After a centuries long "wait" Hildegard of Bingen, a German mystic, was canonized in May. This past Sunday Pope Benedict XVI declared her to be a Doctor of the Church, an honor that is shared with 34 other people from throughout Church history. Only three of the others are women. That is very rarified company! Many of us do not know much about St. Hildegard, but she is definitely an interesting figure.
St. Hildegard was born at the end of the eleventh century, possibly in the year 1098. She was from a very large family and of noble birth, but not much else is known about her origins. She began to report that she was having visions at a rather young age; she is said to have started to have these visions at the age of three! Whether it was that or some other reason which remains unknown, her parents brought her to the local Benedictine convent where she entered the community. Maybe they thought that having visions was a sure sign of a religious vocation (it isn't!), or maybe they thought it was a sign of holiness (it isn't!) and a convent was where she needed to be. Maybe they were overwhelmed at the thought of having a daughter who was having visions regularly, or maybe they simply thought that the nuns could better handle the situation. Either way, she entered the community at the age of around 14 and lived as a sister the rest of her life. Some accounts of her life indicate that she was entered into the convent with someone older named Jutta, who was a type of caretaker, when Hildegard was eight years old. Either way, Hildegard was very young and was immersed in a world of religion and spirituality where she seemed very much at home.
Hildegard continued to have visions which attracted many to her, and eventually she became prioress of the enclosed religious community. Hildegard was a brilliant woman. She learned to read music and composed what may be the world's first opera. It is said that she invented the first indoor plumbing for the sisters in the convent. She was an expert at using herbs and natural substances for healing. This is not why she was named a Doctor of the Church, though. (Pun intended.) A Doctor of the Church is someone whose contribution to theology or doctrine is of great importance and it is her writings that are an indication of what her contribution was. She wrote three theological texts, the most widely known called Scivias, (“Know the Ways of the Lord”) which is widely available to this day. In it she wrote extensively about the Trinity, Christ, the Church, the Sacraments, and the Kingdom of God based on the visions she had. So while she obviously had an extensive knowledge in many areas, and these were all incredible contributions to the medicine of her day, music and the like, it is her theological teaching for which she has been declared a Doctor.
Also very important in all of this was that St. Hildegard had a tremendous impact during her lifetime in Germany. For a woman to have had the amount of influence and respect which she had is remarkable. No doubt it was hard won, however. She did have her detractors, but she continued to work at sharing her wisdom. Women were banned at that time from any public speaking or preaching, and yet Hildegard was known as a master of rhetoric, attracting audiences wherever she went. That is correct: she traveled all over Germany sharing her knowledge and preaching publicly, something completely unheard of for a woman at that time and for a long time afterward. She even preached to clergy and called for reform, which would have been controversial to say the least.
St. Hildegard is important because she teaches us not only from her visions and theological understanding, but because she was free enough to follow a call which put her at odds with public convention. She seems comfortable in her own skin; that is to say, she must have had the confidence to understand that if God gave her so many gifts, they were gifts to be shared. She could have written books and sat back hoping for the word to get out. But in her world before the printing press that was not very probable, so she took the proverbial “bull by the horns” and spread her knowledge in any way she could. She had the courage to move against the constraints toward women during her lifetime and shared a vast knowledge with the world around her. The tenacity she possessed allowed her writings and her musical creations to survive throughout the many years since her death in 1179 at around the age of 81, until this day. (One can find recordings of her music and copies of Scivias relatively easily today.)
St. Hildegard should be an inspiration to those of us who struggle with what our purpose may be in this life. She did not write for posterity or to leave a legacy. She wrote because she wanted to express what she had learned. She knew the visions were not for her alone, but rather that they were to be shared. Hildegard should help us to see that no matter what constraints there are on us due to our resources or situation, whatever our contribution is, it is important if it is directed toward furthering the Kingdom of God. If our contribution is to raise wonderful kids, or if it is to make a scientific breakthrough, or if it is to simply make the world around us a better place because we were there, then we are to put our energy into that, not worrying about what anyone else thinks or how society may be judging us. Like St. Hildegard, we can find the truth of who we are in the Lord, and using the gifts He has given us, we can contribute to the well-being of the world around us, even if it seems like what we are doing is of little importance. I am sure that having visions is not understandable to many people, and may have been off-putting to some. But that did not stop St. Hildegard from sharing her wisdom. That is heroic and I am confident she suffered a bit along the way. But share she did, and we are the richer for it.
May we be courageous in sharing who we are and the gifts we have been given for the sake of the Kingdom. May we be like St. Hildegard, daring to be who we are even if it does not quite fit in with the expectations of the culture. May we be true to the calling we have from God, secure in the knowledge that it is He who leads us. And may we learn to open our eyes to the "vision" we have been given through Scripture, the writings of the Saints, and the example of their lives so that we can grow closer to the Lord. Let us meet in the Heart of the Lord, the Source of all vision! Peace!
Hildegaard of Bingen, icon written by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find it at Fr. Bill's website http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=66
Divine Love, the heart of hearts,
abounds in every grain of being,
from atom's gleam to starry sky,
from darkest pain to brightest joy.
Unceasing love kindles life - a royal promise sealed with the kiss of peace.
St. Hildegard of Bingen
An excellent book of prayers and devotions written by St. Hildegard from which the above was taken is the little book Hildegard of Bingen edited by Mirabai Starr.
Heart Speaks to Heart