Once known as the ‘Sybil of the Rhine’, Hildegard has become very popular in recent times. Her feast is 17th September. Her love of people and of nature, of poetry and song, of science and Scripture, her ardent pursuit of the true and the beautiful have made her an inspiration for our time. Vincent Ryan […]
Once known as the ‘Sybil of the Rhine’, Hildegard has become very popular in recent times. Her feast is 17th September. Her love of people and of nature, of poetry and song, of science and Scripture, her ardent pursuit of the true and the beautiful have made her an inspiration for our time. Vincent Ryan OSB of Glenstal Abbey writes of this remarkable lady.
Saint Hildegard, Benedictine abbess, mystic and visionary, lived from 1098 to 1179. She was born at Bermersheim, south of Mainz in present day Germany, and was offered to God by her parents as a child oblate. She was placed under the care of the saintly Jutta, a relative, who lived in a nearby hermitage. In time this developed into a full Benedictine community which was subject to the male abbey of Saint Disibod. Hildegard received the habit at the age of fifteen and for the next seventeen years lived a strictly enclosed contemplative life. While still very young she received visions which she later wrote down in a book called Scivias (an abbreviation of Scito vias Domini, ‘Know the ways of the Lord’). In 1136 she was elected abbess of the convent and, five years later, moved the community to Rupertsberg in the Rhine valley near Bingen. This move secured for her and her sisters independence from the jurisdiction of the abbot of St Disibod. She retained the devoted services of the monk Volmar who acted as her personal secretary and literary editor.
The living Light
In her visions Hildegard saw a bright light with dark spots. She heard an inner voice declaring: ‘I am the living Light who illuminates the darkness’. What we have in the Scivias is not just a collection of visions but, rather, a carefully constructed theological work encompassing the whole of salvation history from the creation to the Second Coming. It deals with creation, redemption and the Church. It is centered on the incarnate Word and his redeeming work.
The most productive and, one suspects, the happiest period of Hildegard’s life were her first ten years as abbess of Rupertsberg. Here she is engaged in writing her great literary and prophetic work and in consolidating monastic life in this new foundation. Endowed with a charism for leadership, she was austere in her personal lifestyle but loving and considerate towards her subjects. She personally cared for the sick and infirm in her community, and it was doubtless this factor that prompted her to write two books on medicine. These provided practical remedies based on traditional herbal lore. On the question of illness she has these wise words to say: ‘The best of all remedies remains the doctor’s compassion and his participation in the suffering’.
Love of creation
In Hildegard the love of learning was combined with the desire for God. A keen observer of natural phenomena, and fascinated by the wonders of creation, she found time to write competently on trees, plants and animals. But more than anything else, she was concerned with the spiritual welfare of the community, giving priority to the worthy carrying out of the Opus Dei, the work of God in the liturgy. She greatly loved the psalms and wrote commentaries on them. A gifted poet and musician, she sought to enrich the repertoire of monastic hymnody and antiphons, and so set about composing those wonderful liturgical songs some of which are found in the Scivias and others in a special collection known as the Symphonia. The latter comprises a varied collection of religious poetry and hymnody well suited to the different seasons and feast days of the year. Her melodies, in contrast with those of the more measured and controlled plainsong, are spontaneous, individualistic and highly ornate. They are, in her own words, ‘writing, seeing, hearing and knowing all in one manner.’
This peaceful, claustral life was not to last. In spite of ill health and the fact that she was now sixty, Hildegard felt the urge to go out into the world communicating her divinely-inspired message. Over a period of five years she travelled the roads of Germany fulfilling her mission to ‘teach, preach, interpret the scriptures and proclaim the justice of God’. She spoke to people of all classes and called them to repent and to obey the warnings of God. She preached in churches, abbeys, before bishops and princes and, on one occasion, in the court of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa. She did not hesitate to admonish the clergy for their failure to feed the flock of Christ entrusted to them. A woman of the Church, Hildegard felt keenly the injuries inflicted on the Bride of Christ by self-serving churchmen and grasping secular rulers. Like Catherine of Siena two centuries later she experienced in a personal way the ‘wounds of the Church’.
God’s master plan
Having completed her external mission the abbess returned to her monastery and resumed community life. She had already composed her second great prophetic work, the Book of Divine Merits, which was largely the fruit of her own experience as spiritual guide. She now completed her trilogy with the Book of Divine Works. In this latter work she comments profoundly on the Prologue of St John’s Gospel and on the first chapter of Genesis. Expounding the master plan of God in creation and redemption, the author presents Christ as incarnate love placed in the centre of time.
Always strong-willed, with a talent for getting her own way, this characteristic got her into serious trouble at the end of her life. Unintentionally she and her community became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the local hierarchy. In 1178 she had allowed the burial of a nobleman, once excommunicated, in the abbey cemetery. This was forbidden by Church law, but the abbess had acted in good faith and according to her conscience, in the knowledge that this nobleman had retracted his errors and repented before his death. The Church authorities of Mainz insisted that the body be exhumed. Hildegard took a principled stand and refused, and in this she had the support of her community. As a result, the monastery was placed under interdict, one of the severest of ecclesiastical penalties. This meant that the entire community was denied the sacraments including the eucharist. In this case it also included the prohibition of music and song in the celebration of the liturgy. One can imagine how galling this last penalty must have been for the music-loving abbess.
Taking a stand
Here was a stand-off situation in which neither side was prepared to yield or compromise. The impasse lasted for a full six months, at the end of which the archbishop finally gave in and lifted the interdict. No doubt he realised that he could not win on this issue, but he may also have been moved by a passionate appeal from Hildegard herself. In a collective letter to the prelates of Mainz she made a strong case for the revocation of the interdict. Even in this, her darkest hour, her literary gifts did not desert her. The letter includes a beautiful and moving apologia for sacred music and song in the Church’s worship.
Saint Hildegard died some months later on 17 September 1179, which is the date of her feastday. Never formally canonised, she is a saint by personal aspiration and popular acclaim. While her cultus has been faithfully maintained in monasteries through the ages, the memory of this great woman, possibly the greatest of her time, faded from the collective memory of the Church. After eight hundred years of neglect, an extraordinary revival has taken place in our own times.
Thanks to the active promotion and scholarly works of the Benedictine nuns of Eibingen – an abbey close to the original foundation of Rupertsberg – the life, message, literary, musical and artistic work of Hildegard has been propagated throughout the whole Christian world. Her writings have been translated into many languages and her musical compositions are attracting considerable interest. They are valued for their intrinsic beauty and sensitive religious feeling. Eibingen has become a centre of pilgrimage for all devotees of Hildegard.
Trumpet sound of living life
As in her own life-time people of all sorts came to her with their problems and sought her healing and prayers, so in our own day women and men have recourse to this truly remarkable saint and visionary, this ‘trumpet sound of living life.’ A woman of extraordinary talent, energy and versatility, who placed her God-given gifts at the service of the Church, Hildegard, once known as the ‘Sybil of the Rhine’, has come into her own again. In her love of people and of nature, of poetry and song, of science and Scripture, in her ardent and unrelenting pursuit of the true and the beautiful, her life and teaching have a strong and inspiring message for the people of our time.
The saint’s best known work, Scivias, is available in an excellent edition titled Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias. Translated by Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. (Classics of Western Spirituality series, New York, Paulist Press, 1990). This work with its scholarly introduction and notes by Barbara Newman has been my principal source in preparing the above article.
The other two prophetic works of Hildegard are also available in English translation: Book of the Rewards of Life (Liber Vitae Meritorum), translated by Bruce Hozeski. (New York, Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1994); and Book of Divine Works (Liber Divinorum Operum), edited and introduced by Matthew Fox. (Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bear and Co., 1987).
A good general study of the life and works of the saint is: Hildegard of Bingen by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies. (London, SPCK, 1990).
The collection of religious poems and songs titled Symphonia is also available in a very fine edition with introduction, translation and commentary by Barbara Newman. (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1998). Renderings of Hildegard’s liturgical and devotional songs by Irish vocalist Nóirin Ní Riain are available on cassette and compact disk: Vox de Nube (Voice from the Cloud). This includes some traditional Irish religious songs and items of Gregorian chant sung with the monks of Glenstal. (Available from the monastery shop, Glenstal abbey, Murroe, Co. Limerick). I wish to acknowledge Nóirin’s help and encouragement in the preparation of this article.
This article first appeared in Spirituality (November-December 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.