St. Gertrude appeared today on Facebook, patron saint of travelers, gardeners, cats and mental health. She shares a feast day with St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland and Irish-Americans desperate for celebration in the midst of Lent and late winter.
He drove out snakes. She drove out mice and rats. I’d call that a draw.
When Gertrude was ten years old, the king came to dinner at her father’s castle in Nivelles, which is now in Belgium. The king asked if she would marry some old geezer, getting wealth and position and, not so incidentally, plenty of political points for her papa.
She said no. Not just no, but no, never, absolutely not — I’ll only marry Jesus Christ.
(Which, for you millennials and non-Catholics, means that she planned to become a nun.)
A few years later, papa died and greedy old men came sniffing around, looking to marry the now-14-year-old girl and get in her (wealthy, powerful) family. So Gertrude’s mother shaved most of her head — a tonsure. Think of a Mohawk, only in the shape of a crown. That kept away the suitors, temporarily.
But Gertrude and her mother passed from her father’s protection (ownership) to her brothers, which seemed none too secure. So Mama came up with another solution. She took the money that she could still use and founded a monastery. Mama was the abbess (the boss nun) and Gertrude was a young nun.
As much as any woman could be.
Ever wonder why there were so many nuns and convents back in the day? It wasn’t all about piety.
Anyway – after Mama died, Gertrude became the boss nun. She’s associated with cats, because she supposedly drove away mice. The well water and bread baked in the convent’s ovens also reputedly drove away mice. Not exactly a testimonial to the table that the monastery kept, but apparently humans fared better. Gertrude was known for her monastery’s hospitality to travelers, and even to some Irish monks fleeing persecution across the Channel. She was also well-educated, which was a pretty rare thing for anyone in those days.
And why is she a patron of mental health? That remains a mystery, though anyone who gardens keeps cats, and welcomes weary travelers is probably good for the mental health of the immediate community.
Our Saint Gertrude, the cat-lover, is one of at least three. Another St. Gertrude lived about 700 years later, in Germany – her feast day is November 16. And there’s also an Italian, known as Gertrude the Great.
Our cat-loving Gertrude died at the age of 33, in the year 659.
Catholic Online sniffs at the feline connection, insisting that it only appeared in the 1980s, probably derived from her far earlier reputation as a protector against mice and rats. Moreover, Catholic Online observes, with a hint of censoriousness, “Since the late 1990s, her veneration spread over the internet.”
The internet! Heaven forfend – that’s no place for pious folks. Though the Daily Kos has quite a nice entry about St. Gertrude, which says, inter alia, that she “showed great intelligence, compassion and presence for a woman of what we usually call the Dark Ages.” Gertrude also has a Pinterest page.
And the internet also provides this interesting, but wholly unfootnoted observation by the Erudite Feline blogger:
“Interesting note: were you aware that the stereotype of the ‘crazy cat lady’ began as a result of the Catholic Church’s ruling that anchoresses (consecrated female hermits) might keep no pets but cats? Rather than stigmatizing or persecuting feline-kind, the Catholic higher-ups believed that felines were the creatures best suited to guide and comfort those holiest and most pious of women. A lone woman with a house full of cats, far from being regarded as a witch or a lunatic, was assumed to be a woman of extraordinary character who had wholly given her life over to prayer, contemplation and asceticism. Chew on that, you judgmental modern philistines!”
So to cat-lovers, and saint-lovers everywhere – Happy St. Gertrude’s Day!