One Fruit of Feminine Holiness: Saint Hildegard of Bingen
On October 7th, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed two new Doctors of the Church, John of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen. While the former joins over two dozen men in that esteemed rank, Hildegard is only the fourth, joining Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Therese of Lisieux who share the honour.
It is not the first time this Holy Father referenced this remarkable woman. In 2010, he recalled the words of Mulieris Dignitatem, which noted that. "The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine 'genius' which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations” and “she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness.”i
Born in German to a large, noble family in 1098, Hildegard was dedicated to God at birth and entrusted to Benedictines in St Disibodenberg to be formed. She grew up in that small, cloistered monastery, and was asked to be its prioress in 1136. Benedict continues,
“She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life.”ii
Authority and Freedom
As was customary, her monastery was linked to a male monastery, but since the men were dominating in that setting, she removed her group to Bingen so that she would have the freedom to exercise her legitimate authority. For those who may misunderstand how the Catholic hierarchy views the vocation of women, consider what the Pope says about her decision:
Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.iii
Authority also came into play when Hildegard began to receive mystical visions, whose legitimacy she prudently questioned. She turned to Bernard of Clairvaux, who encouraged her, and eventually to Pope Eugene III, who authorised her to write about her visions and even to speak publicly about what they revealed.
Benedict explains the significance of those particular decisions:
This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.
Late in her life, when she encountered the Cathars, who sought to “purify” the Church on their own, she rebuked them for seeking to reform outward structures without legitimate authority, when they should be seeking interior renewal based on humility and personal repentance. Like in all generations, it was not that the Church could not benefit by purification, but it begins with the members, not by tearing down the institution. Surely her insight is just as important today as in her own time.
The Nature of the Visions
Pope Benedict reminds us that the extraordinary lights that God sends to particular people are not meant for their own enjoyment or private pleasure—they are entrusted to those who will share them with the entire Church.
Hildegard's mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle.
Rather than opening new vistas of revelation, the visions augmented what God had already revealed through Holy Scriptures. They encompassed the principle events of salvation history in ways that brought the truths alive. She wrote to St Bernard:
"The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries.... I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly."iv
The Feminine Genius
While a number of mystics have received such visions over the centuries, what sets Hildegard's apart is her ability to wrap the eternal truths in perceptively feminine terms, even then calling to mind the “catechesis on human love” that was such a centerpiece of John Paul II's work.
As Benedict notes,
With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit. From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity.
Whereas all persons are inclined to fall in on themselves—especially as concerning various experiences and choices—Hildegard's visions were given as a gift to the Church, so that her members would recognise the echoes of divine realities that give meaning to every facet of our lives. Benedict continues:
Hildegard stresses the deep relationship that exists between man and God and reminds us that the whole creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity. The work is centered on the relationship between virtue and vice, which is why human beings must face the daily challenge of vice that distances them on their way towards God and of virtue that benefits them.v
Each choice between good and evil has the potential to change our relationship with God, and it is only by choosing good for the greater glory of God can we attain the joys that are reserved just for us.
Despite lasting misperceptions about both the Church and the Middle Ages, the vitality and cultural richness revealed in the mystical visions show the vibrancy of the female monasteries in that period of history. Among many other things, the women were interested myriad fields of study, including medicine, music, art, the natural sciences, poetry, and geography. Hildegard herself is known for marvelous musical compositions and intriguing paintings.
This extraordinary saint was widely known in her day, and her advice sought from people in all strata of society. Regardless, she knew she had been entrusted with a wisdom that had to be carefully guarded from her own unreliable senses and various temptations:
"The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel."vi
As we embark on this “Year of Faith,” the attention given to the work of Hildegard of Bingen will not only preserve our souls from shriveling, but will help them to soar towards the “living God” she helped to reveal to us in so many ways. God is good, and He loves his daughters with a father's love. May what He revealed though this newly proclaimed Doctor of the Church help you to understand your femininity better and create a deeper appreciation for the feminine genius.
iWednesday Audience, 1 September, 2010.
ivEpistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91.
vWednesday Audience, 8 September, 2010.
viE. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell'età moderna, Milan 1996, p. 402.