Hildegard was only five years old in 1098 when her parents brought her, their tenth child, to the monastery of St. Disibode. A holy woman named Jutta took the little girl in and taught her Latin and music so she could sing the psalms with the monks and nuns. Jutta also taught Hildegard everything she knew about herbal medicine. At age 15, Hildegard decided to follow the Benedictine way and become a nun. When Jutta died, Hildegard became the prioress of the community.
Hildegard was a mystic, a person who experiences extraordinary communion with God. Hildegard wrote down her understandings of God in vivid pictures. Many women were attracted to her teaching about God and came to join her monastery, which grew so large that Hildegard started another monastery near Bingen, a nearby city. She continued to write and teach. Here is one of her poems.
Again I am in turmoil.
Should I speak, or must I be silent?
I feel like a gnarled old tree, withered and crooked and flaky.
All the stories of the years are written on my branches.
The sap is gone, the voice is dead.
But I long to make again a sacred sound.
I want to sound out God
I want to be a young juicy, sap-running tree
So that I can sing God as God knows how.
O God, you gentle viridity
O Mary, honeycomb of life
O Jesus, hidden in sweetness as flowing honey,
Release my voice again.
I have sweetness to share.
I have stories to tell.
I have God to announce.
I have green life to celebrate.
I have rivers of fire to ignite.
Hildegard made up the word viridity. It means greening, the life power of God that is in everything. For Hildegard the Word of God is greening; it has the power to create Christians. A tree growing and branching out is greenness in motion. Love is green. Jesus is greenness incarnate. Sin is not green. Sin is drying up, losing one’s ability to create.
- Read the first two verses of the poem again. When have you felt your sap is gone, your voice dead? What or who helped you know you could sing again?
- Does Hildegard’s way of calling on God, on Mary, on Jesus resonate with you? Can you read the last verse of the poem as your own song?
If Hildegard were alive today, she would sing about God’s work in the unfolding of creation in evolution. “O Holy Spirit” she writes, “you make life alive, you move in all things, you are the root of all created being, you waken and reawaken everything that is.” For her teaching, Pope Benedict named Hildegard a Doctor of the Church. This means she is one of the Catholic Church’s greatest teachers. There are four women Doctors—St. Hildegard, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of Lisieux.
- Make a resolution to see the Holy Spirit greening the earth around you. Pray a thanksgiving prayer each day for one beautiful thing you see.
“I am a feather on the breath of God.”