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st.Hildegard of Bingen-Benedictine abbess and acclaimed prophet, mystic, theologian, writer, poet, composer and early feminist

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  st.Hildegard of Bingen

Feast Day : September 17

 

 

Also known as: Hildegarde

 

 

The first major German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen is best known for a series of mystical illuminations, or visions, which she experienced and chronicled in midlife and which were far in advance of the religious outlooks of her day. Her power and influence made her one of the most important women of her time. Her work has enjoyed renewed and serious interest in contemporary times. Hildegard was born to parents of high nobility in the summer of 1098 in the German village of Bickelheim (also given as Bockelheim), located on the Nahe River, a tributary of the Rhine. The village was near Bingen, an important river town about 50 miles southwest of Frankfurt. Hildegard’s father, Hildebert, was a knight of the Castle Bickelheim. The area had been heavily settled by Celts, and Celtic mystical beliefs strongly influenced her religious development. The youngest of 10 children, Hildegard was sickly as a child and was sent to an aunt, Blessed Jutta, a recluse, to be raised in a hermitage near Spanheim. She had religious visions from the earliest times she could remember. Because of this and her upbringing, she was drawn to the Church. When she was eight, her parents took her to the Benedictine cloister in Disabodenberg, where she began her religious studies under Jutta von Spanheim. She became a nun at 18 and advanced to prioress at age 38. Hildegard believed in the equality of men and women, but sometimes doubted herself because of criticism from men and their oppression of women. She was often ill, and she blamed it on her frustrated passivity. Though she had had visions since the age of five, Hildegard’s great spiritual awakening came in 1141 when she was 42. She began to experience particularly intense illuminations and clairaudient messages about the nature of God, the human soul and all being, and the interconnectivity among all things in the universe. She also experienced visions on sin, redemption and the nature of the cosmos. At the onset of these visions, Hildegard said that “a burning light coming from heaven poured into my mind. Like a flame which does not burn but rather enkindles, it inflamed my heart and my breast, just as the sun warms something with its rays. And I was able to understand books suddenly, the psaltery clearly, the evangelists and the volumes of the Old and New Testament, but I did not have the interpretation of the words of their texts nor the division of their syllables nor the knowledge of their grammar.” Though a voice instructed her to write and speak of her supernormal insights and tell others “how to enter the kingdom of salvation,” Hildegard initially refused to do so, out of humility. She became ill, “pressed down by the scourge of God,” and remained ill for a long time, until she relented and started recording her visions. She then returned to strength. It took her at least 10 years to write down and explain her “hidden mysteries of God.” The visions galvanized Hildegard to shake off her doubts about her “proper place” as a woman. Still, she had to work within the system. She consulted her confessor, who in turn consulted the archbishop of Mainz. A committee of theologians validated her visions. Hildegard’s first book, written in collaboration with a monk, was Scivias (Know the ways), a record of 26 illuminations. Composed in Latin, Scivias concerns prophecy, denunciation of vice and the universe as egg or sphere. Central to the work is the idea of God as the Living Light: “All living creatures are, so to speak, sparks from the radiance of God’s brilliance, and these sparks emerge from God like rays of the sun.” Hildegard worked on Scivias for a decade, finishing it sometime between 1152 and 1158. St. Bernard of Clairvaux recommended it to the archbishop of Mainz and Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–53), who both approved of it. With Scivias, Hildegard’s fame spread, and she became known as “the Sybil of the Rhine.” Pope Eugenius III encouraged her to keep writing. She appreciated his approval, but that didn’t stop her from scolding the pope to work harder for reform in the Church. Around 1147, while Hildegard was still at work on Scivias, she and her sister nuns left Mount St. Disabodenberg for another monastery in Rupertsberg, Germany, where they could have more room to live and work. She was consecrated an abbess. From 1158 to 1163, Hildegard composed her second visionary work, The Book of Life’s Merits, or The Book of the Rewards of Life, which juxtaposes virtues and sins. In 1163 she began work on her third book, Book of Divine Works, completing it in 1173. This third work presents a complex cosmology on the origin of life, the nature of heaven and the history of salvation. In 1165, Hildegard founded another monastery in Eibingen, across the river from Bingen, and commuted between there and Rupertsberg every week. Hildegard kept up an active, work-filled schedule to the end of her life. She traveled widely throughout Europe, preaching to clergy, nobility, scholars and the lay public. Her views influenced many of her powerful contemporaries, such as Frederick I Barbarossa. She drew much opposition as well as support. She denounced corruption in the Church, and criticized the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths for being “dried up” and lacking care and compassion. Hildegard challenged the Church time and time again. She downplayed the role of Eve in the fall of Adam, saying Eve was not at fault. Instead, she said the devil had used Eve as an instrument to influence Adam. She celebrated human sexuality as the beautiful, spiritual union of two human beings, not just the means for procreation. Hildegard had a tremendous interest in science and medicine, and between 1150 and 1157 wrote two medical books far advanced for her time. Physical Things, about nature, and Causes and Cures, about medicine. Her approach to medicine was holistic, integrating the four-element, four-humor natural healing system of the ancient Greeks with spiritual wisdom. She prescribed numerous herbal and dietary remedies, all inspired by her spiritual visions. She considered music to be the ultimate celebration of God. She composed 77 songs, perhaps divinely inspired, that were more complex than most 12th-century songs. She considered music to be a better medium than words for the expression of wisdom; wisdom, she said, dwells in the heart of God, is part of all creative effort and is the “elusive treasure” sought by the strong and virtuous soul. Her other books include two works on the lives of SS. Rupert and Disibod, an explanation of the Rule of St. Benedict, an explanation of the Athanasian Creed, and a commentary on theology and Scriptures called Answers to Thirty-eight Questions. She also wrote a morality play set to music, Ordo Vitutum, which is included in Scivias; more than 70 poems; 50 allegorical homilies; and 300 letters. She even invented her own language, composed of an alphabet of 23 letters and with 900 words, which she used to describe scientific terms. She said all of her writings were dictated by the Holy Ghost. During the last year of her life, Hildegard opposed the vicar general of Mainz in a dispute over the body of a young man buried at the cemetery of St. Rupert’s. He had been excommunicated at one time, but Hildegard had provided for him to have last sacraments. The vicar general ordered the body removed, but Hildegard refused, saying she had been told in a vision that her actions were appropriate. The vicar general placed the church under interdict. Hildegard appealed to the archbishop, succeeding in getting the interdict removed. This sort of dispute was typical of the pluck she demonstrated throughout life. She was never afraid to challenge authority. In her last days, Hildegard was quite infirm, due to a long history of illnesses and to her mortifications. She could not stand upright and had to be carried about. Nonetheless, she continued her duties with as much vigor as possible. She died peacefully on September 17, 1179. Two beams of light were witnessed crossing in the skies over the room in which she lay. Miracles were reported after her death, and people declared her a saint. Hildegard is included in the Roman Martyrology, though she never was formally canonized as a saint. Three attempts were made to canonize her, under Pope Gregory IX, Pope Innocent IV and Pope John XXII. After 1317, she gradually slipped into obscurity, though Benedictine sisters carefully preserved and copied her texts. Since World War II, her works have been rediscovered, published and analyzed. In 1979, on the 800th anniversary of her death, Pope John Paul II called her an “outstanding saint.”

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