There is no easy way to summarize the life and legacy of Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). In the sanctuary of St. Hildegard Abbey, in Eibingen, Germany, there is a row of ten long banners attempting to describe her amazing life. Here is a brief summary of this amazing woman.
Hildegard the Follower of Christ
Born as the youngest of ten children, when Hildegard was a young teen, she was given by her family as a “tithe” to the Church in 1112, an “oblation” gift to serve for the rest of her life within a Benedictine monastery. It was not uncommon in her time for a family to dedicate one of their children to the Lord’s service for ministry of prayer and life commitment to God. She began her life of service as a follower of Christ within a Benedictine Abbey. She was mentored in her Christian life by Jutta, a Benedictine nun six years her senior. Daily, Hildegard lived according to the Rule of St. Benedict, within a life of daily praying the Psalms, meditating upon the Scriptures, and daily labor with her hands. Through decades of this balanced rhythm of life within a Christian community, Hildegard’s soul was shaped by Christ into a beautiful vessel to receive many gifts of God’s Spirit. She viewed her life as a feather in God’s hands, as she wrote, “I stretch out my hands to God so that like a feather, which lacks all solidity of strength and flies on the wind, I may be sustained by Him” (in a letter by Hildegard to Guibert, 1175).
Hildegard the Visionary
From early childhood, Hildegard receive special insight from God into life and faith. Throughout her life, she saw and heard visions given by the Holy Spirit, telling her about the mysteries regarding Creation, the Fall, God’s plan of Redemption through Christ, and Final Judgment. She did not receive these visions while asleep, nor in a trance, but while wide awake. As she wrote, “The visions that I saw, I have not experienced in dreams nor was I asleep or in mental confusion, nor were they heard with the physical ears of the exterior person nor in hidden places, but I received them wide-awake and of sound mind with the eyes and ears of the inner person, in open places according to the will of God” (from Liber Scivias). For years, she told no one about these visions. Finally, in her 40s, she confessed her visions to her spiritual director, Volmar, who then passed them on to the Abbot, who encouraged Hildegard to bring her visions to light. After some time, when the wise Christian leaders of her time learned of her visions which she had written down, she received full approval to continue to write down whatever she heard and saw, for as she wrote, “I have seen and heard them in a heavenly realm and received them by the veiled myseries of God” (from Liber Scivias). These visions made up three entire books written during her lifetime, and included images, music and prophecies which came true also during her lifetime.
Hildegard the Theologian and Writer
Through decades of faithful daily study and meditation upon God’s Word, Hildegard became a wise interpreter of Scripture, helping many others better understand the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. During her life, she wrote three powerful volumes of theology, each based upon spiritual visions and revelations she received from God. These books were read by her local spiritual director, passed on to the spiritual leaders of her region, then on to the pope himself, who encouraged her to continue writing down what she had learned from God. Her works were published during her lifetime, encouraging and admonishing thousands of men and women across Europe. As an example of her spiritual writing, “Even spiritual vitality is withering because of the iniquitous superstition of the preposterous masses of people, who arrange everything according to their wishes and say, ‘Who is that Lord whom we have never seen?’ And God will answer them saying: ‘Do you not see me day and night? Do you not see me when you sow and when the seed is watered by rain, so that it may grow?’ All of creation aspires toward its Creator and obviously understands that is has been created. But man is a rebel and splits the Creator God into many idols.” One of my favorite theological insights of Hildegard is found in the Latin word she often used, viriditas, or “greening”. See the blog post from earlier this Spring on viriditas. Hildegard understood a life well-rooted in Jesus Christ would be like a green-fruitful vineyard, or like the tree of Psalm 1, which is ever-green, being planted by streams of living water in God’s Word. Hildegard lived her entire life in a verdant realm of planet earth, central Germany. So Hildegard writes of this ever-greenness of God’s creation, “Earth has in it the greenness of all things that are born and flourish in youth, and of the things drawing to themselves the tinge of vigorous activity, and also the shouts of all things sprouting and sending forth the flowers of its green strength” (from The Book of Merits, by Hildegard). Even after her death in 1179, through her writings, hundreds of thousands have been taught the Christian faith, and discovered the joy of walking in the pathway of everlasting life with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Hildegard the Spiritual Leader and Guide of Souls
From her early 20s until the time she died, Hildegard cared for the spiritual lives of others. When her own spiritual mentor, Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected Magistra, the spiritual leader of the community of Christian sisters at the Abbey of St. Disibodenberg. More and more women joined this growing community of nuns, seeking spiritual growth in Christ through life together in community. Hildegard was the leader of these women, as well as the spiritual director for many who came to visit the abbey where she was spiritual leader. She could be gentle as a mother with a young child when caring for another, but also severe in confronting the emperor himself in his brash and foolish political actions. She viewed the faith community as a vineyard, as shown in her writing to another spiritual leader, “Administer the Chosen Vineyard diligently so that you can look on God with a pure and righteous face.” In addition, Hildegard wrote hundreds of letters to men and women, to poor and powerful alike, across the European continent, offering spiritual guidance, encouragement and admonition. In one such letter to another wise woman, Elizabeth of Shonau, she encourages Elizabeth to practice moderation and balance, giving herself time for spiritual rest and refreshment in midst of her daily duties.
Hildegard the Healer
As leader of a Benedictine community, Hildegard was actively involved in learning about healing. Every Benedictine community to this day has an infirmary, to help heal bodies as well as spiritual practices for maturing souls. In medieval ways of thinking about what it means to be human, the body was more intimately interwoven with the soul. Hildegard understood the soul to be the life force of God our Creator, flowing through the body, just as sap flows through a vine. Without health in our soul, our bodies will become dry and brittle, and waste away. Monasteries were known as local centers for healing, making available their remedies to the local population, functioning as public health centers. Because of Hildegard’s active interest in wholeness of human growth, she studied plants and minerals to discover the best remedies for sicknesses of many kinds. Today we view this “herbal medicine”, but in medieval times, this kind of medical care was all that was available, and Hildegard was far ahead of her time in advancing in medical causes of sickness and cures for disease. She wrote a thousand years ago, “The earth gave of its vitality according to the type of man, to his disposition and character and whatever the nature of his activities. That is to say, the earth reveals in useful plants, by differentiating them, the dealings of the human spirit.”
Hildegard the Artist and Composer
As administrator, leader, shepherd of souls, when did Hildegard find time to create great works of art? The Benedictine way of life balances each day between worship, prayerful study of Scripture, and work. Hildegard grew up singing Scripture daily, especially the Psalms which she knew by heart. Every day was marked by seven worship services, the heart of which was the singing of the Psalms. To this day, people gather as we did, September 7-11, within the sanctuary at St. Hidegard Abbey to worship God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit through singing of Scripture, especially singing of the Psalms. Benedict also strongly encourages artists to practice their creative crafts within the community of faith, and to do so with all humility, giving glory to God for what is created. So it is no surprise that Hildegard would seek to glorify her Lord by composing music for worship, including 77 new worship songs, as well as the first-ever musical drama written for a Christian service of worship. What is surprising is the style of music she writes, which to this day stands apart from other medieval sacred music, as though it is the song of angels, with beautiful lyrics helping minds meditate upon God, soaring flights of melodies that lift the spirit, and surprising turns of grace which move the soul Godward. In addition, she painted a series of illuminations of her visions to help her sisters meditate upon God’s creation, Christ’s incarnation and redemption, final judgment, and eternal praises of heaven.
Hildegard the Doctor of the Church
900 years after she first entered spiritual life within a Benedictine Abbey as a young girl in 1112, Hildegard was formally named “Doctor of the Church” in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. Here is an excerpt from the letter from October 7, 2012, announcing this news: “Hildegard exhibits an extraordinary harmony between her teaching and everyday life. With perceptive, wise and prophetic sensitivity, Hildegard focuses on the Revelation of Holy Scripture . . . . In her visions and subsequent reflections, she encompasses the history of salvation from the beginning of the universe to the Last Day. Hildegard’s teaching reflects the teaching of the apostles, the writings of the Church Fathers, and the works of the authors of her time . . . . Monastic liturgy and the internalization of the Scriptures constitute the guidelines of her thinking, which is centered upon the mystery of the Incarnation . . . . Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the twelfth century, made her valuable contribution to the development of the Church of her time, by making the fullest use of the gifts God has bestowed upon her. In so doing, she proved herself to be a woman of lively intelligence, deep sensitivity and recognized spiritual authority. The Lord granted her a prophetic spirit and a profound ability to read the signs of the times. Hildegard exhibited a pronounced love of creation, and devoted herself to medicine, poetry and music. Above all, she always maintained a great and faithful love of Christ and for his Church.”