Hildegard of Bingen

Thanks to the best-selling recording, Vision, an unprecedented number of people in our culture are rediscovering Hildegard of Bingen – one the greatest geniuses of the Middle Ages, maybe of all time. This twelfth century Benedictine abbess was a theologian, composer, artist, poet, visionary, and social critic. She also preached and wrote letters of spiritual counsel to popes, kings, bishops, nuns, and educated laity, male and female, all over Europe. In her spare time she practiced the healing arts and writing an informed treatise (from which Ellis Peters has derived some of the lore she attributes to her mystery-solving Brother Caedfel).

Hildegard referred to herself as merely “a feather on the breath of God,” another example proving that the Lord uses the weakest of tools to show forth divine glory. To her own age, she seemed a great prophetic figure, and was referred to for a century afterwards as “the Sibyl of the Rhine.” By the Renaissance her writing – most of them based on her mystical visions – were dismissed as too filled with medieval typology. Today, they strike us as astonishingly modern-sounding and pertinent to our concerns, especially when she speaks of the “greening power” of the earth or warns that all living creatures are interdependent, so that the loss of one species affects the others. Her understanding of the female psyche and voice has been an inspiration to feminists. When she criticizes the rulers of her own day in parables and images, she is creating the kind of literature writers in the former Soviet Union called “Samizdat” – cryptic stories which will escape the notice of censors, yet communicate to their intended audience.

All this productivity might suggest she was a woman of boundless energy and stamina. Actually, Hildegard suffered from debilitating illnesses most of her adult life. Among other afflictions, she suffered blinding headaches. In his fascinating study, Migraine, the neurologist, Oliver Sacks, discusses the complicated relationship among sickness, creativity, visions, and the spiritual insight, using Hildegard’s The Book of Divine Works as his illustration. Certainly, the knowledge that her revelations came to her in the midst of her own pain and weakness helps make her accessible to us, who might otherwise feel merely intimidated by such formidable accomplishment.

In the last few years, there have been a growing number of resources made available for those wishing to learn more of her wisdom. A number of recordings of her songs have been released. Vision has been popularized by New Age saxophone accompaniments, but for musical purists, there are also arrangement faithful to her own scores. Bear and Company Publishing has printed translations of the majority of the principle writings, many edited by Matthew Fox. Those interested in learning more about her life can find out more from any good dictionary of saints, while people wishing to read about her mysticism and philosophy may want to look at the discussions in one of Evelyn Underhill’s books on the Mystics, or in Fox’s Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality. Sister Barbara Jean of the Episcopal Order of the Sisters of the Holy Nativity gives illuminating retreats on Hildegard and related mystics. She is based in Santa Barbara, California.

Eight centuries after Hildegard’s death, we are only beginning to appreciate the full message of this woman who understood that the richness of creation reflects its Maker, that truth is learned through intuition no less than by intellect, and that whatever we know – be it science, love, or justice, or thankfulness for our own lives and all living things around us – comes from God. In our pilgrimage through the created cosmos, she is a potent guide, alive in the spirit of Holy Wisdom, waiting to lead us nearer to the divine mysteries.