Matilda Von Hackeborn-Wippra belonged to one of the noblest and most powerful Thuringian families. Her sister was the saintly and illustrious Abbess Gertrude von Hackeborn.
Matilda was so fragile at birth, that the attendants, fearing she might die unbaptized, hurried her off to the priest who was just then preparing to say Mass. After baptizing the child, he uttered the prophetic words: “What do you fear? This child most certainly will not die, but she will become a saintly religious in whom God will work many wonders, and she will end her days in a good old age.”
When she was 7, having been taken by her mother on a visit to her elder sister Gertrude, then a nun in the monastery of Rodardsdorf, she became so enamored of the cloister that her pious parents yielded to her entreaties and, acknowledging the workings of grace, allowed her to enter the aluminate. Here, being highly gifted in mind as well as in body, she made remarkable progress in virtue and learning.
Ten years later (1258), she followed her sister, who, now abbess, had transferred the monastery to an estate at Helfta given her by her brothers Louis and Albert. As a nun, Mechtilde was soon distinguished for her humility, her fervor, and extreme amiability.
Though still very young, she became a valuable helpmate to Abbess Gertrude, who entrusted to her direction the aluminate and the choir. In 1261, a child of five was committed to her care. that child would one day be known as that Gertrude who in later generations became known as St. Gertrude the Great.
Gifted with a beautiful voice, Mechtilde also possessed a special talent for rendering the solemn and sacred music over which she presided as domna cantrix. All her life she held this office and trained the choir with indefatigable zeal. Richly endowed, naturally and supernaturally, ever gracious, beloved of all who came within the radius of her saintly and charming personality, there is little wonder that this cloistered virgin should strive to keep hidden her wondrous life.
Souls thirsting for consolation or groping for light sought her advice; learned Dominicans consulted her on spiritual matters. At the beginning of her own mystic life it was from St. Mechtilde that St. Gertrude the Great learnt that the marvelous gifts lavished upon her were from God.
In her 50th year, St. Mechtilde learned that two nuns in whom she had especially confided had written down the favors granted her, and, moreover, that St. Gertrude had nearly finished a book on the subject. Such public display troubled her until she had a vision of Christ holding in His hand the book of her revelations, and saying, “All this has been committed to writing by my will and inspiration; and, therefore you have no cause to be troubled about it.” He also told her that, as He had been so generous toward her, she must make Him a like return, and that the diffusion of the revelations would cause many to increase in His love; moreover, He wished this book to be called “The Book of Special Grace.”
When the saint understood that the book would tend to God’s glory, she ceased to be troubled, and even corrected the manuscript herself. Immediately after her death it was made public, and copies were rapidly multiplied, owing chiefly to the widespread influence of the Friars Preachers.
Boccaccio tells how, a few years after the death of Mechtilde, the book of her revelations was brought to Florence and popularized under the title of “La Laude di donna Matelda.” It is related that the Florentines were accustomed to repeat daily before their sacred images the praises learned from St. Mechtilde’s book. Scholars say that Dante was inspired by Mechtilde’s writing as well.
St. Gertrude, to whose devotedness we owe the “Liber Specialis Gratiae” exclaims: “Never has there arisen one like to her in our monastery; nor, alas! I fear, will there ever arise another such!” — little dreaming that her own name would be inseparably linked with that of Mechtilde. With that of St. Gertrude, the body of St. Mechtilde most probably still reposes at Old Helfta thought the exact spot is unknown.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini