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Women of Prayer and Justice – Session 6: St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Prepared by
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ and Catherine Litecky, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, MN

St Hildegard of Bigen

Photo by Mary Kaye Medinger, 2001

The flames engraved over the head of St. Hildegard on this statue represent the gifts of the Holy Spirit given so abundantly to her. The statue appears on the exterior of the parish church of St. Hildegard in Eibingen, Germany, where her relics are enshrined.

 

Hildegard’s contemporaries in the 12th century knew of her as a Benedictine abbess, and also as a theologian and preacher, poet and composer, healer and author. The Benedictine tradition of prayer and work provided the setting for her long and fruitful life.

For over 800 years Hildegard was not widely known outside of Germany. However, recent interest in the role of visionary women in religious history, and discovery of her remarkable creativity in so many areas, have made her today one of the best-known women mystics.

St. Hildegard of Bingen’s life and writings attract many people because they speak to contemporary interests such as holistic living, care of the environment, and creation-centered spirituality. Hildegard’s message promotes everything that is life-giving. She exemplifies words of St. Irenaeus who said, “The glory of God is a person fully alive.”

It is difficult to describe adequately her deep and rich spirituality. In her time a Benedictine monk, Guibert, who knew Hildegard well, tried persistently to get her to describe her spirituality. Finally she said simply that she felt like a feather carried by the wind, the breath of God.

As you begin this retreat with Hildegard, try to become quiet within yourself by taking a few deep breaths. Imagine yourself as she did– as a feather (or balloon, or a kite), being lifted up by a gentle breeze. Reflect on the times in your life when you have felt buoyed up by God’s love for you. After a few minutes pray for the grace to become more aware of God’s love for you now. You may want to stand with arms outstretched and pray, “God of my life, my times are in your hands. Sustain me in your love.”

Hildegard’s life was shaped by her own culture and background. She was born into a noble family in Germany in 1098, the youngest of ten children of devout parents. They dedicated her to God when she was a child, considering her their “tithe” offering to the Church, the tenth child. A Benedictine nun named Jutta gave her an excellent education at a time when most people could not read.

When she was 15, Hildegard decided to join the monastery at Disibodenberg to which Jutta belonged. There she continued her education in prayer, sacred scripture, music, and good works. After Jutta died when Hildegard was 38, Hildegard was elected by the sisters to succeed her as abbess. Hildegard wanted her monastery to be an island of order, harmony, and intellectual life in the midst of a corrupt and chaotic world.

Her reputation for holiness grew, and she attracted so many new members that the monastery became overcrowded. Although she met with opposition, she knew God wanted her to build a new monastery at Rupertsberg near Bingen. She desired that the nuns in this monastery would live the Benedictine way of prayer and work in a balanced, humane way in harmony with God, others, themselves, and nature.

You may want to think about your own way of life right now. Are your prayer and work balanced? humane? in harmony with God, others, yourself, nature? What might you want to change for the better?

We know a great deal about Hildegard from a book written during her lifetime, The Life of Holy Hildegard, by the monks Gottfried and Theodoric. They present Hildegard as a holy, gifted woman revered by them and the people of her time. They extol her intellectual powers as shown in the variety of her writings. Her knowledge extended over the areas of theology and philosophy, anthropology and cosmology, natural science and medicine. Her contemporaries delighted in her musical talent.
(English translation, The Liturgical Press. 1995)

Hildegard wrote nine books, the most important of which is Scivias or Way of Knowing. In addition, she wrote numerous plays, poems, and hundreds of letters to such famous people as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Eugenius III, and Frederick Barbarossa, emperor of Germany.

She composed hauntingly beautiful music, similar to Gregorian chant, for use in the liturgical services of the community and for special occasions. Her music popularized today by groups like the Anonymous Four has made it to the top of the charts. Listening to Hildegard’s music can awaken in us a sense of the sacred as it did in the hearts of people who heard it in the 12th century.

Listening to sacred music like that of Hildegard, or to Gregorian chant, can become a prayer experience. You might like to listen or recall a favorite hymn and sing it. Reflect on why any of this music is meaningful for you as a prayer experience.

From the age of three Hildegard experienced visions of light but did not speak of them to anyone or realize that they were unusual until she told Jutta, her spiritual guide and mentor. After she became abbess, her visions became more frequent and urgent. Reluctantly, she spoke of them to her confessor who told her to write them down. Eventually she submitted her writings to her archbishop and to Pope Eugenius III who endorsed her as a true prophet. A gathering of bishops with the pope at the Synod of Trier gave official approval to her writings.

As we know from scripture, only God calls true prophets to speak God’s message. Hildegard records her prophetic call in the opening words of Scivias or the Way of Knowing: “Behold, in the forty-third year of my passing journey, when I clung to a heavenly vision with fear and trembling, I saw a very great light from which a heavenly voice spoke and said to me: … ‘Speak and write what you see and hear.’” (Scivias, p.1)

In her visions Hildegard saw that the source of life, like that of all creation, is an overflowing of God’s light and love. Her spirituality puts her and us in touch with the wonder of creation.

In imagery similar to that found in the book of Wisdom in the Bible Hildegard hears God say, “I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows. I gleam in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon, and the stars. With every breeze, as with invisible light that contains everything, I awaken everything to life…. I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I am rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”

Pause for a few moments to reflect on these words. How and where have you felt the wonder of creation? You may want to pray Psalm 104 in praise of God the Creator.

In Scivias, which took her ten years to complete, Hildegard records a series of visions describing the relationship between God, humanity, and the cosmos. Hildegard’s visions reveal her views on the human person and the relationship between God and humans in creation. She had visions also about the incarnation and redemption, and the church. Central to her spirituality is her belief that human nature is good as is all of creation. She saw sin as a distortion of that goodness.

Hildegard’s teachings give us an original and balanced view of the universe. She tells us that our own nature–the rhythms of our minds and bodies–are an echo of the greater rhythms of the natural world such as the rhythm of ocean waves beating against rocks on the shore. In her symbolic illuminations or mandalas which accompany her text, she shows all creation, including humans, emanating from God’s love.

Throughout her life Hildegard was fascinated with beauty and light. She loved to reflect on the life principle of energy shining forth in living things. She originated the word “viriditas” or “greenness” to speak of this principle of vitality in all of nature. She lived all of her life surrounded by lush green scenery and flowing rivers. These experiences contributed to her love of the color green and her frequent use of this color to describe the good life.

Hildegard saw greening power at work in so many ways, especially in the actions of the Holy Spirit moving over the earth causing all things to flourish. What is dry and barren and lifeless can be restored by the return of greening power and moisture. Greenness brings freshness and life to what is stale and lifeless.

the ancient grounds of the Disibodenberg monastery

This photo shows the “greenness” of the ancient grounds of the Disibodenberg monastery where Hildegard spent the early years of her religious life. In the foreground we see the remains of the main entrance into the abbey church where she worshiped so faithfully.

As you look attentively at this scene, what words or phrases describe your reaction to it? How does this beautiful photo (taken by Mary Kaye Medinger in 2001), help you understand the concept of viriditas or greenness?

Centuries before the current interest in holistic living, Hildegard was fascinated by how each part of the body functions. She tried to explain the workings of the body according to her understanding. She encouraged the nuns of her monastery to live not only lives of prayer and work, but also to rest in order to be in harmony with God and themselves. When the sisters became ill, she was able to treat many of their illnesses with medicinal herbs. Her knowledge of herbal remedies was so extensive that many people came to her to be healed. Her books on herbs are still of value today.

Hildegard recognized that she often suffered from serious illness when she delayed doing what she knew God was asking of her. When she complied with God’s will for her, she recovered. Throughout her life Hildegard suffered from severe migraine headaches. Some scientific researchers have speculated that her visions may have been associated with the vivid colors and shapes common to migraines. What is amazing is that she could use even her headaches in her prayer!

Like Catherine of Siena, Hildegard was called by God to reform the church by preaching in monasteries and cathedrals and by writing strong letters to both church and state authorities. Near the end of her life Hildegard ran into difficulty with local church authorities for her decision to allow a young man, who had been excommunicated, to be buried in the monastery cemetery.

When she was ordered to exhume the body, she refused insisting that the youth had been reconciled to the church before dying and had a right to be buried in holy ground. For her supposed disobedience, the local bishop placed her monastery under interdict, forbidding the celebration or reception of the Eucharist. Hildegard protested strongly. The interdict was finally lifted in March, six months before she died on September 17, 1179.

Like all mystics who are persons of prayer and justice, Hildegard served others with compassion and authenticity. She welcomed anyone in need who came to her monastery for physical or spiritual healing.

Hildegard can model for contemporary Christians how to make holistic use of intelligence, imagination and creativity. For her, earth was a home and a source of delight. She believed that every human being should assume co-creative responsibility with God for the well-being of the earth.

You may wish to spend a few moments at the conclusion of this retreat reflecting on your co-creative responsibility with God for the well-being of the earth.

Resolve to become more aware of what you can do to live in “greenness.”

Pray with all creation Hildegard’s Antiphon for the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit is a life that gives life,

Moving all things.

It is the root in every creature

And purifies all things,

Wiping away sins,

Anointing wounds.

It is radiant life, worthy of praise,

Awakening and enlivening

All things.

Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings, ed. Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies (Crossroad, 1990), p. 118.