Feast of St. Hildegard von Bingen (September 17)

St. Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard of Bingen

Today is a special day on the Church calendar as it is the feast day of two Doctors of the Church: St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.  You can find information on St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J. here.  This post is on Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is the newest Doctor of the Church, being named a Doctor in October 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. She was a remarkable woman, a “first” in many fields. At a time when few women wrote, Hildegard, known as “Sybil of the Rhine”, 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 whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed. However, she was best known for her mystical visions and writings.

Hildegard was born in 1098 to Mechtilde and Hildebert of Bermersheim, a family of the free lower nobility in the service of the Counts of Sponheim. Sickly from birth, Hildegard is traditionally considered their youngest and tenth child, although there are records of seven older siblings. In her Vita, Hildegard states that from a very young age she had experienced visions, but soon realized she was unique in this ability and hid this gift for many years.

At age 8, the family sent Hildegard to an anchoress named Jutta to receive a religious education. Jutta was born into a wealthy and prominent family, and by all accounts was a young woman of great beauty. She spurned all worldly temptations and decided to dedicate her life to god. 

Jutta was also a visionary and thus attracted many followers who came to visit her at the enclosure. Hildegard also tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write, but that she was unlearned and therefore incapable of teaching Hildegard Biblical interpretation. Hildegard and Jutta most likely prayed, meditated, read scriptures such as the psalter, and did some sort of handwork during the hours of the Divine Office. This also might have been a time when Hildegard learned how to play the ten-stringed psaltery. Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard simple psalm notation. The time she studied music could also have been the beginning of the compositions she would later create. After Jutta’s death, when Hildegard was 38 years of age, she was elected the head of the budding convent living within cramped walls of the anchorage.

During all these years Hildegard confided of her visions only to Jutta and another monk, named Volmar, who was to become her lifelong secretary. However, in 1141, Hildegard had a vision that changed the course of her life. A vision of God gave her instant understanding of the meaning of the religious texts, and commanded her to write down everything she would observe in her visions.

And it came to pass … when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…

Yet Hildegard was also overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and hesitated to act.

But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness.

Illumination accompanying the third vision of Part I of Scivias

Illumination accompanying the third vision of Part I of Scivias

The 12th century was also the time of schisms and religious foment, when someone preaching any outlandish doctrine could instantly attract a large following. Hildegard was critical of schismatics, indeed her whole life she preached against them, especially the Cathars. She wanted her visions to be sanctioned, approved by the Catholic Church, though she herself never doubted the divine origins to her luminous visions. She wrote to St. Bernard, seeking his blessings. Though his answer to her was rather perfunctory, he did bring it to the attention of Pope Eugenius (1145-53), a rather enlightened individual who exhorted Hildegard to finish her writings. With papal imprimatur, Hildegard was able to finish her first visionary work Scivias (“Know the Ways of the Lord”) and her fame began to spread through Germany and beyond.

Her remaining years were very productive. She wrote music and texts to her songs. There is some evidence that her music and moral play Ordo Virtutum (“Play of Virtues”) were performed in her own convent. In addition to Scivias she wrote two other major works of visionary writing Liber vitae meritorum (1150-63) (Book of Life’s Merits) and Liber divinorum operum (1163) (“Book of Divine Works”), in which she further expounded on her theology of microcosm and macrocosm-man being the peak of god’s creation, man as a mirror through which the splendor of the macrocosm was reflected. Hildegard also authored Physica and Causae et Curae (1150), both works on natural history and curative powers of various natural objects, which are together known as Liber subtilatum (“The book of subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Things”). These works were uncharacteristic of Hildegard’s writings, including her correspondences, in that they were not presented in a visionary form and don’t contain any references to divine source or revelation. However, like her religious writings they reflected her religious philosophy-that the man was the peak of god’s creation and everything was put in the world for man to use.

Hildegard also wrote Physica, a text on the natural sciences, as well as Causae et Curae. Hildegard of Bingen was well known for her healing powers involving practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones. In both texts Hildegard describes the natural world around her, including the cosmos, animals, plants, stones, and minerals. She is particularly interested in the healing properties of plants, animals, and stones, though she also questions God’s effect on man’s health. One example of her healing powers was curing the blind with the use of Rhine water.

Music was extremely important to Hildegard. She describes it as the means of recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise. According to her before the Fall, Adam had a pure voice and joined angels in singing praises to god. After the fall, music was invented and musical instruments made in order to worship god appropriately. Perhaps this explains why her music most often sounds like what we imagine angels singing to be like.

On October 7 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named Hildegard a Doctor of the Church, the fourth woman of 35 saints given that title. He called her “perennially relevant” and “an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music.”


Fordham University
Pope Benedict XVI Statements on Hildegard von Bingen

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Feast of St. Hildegard von Bingen (September 17)

  1. Hi William–I have always loved Hiledgard de / von Bingen–meaning from Bingen–I use to play a CD, in my classroom, of her music–the first piece “to the Virgin” was a particular favorite as it had a very futuristic modern use of instruments accenting the beautiful voice of the nun tasked with singing the “song” written so very long ago. It is entirely in Latin and has a tremendous upbeat. We used it for a drawing exercise–to listen to the rhythm, tempo and beat, with eyes closed, then attempt to visualize what the music would look like “visually” by “drawing” the music —thin lines, wispy, or was it either bold marks, quick, short, heavy…..using a black marker and paper they would then create a non objective piece based on the music…it was always fun to see what they came up with—-modern doctors who have studied Hildegard, say her visions were brought on by migraine headaches—my migraines have never lead to visions 🙂
    I can’t tell you how many kids took that CD home to burn it—I thought what a cool thing—bringing a 12th century mystic nun.. singing in the old language of the church, to very modern day 21st century kids—-
    Thank you so much for showcasing this rather obscure woman of great importance—

    • Julie, thank you for this information. I only recently heard of St. Hildegard von Bingen and have not read much of her writings or listened to much of her music. She seems like a fascinating person and look forward to learning more about her.

  2. ptero9 says:

    Ditto, she is a favorite saint of mine. Her music is so haunting, as if she reached the source of life itself and out came the music. It literally sends chills up and down my spine listening to cds of her music.
    Thanks for this great write-up Sir William!

  3. Pingback: Gifted in writing music, illustration and poetry ~ St Hildegard von Bingen – Poetry Showcase

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s