Skip to comments.Abbess, Poet, Pharmacist, Mystic: The Life of St. Hildegard of Bingen [Catholic Caucus]
Posted on 09/28/2013 9:42:32 AM PDT by Salvation
We’ve all heard about the typical “renaissance man”—someone who is talented in a wide variety of areas and who puts those talents to good use.
We might think of the scholar-athletes we knew in high school, or the business manager who is also a concert pianist. Pope John Paul II himself was a poet, philosopher, skier, playwright, and diplomat.
Even though she was born long before the Renaissance began, St. Hildegard of Bingen, is another figure who merits the title. Equipped with a stunning array of talents and gifts, this abbess from Germany rose to heights of influence and accomplishment that were truly exceptional, especially for a woman of her day.
At the same time, Hildegard probably deserves another title: “late bloomer.” It wasn’t until she was forty-two years old that God sent her into the world, calling her to proclaim what he had been teaching her in the hidden life of a Benedictine monastery. For the next forty years, Hildegard’s life demonstrated the power of the Spirit to equip and transform anyone who turns to him in the silence of their hearts. With astonishing vigor and creativity, she energized the church and the world as she took up her calling to be prophet, preacher, counselor, healer, pharmacist, foundress, writer, and musician.
The story of Hildegard as a woman of incredible strength, influence, and productivity invites us to trust God’s timing—as well as his ability to transform our own lives. Her life almost dares us to pray: “Come, Lord, and prepare me for the mission you have given me. At the acceptable time, send me out in the power of your Spirit, so that I can work with you to renew the face of the earth.”
The Gift of a Guide. Hildegard was born in 1098, the tenth and last child of noble German parents. They dedicated her to God at birth and, when she turned eight, sent her to live with a holy woman named Jutta.
Jutta was pursuing a monastic life of prayer and meditation. She lived alone, in a room adjacent to the church of a Benedictine men’s monastery, and participated from there in the monks’ liturgical services. Hildegard took to this solitary life and developed a deep friendship with her mentor. Jutta taught her to read the Latin Bible and to chant the psalms of the Divine Office. She also trained her in practical skills like spinning, weaving, gardening, and preparing healing salves and tonics. Most of all, she helped Hildegard to develop her life with God and to let herself be transformed by him.
Jutta’s reputation for holiness attracted other women, and eventually her hermitage grew into a monastery observing the Benedictine rule. Hildegard made her religious profession there as a teenager, and after Jutta’s death in 1136, she was unanimously elected to succeed her as abbess.
Living in the Light. During these quiet years, Hildegard was experiencing a remarkable, hidden life with Jesus. At age five, she had begun having visions. Often, her visual field was filled with a glow which she came to call “the reflection of the living Light.” In it, Hildegard perceived vivid structures and human forms—figures which she interpreted with help from a voice from heaven.
“I saw much,” she later wrote, “and I related some of these things to others, who would ask with astonishment where they came from… . Frequently, in my conversation, I would speak of future things, which I saw as if present.” People were amazed and sometimes skeptical; some told her that the light came from her frequent bouts of illness and not from heaven. Understandably, she became “more reluctant to speak.” By her mid-teens, she was confiding only in Jutta and a monk named Volmar, who would become her lifelong friend and counselor.
Then, in 1141, a prophetic call from God moved Hildegard out from obscurity and into the public eye. She described the life-changing encounter in her first book, Scivias (or, Know the Ways of the Lord): “Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance permeated my brain and inflamed my heart.” Along with this “warming flame” came a new understanding of Scripture and a voice that said, “Write the things you see and hear.”
These special visions had not made Hildegard prideful. Feeling unworthy and ignorant, she set to work. With Volmar as her scribe, she spent the next ten years writing Scivias, an account of what God had revealed to her. Then she submitted it to the discernment of an abbot, an archbishop, and a saint—her contemporary, Bernard of Clairvaux. It was his positive report that moved Pope Eugenius III to send Hildegard his greetings and official approval.
Gifts and More Gifts. Affirmed in her mission, Hildegard broke out in an amazing burst of activity. One biographer compares this second half of her life to a kaleidoscope, with every turn displaying a new facet of interests and abilities.
She wrote eight more books, including major theological works, biographies of saints, a commentary on the gospels, and another on the Rule of St. Benedict. She studied natural history and the healing powers of plants, animals, and minerals; these compilations reveal her as a true environmentalist, who cherished every part of creation as a revelation of God’s love and grandeur.
Hildegard also saw the need for artistic works that would awaken the spirit by appealing to the senses. She composed more than seventy liturgical songs and produced the oldest known “morality play,” with characters playing the parts of various virtues. In an effort to share her experience of heavenly beauty, she wrote descriptions of the vivid images in her visions; she then commissioned miniature paintings of each image, executed in rich colors and gold and silver leaf. (The only copy of these illuminations was destroyed during the World War II bombing of Dresden.)
As more women joined her, Hildegard decided to begin a new, independent monastery in larger quarters, near Bingen on the Rhine River. The venture was risky, for it was opposed by the Benedictine abbot, who did not want to lose the donations of the many pilgrims who were coming to Hildegard for prayer, healing, and advice. The feisty abbess succeeded nonetheless and eventually began a second foundation.
In the Footsteps of the Prophets. But Hildegard did not live in an ethereal, religious bubble. God called her to be a prophet in the tradition of Ezekiel and John the Evangelist—to make known the great mysteries of the Christian faith and exhort everyone to put God first in their lives. She carried out this ministry in various ways.
She wrote letters, three hundred of which survive. They attest to Hildegard’s influence with nobles and political rulers, as well as church leaders. The correspondence includes sharp and fearless rebukes to Frederick Barbarossa for appointing antipopes and attacking monasteries. When she visited this emperor, at his request, she won his favor without downplaying the call to repentance.
Neither did Hildegard mince words with popes. For example, she told Anastasius IV that he had surrounded himself with advisors of “arrogant boastfulness” and was neglecting justice. “You despise God when you don’t hurl from yourself the evil but, even worse, embrace it and kiss it by silently tolerating corrupt men.”
Though it was unusual for a twelfth-century woman, Hildegard went on preaching tours to churches and monasteries. Everywhere, she exhorted listeners not to be lukewarm but to get on fire for God. Her sermons were powerful, driven by her own deepening passion for Christ and sprinkled with vivid images. Sometimes, especially when speaking to clergy who abused their office and had become worldly and greedy, she likened the church to a beautiful woman who had been smeared with mud and was calling on heaven for justice.
In all this, Hildegard remained acutely aware of her weakness and vulnerability. Whatever good she accomplished was God’s doing and not her own, she believed. He had chosen the weak to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27). She was just “a feather on the breath of God.”
Singing for Joy. Though sometimes called to speak hard words, Hildegard was no stern and dour prophet. Her companions said that she radiated joy and always went singing through the monastery. They remembered especially how she loved to sing the hymns and psalms of the Divine Office.
Indeed, worshiping God in liturgical prayer was Hildegard’s greatest joy. No wonder she wrote so many compositions for worship! Christians should view worship as a privilege, she insisted, for it is a means by which God’s own life is formed in us. As Hildegard saw it, music is a divinely established way to recapture the original joy of paradise.
At the fall, Adam lost the harmony he had possessed with the angels, she explained, but we can regain this heavenly union by singing God’s praise. Raising our voices to God allows the Holy Spirit to overcome the limitations of the fall and lifts our hearts to the joy of heaven. The devil, on the other hand, hates music and seeks to thwart worship in the church—a point that Hildegard underlined in her musical Play of the Virtues; she wrote the devil’s part as entirely spoken—or, rather, shouted—without music.
In a letter she wrote toward the end of her life, Hildegard outlined the effects of worship, undoubtedly as she herself experienced them. Her words invite reflection: “For the song of rejoicing softens hard hearts and draws forth from them the tears of repentance… . Jubilant praises, offered in simple harmony and love, lead the faithful to that harmony in which is no discord, and makes those who still live on earth long for the heavenly reward.”
Still Bearing Fruit, Still Green. Legend has it that as Blessed Hildegard lay dying, on September 17, 1179, two streams of light appeared in the sky and intersected over her room. For a woman who had always walked in the “living light,” it would have been a fitting end. Surely, too, it is a fitting image for a life and legacy that continue to shine today.
What do we see in Hildegard? Not a driven overachiever who sought prestige by striving for accomplishments. Rather, we see an obedient servant who let God equip her in a hidden life of prayer, and then accepted his call to a highly visible role of service. Her life tells us that time spent in prayer is never wasted, whether God keeps us hidden for a season or for an entire lifetime.
To the very end of her long life, Hildegard was full of zeal and love for the Lord. Though frail and ill, she remained productive. Just being in the light of God’s presence was energizing, she explained: “I feel like a simple young girl and not like an old lady.”
The life of Hildegard shows what happens to those who stay close to the Lord and Giver of life. “In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap” (Psalm 92:14). Here is a promise for us all.
A little late on the Ping here. Her Memorial is September 17th.
Awesome! Praise Jesus!!!
Hildegard was an amazing woman. I’ve collected all of her available musical works and have read several books about her as well as some of her texts.
Outstanding. I’m thinking many have not researched as you have.
Love these full album streams of Hildegard while I’m at work.
Some great stuff on Hildegard of Bingen:
There's a lot of links to more Hildegard stuff in Jimmy Akin's combox comments
Official trailer of VISION, a German movie about Hildegard. The trailer is kind of melodramatic/gonzo/cinematic (eh, it's a trailer, what do you expect?), quite overboard on the "feminist heroine" theme -- which is a thorough misreading of this 12th century Abbess--- but it does give emphasis to the mystical-prophetic aspect of her vocation.
Hildegard's musical compositions: O dulcis Divinitas http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMxBpPcoWf0&list=PL1CE0F4E87929E045&index=3&feature=plpp_video
Caritas Habundat http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVd2BAgDm2o
A few images of her many visions http://historymedren.about.com/od/picturegalleries/ig/Hildegard-of-Bingen-Gallery/hild_mystical.htm
I have a book about Hildegard’s medicines, and I’ve always wanted to read a book she wrote, and listen to her music. I should do some searches.
Ah, just what I was going to look for.