While working as a servant-girl at Delft in the Netherlands, Gertrude was engaged to be married. But her fiancé broke up with her and married another woman. Broken-hearted at first, Gertrude gradually overcame her anguish and chose a new direction for her life. She joined the Béguines at Delft, spending the rest of her life among them. The Béguines were sisterhoods of celibate women who lived in common households, prayed together, and dedicated themselves to works of mercy. Béguines could hold property and leave the community to marry. But as Gertrude immersed herself in her new life, all thoughts of marriage evaporated. She even befriended the woman who had stolen her fiancé.
As St. Gertrude opened herself to God in prayer, he seems to have touched her soul very personally. In the following note, she records her response to his comforting interventions:
As I was occupied after Vespers with my evening prayers before retiring to rest, this passage of the gospel came suddenly to my mind: “Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him” (John 14:23 NJB). At these words my worthless heart felt your presence, O my most sweet God and my delight. And although my mind takes pleasure in wandering after and in distracting itself with perishable things, yet when I return to my heart I find you there. So I cannot complain that you have left me, even for a moment, from that time until this year, the ninth since I received this grace. Only once I felt that you left me for a period of 11 days. It seemed to me that this happened on account of involvement with the world. Then your sweetest humanity and stupendous charity prompted you to seek me. I had reached such a pitch of madness that I thought no more of the greatness of the treasure I had lost. I don’t even remember feeling at the time any grief for having lost it, nor any desire of recovering it. Draw and unite me entirely to yourself. May I remain inseparably attached to you even when I am obliged to perform external duties for my neighbor’s good. And afterwards may I return to seek you within me when I have accomplished them.
On Good Friday, 1340, images of Christ’s wounds appeared on Gertrude’s body. For a time these painful marks bled seven times a day. Word of Gertrude’s stigmata spread throughout the country. So many people interrupted her prayerful solitude in order to view the phenomena that she asked God to do something about it. So the bleeding stopped, but the marks and pain remained with her for the rest of her life.
For the next 18 years, Gertrude suffered patiently every day. She leavened her spiritual anguish with hope by singing hymns. She repeated a favorite Dutch chorus so often that she came to bear the surname van der Oosten after its first line: The day is breaking in the East. Gertrude of Delft died on the feast of Epiphany, 1358, whispering, “I am longing to go home.”