St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is a wonder of the past, a historical phenomenon in her own right, and a direct challenge to all who bother to learn about her and from her now in the twenty-first century. In short, Hildegard’s life and writings pose a stark question: did God speak through this woman, not only to people of her day but to all mankind for all time, or was she one very sick woman?
Hildegard spent almost the whole of her long life in the valley of the Rhine, near where the River Main flows into it. The middle Rhineland valley is one of the most fertile parts of Germany, with a mild, temperate climate, where people have lived in communities for millennia. The Rhine forms a natural highway from its origins in the Alpen lands to its mouth in the English Channel and North Sea. The paradox of Hildegard’s life is that she was a solitary, contemplative soul, living on a major highway, so to speak, where she became the center of attention.
Born one of perhaps ten children to a local, noble couple, Hildegard probably had a fairly privileged and normal early childhood, except that she suffered from an illness that confined her to her bed. During these bouts of weakness and pain, she began to see unusual images, perhaps from as early as her fifth year. When she told people about her visions, they told her to be quiet. When she was seven, her parents resolved that she should become a religious, and so turned her over to Jutta, an anchoress, enclosed in a stone cell that was adjacent to a Benedictine monastery. There Hildegard lived, studied, worked, and prayed for thirty years. More and more girls came to live with them, until Jutta became the head of a small Benedictine convent. When Jutta died in 1136, when Hildegard was thirty-eight years old, the community of religious women unanimously chose her to lead them. Little is known about these three decades of Hildegard’s life, except that her bouts of illness and the visions continued. She told only Jutta about them, but Jutta informed a monk, Volmar, whose position was to supervise the nuns and administer the sacraments for them.
Hildegard’s life changed radically when she was forty-two. She had the most powerful vision yet, one not just of lights and images, but of inspiration, of understanding, an infusion of knowledge about the meaning of Scripture and the whole content of the faith. She also received the command to write down what she learned. Feeling unequal to the task, Hildegard fell gravely ill. Volmar told her to write, and the abbot of the adjacent monastery concurred. Her illness lifted, and she began to write of what she had seen, in Latin, which she had not learned very well, working with Volmar, who assisted her for the next thirty years. Her first and greatest work, Scivias, tells in three books of God and all of his creation, of redemption, the Church, and the devil, and finally about the whole history of salvation. First the abbot read portions of it, then the archbishop of Mainz, then St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Pope himself, Eugenius (1145-1153), who read her writings himself out loud to a synod held in the German city of Trier. The word was out. A true prophetess lived on the Rhine. Hildegard’s solitude, as limited as it had been, was over.
New vocations flocked to her convent. Perhaps in part to separate the sheep from the goats, she moved her community to an unsettled, forested hill on the bank of the Rhine and started building the new convent from the ground up. But the flow did not stop. Within a few years she had to found another convent, this time on the opposite bank of the river. As abbess, she visited that monastery once or twice per week. People flocked to hear her speak, to receive her blessing, and to obtain treatments for their ailments. She later published a large treatise about many sicknesses and the way to cure them using plants, herbs, animal parts, and precious stones. She corresponded widely with the highest echelons of medieval society: Holy Roman Emperors, popes, kings, bishops and archbishops, princes, abbots and abbesses, and many priests, nuns, and noblemen. Well over 300 of her letters survive today, and certainly many, many more were written during her long life.
She was asked for advice, for knowledge of the state of people’s souls, for explanations of Scripture, for theological explanations of divine mysteries, for knowledge of the future. She was called to meet the Holy Roman Emperor and made predictions for him that he said later came true. She spoke and wrote what came to her, whether of good or ill tidings. Her inner voice told her many things to complain about. She held nothing back when lacerating corrupt clergymen and prelates for their abuses of the Church, of selling offices and allowing themselves lives of pomp, luxury, and plentiful sexual pleasures. When a prior wrote to her to ask her to pray for him because he was doing so for her and wanted a good outcome for his affairs, she scolded him roundly for his selfishness and pagan understanding of prayer. We have no way of knowing how many people held her in awe.
In addition to hundreds of letters, she wrote another book about the moral life and its merits, a visionary work like Scivias, about how we are to live in order to partake in Heaven’s peace and glory. Another book is devoted to describing the works of divinity. In addition to the medical treatise, she wrote books explaining how nature works according to God’s mysterious precepts. She was shown divine order in all things and endeavored to convey that order to others. She also composed seventy songs and a musical morality play about the virtues. Her style, in prose and in verse, is always vivid, compelling, and loaded with prophetic imagery; it is the opposite of dry academic, technical writing. Nonetheless, it is not easy to differentiate precisely among what she received in a vision, what she learned from other books and local, oral tradition, and what she observed and thought up herself.
Obviously such prominence without any formal credentials or raw power to back it up led her into some troubles. It took much effort to persuade the abbot under whom she had lived with Jutta to allow her to move her nuns, and their dowries, to the new location on the Rhine. Her admonitions to powerful, sinful clergymen and laymen added to her list of potential detractors and enemies. Some people said she was a self-serving fraud, or just crazy. Her battle with her bishop to keep her protégé, the nun Richardis, from going to lead another convent was a lost cause, the pope eventually intervening to back up the bishop. The affair did not bring out the best in anyone. Toward the end of Hildegard’s life, she allowed an excommunicated man to be buried on her convent’s holy grounds; she said he had been properly reconciled with God just before his death. The bishop disagreed and put her convent under interdict, denying Hildegard and her nuns access to the sacraments, but Hildegard wore him down with prayers and supplications. Within a few months, the interdict was lifted, and the grave remained undisturbed. These conflicts, however, were exceptional rather than normal.
The fact that she was a woman living in the twelfth century was no serious hindrance to her mission to spread the word of God’s revelation till the end of her days. Beginning in her sixties, she went on four lengthy tours through the local countryside, preaching, with papal approval, no less, to the Church, clergy and laity alike. Her songs were sung as far away as Paris, and word of her wisdom spread across the face of Christendom. After her death at the venerable age of eighty-one, a cult devoted to her sprung up immediately. While there is no record of her official canonization in the twelfth or thirteen centuries, she was listed among the saints in the sixteenth-century Roman Martyrology. Just recently, Pope Benedict XVI inscribed her in the catalogue of saints (an action called “equivalent canonization”) on May 10, 2012, and on October 7, 2012, will declare her a doctor of the Church, a recognition granted to only thirty-three people thus far, three of them women.
But, this being the twenty-first century, many people just will not accept that God had communicated anything, let alone truth, through Hildegard. Some historians have diagnosed her life-long sufferings as migraines, but to explain the derivation of her visions in medical terms have all failed grandly. There is no denying that some of her symptoms resemble migraines, but the power and richness of her visions, and the depth of her understanding of them, have another, very different source.
She is not an unknown quantity in Germany today, but most people know her name for the wrong reason. There is a product line and a .com named after her that hawk herbal elixirs, potions, creams, powders, rocks, and ointments, all marketed to improve one’s general happiness and feeling of freedom and independence. Hildegard’s priority for others, however, was sanctification and salvation. The products claim to be based on her writings, but they are more in line with new-age commercialism. More serious and more worthy is the association (Bund der Freunde Hildegards) that publishes a quarterly journal and includes a network of doctors, chiropractors, and medical researchers who make a real effort to apply her remedies and methodologies to problems people face today. But this group has missed Hildegard’s religious message almost entirely. On a more popular level, German film-makers released a feature about her in 2009, “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen.” The movie shows her as nun, abbess, writer, composer, and medical practitioner, finally ending with her riding off for a preaching tour. Unfortunately, however, the film fixates on her struggles for recognition from men of the Church as well as independence from their control. The screenplay is about a poor, oppressed twelfth-century woman’s fight to become fully herself in the face of a mediocre, jealous, sexist, male ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Hildegard was and is so much more. Quite simply, she was a great saint. She suffered and struggled terribly. She loved God above all and sacrificed all to please him. She persevered to the end. She inspired people in uncountable numbers. She told them to stop sinning and embrace holiness. To get to know her, read her writings. Some images will strike you as exotic or bizarre, but the wisdom of her moral injunctions and religious insights deserves serious consideration and great respect.