St. Hildegard von Bingen: Mystic, Musician, Medicinal Healer, Mystery
St. Hildegard von Bingen was a woman of many talents and gifts. She was a Benedictine abbess, a composer, a healer, a mystic, an author, a preacher. Though her body was poor in health she was rich in mental acuity and ripe with interests. She was a singular vessel of creativity brought about by her love of God and his gift to her of mystical experiences even from a young age. She is not only a great saint, but has also been proclaimed as a Doctor of the Church for her body of writings which are a treasure trove to the Church. She is one of four female doctors of the Church. To learn more about what it means to be a Doctor of the Church, read this previous blog to gain better insight. Unfortunately, St. Hildegard as a woman of intellectual prowess in the medieval period and one interested in herbal medicine has been co-opted both by radical feminists and New Agers who fail to understand what was truly at the heart of Hildegard’s life and vision: Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, who died and rose for the sins of mankind. In this post we will examine how Jesus Christ is what animated this incredible woman and led her to being renowned for her holiness and theological insights nearly a thousand years after her death.
Hildegard was born at the close of the tenth century to a devout German family. She was the last of ten children and as was common with the children of large families at the time, she was placed in the care of a Benedictine monastery as a child to be brought up and educated. In her late teenage years she professed vows and fully took on the Benedictine way of life. She established a monastery with her tutor and confidante, Jutta. When Jutta passed away, she became the abbess of her monastery at just under 40 years old. From a young age, Hildegard had received incredible visions from God, revealing some of the depths of salvation history and his design for the world. Under obedience to Christ, Hildegard began dictating these visions to a monk named Volmar who compiled them.
Hildegard was unafraid to confront the leaders of her time and wrote to Church leaders and political leaders alike with advice and, at times, reprobation. She encouraged people from laymen to cardinals with insights and wisdom gained from deep theological reflection. She was given special permission by the pope to go on a preaching tour across several different places in Europe which was highly unusual for women at the time but her theology was sound and her heart was pure: her desire was to make Christ known and loved to everyone with whom she spoke. She did her utmost to serve her Beloved until her final illness and death in 1179. She was canonized and recognized as a Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Hildegard left behind an extensive body of written works. Her most well-known works are the books in which her mystical visions were recorded, the Scivias, the Liber Vitae Meritorum and the Liber Divinorum Operum. Her extant letters are one of the largest collection from the Middle Ages - over 400 to all different types of people - and they shed light on her penetrating insight on the events of her time. She also wrote 58 sermons, addressed directly to her sisters. They are known as the Expositiones Evangeliorum, in which she preaches to her sisters about the Gospels throughout the liturgical year. Her work on music is called Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum. She wrote two works on medicine, the Liber Subtilitatum Diversarum Naturarum Creaturarum and the Causae et Curae. She also explored questions on the natural sciences in the Physica. She also invented her own language which is detailed in the Lingua Ignota and the Litterae Ignotae. Her works are characterized by a great breadth of interests and creativity. The creativity of God in the creation of the world and of the arc of man’s redemption through the Incarnation is at the heart of her theological insights. She is enraptured by the story of salvation history and the overflow of God’s love which created the world and all that is in it and ultimately led to God becoming man. Her musings start at the beginning of all things and lead to the eschaton. To get a great synopsis of her writings and thought, read Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic letter proclaiming Hildegard a doctor of the church here.
The mark of any saint is that they live a life of heroic virtue. Sainthood is not defined by extraordinary graces or religious vows, though Hildegard certainly had extraordinary graces of mystical visions and made religious vows as a Benedictine nun. Sainthood is not defined by penetrating theological insights or brilliant creativity though she certainly had great intellectual abilities that she used for the glory of God. Sainthood is defined by a life of heroic virtue. Hildegard’s lasting influence over the Church is due to her life given over to the imitation of Christ.
Pope Benedict writes of her in his Apostolic letter,
In Saint Hildegard of Bingen there is a wonderful harmony between teaching and daily life. In her, the search for God’s will in the imitation of Christ was expressed in the constant practice of virtue, which she exercised with supreme generosity and which she nourished from biblical, liturgical and patristic roots in the light of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Her persevering practice of obedience, simplicity, charity and hospitality was especially visible. In her desire to belong completely to the Lord, this Benedictine Abbess was able to bring together rare human gifts, keen intelligence and an ability to penetrate heavenly realities.
The “harmony between teaching and daily life” was that her words were not hollow. She loved what she recorded and taught. She led by example to the sisters in her monasteries. She sought to become holier by loving Christ and his Church more and more.
This woman was a mystic, was a musician, was a healer, was an honorable abbess, was a wise voice to the people of her time. Over and above all, St. Hildegard was a woman striving to live and love like Christ. May we look to her as an example today. St. Hildegard, pray for us!