St Lutgardis, June 16
St Lutgardis (c 11821246) was one of several medieval women mystics and ascetics from the Low Countries who have attracted the attention of historians eager to do
justice to the feminine contribution to the Church. Other examples include Ida of Louvain (1065-1139), • Christina the Astonishing of Troad (1150-1224), Marie of Oignies (1167-1213), Margaret of Ypres (12161237) and Hadewijch of Brabant (13th century).
The reclusive tendency of such women suggests that there may have been many similar lives which have left no record. Lutgardis, however, attracted the admiration of a Dominican friar called Thomas of Cantimpre, who wanted to have a relic of her. He therefore did a deal with Lutgardis's abbess. promising that he would write the saint's life provided that he was given her right hand after her death. This strange offer came to the ears of Lutgardis, who told Thomas that her little finger would be quite sufficient.
The charm of Lutgardis survives even the excesses of hagiography. She was born at Tongeren, near Maastricht, and grew up an attractive girl, fond of pretty clothes. Her prospective dowry. however, was lost in some business speculation, which doubtless concentrated her mind.
At 12 she was sent to be educated at the Benedictine convent of St Catherine, near Saint-Trond. One day, when chatting with a friend, she experienced a vision of Christ, which determined her to live thenceforward for God alone. The nuns predicted that this sudden fervour would soon evaporate; in fact, Lutgardis became more and more fervent.
Like St Teresa of Avila three centuries later, she would speak to Christ as a familiar. "Wait here, Lord Jesus," she would say if summoned to some duty, "I will come back directly when I have finished this task." Yet Thomas of Cantimpre reports that her meditations upon the Passion were so intense that her forehead would become bespeclded with blood.
In 1208, seelcing a more austere life, Lutgardis followed the advice of her friend Christina the Astonishing, and moved to the Cistercian convent at Aywieres (now Aywailles), near Liege. Here French was the dominant language. Lutgardis, a Flemish-speaker, never mastered it or perhaps she preferred to be left alone.
By the same token. Thomas of Cantirnpre was perhaps naive to be astonished by what he regarded as Lutgardis's instinctive insights into Latin scripture. It did not do, in those times. for a woman to appear too learned. Christina the Astonishing, for example, was more than capable of interpreting Latin scripture, but warily refrained from trespassing on the province of the male clergy.
For her last 11 years Lutgardis was blind, an affliction which she accepted with joy. She died, as she had predicted, on June 16, giving praise and thanks to the last.