September 17 — Hildegard of Bingen

Today’s Bible reading

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool,because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. — 2 Corinthians 12:2-7

Hildegard von Bingen.jpg
Portrait based on her visions

More thoughts for meditation about Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Hildegard of Bingen lived from September 16, 1098 to September 17, 1179. She has been called by her admirers “one of the most important figures in the history of the Middle Ages,” and “the greatest woman of her time.” Her time was the century of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux, the time of the rise of the great universities and the building of Chartres cathedral.

At a time when few women wrote, Hildegard produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When few women were accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She is the first composer of music whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed.

Revival of interest in this extraordinary woman of the middle ages was initiated by musicologists and historians of science and religion. Her music also attracted “new age” followers. Now students of medieval history and culture are also likely to give her a proper place in their studies.

Hildegard was the daughter of a knight. When she was eight years old she went to the Benedictine monastery at Mount St. Disibode to be educated. The monastery was in the Celtic tradition, and housed both men and women (in separate quarters). When Hildegard was eighteen, she became a nun. Twenty years later, she was made the head of the female community at the monastery. Within the next four years, she had a series of visions, and devoted the ten years from 1140 to 1150 to writing them down, describing them (including pictures of what she had seen, as on this page), and commenting on their interpretation and significance. During this period, Pope Eugenius III sent a commission to inquire into her work. The commission found her teaching orthodox and her insights authentic, and reported so to the Pope, who sent her a letter of approval (or her legacy might have been different since people in her own time thought her visions might come from the devil). She wrote back urging the Pope to work harder for reform of the Church.

Hildegard’s mandela-like vision of choruses of angels surrounding God, who is depicted as a white space, signifying that the divine cannot be captured by an image

The community of nuns at Mount St. Disibode was growing rapidly, and they did not have adequate room. Hildegard accordingly moved her nuns to a location near Bingen, and founded a monastery for them completely independent of the double monastery they had left. She oversaw its construction, which included such features (not routine in her day) as water pumped in through pipes. The abbot they had left opposed their departure, and the resulting tensions took a long time to heal.

Hildegard traveled throughout southern Germany and into Switzerland and as far as Paris, preaching. Her sermons deeply moved the hearers, and she was asked to provide written copies. In the last year of her life, she was briefly in trouble because she provided Christian burial for a young man who had been excommunicated. Her defense was that he had repented on his deathbed, and received the sacraments. Her convent was subjected to an interdict which meant communion could not be served on their site, but she protested eloquently, and the interdict was eventually lifted shortly before she died.

Her surviving works include more than a hundred letters to emperors and popes, bishops, nuns, and nobility. Many persons of all classes wrote to her, asking for advice, and one biographer calls her “the Dear Abby of the twelfth century.” She wrote 72 works of song, including a play set to music. Musical notation had only shortly before developed to the point where her music was recorded in a way that we can read today. Accordingly, some of her work is now available, and presumably sounds the way she intended. She left us about seventy poems and nine books. Two of them are books of medical and pharmaceutical advice, dealing with the workings of the human body and the properties of various herbs. She also wrote a commentary on the Gospels and another on the Athanasian Creed. Her major works are three books on theology: Scivias (“Know the paths!” — explored in Daily Prayer :: WATER), Liber Vitae Meritorum (on ethics), and De Operatione Dei. They deal (or at least the first and third do) with the material of her visions. The visions, as she describes them, are often enigmatic but deeply moving, and many who have studied them believe that they have learned something from the visions that is not easily put into words.


“Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around Him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”

Want more?

Fan page. Imitation is the surest form of flattery: Hildegarde von Blingin’

Short Bio in honor of becoming a “doctor” of the Catholic church.

Daily Prayer :: WATER week on Scivias

Three minute bio done with pictures!

Suggestions for action

What made Hildegard great was more than her genius. It was her prayer. Her visions matched those of Paul the Apostle’s (as seen in today’s reading). They motivated her as they motivated Paul. Prayer made her irrepressible.

What derives from your prayer? There is no substitute to devotion to knowing God and receiving Spirit to spirit.

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