Summary: St Hildegard of Bingen, a visionary and mystic in medieval Germany, now very much admired as a saint.
Fr. John Murray PP details her life
St Hildegard was born a tenth child in the family and as was customary at that time this child, which the family could not count on feeding, was dedicated at birth to the Church. She was entrusted to the special care of Jutta, devout sister of a local count.
Jutta was renowned in her own time as a very holy woman – indeed she was originally an anchoress, a unique form of religious life peculiar to the era – and when she formed a religious community, Hildegard and several other young women followed her. When Jutta later died, Hildegard was chosen as ‘magistra’ to take over the running of the community.
In time, Hildegard formalized her religious life by becoming a Benedictine nun; she always wanted the Church’s blessing on the direction of her own life and the lives of the sisters for whom she was responsible. She moved her convent to Rupertsberg near Bingen on the river Rhine in 1147 and as abbess founded another one at Eibingen in 1165.
Even as a very young child Hildegard’s spiritual experiences were overwhelming; but she preferred to keep them to herself, too shy to appear boastful about them. ‘I saw a light so great that it frightened me,’ she later wrote of a vision she experienced when she was three, ‘but the shyness of a child stopped me telling anyone about it.’
Indeed, she realized very soon that other children did not share such visions and she had the wisdom at an early age to keep her own counsel. Despite this, her early life was by and large rather uneventful, but it was during these years that she grew in mystical graces and especially in her gift of prophecy.
In later life Hildegard felt bold enough to tell her confessor of her visions and he encouraged her to write them down. This she did, combining her words on her visions with other treatises on herbal medicine, the lives of the saints and even politics. She had the gift of extremely vivid imagery. She insisted that she saw everything perfectly awake and not in some sort of trance or dream.
Modern medicine would probably diagnose Hildegard as suffering from migraine headaches. Some would say that the way she describes her visions and their debilitating after-effects point to the classic symptoms of migraine. However, her writings indicate the strength of character of a remarkable woman:
‘Finally one day I discovered I was so sick I couldn’t get out of bed. Through this illness God taught me to listen better. Then, when my good friends Richard and Volmar urged me to write, I did. I started writing this book and received the strength to finish it somehow in ten years. These visions weren’t fabricated by my own imagination nor are they anyone else’s. I saw these when I was in the heavenly places. They are God’s mysteries. These are God’s secrets. I wrote them down because a heavenly voice kept saying to me, “See and speak! Hear and write!” ‘
The 12th century was a time of schisms and religious foment, when anyone preaching some outlandish doctrine could attract a following. Hildegard was critical of schismatics. She wanted her visions approved by the Church, although she herself never doubted their divine origins.
She even wrote to St. Bernard seeking his blessing. His answer to her at the time was perhaps a little perfunctory. He did at least bring it to the attention of Pope Eugenius (1145/53) who encouraged Hildegard to continue her writings and to publish whatever parts she thought would be helpful to the faithful. With this papal imprimatur she was able to finish her first visionary work (Scivias – “Know the ways of the Lord”) and her fame spread through Germany and beyond.
Pope Eugenius had submitted her writings to a commission which had considered her writings authentic. Indeed, Hildegard numbered kings and emperors as well as popes and bishops among her correspondents.
Above all her other talents, Hildegard had a great gift of music and wrote many chants and hymns which have come down to us today. She described music as the means of recapturing the original joy of paradise. According to Hildegard, Adam before the Fall had a pure voice and could join the angels in singing the praises of God. Perhaps this explains why her music most often sounds akin to angelic choirs.
Hildegard wrote hymns and sequences in honour of the saints and especially Mary. Approximately eighty of her compositions have survived, which is one of the largest repertoires among mediaeval composers. She wrote in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic line, a tradition common in liturgical singing of her time. Readers would do well to seek out and purchase Hildegard’s Canticles of Ecstasy or Voice of the Blood.
Hildegard died in 1179 and was one of the first people for whom the canonization process was officially applied but the process took so long that four attempts at canonization – the last in 1244 under Innocent IV – was not completed and she remained at the level of beatification. However she is regarded by many, especially in her native Germany, as a saint and her feast day is kept on 17th September.