Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a German Benedictine nun and mystical writer/composer, was a woman of tremendous authority and influence within the Roman Catholic Church and the politics of her time. She was “rediscovered” in the late twentieth century after more than eight hundred years. She was an accomplished woman: mystic, visionary, prophet, poet, musician, preacher, reformer, administrator, and author of books and letters.
Hildegard was the tenth child of a noble family, given to the church at the age of eight. She was raised and educated by a Benedictine nun Jutta and made her vows as a teenager. At forty-three she had a prophetic call to write about her many visions. As a person, she was courageous, independent, and divinely inspired. She developed an integrated and holistic approach to God and advocated for her nuns an orderly life of work, relaxation, sleep, and good food. Her health was never good, probably due to migraine headaches. Nevertheless, she had a divine radiance about her and was ablaze with enthusiasm.
When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected abbess of St. Disabid monastery, a nunnery attached to a male monastery. In 1152 she and her nuns left that monastery, over the protests of the monks, to establish a women’s monastery at Rupertsburg, near Bingen. With a deep desire for spiritual, judicial, and financial independence, she also established a daughter house in Ebingen that still thrives.
Hildegard left much material. The writing of Scivias, her major work, was officially endorsed by the pope. Her nine books include theology, natural history, and medical texts, all of which are valued today. Her morality play (still performed) and her seventy-two songs are available as audio recordings. She dictated her illuminations (paintings of her visions), which can be viewed in Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen with Commentary by Matthew Fox, an excellent introduction to Hildegard. Many recent books discuss Hildegard and contain excerpts from her writings. Her one hundred letters, also still available, were addressed to kings, popes, bishops, nuns, and politically active men.
Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you’ve got heaven and earth, and all of creation. You’re a world. Everything is hidden in you. -Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard was a respected voice, unusual for a woman of her time. She combined Christian doctrine with cosmology and identified the Creator with the Incarnate Word. She realized that creation has radiance and so united religion with science. Hers was a living cosmology, a concept of being a cocreator with God. Her experience of veriditas, or “greening power,” was significant. The word combines the Latin viriditas (greenness as a symbol of life) and veritas (truth). This green/ life/truth combination could apply either to the power of nature or to the Holy Spirit. Her illuminations manifest aspects of her concept of a living cosmology, in which we are to respect an earth that needs healing.
The soul is not in the body; the body is in the soul. –Hildegard of Bingen
Some of Hildegard’s books on health and medicine that evolved from her perception of Christ, Benedictine philosophy, and her visions, have implications for alternative medicine today, particularly the integration of physical healing with psychological and spiritual healing. She recognized love and compassion as being the healing energies of the body and the universe.
Like billowing clouds, Like the incessant gurgle of the brook The longing of the spirit can never be stilled. –Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard appeals to spiritual seekers, scholars, artists, and others. As a preeminent woman theologian, she hints at what has been missed in a one-sided patriarchal culture that has dominated Christianity. Her teachings have implications for understanding and experiencing women’s wisdom, for ecological concerns through the radiance of creation, for ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, and for individual mystical journeys.
Excerpt from The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation (Print book), ed. Keith Beasley-Topliff.