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Thinking Out Loud

A Remarkable Woman

by Michael Jinkins | Jun 09, 2015

Hildegard of Bingen
“The Holy Spirit: living and life-giving,
the life that’s all things moving,
the root in all created being:
of filth and muck it washes all things clean—
out-scrubbing guilty staining, its balm our wounds constraining—
and so its life with praise is shining,
rousing and reviving
all.”

(From "Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita")

“O sweet, elected one
who burnt in the glow of the fiery one, a root,
and who in the father’s splendour elucidated
mysteries, …”

(From "O dulcis electe")

“Love
abounds in all,
from the depths exalted and excelling
over every star,
and most beloved
of all,
for to the highest King the kiss of peace
she gave.”

(From "Karitas habundat")

One of the choicest of fictions entertained in the vanity of some modern sorts is that we have advanced beyond our forebears in our understandings. True, we do possess more technological wonders today, a better grasp of science, and are the beneficiaries of medical advances. But in many regards, especially when it comes to the quest for wisdom, claims to superiority of insight merely because we live in the twenty-first century, while others dwelt in earlier centuries, are baseless.

In last week’s blog, I asked that we pause with Anselm of Canterbury in the midst of the bustle and demands of existence to reflect on what gives us life. This week, I invite us to listen to one of those voices from history I truly wish I could hear rather than just read, the voice of Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable woman whose insights often took flight in song such as the selections sampled above.

Hildegard, first the abbess of the small convent of Disibodenberg, and later of a community she established at Rupertsberg near Bingen, was born in 1098. She died in 1179. Thus, she lived during one of the most intellectually rich ages in human history, what has been called by some the "Twelfth Century Renaissance," a time when universities came into existence, when classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and poets like Ovid and Virgil were "rediscovered," and scientific and medical knowledge from the Arab world was making its way into Europe along trade routes.

We sometimes mistakenly bracket this period negatively, sneering at words like "medieval." But this was an age that saw a rebirth of humanistic and divine philosophy. It was an age when reform swept through monastic foundations across Europe, attracting some of the greatest minds in history to the contemplative life, when Bernard of Clairvaux led the Cistercian revolution emphasizing simplicity of life and worship, purity in prayer, generosity to the poor, hospitality to strangers and honest physical labor. It was also an age when a brilliant woman emerged as a leader, a theologian, a mystic and the author of sublime and original sacred music.

Hildegard bursts upon the scene already a mature theological thinker, writing humbly, but with an assured hand, to Bernard of Clairvaux in 1146 from her convent in the Rhineland. She asked his advice. She confessed that she had been writing hymns and music, that she has come to theological insights and original biblical interpretations. She entreated Bernard, one of the foremost leaders of the church in her day, to instruct her as to whether she should remain silent or continue to write and teach. Bernard encouraged her to continue. And continue she did.

The originality of her thought shines through her prose as well as verse:

"God is eternal, and eternity is fire, and this is where God is. And God is not hidden fire or silent fire, but fire in action. ..." (149)*

"And when [God] created the light, which was winged and could fly everywhere, he determined in the same ancient counsel that he would give a corporeal mass to the spiritual life, which is the breath of life, and give it a shape formed from the clay of the earth, which does not have the ability to fly or breathe or raise itself above itself; therefore it would be all the more bound down and it would gaze all the more attentively toward God. And so the ancient serpent had such hatred for that bond, because this very human creature which had become so weighed down by its corporeality was destined nevertheless, by means of its rationality, to raise itself to the godhead." (95)*

Hildegard's letters are especially beautiful, combining humility and confidence, whether speaking to a highly regarded theologian or a humble person asking for advice. I particularly love the closing of a letter she wrote to another mystic, Elizabeth of Schonau:

"Daughter, may God make you a mirror to life. But as for me, I remain in the meagerness of my own mind. I am tired, anxious and fearful, at times sounding forth as the small sound of the trumpet from the Living Light. May God help me that I remain in his service." (81)*

Mark Atherton, her translator and a fellow at Oxford University, has written of her:

"Within a few years, Hildegard of Bingen had become a religious, moral and political adviser to half of Europe, as her voluminous correspondence shows. Credited with prophetic insights, the 'Sibyl of the Rhineland' was frequently consulted, and on the basis of her authority as a prophet, undertook what for a woman was almost unheard of: four preaching tours through the heartland of the German Empire." (x-xi)* {Her first teaching tour, incidentally began when she was sixty years old; her last tour ended when she was seventy-three!}

Of all the incidents in her remarkable life, the one which stands out most to me is one of the most tragic, an event that, at one point, threatened her entire legacy. A young man of noble family who had once been excommunicated died sometime after having been re-admitted to the church. Hildegard allowed him to be buried in the convent cemetery. The ecclesial authorities in Mainz, however, claiming that the young man had not been properly received back into the church, declared that he remained excommunicant at the time of his death. They demanded that his body be exhumed and removed from the convent's cemetery.

Hildegard said no. Consequently the authorities barred her and her nuns from holy communion and forbade them from singing the liturgy.

As Mark Atherton tells the story, "Hildegard herself, who set so much store by music as 'the sacred sound through which all creation resounds', was beside herself." (xv)* Until the controversy was resolved (and, thankfully, it was resolved before the end of her life) she found herself "oppressed by a great sadness."

My dog-eared Penguin edition of Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings tempts me now to share a dozen more passages from her theological works, though the limitations of this space prevents me from doing so. The richness of her mind and the originality of her insights remind us, if we need reminding, that when we turn to so many of the writings of men and women of faith in ages past we are doing far more than just reading lines from old books. We are entering into conversations, we are listening at the feet of trusted sages, we are allowing ourselves to be gathered up into a cloud of witnesses. And we become witnesses ourselves to the God who has been sharing wisdom with humanity for a very long time. This is a terrific antidote to the arrogance of modernity.


*All references are to: Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, translated with an introduction by Mark Atherton (London: Penguin, 2001).

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