Hildegard von Bingen (AD 1098–1179) has rightly been called a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance. She was a 12th-century Rhineland mystic, poet, playwright, musician, visionary and scientist. According to theologian Christopher Morris at Catholic Theological College, she stood out in her time for a number of reasons.
‘She was the only woman of her age to be accepted as an authoritative voice on Christian doctrine,’ Morris says, ‘the only woman to receive express permission from a pope to write theological books.’
Hildegard was the only medieval woman who preached openly before mixed audiences of laity and clergy with the approval of Church authorities. She authored the first known morality play and was the only 12th-century playwright who was not anonymous. As a composer, she was the first we know anything about biographically. As a scientist, she was the first to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective. Morris says her impact was huge:
She’s like this nuclear energy that emerged onto the scene.
Even so, Hildegard is not an easy woman to read. Her writings can come across as esoteric and strange, exploring visions that that seem foreign to us. But she is also a Doctor of the Church, made so in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, the fourth woman to be elevated to that position. What this means is that her teachings are sound and beneficial for the Church, and that she is someone we might want to get to know.
Hildegard was the tenth child of a noble family. In those days in Germany, it was customary to tithe your tenth child to the Church, so at eight years old, she was committed to the care of Jutta, the anchoress of a Benedictine Monastery. From a very early age, Hildegard started having visions. She didn’t know what to do with them, and when they became too much, she grew sick. At the urging of her secretary Volmar, Pope Eugenius and St Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard finally began writing her visions down. This text became Scivias, which means ‘Know the Ways of the Lord’.
In his address proclaiming her a Doctor of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI explained that the question of knowing God, and whether we could, was central for Hildegard:
Hildegard asks herself and us the fundamental question, whether it is possible to know God: This is theology’s principal task. Her answer is completely positive: through faith, as through a door, the human person is able to approach this knowledge.
Reading Hildegard’s writing, you are struck by the sheer grace and poetry of it. Even when you don’t quite know what you’re reading, it still manages to be immensely enjoyable. But because many of Hildegard’s works are visionary in content and style, we can easily feel lost.
According to Morris, that isn’t necessarily a drawback:
It’s not a bad thing to get lost with her, to feel a bit overwhelmed. She opens up vast vistas for us. Sometimes we can have our image of God as too small, you know, and we keep containing God somehow, and she has this enormous, dynamic, positive, flowing image of God, and that in itself helps to liberate us. That’s often what mystics do.
In a sense, this poetry sets her apart from some other writers in the tradition. Even during her own time, enormous changes were happening in Europe, especially theologically. Scholasticism—which we might regard as a more ‘objective’ theology—was on the rise. This was a more structured approach to theology, embodied by writers like St Thomas Aquinas (though he was certainly a poet of genius himself), and differing markedly from writers like Hildegard, whose approach was mystical and ‘visionary’ (in a literal sense).
Even though we need the clarity offered to us by the scholastic approach to theology, we also need these more poetic writers like Hildegard, Morris says, because they reflect more closely the style of the Scriptures. Both ways have virtues of their own, and both help us come to know the Lord.
Hildegard has been referred to as a ‘creation mystic’, since her writings are so comprehensive, dealing with the full breadth of creation. ‘That’s a lovely way of framing it,’ Morris thinks. ‘It’s very Benedictine. They read the book of the Scriptures and the book of creation. They look out into the world and see God’s activity there.’
Hildegard is, as mentioned, famous for her musical compositions, which are still much admired and regularly played on classical radio stations around the world. Her collection of music and poetry is called the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum and consists of 77 songs for the Church’s liturgical year, as well as her musical drama Ordo Virtutum, which is about the contest between the devil and the virtues as they struggle over a female soul. Her compositions have a flowing and enchanting quality to them, reflective of the Benedictine spirituality in which she was immersed from a young age.
‘That’s the Benedictine sensibility—music and singing is intrinsic to prayer,’ Morris says.
Hildegard wrote that ‘Musical harmony softens hard hearts, inducing in them the moisture of contrition and summoning the Holy Spirit.’ And she would typically describe creation in musical terms, as a symphony or a harmony—a deeply connected reality that is so much larger than us.
According to Hildegard:
All of creation is a symphony of joy and jubilation. God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else. Everything that is in the heavens, on the earth, under the earth, is penetrated with connectedness, is penetrated with relatedness.
An important concept that flows throughout Hildegard’s writings is that of veriditas, which means ‘greening power’. Another feature of Benedictine spirituality, Morris explains, is that the place you are in forms your spirituality. Hildegard, in Germany, would stand on the banks of the Rhine and behold the beautiful landscape, the incredible, luscious green world, and this deeply influenced her spirituality, and how she understood God’s presence and life in the world.
For Hildegard, the Holy Spirit was this greening power in motion, giving life to all things:
In the beginning, all things were green and vital; they flourished amidst flowers. Later the green figure itself came down.
The ‘green figure itself’ is, of course, Jesus: Greenness Incarnate. For Hildegard, Jesus is, quite literally, the life of the world incarnate.
Alongside this mysticism, at the heart of Hildegard’s spirituality and vision of Christian life are the Trinity and the incarnation. These have always been the twin pillars of Christian theology, and they undergird Hildegard’s writings. Her mysticism is never alienated from foundational Christian doctrine.
As the Bible does, she describes God as a consuming fire:
Just as the flame contains three essences in the one fire, so too, there is one God in three persons. How is this so? The flame consists of shining brightness, purple vigour and fiery glow. It has shining brightness so that it may give light; purple vigour so that it may flourish; and a fiery glow so that it may burn.
This fire is one that ‘pours glowingly’ into the minds of Christians. There is always a sense of overflow in Hildegard, Morris says, a sense of God being someone who ‘pours out’ into creation: ‘The sense is one of absolute, unconditional generosity.’
The strong point of connection between the human soul and the trinitarian God is found in the Eucharist. For Hildegard, as Pope Benedict also noted, our way of experiencing God comes into fullness through our experience of the sacraments. The Eucharist is seen by Hildegard as a trinitarian experience, one in which the believer is drawn deeper into the loving movements of the triune God—a mystery that inspired her to write:
Eat, my friends drink and get drunk, my dearest ones. What does this mean? Eat in faith, you who have come to my friendship through holy baptism. For the pouring out of my Son’s blood has wiped from you Adam’s fall. Drink in hope from this vine which has led you from eternal punishment. Become drunk with love, you who are most beloved of me.
Even though her style might not be something we are used to reading, the spiritual writings of St Hildegard von Bingen are a rich treasury for 21st-century people to dive into. They offer a breathtaking series of reflections on creation, God and the human soul, unlike anything else you might read in the tradition. If knowledge begins in wonder, as the ancients thought, then knowledge of God also begins in a sense of wonder: wonder at the ways of God, his endless generosity, and the beauty of his creation. St Hildegard, with a graceful hand, leads us to this place of wonder.
Image: Sculpture of Hildegard of Bingen by Karlheinz Oswald, 1998, in front of Eibingen Abbey. Photo by Gerda Arendt on Wikimedia Commons.
VMCH11 December 2023
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