October 2012: Hildegard of Bingen in and beyond the mediaeval golden age

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Giulia Paola Di Nicola & Attilio Danese

If there is one religious sister who can disprove the prejudiced and backward notion that nuns are ignorant and servile, then it is Hildegard of Bingen. This Benedictine nun was born in Bermersheim vor der Höhe in 1098 (one year before the crusaders captured Jerusalem) and died in Bingen am Rhein in 1179.

Over the last few decades much has been written about her, sometimes critical, that has encouraged a rereading of her works and the appreciation of a figure who has been incorrectly considered as “minor” for far too long. Even though Hildegard has always been venerated in the Church and was beatified back in 1324, it was not until 10 May 2012 that her liturgical cult was extended to the universal Church by Benedict XVI and her name was inscribed in the catalogue of saints. Now the Church is celebrating because Hildegard will be proclaimed Doctor of the Church on 7 October 2012.

Hildegard had a privileged background as she was born into a noble family. This allowed her the possibility – rare at that time – to study theology, music, science and medicine. She was also privileged in that she had regular mystical experiences from a tender age. She continued to have visions throughout her life, and these in a certain sense allowed her to “stroll” without difficulty between earth and heaven. This is how she learned to follow the inspirations of “Sophia”, the feminine divine wisdom, and consequently to build up a description of the universe, the world and humankind, a description filled with harmony and beauty.

She was the youngest of ten children, and she described herself as “a feather on the breath of God”. She was a writer, musician and composer, cosmologist, artist, playwright, healer, linguist, naturalist, philosopher, poet, political advisor and prophet.

She was an expert in natural sciences, and in a certain sense she was prophetic and a precursor to our contemporary ecological sensitivity. She extolled plants, fruit and herbs, and she knew how to translate this love into praising God, and also into writing a small treatise on botany.

The expression viriditas was used by her to describe the vital energy between human beings (with all their thoughts and emotions) and nature. She also studied nature as an ally in curing disease.

What can we say about her music? She is considered to be the first woman musician in Christian history. This is not only because she wrote verse and melodies to be sung by the nuns in Bingen and other Benedictine monasteries. It is above all because her music can still attract us today. It is studied by experts and recorded and popularised by the recording industry. Music was her way of expressing love for God in song, and she could catch hold of the golden thread that connects reality together in harmony (Symphonia harmoniae celestium revelationum). 

Hildegard was very creative. She even produced one of the first ever invented languages which was called lingua ignota. It was used for mystical purposes, and was a kind of transliteration in Latin and mediaeval German. It could be described as a forerunner of Esperanto.

She derived discernment and courage from “Sophia” in a way that her spirituality was integrated with her role as an efficient founder of convents and organiser of community life. Her health was delicate, but she was very active and undertook numerous taxing journeys to visit the monasteries that requested her intervention. She even preached in town squares like those of Trier and Metz.

Even though she left works of encyclopaedic proportions for her times, Hildegard is mostly famous for her letters filled with spiritual advice. She became famous throughout Europe for her gifts in counselling. She was consulted by the pope, emperors and notable personalities (contacts are documented with Frederick Barbarossa, Philip of Alsace, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Eugene III).

She stood up to the difficulties and hostility of her contemporaries, and was strengthened by her trust in God and by the protection of the archbishop of Mainz and the emperor Frederick Barbarossa. This did not prevent her from taking a position entirely in opposition to the emperor’s when he entered into conflict with the legitimate pope Alexander III and ordered the election of two successive antipopes. It cannot have been easy for her when so many, including bishops, asked why she meddled in issues like the reform of the Church and the morals of the clergy and argued with masters in theology. Hildegard did not lead the life of a simple nun. She unwaveringly continued on her path, being both humble and intrepid at the same time.

It can only amaze us to see how this nun who lived at a time when women were generally excluded from education and from public and Church life, could lead a life that went against the tide and is remembered still. Has she not merited the tribute that the Church is now preparing to give?

We, as women, can only be delighted that it has been decided that the time has come to bring to the fore and to appreciate one of the great mothers of the faith and of the Church. This will further enhance the cause of a long line of women that recent culture is learning to appreciate. It is a work of reconstruction being undertaken by centres of historical, theological and sociological research concerning women. This was highlighted in the Church most especially by John Paul II. We should not forget how, on 19 October 1997, he proclaimed Saint Therese of the Child Jesus to be Doctor of the Church. She was the third of these rare cases of women Doctors after Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila. During the 12th World Youth Day held in Paris in 1997, the pope drew attention to the young Therese and pointed to her as an example for young people all over the world. It was John Paul II who decreed on 1 October 1999 that Edith Stein would be one of the women patrons of Europe together with Saints Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena.

Now it is Hildegard’s turn to shine forth in a century that is superficially considered to be dark, backward-looking and oppressive. To honour her also means to capture a spirituality that is attractive because of its holistic vision that closely connects physical health with the salvation of the soul. Hildegard wanted to break through the glass ceiling that separated the world beyond from the terrestrial, and to remove the artificial barriers that disjoin and poison relationships. She was always consistent with the “incarnation” of Christian tradition throughout history. She never lost an opportunity to emphasise the connection between knowledge, spirituality, nature and sensitivity, and she crossed moats and obstacles to give visibility to the shining light that leads everything to harmony and beauty.

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