Hildegard was one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages. She was an anchoress, nun and abbess who founded two religious houses, as well as a writer, theologian, preacher, pioneer free-verse poet, prolific medieval composer of Latin chant, healer, advocate of Church reform, correspondent of prelates and rulers, compiler of scientific learning and inventor of an artificial language with its own alphabet. All of these activities reflected her role as prophet of the Living Light, commanded by God to “say and write” the divine mysteries that He showed her in visions.
Abbess and Prophet
Hildegard’s long life (1098-1179) spanned the first flowering of high medieval culture. The year of her birth saw the First Crusade marching on Jerusalem; within a decade after her death, Saladin reconquered it for Islam. The youngest child in a large aristocratic family, Hildegard was born near Mainz, Germany, in the Rhineland. At age 8, her parents offered her as a living “tithe” to God by sending her to live with the anchoress Jutta attached to the Abbey of Disibodenberg. Jutta taught Hildegard to read from the Latin Psalter. The Bible was to remain her primary textbook.
Other noble maidens joined them so that the anchor-hold developed into a small — and very crowded — Benedictine convent. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was chosen superior. In 1150, Hildegard moved her nuns to a new foundation called Rupertsberg at Bingen on the Rhine. Fifteen years later, she would plant another convent across the river at Eibingen.
Meanwhile, in 1141, in the midst of her administrative duties, Hildegard finally accepted her call to prophesy. She had been having visions since childhood, but had been unwilling to speak of them except to a few intimates. Suddenly, “Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast.” The Living Light illuminated the Scriptures for her and commanded her to share her infused understanding.
Yet Hildegard continued to stall, and then fell ill. After encouragement from the abbot of Disibodenberg, she rose from her sickbed to start writing her first visionary work, Scivias (short for “Know the Ways of the Lord”). It would take 10 years to finish.
Meanwhile, the abbot described Hildegard’s project to the arch-bishop of Mainz, who passed the news on to the pope, who was then visiting Germany. After a papal commission investigated the work, the pope himself read parts of Scivias to a regional synod. Hildegard was directed to keep transcribing whatever God communicated.
Far from “silencing the female voice,” ecclesiastical authorities generally offered warm support. They consulted her, praised her as the “Sibyl of the Rhine,” and even invited her to preach to them. Hildegard made four long tours through Germany addressing clerics and mixed groups of clergy and laity — at assemblies, not during Mass.
Champion of Authentic Reform
Hildegard received these unprecedented privileges because she clung to her status as a prophetess — in the sense of speaking for God, not making predictions. Presenting herself as a frail, unlearned female mysteriously chosen to be God’s “trumpet,” she made an asset of her weakness. (Many another holy woman did the same.) This gave her an opportunity to campaign for reform of the institutional Church and to criticize secular interference in Church governance.
In one letter, Hildegard described the Church as a beautiful but disheveled woman bewailing her abuse by sinful priests: “They have spattered my face with dust, torn my robe, darkened my mantle, and blackened my shoes with mud.” The message is still relevant: Pope Benedict XVI quoted this passage in an address to the Roman Curia on Dec. 20, 2010, deploring the recent clerical scandals.
Even when denouncing Church abuses, Hildegard never threatened the ecclesiastical hierarchy itself nor denied the superiority of the clerical state, as the Cathars and other heretics were doing. She acknowledged male headship, the complementary roles of the sexes and took class privilege for granted. Though her status was unique and her visions sometimes mysterious, Hildegard’s faith was orthodox.
Hildegard’s one clash with ecclesiastical authorities came in 1178, but it turned on a question of fact, not doctrine. She allowed an excommunicated knight — a patron of the community — to be buried in her abbey’s graveyard because she knew that he had died reconciled with the Church. For her kindness, she and her nuns were placed under interdict, forbidden to sing or receive the sacraments, until the archbishop of Cologne vindicated Hildegard six months before her peaceful death in 1179.
“Shadow of the Living Light”
Hildegard’s three major works, Scivias, Liber vitae meritorum (“Book of the Merits of Life”) and Liber divinorum operum (“Book of the Divine Works”) record visionary experiences like few in Church history. These were not apparitions, trances or dreams, but sights perceived while fully awake within the bright “shadow of the Living Light” that constantly illuminated her soul. She recorded, dictated and perhaps even sketched each episode, aided by a secretary and interpreted by illustrators.
Barbara Newman, a leading authority on Hildegard, lists a few of these colorful visuals: “mountains, cosmic eggs, spheres of shimmering light, colossal figures, towering walls and pillars.” The sparkly spots and architectural forms resemble migraine phenomena as do the symptoms of Hildegard’s intermittent illness. “Scintillating scotomata” has been proposed as a diagnosis, yet Hildegard’s visions cannot be reduced to a neurological malady. Her migraines were the occasion of contact with God, just as bodily pain has often been a medium for saints to share in the sufferings of Christ.
Each of Hildegard’s prophetic books consists of visions followed by her explication. A bare list of subjects cannot convey their peculiar richness. She treats the Fall of Man, the Trinity, the Incarnation and Redemption, the sacraments, virtues, angels, heavenly joy, vices and their remedies, time and timelessness, the Gospel of John and Genesis, the Antichrist and the end of the world. The titanic women who populate her visions — Church, Synagogue, Wisdom, Justice and Charity — are personifications with “personality,” not to mention forms that must be seen to be appreciated. For instance, Liber divinorum operum opens with a vision of a glowing figure with four wings who holds the Lamb of God and balances a graying, bearded man’s head on her own while trampling a monster and a giant serpent. In Barbara Newman’s translation she identifies herself this way: “I am the supreme and fiery force who kindled every living spark, and I breathed forth no deadly thing — yet I permit them to be. . . . And I am the fiery life of the essence of God: I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters; I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars.”
She is Caritas — Love — who could also stand for the Holy Spirit, supporting the Father and holding the Son.
Sandra Miesel is a frequent contributor to the Catholic press and media.