Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen was an amazing woman and saint for her time. She was a mystic, a prophet, a feminist, a composer and a polymath. She spoke boldly to Church and Civil leaders. She wanted people to “Wake up!” Her message was important for the people of her time, and equally important for us now.
Hildegard was the tenth child born into a noble family in 1098 in Bremersheim, near Mainz, Germany. She was a sickly and frail child and was not educated. When Hildegard was about 8, her parents entrusted her to the care of a holy woman, Jutta. Together Jutta and Hildegard entered the Benedictine Monastery at Disibodenburg on November 1, 1112. Jutta became the superior to the small community including Hildegard. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard became the leader of the community at age 38. She moved her Sisters to Rupertsburg in 1150 and founded a Monastery there. Hildegard founded another Monastery in Eibingen in 1165.
Hildegard received three visions. The first was in 1141, and she was instructed to write. So she wrote Scivias (“Know the Ways”). It took her ten years to write and included many paintings and at the end, a first opera nearly a century before anyone else writes one. Titled Ordo virtutum (Order of the virtues, circa 1150), it is an allegorical work in which the virtues fight the devil for Anima, the human soul. The opera was a morality play.
Her second major work was called Liber vitae meritorum (“Book of the Rewards of Life”) and took her five years to write. Her third work Liber divinorum operum (“Book of Divine Works”) which took seven years and was completed in 1174. It tells of ten visions related to creation and salvation and the exegesis of John I and the Book of Revelation.
Hildegard also wrote books on medicine and cures, and commentaries on the Rule of St Benedict and the gospels: She composed 77 songs between 1163 and 1190, which are collected in Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (“Harmonic sounds of celestial revelation”).
Hildegard and her community were placed under interdict for a year because an excommunicated man was buried in the monastery cemetery. The Archbishop didn’t want the man buried there. Hildegard stood up to the Archbishop and said the man had repented and received the last rites and that he would remain buried there. When the Archbishop placed the monastery under interdict, Hildegard asked that the interdict be lifted because God would not be pleased if they were not allowed to sing his praises, An interdict was like an excommunication, and the sisters were not allowed to pray the Divine Office. After one year, the Archbishop relented and lifted the interdict and the man remained buried in the monastery cemetery.
Hildegard died about 6 months later on September 17, 1179, at the age of 81 at the monastery at Rupertsburg near Bingen an Rhein. She was canonized on May 10, 2012 over 800 years after her death. Then on October 7, 2012, Hildegard was recognized as a Doctor of the Church.
Hildegard understood the Cosmic Christ 800 years before Teilhard de Chardin or Thomas Berry. She saw all of creation vibrating and alive with the light and music of the image of God, the Cosmic Christ, the Word. She said that we are constantly busy creating and birthing our world. She talked about “greening”. She painted many mandalas, that she called “illuminations.” She understood the Cosmic Christ as Cosmic Wisdom. Birthing and creating are ideas that hint at evolution long before Charles Darwin. Light and music are waveforms of energy, which comes from God. Spirit is calling or awakening the Word that is manifest in all of creation. All of this is incarnation at work. All creation is Sacred like Native Americans understand. She calls us to respect nature like Pope Francis’s encyclical letter LAUDATO SI’, On Care for our Common Home. She experienced all creation singing its praises to God, and we should be alert to and observant of this praise and also learn to praise. Hildegard talks about the church as the Body of Christ, but the head is not the hierarchy, but the Cosmic Christ. By saying this, Hildegard is urging us to look in our hearts and minds –primacy of conscience. For Hildegard there are many expressions of the Word of God, for it lives in every living thing.
Hildegard understood the difference between the God of Religion and the God of Life. When Religion is losing its way, this difference is crucial. It was in her 12th Century and it is in our 21st Century. Mystics break open the doors of institutional religion to let God of life speak anew. God calls all creation to himself. God is the source and goal of all creation. God is light and the source of life. Hildegard was influenced by Celtic thinking. Celts were aware of their dependence on the sun for life. Hildegard also saw words as alive. They carry Spirit. The Green Man is depicted as having branches growing from his mouth and throat. When we give birth to ideas, we are birthing from the birth canal of our throat. Humans are carriers of divine light and co-creators of that light. Light and Love bind us to other creatures, they for us and we for them. Love glows and shines in us. (2 Cor 4:6)
Hildegard was a defender of Mother Earth and all her creatures and she expects us to be prophets and warriors for Mother Earth too, for to defend nature is to defend the Cosmic Christ. She calls earth Mother because the seeds of all are contained in her. Awareness of the fertility of the earth is being lost as so many of us live in cities away from seasons, growing things and animals. Without this connection to nature we feel an emptiness in our soul and boredom in our psyche. One reason for the emptiness is that religion is so without power. It is not moved with the compassion or admiration of the universe. Christianity should take a stronger stand for the weak rather than considering first the right of the strong. Hildegard took on emporers and abbots, popes and politicians who preferred pride of power to justice. She said that “God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.” All species are dependent on the others. We are all connected in the web of life.
Hildegard’s teachings are in tune with some of the most important findings of today’s science. Hildegard’s idea of the universe was as big as our one galaxy, but we now know there may be as many as 500 billion galaxies. Hildegard paints the universe as an egg, with beginnings, growth, and evolution. It is organic with a passion for life. Hildegard felt that understanding the cosmos was essential to the understanding of medicine, psychology, ethics and religion. She casts her theology not in terms of psychology, but in terms of cosmology. Her worldview included the microcosm as well as the macrocosm. For Hildegard, awe and knowledge, mysticism and intellect are not at odds, but companions on the journey. So our true purpose is to participate in the creative whole. Einstein said that “science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.” They have a common goal, they search for truth. Hildegard emphasizes imagination and creativity, for it is the path to wisdom as opposed to factual knowledge. Hildegard teaches the interdependence of all matter. And todays science insights are all about interdependence since all matter came from the same initial fireball. The idea of relationship lies at the heart of all feminist theology. Interdependence is also the foundation of compassion, we are all parts of the whole. We have conscience and free will to choose. Hildegard believed that all creatures have a spiritual life. Angels are also creatures that lift voices to God in praise of the good works of humans.
Hildegard had a lot to say about medicine. In her writings, she offers 2,000 natural medicine remedies that do work. Hildegard describes the origin and manifestations of cancer and treated her patients preventatively to build up resistance. Hildegard also knew that in order to be healed, one had to detoxify and be rid of all the poisons and stress and anger that change the chemistry of the blood. Positive or negative feelings can cause either health or disease. The virtues uplift us while the vices wear us down. This is part of her opera “Play of the Virtues.”
Hildegard comes from the tradition of “creation spirituality,” which is also known as the wisdom tradition. It is the tradition of the Bible and Jesus also came from this tradition. Jesus never heard of “original sin.” Creation spirituality believes in original blessing or original wisdom. Hildegard is a carrier of this tradition, and is called the Grandmother of the Rhineland mystic movement. St Francis also belonged to this tradition. Rhineland mystics are characterized by their love of creation and deep awareness of the Cosmic Christ. Rhineland mystics are deeply Celtic and therefore also deeply Hindu, because scholars today agree that the Celts came from India. A mystic’s fate is to fall in love with the world in spite of history. (As well as poets and musicians, dancers and performers.) Most Christians only know of St Augustine’s original sin tradition with all its patriarchal pessimism. If we are to renew Christianity, we will need to begin with the deep, rich tradition of creation spirituality. Hildegard names and develops these paths:
1 Via Positiva is about light love and Joy.
2.Via Negativa is about the mystery of God and stillness. It includes struggle, emptiness, suffering and grief.
3. Via Creativa is the path of creativity. Hildegard’s music is demanding and physical. It covers a wide vocal range. She is a poet because she wrote lyrics to her music, including her opera. She was a painter and created 35 of mandalas which were a healing device. She was a writer of Scivias Wisdom ways and two medical books. She was an architect and designed her Monasteries. She was a prolific letter writer. She was a preacher and her main theme was the laziness of the clergy and their lack of zeal.
4 Via Transforma is the path of compassion and justice, a prophetic path. A prophet is a mystic in action. Compassion is about relation – sharing joys and griefs, working to relieve another’s pain. As a prophet, she had moral outrage, about the treatment of the earth, about the corruption of the church. She also has blunt messages for kings and emperors. She calls us to “wake up” and speak truth to power.
Hildegard was a prophet to Church and Governments. Hildegard says that “The best treasure you have is a living intellect.” She would not relinquish her conscience to the Vatican or anyone else. Hildegard’s view of the Church has Christ and the Word as the head of the church, not the pope and the curia. Lay people are the shining stones of the church. The clergy are there to serve the people. Hildegard held the idea of the Divine Feminine. This is opposite of the all-male hierarchy that tells everyone what they can and cannot think or do. They are so afraid of ‘radical feminism.’ Which they accused the American Religious women and the Girl Scouts of.
Hildegard’s prophetic words to world leaders of the time included Bertha, Queen of Greece, to keep the commandments. She wrote to King Henry II of England, who just murdered Thomas Becket. To King Konrad III, who participated in the Crusades she warned that there were ways he was turning from God. Konrads successor was Barbarosa who backed the anti-pope Paschal III. This made Hildegard furious for the schism he was endorsing and sent him a strong message calling him an infant and a madman. Hildegard chose to interfere and that is the true role of a prophet. She spoke out against the peril of Mother Earth, and for justice for women in church and society. She critiques the lack of the Divine Feminine and the lack of compassion. She speaks with authority because she trusts her own mystical experiences. She warns that abundance doesn’t satisfy the soul, it only brings boredom.
Hildegard also had prophetic messages for Church leaders of her day. To Pope Anastasious IV she wrote “You are neglecting justice, Those you entrusted are men of moral crudeness who bark like dogs and cackle like chickens.” “And you, O man, who have been placed as a visible shepherd, rise up and hasten quickly to justice ….” To Abbott Kuno, whose monastery she exited, she wrote asking why he doesn’t shrink from destroying a person (Hildegard), since it was not he who created her. “O Justice, you are without a homeland…” To Philip the dean of the Cathedral in Cologne and all his priests she questioned why there is no justice, their sermons spew darkness. They are like naked snakes going back into their hole. Abbott Hellinger asked Hildegard for help and she called him glum and bungling. She often wrote to Abbotts who were looking for her advice. She addressed the role of priests and said that they should not succumb to boredom, jealousy or dryness. They should be constantly reforming themselves by walking in the way of justice. She encouraged them to be green. And she encouraged them to be Prophets for justice.
Hildegard suffered for her efforts at reform. When she was 80 years old, she and her community were placed under interdict, which meant that they were not allowed to sing the Divine office or receive the sacraments, a great suffering for them. Hildegard petitioned her bishop and then many other bishops, trying to get them to convince her bishop to lift the interdict. She suffered with illness when she didn’t immediately start writing her visions until she started writing it down. In her prophetic role, she saw herself as the little one, a David against whichever Goliath she was up against. She wasn’t afraid to “interfere,” the true work of a prophet.
Hildegard presented herself as an image of the Holy, when she shared her mystical visions, when she was counselor for kings, Popes, bishops, and Abbotts and when she challenged Church and civil leaders, when she traveled around Germany preaching to priests and church leaders. She presented herself as equal to men, in that she was not afraid to tell popes and Kings what she thought when they were wrong. She did not sacrifice her own intelligence or conscience. She fought for what she felt was right. When her bishop put her under interdict, she petitioned other bishops to put pressure on her bishop. She spoke with equal authority to Abbott Kuno and Pope Anastasious IV.
If Hildegard was alive today, we can only imagine what she would be saying. First to world leaders to do what is possible to stop global warming, use renewable resources, and respect the earth, our common Home. I think she would have congratulated Pope Francis for his encyclical “LAUDATO SI” I think she’d have been somewhat cheered by the Paris Conference, but in the end feel that it was too little, too late. I think she’d have plenty to say about human trafficking, and the 1% who live apparently oblivious to those in the lowest 40%. I think she’d be happy that European nations are trying to absorb war refugees, but rail against the war that causes their misery. I think she’d be upset with the injustices faced by people of color and especially LGBQT people who face discrimination. But I think she’d save her greatest wrath for the Hierarchy and priests of the church for the pedophilia, cover ups, and then hiding resources from the victims. She would be outraged at the Hierarchy that protects an all-male, supposedly celibate, priesthood as a higher value that the value of making the sacraments available to as many people as possible. I think she’d be reminding Bishops that God will not be pleased that people are kept from the sacraments while they are trying to preserve their all-boys club.
So yes, Hildegard had a lot to say to leaders of her time. She boldly spoke truth to power. And I think she would tell us all to “WAKE UP!! Work for Justice, for the earth and people on the margins. She’d want us to understand our connectedness, when one part suffers, we all suffer. She is a prophet for our times as well.
Josie Petermeier RCWP wrote this paper for a course offered by Global Ministries University TH 642, Visionary Women of the Christian Tradition with instructor Dr. Bridget Mary Meehan, D.Min. author of Praying with Visionary Women.