ST. HILDEGARD: Medieval Abbess Mystic and Visionary
One of the most remarkable and outstanding woman of history especially of her age (1098-1179) was known only as St. Hildegard of Bingen. Not only was she an abbess and founder of a Benedictine religious community but also the first of the great German mystics. She was also one of the most creative woman of her time being a poet, painter, visionary, preacher, a physician, pharmacist and a political moralist, a composer of music and writer of books on mystical theology, ecology and herbal medicine. What an amazing nun she truly was! What was even more amazing was that for over 800 years she remained unknown and in relative obscurity.
Such that nowhere could did I find a record of her last name nor the names of her parents who were described as being possibly noble.
Of her early years as a child we know very little apart from the fact that in 1098 she was born the tenth child at Bockelheim (some say Bermersheim), in the province of Rhernhessenof Germany. Her father may have been a soldier. Because she was a sickly child afflicted with fragile health at the age of eight she was placed in the care of Count Meginhard’s devout sister, Jutta Von Spanheim to educate and consecrate her to God. Jutta was a reclusive nun who lived in a cottage attached to a nearby Benedictine abbey in Diessenberg, Germany. It is said that this was when Hildegard’s spiritual career began.
It was Jutta who raised and educated Hildegard until she was eighteen years old who when she put on the habit of a Benedictine nun at fifteen a monastic community of religious women had already gathered about Jutta. Up to this point Hildegard seemed an unexceptional nun leading an exteriorly uneventual life.
Abbess Foundress of a Benedictine Convent
When Jutta died in 1136 Hildegard at the age of thirty-eight succeeded her as prioress or director of the hermitage. Eleven years later (about 1147) after receiving a divine call she moved her community of eighteen nuns to Rupertsberg near present day Bingebruck on a hill above the Rhine near Bingen and there founded a convent now called Rupertsberg Convent on Benedictine principles and became the first abbess there. Eighteen years later in 1165 she founded another convent, a daughter-house at Eibingen.
Visionary and Mystic Extraordinaire
Hildegard, the first of the great German mystics, claimed that from infancy (three years old to be exact) God had already given her the gift of visions. She wrote, “These visions which I saw I beheld neither in sleep nor dreaming nor in madness nor with my bodily eyes or ears, nor in hidden places but I saw them in full view and according to God’s will, when I was wakeful and alert, with the eyes of the spirit and the inward ears.” Her soul through this gift of vision was able to behold the “shade of living light in which things, present and future were reflected . . . as well as the revealed word of God – both in Scripture and in the book of nature.” However because of this gift she would often say things that seemed strange to those that heard her.
Understandably Hildegard’s gift so worried her that fearing that people would think her crazy, a fraud or a sorceress only to Jutta did she confide the secret of her visions. But when at age 43 after she became prioress and her visions pressed upon her with greater urgency she decided to confide in and describe them to her spiritual adviser, a monk named Godfrey. It was also because the voice of God seemed to say to her: “I am the living and inaccessible light and I enlighten whomever I will. Write what you see and hear.”
Godfrey instructed Hildegard to write down some of the things God had made known to her since childhood such as “the charity of Christ and the continuance of the Kingdom of God, the holy angels, the Devil and hell.”
He then presented her text to his abbot Canon who in turn when he read them had them examined by a team of theologians. They declared them to be valid and certified their orthodoxy.
Since her visions were declared authentic and good for the church, the archbishop of Mainz then appointed monk Volmar as teacher, confidant and secretary to help Hildegard in preparing a manuscript record of her visions 1141-1150. Because of her powers as seeress and prophetess she is often called “the Sibyl of the Rhine.”
This best known and major work of Hildegard entitled Scivias (i.e., sciensvias Domini: The Way of Wisdom or Know the Ways of the Lord) was written between 1141 and 1151. It records her 26 visions, prophetic, apocalyptic and symbolic in form. In it she presents human beings as radiating from God’s love which were like “rays of His splendor proceeding from the sun itself.” When the pope, Bd. Eugenius III read it he wrote to Hildegard expressing wonder at the favors she received from God but warned her against pride. He authorized her to publish whatever the Holy Ghost told her to publish.This book took her ten years to complete.
Today it is said that there are many editions of her writings.
Besides being an abbess and foundress of a Benedictine religious community, an author, poet, theologian and prophet Hildegard was also an artist. Her text of Scivias was accompanied by her extraordinary mystical symbolic paintings that portrayed human beings and the cosmos as “living sparks” of God’s love.
Because Hildegard regarded her visions as a vocation to reform the world she went on several preaching tours through the Rhineland denouncing the vices of society in spite of all her work and continual sickness. Soon her reputation and authority as a holy preacher was widely recognized extending far beyond the borders of her native Germany.
With complete fearlessness and unerring justice she rebuked from the pulpit and through her writing not only lay-folk but especially popes, princes and bishops. Thus she wrote to the loathsome archbishop of Mainz . . . “Turn to the Lord, for your time is at hand.” It was.
With her gift of extremely vivid imagery Hildegard authored 50 allegorical homilies and even wrote a morality play. Besides her visionary writings she also maintained an ongoing voluminous correspondence with notable figures such as 4 popes and 2 emperors wherein she shared her spiritual insights, political morality and occasional criticism where she felt it was needed. Because her letters were full of prophecies and warnings they soon made her notorious and caused some people to denounce her as a fraud, a sorceress and even a demoniac. She also wrote a book on the lives of saints.
She also created a so-called unknown language a sort of Esperanto consisting of a made-up alphabet and about nine hundred words using a mixture of Latin and German.
Doctor and Pharmacist
This multi-talented nun even avidly studied the use of medicinal herbs and the physiology of the human body. She wrote two books on medicine and natural history. Many elements in her visions speak about our ecological age. Her study of the use of medicinal herbs seemed to anticipate our present principles of homeopathy.
Musician and Composer
“Music,” according to Hildegard, “is a bridge of holiness between this world and the World of All Beauty and Music.” In spite of her busy and full schedule Hildegard found the time to compose religious music (hymns, canticles and anthems) of haunting beauty and originality. “Music”, she wrote, “was a symbol of the harmony that Satan disturbed.”
She viewed music as a sacred realm leading to God so she wrote beautiful music that lifts our spirits and souls closer to heaven. Thus if you hear her music it will sound like angels singing about God’s powerful presence in all creation. Today many of her musical compositions have been recorded.
She also wrote one of the earliest musical plays. It is said that full of creative energy Hildegard was one of the earliest composers of music in Europe.
In 1179, the year she died, she got into trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities when she allowed a young man who had been excommunicated to be buried in the cemetery adjoining her convent. When they insisted that he be disinterred she refused on the ground that before he died he reconciled with the church and even received the sacraments.
Because of her stand Hildegard was forbidden the celebration or reception of the Eucharist. It was a terrible sanction and Hildegard suffered greatly because of it.
The interdict was eventually lifted allowing her to die peacefully on September 17, 1179 only a few months after its lifting. She was 81 years old, crippled and exhausted from her grueling schedule.
Multiple miracles occurred during her lifetime and at her death.
While Hildegard was an astonishing remarkable woman of God who accomplished so much it is almost unbelievable and ironic that although 3 attempts were made to canonize her she was never formally canonized. However she has long been venerated as a saint and her name is in the Roman martyrology. Pilgrims go to the parish church in Bingen to venerate her relics.
She was hailed in her lifetime both as a saint and as a fraud and sorceress. Yet for eight hundred years she remained in relative obscurity. It is thanks to contemporary interest in the role of women in history that we know about her today.
Her feast is kept on September 17 especially celebrated by the Benedictines and Anglicans.Her relics are venerated by pilgrims at the parish church at Bingen.
On the eight-hundredth anniversary of the death of this medieval Renaissance woman in 1979 Pope John Paul II described her as “an outstanding saint . . . a light to her people and her time who shines more brightly today.”
She was certainly not only “one of the great figures of the twelfth century but one of the most remarkable of women.”
SOURCES of REFERENCE
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. 3 – pp 580 – 585
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p 144
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp 239 – 240
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – p 114
A Calendar of Saints – p 180
All Saints – pp 405 – 407
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 419 – 421
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. 2 – pp 430 – 433
Children’s Book of Saints – pp 59 – 61
The Big Book of Women Saints – p 280
The Way of the Saints – pp 198 – 199
Voices of the Saints – p 350 – 351
The Everything Saints Book – pp 105 – 107
The Way of the Saints – pp 198 – 199
Book of Saints – Part 9 – pp 4 – 5