St. Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary

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By Sister Eloise Rosenblatt

A dear elderly client in her 90s, who was moving out of her condo into assisted living, offered me a choice of one of her treasured Waterford crystal pieces. My eye went past the vases and candlesticks to one thing—the hand-cut, light-refracting, abundant egg that fit into my palm. In a well-known icon, the egg is Hildegard’s famous symbol of the universe, its wholeness and completeness, and our individual lives sharing the same structure. In Hildegard’s spiritual intuition, I am also like an egg, holding within my own being the universe of divine life, a cosmology of continuing creation that is ready to emerge.

The records we have of the long life of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) defy the term “dark ages.” This German Benedictine abbess lived to be 81, despite many illnesses. According to well-preserved records, she was a visionary, a theologian, architect, artist, musician, scientist, environmentalist, homilist, letter writer, feminist and activist. She was acclaimed a saint in the years after her death, but was not formally canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church until 2012, by the German-born Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

She was born to a noble family in Germany and became associated with a nearby Benedictine monastery at an early age. She was an extraordinarily gifted and creative genius, a polymath. She must have had a great deal of personal charm—people liked her and wanted to remember her.

Her visions, she says, were not a loss of consciousness, but a widening of her self-conscious mind, and her awakening to the grandeur of the mysteries of the faith. Scivias, her most famous composition, records a series of visions about the mysteries of the Christian faith, for which she wrote theological interpretations. She then directed a monastery artist to render these visions in the style of illuminated manuscripts. Those colorful illustrations of Hildegard’s visions are likely the most accessible entry into the spiritual teaching of Hildegard.

What gifts Hildegard enjoyed cannot have been unique to her. They must reflect the vitality of a very creative, continuously self-educating religious community of women. She must have inspired a whole community as their animator. Did her sisters experience that their own gifts were awakened and encouraged to develop? Her sisters sang her music in choral compositions, played musical instruments according to her notation, and memorized lines as actors in her morality play Ordo Virtutem. Her own sisters helped prepare natural remedies from the herb garden. They also received her medical care, assisted her in diagnosing other people who were sick, and recorded her treatments.

Her sisters accompanied her on her preaching tours all over Germany, made copies of her homilies to share with other monasteries, raved about her, and engaged in dialogue with their monastic brothers. Her sisters delivered her letters to many recipients—400 of them survive. Most of all, her sisters gave her time to write, emotionally encouraged her and preserved her writings. They were co-creatives with her.

True wisdom is gender-free. When it’s uttered, as Hildegard’s, it rings with the sound of holy intuition of God’s self. The universe, its wholeness and evergreen-ness, can be experienced as a cosmological expansion of the soul, inseparable from divine life.

The feast day of St. Hildegard of Bingen is observed on September 17.