The Extraordinary St. Hildegard von Bingen
Sep 14, 2021
Mary Ellen Goergen
It is difficult to read or listen to the news without hearing the same attention-grabbing superlatives being used over and over again to describe life during the pandemic. The overuse of words such as “extraordinary” diminishes the true meaning of the word. As a result, we become desensitized to that which is truly “extraordinary.”
Perhaps lost among the headlines this year was the decree promulgated in January by the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, which officially added the feasts of three Doctors of the Church as optional memorials to the General Roman Calendar. In its decree, the Congregation explained that those given the title of “Doctor of the Church” exemplify the “link between holiness and understanding things divine and also human.” Among the many saints officially recognized by the Catholic Church, those who have been given the title of “Doctor of the Church” are truly extraordinary. Included in this august group is St. Hildegard von Bingen, whose feast is celebrated on September 17th and is one of the optional memorials added to the liturgical calendar.
Hildegard is one of four female Doctors of the Church, along with Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Jesus (Teresa of Avila) and Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (Thérèse of Lisieux). These four women earned the title “Doctor” due to their particularly holy lives as well as their contributions to the understanding and teaching of Church doctrine. However, unlike the other female Doctors of the Church, Hildegard was relatively unknown outside of her native Germany until her canonization by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Later that year, Pope Benedict XVI recognized Hildegard as a “Doctor of the Church.”
There is no doubt that Hildegard of Bingen was an extraordinary woman. She is credited with having written the first known morality play; she completed books on botany, nutrition and homeopathic medicine; composed poetry and music; counseled religious and laypeople; and admonished ecclesiastical and temporal authorities for clerical abuse and disrespect for the Church. She was a gifted administrator, founding two convents and serving as spiritual mother to the sisters in her convent. She wrote three theological texts and is the first woman to engage in a preaching tour.
Born in 1098 in the Rhine River Valley, Hildegard was the youngest of ten children. As was the custom of the time, her parents “tithed” their tenth child to the Church. At the age of eight, Hildegard was given to the care of a Benedictine anchorite. Consequently, she never received a formal education. Despite this, Hildegard studied, wrote and composed with brilliance. In all of her work, Hildegard gave credit to God. Her ability to write and speak about her knowledge of God and Scripture publicly hinged upon ecclesiastical acceptance that these ideas were not her own but directly inspired by God.
Until recently, most of Hildegard’s accomplishments remained relatively unknown. However, in the 1990’s, Hildegard’s prominence began to grow with the release of numerous recordings of her music. Since that time various groups have claimed Hildegard and her work as their own, ignoring or underplaying her faith and her role in the Church. Musicians often describe the historical contributions Hildegard made to music. Her texts on botany and theological writing on Creation have caused many environmentalists to claim Hildegard as an “Earth Mother.” Likewise, the New Age Movement of the late twentieth century was drawn to Hildegard’s study of the healing power of gemstones. A cursory Internet search will find websites devoted to holistic health, based on Hildegard’s study of nutrition and her belief in the importance of a proper diet to maintain a healthy body.
Sadly, too often those who have claimed Hildegard have done so in the secular world. What they are missing in their understanding of Hildegard is the true essence of who she was. Above all, Hildegard was a religious woman, completely committed to serving and worshipping God. She was a theologian who spent her life seeking to understand God Who is the Source of all. Every area of study she undertook was inspired by her relationship with God.
Hildegards’s lack of education allowed her to recognize that all her accomplishments were due solely to the grace and generosity of God. As with all the great saints, she understood that “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (James 1:17). Her knowledge of Scripture, music, botany and the natural world was not achieved through her own efforts or intellect, but was instead given to her by God as gift. She recounted in her Scivias that her exegetical understanding of Scripture came suddenly, and thereafter she understood that God had revealed Himself to her in a profound way. Hildegard believed that God was calling her to be His instrument in the world.
Although many regard Hildegard as progressive for her time (and in many ways she was), she was also firmly rooted in the twelfth century. She loved the Church, respected ecclesiastical authority and took great care to live according to the Benedictine rule for religious women of her time. She was encouraged by her confessor to write her visions; however, Hildegard was reluctant to do so. It was only after receiving an encouraging response from St. Bernard of Clairvaux and papal approval from Pope Eugenius III that she began to recount her visions.
Hildegard’s love for the Church and belief that she was called by God to speak on His behalf inspired her to speak boldly against members of the clergy who abused and ignored their vows. She was an outspoken champion of Gregorian reforms and was tireless in her efforts to see reform enacted. When the legendary German emperor, Friedrich Barbarossa, supported schismatic German popes, Hildegard courageously rebuked him, warning Barbarossa that he would have to answer to God for his actions.
In reading the accounts of her visions, it is evident that Hildegard perceived God’s presence through all of her senses and with all of her being. Unlike other saints who experienced God in a mystical state, Hildegard’s visions took place before her very eyes while she was wide awake. She saw the presence of God in her visions as well as in His Creation that surrounded her in the lush Rhine River Valley in which she lived. She heard God’s presence in the music she created. For Hildegard, music enhanced the liturgical worship of God and was part of her daily life. Her compositions were intended solely for liturgical worship in her monastic community as a means to celebrate God’s abiding presence in their lives. Through the study of botany and gemology, Hildegard felt God’s presence. While digging in the convent garden, Hildegard believed she touched God in His Creation. She believed that healing for mind and body could be found in the natural world that God created. In cooking and nutrition, Hildegard tasted and smelled the presence of God in the nutritious food that God provided. Her vivid imagery of God’s presence permeates the entirety of her work.
While the temporal world has claimed Hildegard as the symbol of their various special interests, the reality is that for those of us engaging in theological studies, Hildegard rightly belongs to us and with us. During her lifetime, Hildegard understood that she was created for God. In our time, to view Hildegard through anything other than the lens of faith is a gross injustice to her. The elevation of Hildegard’s feast as an optional memorial in the Roman liturgical calendar provides us with the opportunity to recover the truth of Hildegard and discover the profound theology of this truly extraordinary Doctor of the Church.
Saint Hildegard von Bingen, pray for us.
PC: Hanspennings, Hildegardis-Antoniuskerk aerdenhout, CC BY-SA 3.0