Born Matilda von Hackeborn-Wippra, in 1240 or 1241, Saint Mechtilde of Hackeborn belonged to one of the noblest and most powerful Thuringian families; her sister was the illustrious Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn. The family of Hackeborn belonged to a dynasty of Barons in Thuringia who were related to the Hohenstaufen family and had possessions in northern Thuringia and in the Harz Mountains.
So fragile was she at birth, that the attendants, fearing she might die unbaptized, hurried her off to the priest who was just then preparing to say Mass. He was reported as a person of “great sanctity,” and after baptizing the child, is reported to have made a statement to this effect, judged by some to be prophetic: “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 Mechtilde was seven years old, having been taken by her mother on a visit to her elder sister Gertrude, at that time a nun in the Cistercian monastery in Rodersdorf, she became so enamoured of the cloister that her pious parents yielded to her requests and allowed her to enter the alumnate. Here, being highly gifted in mind as well as in body, she made remarkable progress in virtue and learning.
Ten years later (1258) Mechtilde 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 fervour, and that extreme amiability which had characterized her from childhood and which, like piety, seemed almost hereditary in her clan. She joined the convent and eventually became the headmistress of the convent school. Mechtilde was employed in the convent looking after the library, illuminating scripts, and writing her own texts in Latin. Mechtilde wrote many prayers. In 1261, the abbess committed to her care a child of five who was destined to shed glory and fame upon the monastery of Helfta.
Gifted with a beautiful voice, Mechtilde also possessed a special talent for rendering the solemn and sacred music over which she presided as domina cantrix. All her life she held this office and trained the choir with indefatigable zeal. Indeed, divine praise was the keynote of her life as it is of her book; in this she never tired, despite her continual and severe physical sufferings, so that in His revelations Christ was wont to call her “Nightingale of Helfta”.
Mechtilde was distressed over her eternal salvation and prayed that the Most Holy Virgin would assist her at the hour of death. The Blessed Virgin appeared to her and reassured her, saying: “Yes, I will! But I wish, for your part, that you recite three Hail Marys every day, remembering in the first the power received from the Eternal Father, in the second the wisdom received from the Son, with the third one the love that has filled the Holy Spirit”. The Blessed Virgin taught her to pray and to understand especially how the Three Hail Marys honor the three persons of the Blessed Trinity.
In one vision, Mechtilde reported that Jesus said, “In the morning let your first act be to greet My Heart and to offer Me your own. Whoever breathes a sigh toward Me, draws Me to himself.”
In another, Jesus himself recommended the Gospel. Opening to her the wound of His most gentle heart, He said to her: “Consider how great is my love: If you want to know it well, you will not find it expressed more clearly anywhere than in the Gospel. No one has ever expressed stronger or more tender feelings than these: As my Father has loved me, so have I loved you (John 15:9)”. Her accounts of these visions were later compiled in the Liber Specialis Gratiae.
Only in her fiftieth year did Mechtilde learn that the two nuns in whom she had especially confided had noted down the favours granted her, and, moreover, that St. Gertrude had nearly finished a book on the subject. Much troubled at this, she, as usual, first had recourse to prayer. 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 towards 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”, because it would prove such to many. 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 her book 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”. 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.