The convent tried to elevate Lutgarde to abbess, but she felt the result would draw her away from the mystical life. She refused the honor and moved to a Cistercian abbey in the town of Aywières—where the nuns spoke only French, instead of the Flemish that Lutgarde knew. In her isolation, she received a vision of Jesus offering her a grace, and she asked for a better understanding of Latin, so she could intuit more deeply the Mass and liturgical prayers. But only a short while later, she returned to Christ and asked him to take the gift back as something still not completely satisfying. And when her Savior asked what she would have instead, she answered, “I would exchange it for your heart.” In the vision, Christ took Lutgarde’s heart and replaced it with his own.
The women mystics of the thirteenth century—Lutgarde, St. Mechtilde, Gertrude the Great—prepared the foundation for the devotion of the Sacred Heart that would begin to flourish widely in the eighteenth century. Even while their near contemporaries, from Albert to Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, were developing the new philosophical expressions of Christianity, Lutgarde and others were developing a new mysticism of presence—Christ always and everywhere present for visions, miracles, conversation. For devotion, most of all.
In his Life of St. Lutgarde of Aywières, Thomas of Cantimpré proved himself prone to the over-marvelous, prone to credulity, and prone to naiveté. But maybe he wasn’t mistaken, for all of that. Even in the blindness that plagued her final years, reality for St. Lutgarde was riven with occasions for the divine to make itself known, veiled from others but genuinely present. And our reverence for that “veiled mystery,” as Thomas wrote, “is the mother of devotion.”
Joseph Bottumis a bestselling author who lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. This is the latest installment in his week-long series of reflections on the Saints.
Read Joseph Bottum’s other essays in this series:
"Seeing Faith: The Martyrdom and Incorruptible Bodies of the Saints"
"To Be a Saint Is Truly Revolutionary"