Hildegard’s Story

Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098, in Germany, the tenth child of a noble family.

Europe was shifting from a ruling system of smaller provinces and petty nobles to the formation of nations and the rule of kings. During her lifetime 13 popes and 12 antipopes claimed the chair of St. Peter. Thousands of men marched off to the first Crusades. Monasteries of the time had grown lax in observance of their rule. The church was in a state of deep spiritual corruption.

At the age of eight she was taken to given to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg and given to Jutta of Sponheim, a young anchoress who lived there in a small stone hermitage. Jutta taught Hildegard to read the Latin Bible, chant the Divine Office, music, art, and spinning. Over time other young women came to join Jutta and the hermitage grew into a women’s convent observing the Benedictine Rule.

At the age of 38, on Jutta’s death, Hildegard became the Prioress of the Convent, which eventually grew too large to be housed at Disibodenberg. At the age of 43 she received her prophetic call from the Lord to “Say and write what you see and hear”. At this point she overcame her sense of frailty, fear of criticism and self doubt and began to write the content of a series of visions that became known as The Scivias (Know the Ways). Her work eventually reached the eyes of Pope Eugenius III, who was deeply moved by the content and read it before the council of assembled bishops. In response to a vision she had, Hildegard began the process of founding a new abbey for her nuns at Rupertsberg on the Rhine. Hildegard’s fame had become a significant source of financial income to Disibodenberg over the years and the abbot and monks there tried to block her exit. Hildegard’s fire and determination eventually won out. The new abbey flourished and she acquired another abbey at Eibingen. The major portion of Hildegard’s considerable creative and intellectual output dates from her move to Rubertsberg.

Her writing is metaphoric and expansive. It contains considerable prophetic confrontation, particularly regarding justice in the exercise of authority, and the importance of holiness and virtue (good works) in religious life. She took church leaders to task over greed, fornication, negligence, and oppression. She also expresses warmth, and humor. Her musical compositions are lofty and soaring. Hildegard had a keen understanding of the political and intellectual developments of her time and corresponded with Popes Anastasius IV, Adrian IV, and Eugenius III, King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Byzantine Empress Irene, and the German Emperor Barbarossa.

During her life she wrote 300 letters, dozens of poems, 77 works of music and the first religious opera. She also wrote nine books, including three major theological works, one on physiology, one on health, one on the Rule of St. Benedict, a commentary on the Gospels, a commentary on the Athanasian Creed, and two biographies of saints. She was an intuitive theologian rather than a “systematic” theologian. She claimed that the substance of her world-view was revealed, rather than acquired through study. Her writings and letters have become a rich source of historical information about medieval life and thought in the Rhine Region.

2006 Chelsea Wakefield chelseaw@citcom.net

Hildegard’s Spirituality

Her life was grounded in the Benedictine Rule with its rhythm of work, rest, contemplation, and corporate prayer. St. Disibod, an Irish Celtic monk who traveled to Germany to evangelize the area to Celtic Christianity, originally founded the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg, where she was raised from the age of 8.

Her writing reflects a sense of wonder, delight and connection to the natural world. Liberation from sin results in the re-establishment of the harmony and communion with God found in the original creation. Hildegard does not split the world between the evil material and the holy spiritual. God is transcendent of creation, but can also be experienced in and throughout all of creation. We are not to exploit creation, but care for it.

The beauty of nature, the arts and creativity of all kinds are an important part of the spiritual life and help us to experience the incomprehensible vastness of God.

The body is an amazing creation of God, to be cared for with proper food, rest, baths, and herbs for healing.

Creation Theology vs. Fall/Redemption Theology- The preoccupation of the theology of her time was Augustine’s conception of “Original Sin”. In this view, we are permanently in a “fallen” state, and our only hope is redemption through the blood of Christ. Hildegard believed that we are each born with an Original Blessing, which leads the listening heart into wholeness and right relationship with God and all Creation. For Hildegard, salvation meant healing and wholeness on the spiritual, physical, psychological and social levels.

Her writings emphasize the importance of both justice and compassion in action. The good religious life is like an orchard that bears good fruit. We need to be aware, to discern, and to choose a course of action. Virtue leads to ”viriditas” or greenness. Christ is the greening power of all humanity.

Hildegard’s life and writing exemplifies the value and importance of intelligence working along with the heart and intuition in service to God. She emphasized the importance of awareness, especially of waking up to our “Royal Personhood” as children of God. Our lives matter. They are not trivial. God needs us to work WITH him in order to bring His Kingdom into being. Christ is “the one who gives eyes” to see the truly important things of life.

She is a powerful role model for women to trust and follow their own religious experience, affirm and develop their talents and skills, and to challenge the status quo as they feel led by spirit. She struggled for years with a sense of smallness and inhibition asking the question of “who am I to speak out?”. At the age of 42, she finally obeyed the call of God and stepped into the fullness of her gifts.

She lived in the “tension of opposites” between delight and struggle; intellectual thought and profound mystery; contemplation and action; intuition and strategic endeavor, creativity and practicality.

Hildegard invites us into an awareness of the importance of our personal deep experience of God. How we personally encounter the Holy is important. The purpose of theology and the church is to give language and a contextual, guiding framework to the individual religious experience. The purpose of theology and the church is NOT to smother, restrain, homogenize, or intellectualize religious experience.

Hildegard’s century was saturated by symbolic consciousness. It was out of this era that the Grail story emerged, the Cathedral of Chartres was built, and many Christological metaphors of the sacraments were made central to worship. Hildegard’s Mandalas and her writings invite us into a symbolic consciousness. Symbols, stories, images are central to awakening and enlivening the spiritual life. They are accessible to all people.

Key Readings:

Gloria Durka, Praying With Hildegard of Bingen, Winona, MN., Saint Mary’s Press, 1991.

Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1993.

Matthew Fox (editor), Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bear & Company, 1987.

Matthew Fox (commentary), Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bear & Company, 1985.

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