiritual
senses differs from the argument of this article, McGinn shows some important continuous elements be-
tween the doctrines of Bernard and Gregory the Great; see McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (n. 10 above)
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs III, trans. Kilian J. Walsh and Irene M. Edmonds
(Kalamazoo 1979) 20. Unde ait:ET FRUCTUS EIUS DULCIS GUTTURI MEO, gustum contemplationis
eius significans, quem obtinuerat per amorem suaviter sublevata. At istud in umbra, quia PER SPECULUM
ET IN AENIGMATE. Eritque, cum declinaverint umbrae, crescent lumine, immo penitus disparuerint, et
subintrabit sicut perspicua, ita et perpetua visio, eritque non modo suavitas gutturi, sed et satietas ventri, sine
GUTTURI MEO. SCC 48:8; SBO 2:7273. See also SDD 3:1; Sent. 3:97.
Illic erit edimpletio, hic est gustus. Gustamus enim hic et videmus quoniam suavis est Dominus
SDD 41.12, SBO 6, 1. See also Dil. 9.26, 15.39; SCC 19.7; 50.8; Sent. 3:22

they require that the objects known contact the body directly.
Yet, because of the
direct physical contact the senses of taste and touch make with material objects, the
senses of taste and touch are also immediate. Taste and touch, then, are understood as
both mediated and as immediate senses. It is important to note that this tension is not a
contradiction, but rather an effect of the juxtaposition of the senses of taste and touch
viewed in two different respects. The basic distinction between the senses of sight and
taste and touch is useful to Bernard because it suggests a key theological concept
about the relation of self and body to other beings. Sight, for Bernard, communi-
cates union with God at one remove, while touch and taste express the immediate
presence of God.
Indeed, in De diversis 10, he orders the senses according to how
remote the objects they perceive are from the organ or faculty of sense. Beginning
with the lowest, most bodily senses and ascending up to the highest, most spiritual
senses, he says: touch corresponds to love of parents (tactui comparatur amor paren-
tum); taste corresponds to love of brothers or fraternal love (gustui comparatur amor
socialis, amor fratrum); smell corresponds to natural love (odoratui comparatur amor
naturalis); hearing corresponds to spiritual love (auditui comparatur amor spiritualis),
and sight corresponds to love of God (visui comparatur amor divinus).
The criterion
of the ordering is thus clear: spiritual vision, hearing and smell allow the soul to love
objects more distant from itself, while spiritual taste and touch communicate directly,
only with the friends and family who nourish the person in the flesh.
Noteworthy also is that, at times throughout his various writings, Bernard even uses
Psalm 33.9 to teach that the taste of God in this life is prior to the sight of God in
this next. For example: in On Conversion, he says, Unless you have tasted, you will
not see.
In some places, Bernard emphasizes the verb gustare of Psalm 33.9 more
than videre, omitting videre in an echo of 1 Peter 2.3 gustatis quoniam dulcis est
Deus, or even replacing it with another verb.
For instance, in Sermon 19 on the
Song, Bernard says that the odor of the spouses outpoured oil rouses them [i.e., the
maidens] to taste and feel (gustare et sentire) that the Lord is sweet (Ps. 33.9).

Moreover, in De consideratione, Bernard reinforces the priority he gives to taste as the
highest most immediate channel to God in this life, by ranking it the third and highest
form of consideration; he says it tastes what the first two hope for and smell.
wise, in On Loving God, he says that it is by tasting that those who love God for
Gods sake attain this third and highest level of love, because they then discover and

See Hans Jonas, The Nobility of Sight: A Study in the Phenomenology of the Senses, Phenomenon
of Life:Toward a Philosophical Biology (Chicago 1982) 135156; Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation
(n. 2 above) 8.
See SCC 9.6; 9.10; 67.7, 67.48.
Div 10, SBO 6, 2:109110. Bernard offers the same ranking, based on the same criterion in Sent. 3:73.
Nisi gustaveris, non videbis. Conv. XIII.25, SBO 4:99.
See for example SCC 19.7; 50.4; Dil. 9.26. See also Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2
above) 62, 146, n. 37.
Habet oleum effusum sponsa, ad cuius illae [adulescentiae] exitantur odorem, gustare et sentire
quaem suavis est Dominus. SCC 19.7, SBO 1:112.
Ergo quod prima optat, secunda odorat, tertia gustat. Csi. 5.IV, SBO 3:469. Trans. Rudy, Mystical
Language of Sensation (n. 2 above) 61.

judge how sweet the Lord is.

It is apparent, then, that Bernard sometimes breaks
with the traditional sensory hierarchy to rank taste as the highest of the spiritual senses
that can know God in this life. Though language of taste and touch is omnipresent in
Augustines writings, Bernards writings give it real emphasis.
Tactile imagery, for
Bernard, suitably conveys that union with God in the here and now is immediate and
mediated, and that this union is distinct from the remote and unmediated union of God
in the life to come.
Furthermore, I am suggesting here that Bernard proposes not only a different kind
of sensory hierarchy, but also a different kind of epistemology than that of Augustine
(and Origen for that matter). By favoring gustatory imagery over language of sight, he
makes the point that knowledge of God in this life is tasted, rather than seen, inso-
far as God is beyond rational knowing. It is taste, not sight, he says, which makes
one wise.
Indeed, like Augustine, Bernard frequently weaves a net of puns on sa-
por, sapere (to taste) and (to know), and its etymological connection to sapientia (wis-
He postulates: Perhaps sapientia, that is wisdom, is derived from sapor,
which is taste.
But, in subtle contrast to Augustine, Bernard places real emphasis
on the experience (experientia) of the taste (sapere) of Gods wisdom (sapientia).

The Spirit alone reveals it [1 Cor. 2.10]: you will consult books to no purpose; you need
experience instead. It is wisdom (Sapientia), and man does not know its price. It is drawn
from hidden places, and this sweetness is found in the land of those who live sweetly [Job
28.1213]. Of course the Lord is sweetness, but unless you have tasted, you will not see (nisi
gustaveris, non videbis). For it is said, Taste and see that the Lord is sweet. This is hidden
manna, it is the new name which no one knows except him who receives it. Not learning, but
anointing teaches it; not knowledge (scientia), but conscience (conscientia) grasps it.
tainly, for Bernard, to taste that the Lord is sweet is more than to be able to see God, or to be
in possession of divine knowledge; it is to experience. Experienced wisdom is not seen, but
tasted, since it consists of an immediate, mediated relation to God, beyond intellectual know-

probari quam suavis est Dominus. Dil. 9.26, SBO 3:140; trans. Rudy, Mystical Language of
Sensation (n. 2 above) 61. See also Dil. 15.39.
Gordon Rudy points out Bernards departure from the traditional hierarchy of the spiritual senses. He
draws, however, more of a distinction between Augustine and Bernard, whereas I am attempting to point
out more the subtle continuities and differences between the two authors works. See Rudy, Mystical Lan-
guage of Sensation (n. 2 above) 17, 65.
Sapor sapientem facit. SCC 23:14, SBO 1:148.
SCC 4950. On this and Bernards skill for word-play, see Jean Leclercq, Sur le caractre litraire
des sermons de S. Bernard, Receuil dtudes sur saint Bernard et ses crits (Rome 1962) 163210. On the
group of words, sapere, sapor, and sapientia in Bernards writings, see Casey, A Thirst for God (n. 15
above) 297298. For other instances of this word-play, see SCC 23.14, 67.6; Sent. 3.96.
Et forte sapientia a sapore denominatur. SCC 85.3, SBO 2:312.
Solus est Spiritus qui revelat:sine causa paginam consulis; experimentum magis require. Sapientia
est, cuius pretium nescit homo. De occultis trahitur, nec in terra suaviter viventium invenitur ista suavitas.
Nimirum suavitas Dominus est:nisi gustaveris, non videbis. GUSTATE, inquit, ET VIDETE QUONIAM
SUAVIS EST DOMINUS. Manna absconditum est, nomen novum est, quod nemo scit nisi qui accipit. Non
illud eruditio, sed unctio docet, nec scientia, sed conscientia comprehendit. Conv. 13.25, SBO 4:99100.
Trans. Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2 above) 63.
Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2 above) 63. Note that, additionally, in Sermon 50 on the
Song, Bernard distinguishes between three kinds of affection (affectio):which the flesh begets, and one
which reason controls, and one which wisdom seasons. Est affectio quam caro gignit, et est quam ratio
regit, et est quam condit sapientia. SCC 50.4 in SBO 2:80. Trans. Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n.

The language of taste is effective, here, for Bernard, because it connotes immediate,
mediated contact. When we taste something, we take something of its substance into
our mouth and absorb it through the membranes of the epithelial cells in our tongues.
Only, then, by this act of immediate contact with a substance other than ourselves are
we able to distinguish the quality or essence of its substancee.g., if it is bitter or
To be sure, Bernard, who is appropriately known as the mellifluous doctor,

has a propensity to the kind of language of tasting and sweetness found in Augustines
writing. Harking back to Augustines words, considered above, Bernard preaches that
when wisdom (sapientia) is added to virtue, like some seasoning (condimentum), it
adds taste (sapidam) to something which by itself is tasteless (insulsa) and bitter
But, whereas Augustine stresses the way Christ was made sweet in or-
der to overcome the separation between God and humanity, and to liberate humanity
in its bitterness, Bernard emphasizes the way the human person must make immedi-
ate contact with God in order to be able to taste and to know (sapor, sapere) the
sweetness of Wisdom (Sapientia).

I think it would be permissible to define wisdom (sapientia) as a taste for goodness (saporem
boni). We lost this taste almost from the creation of our human race. When the old serpents
poison (virus) infected the palate of our heart, because the fleshly sense prevailed, the soul
began to lose its taste for goodness, and a noxious taste crept in When [however] wisdom
enters, it makes the carnal sense taste flat; it purifies the understanding, cleanses and heals
the palate of the heart (cordis palatum sanat et reparat). When the palate is healed (sano pa-
lato), it then tastes the good; wisdom itself has a taste (sapit ipsa sapientia), and there is
nothing better.

Thus, taste, as Bernard writes it here, tells whether a soul is infected with the serpents
poison, or whether it has been rebalanced and cleansedi.e., having made immediate
contact with God so that it is capable of tasting that which is good. Here again the
contrast between Bernards and Augustines language of taste is slight; nonetheless, it
reveals something important about the difference in their epistemological theories.
Augustine uses language of taste with a soteriological and Christological purpose. For

2 above) 62. Charity sets love in the proper, hierarchical order so that it banishes the first and rewards the
second. But the third affection, wisdom, he says is far from either of them, because it tastes and experi-
ences that the Lord is sweet. [Tertia ab utraque distat, quae et gustat, et sapit quoniam suavis est Dominus
] SCC 50.4, SBO 2:80. Trans. Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2 above) 6263. See also Fulton,
Taste and See that the Lord is Sweet (n. 2 above) 191192.
On this notion in the medieval monastic milieu, see Fulton, Taste and See that the Lord is Sweet (n.
2 above) 170.
Bernard is rightly known as the mellifluous doctor, for he uses many words throughout his writing,
like dulcis and suavis to speak of God. For example, he writes of the sweet name of Father, (SCC 15:2,
SBO 1:83); the unimaginable sweetness of the Word, (SCC 85:13, SBO 2:316); and the sweetness of
divine artistry (SCC 17.2, SBO 1:99).
sapientia virtuti accedens, quoddam veluti condimentum, sapidam reddat, quae per se insula
quodammodo et aspera sentiebatur. Nec duxerim reprehendendum, si quis sapientiam saporem boni diffi-
niat. SCC 85.3, SBO 2:312.
Nec duxerim reprehendendum, si quis sapientiam saporem boni diffiniat. Hunc saporem perdidimus,
ab ipso pene exortu generis nostri. Ex quo cordis palatum, sensu carnis praevalente, infecit virus serpentis
antiqui, coepit anima non sapere bonum, ac sapor noxius subintrare . Intrans sapientia, dum sensum carnis
infatuat, purificat intellectum, cordis palatum sanat et reparat. Sano palato sapit iam bonum, sapit ipsa
sapientia, qua in bonis nullum melius. SCC 85.8, SBO 2:312313. Trans., with slight emendations, Fulton,
Taste and See that the Lord is Sweet (n. 2 above) 192193.

him, the language conveys the notion that the Incarnation of Christ makes the
incorporeal Logos accessible to embodied human beings. Yet, Bernard carries the
bodily implications of taste further. His use of language of taste communicates how
the person in life, in the experienced body, relates to God, in the here and now, in
the pattern of Jesus Christ.
As Michael Casey points out, Bernard employs language of the lowly senses, of
both taste and touch, partly because, as mediated senses, they allude to how God mani-
fests Gods self in Christ in order to mediate between and lead corporeal humanity to
the divine spirit.
For instance, in reference to the sense of taste, Bernard writes: God
took on flesh for those who know (sapientibus) the flesh, to teach them to taste and
know (sapere) the Spirit.
And, about the sense of touch, Bernard says that the kiss
of the mouth (osculetur osculo oris) in Song 1.1a refers to the Word of God or
mouth that assumed human corporeality when it kissed the flesh it took on. Christ
is both divine and human, as a kiss is shared by both giver and receiver. So, Bernard
uses the kiss of the Song of Songs to signify Christ the mediator, the Incarnate Son
of God.
Moreover, Bernard also associates the kiss of the mouth with the summit of
human union with the divine spirit (unitas spiritus). The kiss of the mouth is en-
joyed by a few fortunate people, such as St. Paul, when they are kissed by the Spirit,
and participate in the Trinitarian kiss of Father and Son.
As Bernard teaches, then,
just as the Incarnation is a touch or a kiss, so is the immediate union between the hu-
man person and God.

Finally, when we turn to Gertrude, we find that she, like Augustine and Bernard,
gives considerable attention to the theological appropriateness and implications of
sensory language. In comparison to their analyses, Gertrudes solutions to these issues
appear less systematicbut only on the surface. She writes in deceptively simple and
traditional language, which suggests inventive ideas about the structure of the human
person, physical sensation, and about the way to know and love God. Moreover, while
accounting for her novel ideas, Gertrude both explicitly refers and implicitly alludes to
the tradition of the spiritual senses available to her in the writings of those before her,
especially Augustine and Bernard. Yet, Gertrude does not merely parrot her sources.
As we will see in what follows, her writings not only engage with the established
tradition, but they also move beyond it.
For Gertrude, corporeal and spiritual vision is a means of knowing and approaching
union with God, and, reciprocally, the means by which one is transformed by God.
Yet, because of their role in receiving the Eucharist, the senses of taste and touch are
also privileged in Gertruds writing. In her visionary accounts in The Herald of Divine

Casey, A Thirst for God (n. 16 above) 297298. See also Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 3
above) 60; and SCC 71.10, where Bernard uses the language of adhering and embracing to describe the
way divinity and humanity mutually inhere in Christ; SCC 68; Div 92.1.
Obtulit carnem sapientibus carnem, per quam discerent sapere et spiritum. SCC 6, SBO 1:27.
See SCC 67; Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2 above) 60. Song 1:1a also implies the ac-
tion of God as Trinity, for Bernard. The love between the Father and Son within the Trinity, he says, is the
kiss of the Holy Spirit. SCC 8.8.
See SCC 8.8; Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2 above) 6061.
See Div. 92.1; SCC 71.10.

Love, Gertrudes religious sisters report that she learns from Christ about how the hu-
man person receives divine knowledge more immediately or directly by tasting the
host, rather than by seeing it.

Another time, during the distribution of the sacrament, she strongly desired to see the host
and was prevented from doing so by the crowds of those approaching the altar. She under-
stood that the Lord was gently inviting her and saying, The sweet secret that concerns us
must be unknown to those who are far from me. But youif it pleases you to knowdraw
near and experience the taste of that hidden manna, not by seeing but by eating (accede et
non videndo sed gustando experire quid sapiat illud absconditum manna).

In this account, it seems that Gertrude wants to distinguish between tasting and seeing
in a manner similar to Bernardthat she, too, wants to emphasize the immediate qual-
ity of taste. She learns that she may come closer to the hidden manna (absconditum
manna), in the here and now, not by seeing but by eating (non videndo sed
gustando). This is because, for Gertrude, the physical sense of taste makes direct,
immediate contact with the body of Christ in the consecrated host.
Indeed, in several places in her Spiritual Exercises, Gertrude follows Bernard by
prioritizing taste over sight in the approach to God. And, her reasoning for doing so,
like his, seems to be based on the immediate characteristic of taste. As we saw above,
Bernard sometimes emphasizes the verb gustare, and omits the verb videre from
Psalm 33.9 (gustate et videte quoniam suavis est Deus). Gertrude, too, emphasizes
taste before sight, yet with a slightly different technique. In an intriguing passage from
her Exercises, she quotes the alliterative combination of vacare et videre (be still and
see) from Psalm 46.10, and then supplements it with the sense of gustare (taste) as
given in Psalm 33.9 gustate et videte (taste and see). Without a doubt, Gertrude does
so in order to place the immediate sense of taste before the more remote sense of
sight, which she anaphorically exploits in the following lines.

HGLK III 77. Alia vice, dum inter distributionem Sacramenti valde desideraret hostiam videre et inde
a frequentia accedentium impediretur, intellexit Dominum blande se invitantem et dicentem: Suave secre-
tum quod inter nos agitur, illis incognitum esse oportet qui se a me elongant. Sed tu, si scire delectaris,
accede et non videndo sed gustando experire quid sapiat illud absconditum manna. Le Hraut, SC 143, 96.
The historical context of this passage is important. As Caroline Walker Bynum points out, medieval Chris-
tians were peculiarly prone to conflate the experience of receiving the Eucharistic host on their tongues with
seeing, because tasting it physically did not really matter; eadem, Holy Feast and Holy Fast:The Religious
Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley 1988) 6061. After the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215
decided that annual communion was both obligatory and sufficient for the laity, the majority of Christians
received the Eucharistic host only once a year, at Easter, after their sins were absolved in confession. People
feared being inadequately prepared for communion, and thus sacramental communion decreased and a
variety of Eucharistic substitutes increased. Seeing the consecrated host, an ocular communion became a
substitute for tasting or eating; Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (Hampshire
2002) 141. In Gertrudes context, in the 13th c., the elevation of the host eventually assumed what Miri
Rubin describes as sacramental efficacy and spiritual communion was regarded as beneficial; Miri
Rubin, Corpus Christi:the Eucharist in late Medieval Culture (Cambridge 1991) 6364. However, theologi-
ans, such as Alexander of Hales, frequently stressed that gazing on the host was, in itself, insufficient. On
the tradition of ocular communion in the 13th c., see Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment 133164, esp. 140
144. In the passage quoted above, wherein Gertrude makes an oblation during the elevation of the host, she
is transformed by sight, rather than taste. We know, however, that the nuns at the monastery of Helfta re-
ceived the host frequently, and Gertrude was eager to encourage those feeling unworthy to receive holy
Communion. See Le Hraut 3.10, 3.18, 3.19. 3.36, 3.77. Gertrude, therefore, promotes the taste of the
Eucharist over the sight of it.
SE 95 n. 18.

Be at leisure (vaca) now; taste and see (gusta et vide) how dulcet and how remarkable is the
spouse whom you have chosen above thousands./ See (Vide) what and how great is that
glory for which you have condemned the world./ See (Vide) what the good is like for which
you have waited./ See (Vide) what the homeland is like for which you have sighed./ See
(Vide) what the prize is like for which you have labored./See (Vide) who your God is, what
he is like and how great he is, whom you have cherished, whom you have adored and for
whom you have always wished.

Following in Bernards footsteps again, in another place in her Exercises, Gertrude
uses Psalm 33:9 to articulate how the mediated taste of union with God in this life
precedes and anticipates something of the unmediated sight of God in the next life.

Her prayer calls out to God in this way: O most lovable radiance, when will you sat-
isfy me with yourself? If only I might here perceive the fine rays of your beauty for a
little while and at least be permitted to anticipate your gentleness for a short time and
sweetly beforehand to taste (praegustare) you, my best share.
In these passages,
Gertrudes language of sight communicates the idea that God is always to some extent
remote from the human person in this life and beyond rational knowing, while her
language of taste teaches that the Eucharist is an opportunity for the human person to
make immediate contact with and know God in the here and now. For, in tasting God
in the Eucharist, by the physical sense of taste, the human person immediately touches
the body of God, and is able to enjoy an earthly taste or foretaste (praegustatio/
praegustare) of the heavenly sight of God.
Due to its immediacy, not only does Gertrude overtly claim that taste is prior to
sight in the earthly approach to God, like Bernard, she sometimes breaks with the
traditional sensory hierarchy by classifying taste, rather than sight, as the highest sense
for knowing God in this life. As a matter of fact, Gertrudes discussion of sensation in
the fifth of her seven Exercises inverts the traditional schema. It begins with the low-
est, corporeal sense of sight and ascends up to the highest, corporeal senses of taste
and touch, which perceive God here, in this life, along with their spiritual analogues; it
then finally culminates with the summum bonum, the biblical seeing God face to
in the next life:

SE 9596. Vaca iam, gusta et vide, quam dulcis et quam spectabilis sit sponsus, quem prae millibus
elegisti. Vide quae et quanta sit gloria, pro qua mundum contempsisti. Vide quale bonum sit, quod expec-
tasti. Vide qualis sit patria, ad quam suspirasti. Vide quale sit bravium, pro quo laborasti. Vide quis, qualis
et quantus sit deus tuus, quem dilexisti, quem adorasti, quem semper optasti. Les Exercices 6.5865, SC
127, 204. In a request to God, in Exercise I, beginning with, make me taste (degustare) the sweetness
(suavitatem) of your Spirit, Gertrude concludes, make me run to pastures of eternal life (vita aeternae)
where I can be at leisure for eternity (aeternum) and see (videre) that you, my Lord, are truly sweet. SE 25
with adaptations. Fac me tui spiritus degustare suavitatem currere ad pascua vitae aeternae, quo possim
in aeternum vacare et videre, quoniam tu vere suavis es, mi domine. Les Exercices 1.92, 102103, SC 127,
64, 66.
Gertrude also juxtaposes the faculties of sight and taste with the tool of synaestheia. In a few places
Gertrude refers to the biblical sight of God with gustatory language, (e.g., Gods mellifluous face) see Les
Exercices 1.7786; 5.267271; Le Hraut 3.30.102.
SE 7475. O amabilissima species, de te me quando saties? Utinam tuae venustatis tenues radios hic
percipiam parumper, ut liceat mihi tuam dulcedinem saltem praelibare paulisper, et te partem meam op-
timam praegustare suaviter. Les Exercices 5.4751, SC 127, 160. For other instances of the term fore-
taste (praegustatio/ praegustare), see Les Exercices 5.345; 6.502.
SE in 8.

When you are at leisure for love (for the kindling of your senses by the true sun, who is God,
so that your love may never be extinguished but may grow from day to day) assiduously re-
flect on one of these verses:
Blessed the eyes that see you, O God, love.
When, oh when may I come to that place where you are, God, true light, God and Lamb? I
know that I will at last see you with my eyes, O Jesus, my saving God.
Blessed are the ears that hear you, O God, love, Word of life.
When, oh when will your voice full of mellifluous pleasantness console me, calling me to
Ah! Let me not fear hearing evil, but let me quickly hear the glory of your voice. Amen.
Blessed the nose that breathes you, O God, love, lifes most dulcet aroma.
When, oh when will the fragrance of your mellifluous divinity breathe upon me?
Ah! Let me come quickly to the fat and lovely pastures of sempiternal vision of you. Amen.
Blessed the mouth that tastes, O God, love, the words of your consolation, sweeter than
honey and the honeycomb.
When, oh when will my soul be filled again out of the cream of your divinity and become
inebriated with your plentiful voluptuousness?
Ah! Let me taste you thus here, my Lord, for you are sweet that there I may for eternity hap-
pily and thoroughly enjoy you, O God of my life. Amen.
Blessed the soul that clings inseparably to you in an embrace of love and blessed the heart
that senses the kiss of your heart, O God, love, entering with you into a contract of friendship
that cannot be dissolved.
When, oh when will I be held tight in your blessed arms and behold you, O God, of my
heart, without mediation?
Ah! Quickly, quickly, let me, snatched from this exile, in jubilation see your mellifluous
face! Amen.

Gertrude charts out this via mystica, with its summit in taste and touch in this life, be-
cause it is through these senses in Eucharistic communion that the human being makes
immediate contact with God here. As Gertrude puts it: Ah! Let me taste (gustem) you
thus here (hic), my Lord, for you are sweet that there (ibi) I may for eternity happily
and thoroughly enjoy you, O God of my life. Amen.
Take note that Gertrude presents an innovative teaching in this verse. She says that
the human person makes immediate physical contact and mediated spiritual contact
with Christ, the Mediator between the here and there, in the consecrated host. She
juxtaposes both the immediate and mediated characteristics of taste. For, she maintains
that, in Eucharistic communion, as the physical sense of taste and touch directly con-

SE 9091, with adaptations. Translators emphasis. Per diem etiam illum quo vacaris amori, pro
accensione sensuum tuorum a vero sole qui deus est, ne unquam extinguaris, sed de die in diem crescas in
amore:ruminabis assidue unum de his versibus:Beati oculi qui vident te, o amor Deus. O quando, quando
illuc perveniam, ubi tu es deus verum lumen, deus et agnus? Scio quia tandem te videbo meis oculis, o Iesu
deus salutaris meus. Beatae aures quae audiunt te, o amor deus, verbum vitae. O quando, quando vox tua
plena melliflua suavitate consolabitur me, vocans me ad te? Eia ab auditione mala non timeam, sed cito
audiam vocis tuae gloriam. Amen. Beatae nares quae aspirant te, o amor deus, dulcissimum vitae aroma. O
quando, quando aspirabit mihi tuae mellifluae divinitatis fragrantia? Eia veniam cito ad tuae sempiternae
visionis pinguia et amoena pascua. Amen. Beatum os quod gustat, o amor deus, tuae consolationis verba,
super mel et favum dulciora. O quando, quando replebitur anima mea tuae divinitatis ex adipe, et inebria-
bitur tuae voluptatis ubertate? Eia sic gustem hic, quoniam tu suavis es, domine mi, ut in aeternum feliciter
te, o deus vitae meae, perfruar ibi. Amen. Beata anima, quae amplexu amoris inseparabilis adhaesit super te,
et beatum cor, quod sentit tui cordis osculum, o amor deus, iniens tecum indissolubilis amicitiae foedus. O
quando, quando tuis brachiis beatis stringar, et te, o deus cordis mei, sine medio aspiciam? Eia cito, cito
erepta ab hoc exilio, faciem tuam mellifluam videam in iubilo. Amen. Les Exercices 5.464493, SC 127,
192, 194.

tact the body of God in the consecrated host, concomitantly, the spiritual senses of
taste and touch contact the divine nature of Christ, present there in heaven, but also
here within and mediated by the communion wafer.
Gertrudes theory of concomitance is also evident in exercise I, in a prayer for re-
ceiving communion of the life-giving body and the blood of the spotless Lamb, Jesus
Christ. She instructs her readers to pray: O most dulcet guest of my soul, my Jesus
very close to my heart, let your pleasant embodiment (incorporatio) be for me today/
eternal salvation,/ the healing of soul and body,/ and the enclosing (conclusio)
of my life sempiternally in you.
With the phrase, let your pleasant embodiment
(incorporatio) be for me today, Gertrude again implies that the human person makes
direct, immediate contact with the body of Christ in receiving the Eucharistic host.
Yet, the tomorrow of eternal salvation is also found in the Eucharist, today, by way of
Christs pleasant embodiment. The spiritual sense of taste allows for this
opportunity by way of its contact with the divine nature of Christ, mediated by the
consecrated host. That both the spiritual and physical senses of taste and touch operate
concomitantly and make contact with Christ in Eucharistic union is further illustrated
by Gertruds prayer: Let it be for me the healing of soul and body.
Indeed, Gertrudes reports in the Legatus tell that her spirit finds rest and that her
body is sometimes restored to health after her Eucharistic communions.
Still, other
prayers, scattered throughout the Exercitia, instruct on the deification of the human
person, in this life, by way of physical and spiritual taste. For instance: In tasting
(degustatione) your pleasantness, I am alive.
May the faithful God, the true Amen,
who does not grow faint, make me thirst fervently for the dear Amen with which he
himself affects [the soul]; taste (gustare) with pleasure the dulcet Amen with which he
himself refreshes [the soul]; be consummated in happiness by that saving Amen with
which he himself perfects [the soul].
Based on her theology of the Eucharist and
Incarnation, Gertrude thus believes that via the spiritual and physical taste of Christ,
the Mediator, in the consecrated host, the human person may experience both the then
and there in the here and now, and be renewed in purity of body and soul.
What I am suggesting here is that Gertrudes language of taste and touch reveals a
theory that sets her apart from the sensory tradition that precedes her. For, in her
gustatory images she puts forth a theory that, in the Liturgy, bodily sensation can and
does cross the spaces and times that separate human and divine lives. This theory is
operative and evident in her singular structure of sensation. In the tradition of the doc-
trine of the spiritual senses, the spiritual and physical senses are generally viewed as

SE 2930. Pro susceptione communionis vivifici corporis et sanguinis agni immaculati Iesu Christi:
O animae meae hospes dulcissime, Iesu mi praecordialissime, tua suavis incorporatio sit mihi hodie
aeterna salvatio, animae et corporis reparatio et vitae meae in te sempiterna conclusio. Les Exercices
1.178179, 189190, 193195, SC 127, 72, 74.
See Le Hraut 3.4; 3.5253. The theme of Eucharistic rest and restoration is found within other
medieval women writers; see Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (n. 48 above) 151. This is why, I think,
Gertrude so eagerly promotes frequent communion. See Le Hraut 3. 10; 3.1819, and esp. 3.36 and 3.77.
SE 70. In degustatione tuae suavitatis vivens ... Les Exercices 4.356357, SC 127, 150.
SE 32. Deus fidelis, amen verum, qui non deficit, faciat me ferventer sitire amen charum, quo ipse af-
ficit; suaviter gustare amen dulce, quo ipse reficit; feliciter consummari illo amen salutari, quo ipse perficit;
ut in perpetuum efficaciter ... Les Exercices 1.234238, SC 127, 76, 78.

ordered in inverse relation to each other. The physical senses ascend from touch to
sight, while the spiritual senses ascend from sight to touch. Yet, Gertrude pictures both
the physical and spiritual senses as ascending from sight to touch. The physical senses
have the same order as the traditional order on the spiritual senses. For Gertrude, what
is true for the spiritual realm is true for the physical realm. Put differently, the spiritual
order is the archetype for the physical order. This idea seems to be based on her belief
that Eucharistic union with Christ, the Mediator, suspends the boundaries between
space and time, humanity and divinity. For, when she explicitly ranks the senses, she
refers to both the physical and spiritual analogues at once, as operating simultane-
For example, in the following two passages, which explicitly rank the senses from
sight to touch, Gertrude aligns the physical and spiritual analogues, presenting them as
working in tandem. First, in exercise V, Gertrude writes a series of benedictions,
which progress through both the physical and spiritual sensory faculties together in
this order: from the eyes to the ears, then to the nose, and finally to the mouth.

Blessed the eyes that see you, O God, love Blessed are the ears that hear you, O God,
love, Word of life ... Blessed the nose that breathes you, O God, love, lifes most dulcet
aroma Blessed the mouth that tastes, O God, love, the words of your consolation, sweeter
than honey and the honeycomb Blessed the soul that clings inseparably to you in an em-
brace of love.

In another instance, in her spiritual autobiography, in the Book II of the Legatus, Ger-
trude reproduces this ranking of the physical and spiritual senses, from sight to hearing
and smelling up to taste and touch. Again, she refers to both the physical and spiritual
faculties at once, as acting in tandem. After receiving the Eucharist, one day, she

What sights, what sounds, what scents, what delicious savors, what sensations! ... For even if
the combined abilities of human beings and angels could be concentrated into a single mo-
ment of worthy knowledge, it would not be adequate fully to express even a single word by
which one could in the least degree aspire to the sublimity of such great excellence.

Gertrude provides us with more clues about her unique sensory schema in the conclu-
sion of her autobiography. Reflecting there on her own spiritual practice and on the
artful composition of her book, she writes to God:

I long to praise you so that some people who read this account may take delight in the sweet-
ness of your loving-kindness (dulcedine pietatis), and under this inducement may achieve
personal experience (experiantur) in their inmost being of ampler graces, just as students
sometimes come to the study of logic by way of the alphabet! In the same way, may they be

SE 9091. Beati oculi qui vident te, o amor Deus Beatae aures quae audiunt te, o amor deus, ver-
bum vitae Beatae nares quae aspirant te, o amor deus, dulcissimum vitae aroma Beatum os quod
gustat, o amor deus, tuae consolationis verba, super mel et favum dulciora Beata anima, quae amplexu
amoris inseparabilis adhaesit super te Les Exercices 5.468487, SC 127, 192, 194.
HGLK III, 123. O quid videt, quid audit, quid olfacit, quid gustat, quid sentit! ... cum etsi omnis
angelica et humana possibilitas in unam dignitatis conferretur scientiam, ad plenum nequaquam formare
sufficeret vel unicum verbum quo tantae excellentiae supereminentiam vel in minimo digne attingere posset.
Le Hraut 2.8.5, SC 139, 268.

led by these pictures (imaginationes), so to speak, that I have painted, to taste within them-
selves that hidden manna (gustandum intra se manna illud absconditum) that cannot share
any trace of material imagery (nulla corporearum imaginationum admixtione) grant that
we may feed (pascere) on this manna to satiety throughout the journey of this exile, until
with uncovered face we reflect the glory of the Lord, and are transformed from brightness to

To sum up this passage: alphabet is to logic as corporeal images are to hidden manna
as the Eucharist is to the summum bonum; via the alphabet students arrive at logic; via
the pictures (imaginationes) that Gertrude has painted (depictas) her readers taste
within themselves hidden manna (ducantur gustandum intra se manna illud
absconditum); and via the Eucharist the human person is sustained and trained as they
journey to their ultimate goal: to see and reflect the glory of God in heaven.
herein, Gertrude again articulates the approach to God in this life as beginning in
physical and spiritual sight and ending in physical and spiritual taste and touch.

The privilege Gertrude grants to taste and touch, as well as her belief in the
concomitance of the spiritual and physical sense analogues and how they operate
simultaneously, is further illustrated in the first of her Spiritual Exercises, which calls
to mind the ceremony of Baptism. In this exercise, Gertrude speaks of the salt of wis-
dom, thereby making a reference to the liturgical use of baptismal salt. While the
former is perceptible to the spiritual taste, the latter is perceptible to corporeal taste.
With this phrase, then, Gertrude refers to both the corporeal and spiritual senses of
taste, at once, and implies that they function in tandem. She instructs:

At this point, you will pray that your mouth be filled with the salt of wisdom (sapientiae)
that you may be able to savor the taste (sapere) of faith in the Holy Spirit. Most dulcet Jesus,
let me receive from you the salt of wisdom and the spirit of understanding favorable to eter-
nal life Make me taste (degustare) the pleasantness of your Spirit

HGLK 12, 172173. eo desidero te laudari, ut aliqui ista legentes in dulcedine pietatis tuae
delectentur, et inde tracti in intimis suis ampliora experiantur, sicut per alphabetum ad logicam perveniunt
quandoque studentes, sic per istas velut depictas imaginationes ducantur ad gustandum intra se manna illud
absconditum, quod nulla corporearum imaginationum admixtione valet partiri sufficienter pascere
digneris per totam hujus exilii viam, quoad usque revelata facie gloriam Domini speculantes, in eamdem
imaginem Domini transformemur a claritate in claritatem, tamquam a suavissimo spiritu tuo. Le Hraut
2.24.1, SC 139, 350, 352.
For a discussion of Gertruds analogical reasoning, see Prudence Allen, The Concept of
Woman:Volume II:the Early Humanist Reformation, 12501500 (Grand Rapids 2002) 340.
In his reading of the Legatus, Olivier Quenardel suggests that Gertrude takes for the basis as her struc-
ture of sensation the order of Christian pedagogy and the order of the Eucharistic liturgy. In both cases, he
says The wide embrace of the vision must go through the narrow embrace of the chewing, so that humans
can see God as God wants to be seen. He argues that the logic of this sensory and apostolic pedagogy, not
without any link with the mystagogy which has its summit in the eucharistic communion, opens onto an
availability of humans for God, the ultimate goal of the pietas Dei:to make the whole Ecclesia, and each of
her members, the Temple in which God delights. Olivier Quenardel, Saint Gertrude: Apostle of the
Benefits of Eucharistic Communion, Conferences on Saint Gertrude of Helfta given at a Session of the
Cistercian Monasticate (Abbey of Himmerod in September 2003),
anglais/conf-6.htm#titre. See also idem., La Communion Eucharistique dans Le Hraut de LAmour Divin
de sainte Gertrude dHelfta:situation, acteurs et mise en scne de la divina pietas (Brepols 1997).
SE 25. Hic orabis, ut os tuum repleatur sale sapientiae, ut possis gustum fidei in spiritu sancto sa-
pere:Accipiam a te, Iesu dulcissime, salem sapientiae et spiritum intelligentiae propitiatus in vitam aeternam
Fac me tui spiritus degustare suavitatem. Les Exercices 1.8790, SC 127, 64.

Also, noteworthy about this passage is how, like Augustine and Bernard, Gertrude
makes use of the etymological association of taste (sapere) and wisdom (sapientia).
Yet, Gertrudes strategy of playing on sapere/sapientia moves beyond that of the men
before her. Based on her theory of concomitance, she claims significant divine learn-
ing occurs when she both physically and spiritually tastes the Eucharistic host.
God, she exclaims:

Hail, my salvation and the light of my soul! May all that is encompassed by the path of
heaven, the circle of the earth and the deep abyss give you thanks for the extraordinary grace
with which you led my soul to experience and ponder the innermost recesses of my heart
You endowed me with a clearer light of knowledge of you I do not remember having
ever enjoyed such fulfillment except on the days when you invited me to taste the delights of
your royal table. Whether your wise providence ordered this, or my assiduous neglect
brought it about, is not clear to me.

Gertrude also places real emphasis here on the experience (experientia) of the taste
of wisdom. She does this in Bernardine fashion, stressing that experienced wisdom is
not seen, but tasted, since it consists of an immediate relation to God, who is beyond
intellectual knowing.
Gertrude certainly agrees with Bernard that to touch or to taste God is not to know
but to experience.
But, Gertrude does not pull any punches when it comes to
discussing the physical experience of God in her language of taste and touch. This is
because she rests on her belief that Christ is made flesh in the Eucharist, and is thus
perceptible to the corporeal as well as spiritual sense of taste. The way she highlights
the particularly corporeal act of tasting and touching the body of God in the Eucharist
is seen, for example, in her meditation on the great care one should guard the mouth,
as it in particular among the other parts of the body is the receptacle of the precious
mysteries of Christ.
Gertrude even asks God, on another occasion: What glory
does your divinity delight to gain from my chewing your spotless sacraments with my

As Caroline Bynum explains, when medieval mystics ... speak of tasting God... the verb itself is a
kind of bridge between the physical act of eating the host and the inner experience of resting in the sweet-
ness (fruitio) of mystical union. Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (n. 48 above) 151.
HGLK III 103104. Ave, salus mea et illuminatio animae meae, gratias tibi referat quidquid coeli
ambitu, terrarum circuitu, profundoque abyssi complectitur, pro inusitata illa gratia qua introduxisti animam
meam ad cognoscenda et consideranda interiora cordis mei Donabas enim me ex tunc clariore luce
cognitionis tuae Sed tamen non recordor me fruitionem talium habuisse extra dies illos in quibus me ad
delicias regalis mensae tuae vocabas. Et utrum hoc tua sapiens providentia ordinaverit, seu mea studiosa
negligentia effecerit, non mihi liquido constat. Le Hraut 2.2.12, SC 139, 232, 234.
Gertrudes desires to teach othersboth by example and written instructionin the way of her
experience of union with Christ in the school of love. In the Exercitia, she frequently employs the image
the school of love (schola amoris and schola charitatis). See Les Exercices 2.5255; 5.311, 318, 365. This
is an image that often directly refers to the Cistercian monastery; see Karl-Hubert Fischer, Zwischen Minne
und Gott:die geistesgeschichtlichen Voraussetzungen des deutschen Minnesangs mit besonderer
Bercksichtigung der Frmmigkeitsgeschichte (Frankfurt am Main 1985) 151. For more on Gertruds refer-
ences to Christ as teacher and her new kind of learning see, Alexandra Barratt, Infancy and Education in
the Writings of Gertrud the Great of Helfta, Magistra 6 (2000) 1730; Rebecca Stephens, The Word
Translated:Incarnation and Carnality in Gertrud the Great, Magistra 7 (2001) 8384.
HGLK III 74. quanta diligentia os esset observandum, quod praecipue inter alia membra est
receptaculum pretiosorum Christi mysteriorum Le Hraut 3.18.9, SC 143, 88.

unworthy teeth?
At another time, she considers her corporeal chewing of the host as
breaking apart and feeding the Mystical Body of Christ. She prays that whenever at
the reception of the sacrament the Lord would grant her as many souls from purga-
tory as the number of parts into which the host was broken in her mouth.
metaphors of bodily encounterconjuring up as they do mouths and teeth, flesh
chewed and swallowed and made into new fleshreveal how much, to Gertrude, that
the God who is infinite and beyond all rational knowing is also fleshly humanitya
humanity that feeds and physically encounters the human person.
To be sure, Gertrudes rhetoric of touch and taste suggests that Eucharistic union
with Christ entails mutual assimilation and interpenetration of humanity and God into
one flesh. Listen, for example, to the way Gertrudes sisters describe her Eucharistic
repose on Christs breast:

Another day when about to communicate she withdrew herself from it even more than usual
because of her unworthiness. She implored the Lord to receive that holy Host on her behalf
in his own persona and incorporate (incorporaret) it within himself and then breathe into her
out of the noble respiration of his most delightful breath Thence when she had rested for
awhile in the bosom of the Lord as it were beneath the shadow of his arms, in such a way
that her left side seemed to lean against the blessed right side of the Lord, a little later she
raised herself up and perceived that from the loving wound in the Lords most holy side she
had contracted a pink (roseam) scar on her left side. After this when she was approaching to
receive the body of Christ, the Lord seemed to receive that sacred host in him with his divine
mouth. Passing through her inmost being it emerged from the wound in Christs most holy
side and, like a dressing, fitted itself over that same life-giving wound. Then the Lord said to
her, See how this host unites you to me in such a way that it covers up your scar from one
side and my wound from the other, and becomes a dressing for both of us.

In this account, Gertrude clearly understands the process of eating the Eucharist as
mutual, involving both her and Christ. She asks Christ to incorporate (incorporaret)
it [i.e., the host] with himself, and she understands that, when she was approaching
to receive the body of Christ, the Lord seemed to receive that sacred host in him with
his divine mouth. Furthermore, Gertrude recognizes that this mutual eating signifies
assimilation. When God eats the host that she offers, Gertrude contracts a pink
(roseam) scar on her left side from the wound of Christ. She is conformed to him.

HGLK III 77. Et quid, Domine, divinitas tua inde gloriae consequi delectatur, quod indignis dentibus
meis tua immaculata contero Sacramenta? Le Hraut 3.18.17, SC 143, 96.
HGLK III 8081. cum ad sumptum Sacramentum desideraret, ut sibi Dominus de Purgatorio tot
animas praestaret, in quot partibus hostia in ore ipsius divideretur, et inde conaretur illam in plures partes
dividere. Le Hraut 3.18.26, SC 143, 102.
HGLK III 81. Alia quoque die communicatura, dum frequentiore sibi more propter indignitatem
suam se subduceret, exorabat Dominum, quatenus ipse pro se Hostiam illam sacrosanctum in persona sua
susciperet et sibimet incorporaret, ac deinde ex nobili spiramine suavissimi afflatus sui singulis horis tantum
sibi aspiraret Hinc cum per moram in sinu Domini quasi sub umbra brachiorum ipsius requievisset, ita
quod latus suum sinistrum benedicto lateri Domini dextro applicatum videretur, post modicum erigens se
cognovit ex amatorio vulnere sanctissimi lateris Domini, se in sinistrum quasi roseam cicatricem
contraxisse. Post hoc cum ad suscipiendum corpus Christi accederet, ipse Dominus videbatur ore suo deifico
in se suscipere Hostiam illam sacrosanctam, quae pertransiens intima illius de vulnere lateris Christi
sanctissimi progrediebatur et quasi emplastrum super idem vivificum vulnus se coaptavit. Unde Dominus ait
ad eam: Ecce Hostia haec te mihi conjunget eo modo, quod ex una parte contegat cicatricem tuam, et ex
alia parte vulnus meum, utrisque nobis factum emplastrum. Le Hraut 3.18.27, SC 143, 104.

Yet, Gertrudes communion affects Christ as well. The host covers up his wound, just
as it covers up her scar; indeed, it dresses their two shared wounds at once.
By suggesting such mutual assimilation, Gertrudes language of taste and touch
moves beyond even the most body-affirming aspects of Augustines and Bernards
language. As I pointed out above, Bernard frequently qualifies his language of eating,
tasting and touching, so as not to imply divine-human union without difference. Ger-
trude, however, is concerned to draw attention to the possibility of the human persons
intermingling with, or even transformation into, Christs human and divine substances
or natures that is possible in Eucharistic communion. She says, for instance, that once,
after receiving the host, she saw her

soul cradling him [i.e., Jesus as a tender little body] within itself it suddenly seemed to be
completely changed into the same color as himif that can be called a color, which cannot
be compared with any visible quality. Then my soul perceived a meaning that defies explica-
tion in the sweet words, God shall be all in all (Heb. 1.3). It felt that it held within itself the
Beloved, installed in the heart, and it rejoiced that it was not without the welcome presence
of its Spouse, with his most enjoyable caresses. Offered the honeyed draughts of the follow-
ing divinely inspired words, it drank them in with a thirst that could not be satisfied: Just as
I bear the stamp of the substance of God the Father (Heb. 1.3) in regard to my divine nature,
so you bear the stamp of my substance in regard to my human nature, for you receive in your
deified soul the outpourings of my divine nature, just as the air receives the suns rays. Pene-
trated to the very marrow by this unifying force, you become fit for a more intimate union
with me.

Certainly, when Bernard speaks of leaning on the wounded side of Christ, he does not
stress assimilation of the human and the divine as Gertrude does; rather he speaks of a
particularly intimate amplexus, a mutual touching. For example, in his Sermon 51.5 on
the Song, Bernard evokes the biblical image of John leaning on Jesuss breast at the
Last Supper, and says: Happy is the soul who reclines on the breast of Christ and
rests between the arms of the Word.
Such tactile imagery, in Bernards writing,
operates as an allegory of union between the soul and the Word. He avoids the carnal
implications of the imagery. As Caroline Walker Bynum notes, among twelfth-century
Cistercians, like Bernard, the heartwhich is already the sweetness John tasted on
Jesuss breast and the cleft in the rocks where the Apostle hidesis primarily Gods
love. Although feeding imagery and images of refuge surround it, it is not explicitly a
symbol of the Eucharist By Gertrudes day devotion to the sacred heart is an
explicitly Eucharistic devotion.

HGLK III 117. Quem cum intra se teneret anima mea, repente tota mutata videbatur cum ipso in
eumdem colorem, si tamen color dici possit quod nulli visibli speciei valet comparari. Hinc percepit anima
mea intellectum quemdam ineffabilem verborum illorum suavifluorum:Erit Deus omnia in omnibus, cum
dilectum praecordiis suis immissum se continere sentiret et cum jucundissimae blandidatis sponsi gratam
praesentiam sibi non deesse guaderet. Unde mellita pocula talium verborum divinitus propinata insatiabili
aviditate imbibebat: Sicut ego sum figura substantiae Dei Patris in divinitate, sic tu eris figura substantiae
meae ex parte humanitatis, suscipiens in tuam deificatam animam emissiones meae divinitatis, sicut aer
suscipit solares radios; qui unitivo medullitus penetrata habilitaris ad familiariorem mei unionem. Le
Hraut 2.6.2, SC 139, 258.
Felix anima quae in Christi recumbit pectore, et inter Verbi brachia requiescit! SCC 51.5.5 in SBO
Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berke-
ley 1982) 192193. As Laura Grimes, Theology as Conversation:Gertrude of Helfta and her Sisters as

Indeed, Gertrude exploits the tactile implications of Eucharistic devotion. Instead

of mutual touching, she expresses this kind of union in terms of mutual intimacy
(mutuae familiaritatis) and exchange. She reports that her most treasured Eucharistic
experiences include Gods wounding of her heart and the exchange of hearts with

Among all these pleasures I have two favorites: that you imprinted on my heart the brilliant
necklace of your most saving wounds; and that you fixed the wound of love so plainly and
so effectually in my heart You also bestowed on me the added intimacy of your priceless
friendship, by offering in many different ways that most noble ark of godhead, your deified
Heart, to increase all my delights, sometimes giving it freely, sometimes as a great sign of
our mutual intimacy (mutuae familiaritatis), exchanging it for mine.

Thus, even more than Bernard, Gertrude stresses that the human person is integrated
equally in soul and body; both parts of the human person, then, can be simultaneously
united to God, even in this life. According to her, the human person can achieve an
immediate relation to God in the here and now, in body and soul, especially in
Eucharistic communion. The corporeal senses of taste and touch in the Eucharist are
the gateway to union with God in the soul.
Even in the liturgical context in which his visions and auditions occur, Bernard
uses taste to refer to the sweetness of the spiritual taste of true doctrine in the scrip-
tures, the living bread and the hidden manna, instead of the corporeal taste of the
Eucharistic host in the liturgy; he places emphasis on Christ, the Incarnate Word made

Readers of Augustine (Ph.D. diss., Notre Dame 2004) 118119, has made clear, Gertrude was also work-
ing with the Augustinian notion of heart, the mens in its highest act by which intellect and affect com-
bine in the act of caritas. For instance, in the Legatus, Gertrude relates to God: Suddenly you were there
unexpectedly, opening a wound in my heart [infigens vulnus cordis meo] with these words, May all your
affections [affectionum tuarum] come together in this place; that is may the sum total of your delight, hope,
joy, sorrow, fear and your other affections [caeterumque affectionum tuarum] be fixed firmly in my love
[stabiliantur in amore meo]. HGLK III 113. [Sed nec sic quidem satisfactum est desiderio meo usque in
feriam quartam dum post Missam a fidelibus recolitur tuae adorandae Incarnationis et Annuntiationis digna-
tio; cui et ego quamvis minus digne intendebam; et ecce tu aderas velut ex improviso infigens vulnus cordi
meo cum his verbis: Hic confluat tumor omnium affectionum tuarum verbi gratia:summa delectationis,
spei, gaudii, doloris, timoris, caeterarumque affectionum tuarum stabiliantur in amore meo.] Le Hraut
2.5.2 in SC 139, 250. At first blush, this understanding of heart does not seem to reveal the physical kind
of union with God that I am arguing for. However, Gertrudes union with Christ, as this passage relates it,
occurs in a Eucharistic and communal context. Along with her sisters, after Mass, Gertrude is taking part in
a devotion that honors the Incarnation. The context, as Grimes notes, emphasizes the ongoing incarnation of
Christ in his mystical body, the community of Christians, in which Gertrude is a corporate member, and
through which she receives Christs mercy and grace. Thus, the union of her heart with Christs is body
HGLK III 165166. Inter quae et illa duo specialius praefero, quod scilicet impressisti cordi meo
saluberrimorum vulnerum tuorum praeclara monilia, et ad hoc vulnus amoris tam evidenter et etiam effica-
citer cordi meo infixisti Addidisti etiam inter haec mihi inaestimabilem amicitiae familiaritatem im-
pendere, diversis modis illam nobilissimam arcam divinitatis, scilicet deificatum Cor tuum praebendo in
copiam omnium delectationum mearum; nunc gratis dando, nunc ad majus indicium mutuae familiaritatis
illud mihi pro meo commutando. Le Hraut 2.23.78, SC 139, 336, 338; Le Hraut 2.68. For more on
Gertruds devotion to the wounds of Christ, see Rosalyn Voaden, All Girls Together: Community, Gender,
and Vision at Helfta, Medieval Women and Their Communities, ed. Dianne Watt (Toronto 1997) 7291.
For more on the comparison between Gertrudes and Bernards devotions to Christs wounds, see Sheryl
Frances Chen, Bernards Prayer Before the Crucifix that Embraced Him: Cistercians and Devotion to the
Wounds of Christ, Cistercian Studies Quarterly 29 (1994) 4751.

flesh in the Scriptures, rather than Christ made flesh in the Eucharistic Host. Undenia-
bly, at times, Gertrudes language corresponds with Bernards kind of rhetoric. For,
she says that the words of the Bible are honeyed and honey-sweet (super mel et
Moreover, she suggests that the words she writes, because they are so based
in Scripture, are sweeter than the honeycomb (favo mellis dulciores) (Ps. 18.11).

Yet, Gertrude goes farther than Bernard when she associates the sweetness of her
words with the sweetness of the Eucharist. For instance, she reports that Christ tells
her the following about her Legatus: I have pressed this book of mine on the inner-
most parts of my divine breast for this reason, that by it I may penetrate every letter
written in it thoroughly with the sweetness of my divinity, as the sweetest mead com-
pletely penetrates a grain of new wheat.
Indeed, in the same report from the
Legatus, we are told that once the manuscript had been completed, one of Helfta nuns
hid the work in the sleeve of her habit when she communicated, and the book received
the same benediction that effectively transubstantiates bread and wine for the salvation
of all.
As Ann Astell argues, Whereas Bernard eats the sacred scriptures as if they
were Eucharist, Gertrude reads the Eucharist as if it were text.

Taste and touch are certainly central metaphors in Gertrudes writings, not merely
because the Eucharist is the place in Christian ritual in which God is most intimately
received, but also because taste and touch express the way the human person
makes immediate physical contact and mediated spiritual contact with Christ, the
Mediator between the here and there, in the consecrated host. According to Gertrude,
as the physical senses of taste and touch directly contact the body of God in the conse-
crated host, concomitantly, the spiritual senses of taste and touch contact the divine
nature of Christ, present there in heaven, but also here within and mediated by the
communion wafer. To be sure, the corporeality of Gertrudes language of taste and
touch is justified by her theory that, in the Liturgy, bodily sensation can and does cross
the times and spaces that separate human and divine lives.

Gertrude employs the senses actually and figurativelycorporeally and spiritually.
Her recitation of specific Psalms and aspects of traditional rhetoric of the spiritual

HGLK III 77; Le Hraut 3.18.17, SC 143, 96.
HGLK III 39; Le Hraut 1.1.2, SC 139, 122. The Exercitia is so saturated with sweetness that Ger-
trud Lewis and Jack Lewis took special lexical efforts to avoid an untruthful impression of saccharinity in
their English translation of the text. To guard against such cloying sweetness, they explain, we have
taken these steps:dulcis is represented by its English cognate dulcet and mellifluous by its cognate
mellifluous. Suavis has become pleasant. SE 32, n. 63.
Hunc librum meum ad hoc intimis divini pectoris mei impressi, quo singulas litteras in eo conscriptas
dulcedine divinitatis meae pertranseam medullitus, sicut medo suavissimus micam recentis similaginis
efficaciter pertransit. Le Hraut 5.33, SC 331, 264, 266.
Eodem effectu quo in hac missa panem et vinum transubstantiavi omnibus in salutem, etiam omnia in
libro isto conscripta caelesti benedictione mea modo sanctificavi omnibus Le Hraut 5.33; SC 331, 264.
Elsewhere the book is compared to a relic, another instance of physical presence of the holy, rather than a
piece of her bone or habit. See Le Hraut 2.2324.
Moreover, Astell says: Gertrude did not in fact misread Bernard; rather she complements him, bring-
ing to the fore what he kept in the background. Ann Astell, Hidden Manna Bernard of Clairvaux,
Gertrude of Helfta, and the Monastic Art of Humility, Eating Beauty:the Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts
of the Middle Ages (Ithaca and London 2006) 67.

senses, as well as her justification of images indicates a working knowledge of sensory

language used by Augustine and especially Bernard. But more than her sources, Ger-
trude uses the physical senses, especially sight, taste, and touch to help activate the
spiritual senses in approaching divine union. Her gustatory language implies that, be-
cause of their immediate physical contact with the body of God and mediated spiritual
contact with Christs divine nature in Eucharistic communion, this sense, including
both its physical and spiritual analogue, should be privileged as the gateway to union
with God in this life. Rather than sight, as the foregoing tradition would have it, taste
is the instrument, par excellence, for apprehending divine grace and for growth in
God. The overall impression of the spiritual senses left by Gertrudes writings is that
the soul is joined with the body when the physical and spiritual senses are together
applied in liturgically based exercises. According to her, liturgical sensory piety has as
its telos the culmination and expectation of the divine-human encounter.
To be sure, the seminal work of Caroline Walker Bynum, recovering the lives and
writings of medieval women religious, has shown that their voices are irreducible to
the prevailing male voices of medieval religion.
Authors with an eye for
anthropological themes certainly have made use of the female voices that Bynum has
collected, in order to go a step further and contribute to the project of conceiving a
positive role for the body in religious experience and understanding. John Giles Mi-
lhaven, for example, has used the data Bynum has gathered on female religious feast-
ing and fasting practices
to argue that medieval women like Hadewijch of Antwerp
and her sisters, Margaret of Oingt, Elisabeth of Spalbeek and Beatrice of Nazareth,
seem to agree on certain values ascribed to the body by contemporary feminists, such
as Carol Gilligan, Naomi Goldenberg, Susan Griffin, Beverly Harrison, Carter Hey-
ward, Mary Hunt, Audre Lorde, Judith Plaskow, Adrienne Rich, Rosemary Radford
Ruether, and Haunani-Kay Trask.
What Milhaven demonstrates is that Hadewijch
stands as a symbol for many other of her female religious contemporaries, who under-
stood the experience of divine union as primarily bodily, and recognized such physical
union as granting them knowledge of God. For, he shows that when Hadewijch re-
counts her experiences of physical union with Christ, she uses physical language and
expresses it as fact rather than as metaphoras real and physical interaction with
Christ himself.

A summary of her ground-breaking work is Caroline Walker Bynum, ... And Women His Human-
ity:Female Imagery in the Religious Writing of the Later Middle Ages, Fragmentation and Redemp-
tion:Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York 1991) 151179, esp. 280.
Ibid. Milhaven also uses Joannas Zieglers work on the radical physicality of religious sculpture in
the later Middle Ages, which demonstrates that such art responded to the demand of the physicality of the
womens religious movement of the time. See Joanna E. Ziegler, Sculpture of Compassion:the Piet and the
Beguines in the Southern Low Countries c. 1300c. 1600 (Rome 1992); eadem, Reality as Imitation:The
Role of Religious Imagery Among the Beguines of the Low Countries, Maps of Flesh and Light:The Reli-
gious Experience of Medieval Women, ed. Ulrike Wiethaus (Syracuse 1993).
John Giles Milhaven, Hadewijch and her Sisters:Other Ways of Loving and Knowing (Albany 1993),
esp. ix. Milhavens book length study expands on A Medieval Lesson on Bodily Knowing: Womens
Experience and Mens Thought, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 57 (1987) 341372.
Milhaven, Hadewijch and her Sisters (n. 83 above) 7589, esp. 88.

Despite their different modes of analysis, Rudy and Bynum agree that Hadewijch
(and, according to Bynum, many of her contemporaries) finds a warrant for bodily
language in the fact of the Incarnation and in the fact that persons have access to God
in the Eucharist they taste and touch.
As Bynum sees it, the somatic language of
Hadewijch and other late medieval women religious is grounded in and is simultane-
ously reinforced by a piety focused on the Eucharist and a bodily imitatio Christi.
Rudy supplements this view by adding that Hadewijchs somatic language of taste and
touch assists her in articulating and is undergirded by an astute theological anthropol-
ogy of union between God and the human person without difference (sonder dis-

In correspondence with the hermeneutical lens that informs Rudys work, my inten-
tion in this article has been to show the theologically sophisticated ideas that lie be-
hind Gertrudes sensory language. My work supports the conclusion of Bynum and
Rudy by showing that Gertrudes language of taste and touch, like her female
contemporaries, is much more immediate and literal than that of her male sources: as
for her sisters, sensual knowledge of God redefines the very notion of experience for
Gertrude. Like Hadewijch, Gertrude supports and validates her literary innovations
with the fact of the Incarnation and the Eucharisti.e., God made accessible to the
human person in the Eucharist, both in the spiritual and physical senses, especially to
the senses of taste and touch. But I have also shown how Gertrude stands on her own,
by putting forth a clear theory about the concomitance of the spiritual and physical
senses as well as about the rite. Her familiarity with the Latin spiritual tradition, al-
lows her to argue with theological foundation, that bodily sensation in the Liturgy can
and does cross the boundaries of the spaces, times, and domains that separate the hu-
man and the divine.
Moreover, Gertrude is particularly innovative in the way that she cultivates liturgi-
cal piety, one that is both sensorially rich and sensorially self-aware. In her Exercitia,
she intermingles liturgical tropes and rituals with instructions for devotion that include
both physical and spiritual sensory experience as an essential component. Both
through liturgical rituals and through her teachings based on them, Gertrude grants
value to the physical and spiritual senses as channels through which believers can ap-
proach and encounter the divine.
She is, of course, predisposed to such an integrated

Rudy himself admits this correspondance; Mystical Language of Sensation (n. 2 above) 9899.
Ibid. 99. Rudy uses the concept of union without difference in the sense given it by Bernard McGinn.
McGinn explains that there are two basic concepts of union in medieval theological texts, unio indistinc-
tionis and unio spiritus. While the ideas have roots in patristic teachings, they are most prominent in West-
ern writings only after the 12th c. The two concepts overlap at times and often occur in a single text, though
McGinn argues that they remain distinct types of union. Unio indistinctionis describes a union wherein the
person and God are one without distinction; rather than being merely like one another, they are the same
thing, in some essential respect. This follows from the theological idea that all persons emanate from God,
and thus share some essence that transcends the distinction between them. This shared essence allows per-
sons to be God, so to speak. Unio spiritus, on the other hand, carefully upholds the distinction between the
human person and God, and corresponds roughly to the anthropology of image and likeness. Persons may be
like God, but cannot be God. Bernard McGinn, Love, Knowledge and Unio mystica in the Western
Christian Tradition, Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity and Islam:An Ecumenical Dialogue (New
York 1989) 5985, esp. 85.
See Ella Johnson, In mei memoriam facietis: Remembering Ritual and Refiguring Woman in Ger-
trud the Great of Helftas Spiritualia Exercitia, Inventing Identities:Re-examining the Use of Memory,

understanding of mind-body-spirit in following the Cistercian-Benedictine traditions

of prayer,
manual labor, and corporal works of charity.
But more is at stake, in
Gertruds writing, than engagement of the spiritual and physical senses in the process
of human-divine interaction. The body and its senses, as well as the soul and its
senses, in the experience of perception, yield knowledge of God. The liturgy becomes
a school when the senses, both physical and spiritual, are open to divine presence and
trained to perceive its teaching. Baptism in the Incarnate Christ recreates the body, and
liturgy guides its experience.
With her mastery of Latin, Gertrudes writings reveal
to us a medieval woman religious, who is able to not only base her teachings on a
Bernardine notion of experiential knowledge of God, but also on an intellectual
comprehension and facility with the language of liturgical devotion itself.

Imitation, and Imagination in the Texts of Medieval Religious Women, ed. Bradley Herzog and Margaret
Cotter-Lynch (Hampshire 2012) 165186.
The Legatus reports Gertrude praying for outside petitioners (Le Hraut 2.18; 2.20, 2.23, 3.5, 3.9,
3.39, 3.69, 3.72, 3.8688); her community (Le Hraut 3.16, 3.75, 3.78, 3.84; Ex. 2.39); and soul in purga-
tory (Le Hraut 2.21; 3.18, 3.32, 3.55, 3.83). Her prayers are often co-redemptive (Le Hraut 3.62).
Le Hraut 3.73.
For an excellent overview of how liturgical practices developed through late antiquity and into the
Middle Ages, in both Eastern and Western Christianity, see Batrice Caseau, Leucharistie au centre de la
vie religieuse des communauts chrtiennes (fin du IeXe sicle), Encyclopedia eucharistia, ed. Maurice
Brouard (Paris 2011).