Recently I edited an article on Saint Hildegard and learned much about this remarkable woman. Although she was born in 1098, it took 900 years before Pope Benedict XVI named her a saint in an “equivalent canonization” in 2012 and then shortly after, she was given the title doctor of the church. A true polymath, Hildegard was adept at writing books and letters, preaching, composing music, poetry, and a play, giving wise counsel, and prescribing and practicing medicine. All this while she served as an abbess at two Benedictine monasteries.
Most interesting today, Hildegard is a model for women standing firm in the face of patriarchy and seeking a voice in the Church. Her theme of respect for and love of creation that receives its viriditas (greenness) from God makes her a relevant saint.
Born the tenth child of wealthy landowners in Germany, Hildegard was favored with visions—allegedly from the age of three! She experienced these as light. When she was six years old, her parents dedicated her to God. Jutta, a noblewoman about six years older, became her guide and continued to be one after the two joined a Benedictine monastery.
Around 1140, Hildegard received a fiery vision accompanied by infused knowledge of Scripture and the faith. The flame ordered her to speak and write of these mysteries. She produced Scivias, which led to Pope Eugene III authorizing her to write her visions and to speak in public, something women had not be able to do in part because St. Paul prohibited them from teaching (1 Tim. 2:9). Hildegard traveled from town to town preaching. Curiously, another abbess wrote Hildegard a letter admonishing her for allowing her nuns to wear their hair down and be adorned with jewels!
When Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire intended to name and install a new pope, Hildegard wrote vehement letters to him discouraging this. She was also not afraid to rebuke the clergy for failing to live a moral life as witness to the laity. To combat the heretical Cathars who believed that the material world was evil, she wrote emphasizing the goodness of creation. Some of her theology about the Trinity and the soul states what Aquinas taught centuries after she lived.
Hildegard’s original monastery was next to the monks’ monastery. When a vision told her to move to a larger house, the abbot tried to keep her monastery dependent on him. She went over his head and appealed to the archbishop. Still the abbot would not free her . . . until a paralyzing illness made it impossible for him to move her. Then Hildegard staunchly struggled to retain the sisters’ possessions and dowries. And in 1155 the nuns received all their property. Fifteen years after founding this new monastery at St. Rupert, Hildegard founded another one in Eibingen.
Among Hildegard’s works are the play Order of Virtues, the Book of Life’s Merits, and the Book of Divine Works. Reading this mystic’s writings requires determination, patience, and perseverance. They are not easy to understand.
• How familiar are you with Saint Hildegard?