Hildegard of Bingen shines like a flame through the ages.* She was a woman of her time, speaking to the broken Church, rebuking the sin and encouraging the faithful– and still her words ring true almost nine centuries later. She was a mystic, a visionary, a conduit through whom God spoke– and does speak still. Hildegard cannot be fully defined merely by her words though. She was a polymath, a woman of both science and art. Writer, composer, poet, artist, natural philosopher, expert in herbal medicine, abbess, philosopher, saint, Doctor of the Church– Hildegard holds all of these titles and many others as well; however, it is not simply due to a long list of titles and accomplishments that Hildegard has stood out in the history of the Church. It is not just because of her breadth of knowledge and artistry, nor merely because she was a powerful female figure in an age ruled by men. Truly, Hildegard is inspirational because of her humility in the light of all of these wonderful accolades. Hildegard was fully devoted to the Triune God and the work God had given her to do. She did not seek to be regaled as a mystic or a saint, but humbly lived the life of faithful soul, burning with a holy passion. Hildegard’s Scivias is her attempt to record and explain the visions given her by God. She includes God’s injunction to her in the introduction to the book. It reads thus:
Unlock for them the enclosure of mysteries that they, timid as they are, conceal in a hidden and fruitless field. Burst forth in a fountain of abundance and overflow with mystical knowledge, until they who now think you contemptible because of Eve’s transgression are stirred up by the flood of your irrigation. For you have received your profound insight not from humans, but from the lofty and tremendous Judge on high, where this calmness will shine strongly with glorious light among the shining ones. (Hildegard 67).
Though she knows that her words will be controversial, that she might be able to bring about great change in the Church and change perspectives on how women are viewed, Hildegard does not record these visions with the such intentions or aims. For Hildegard, God will say and reveal what God will say and reveal. Her task is to humbly share these words and visions with the world, a task she executes faithfully. Hildegard helped the people of her time and people of all time see things in a new way.
Hildegard was born in 1098, tenth child of Hildebert of Bermersheim and Mechthild of Merxheim. Her parents had not titles, were middle-ranking, yet owned several large estates. Her father was described as “a just and devout man,” and her parents displayed their faith in offering Hildegard as an oblate, one devoted to the religious life (Maddocks 17). Such was common with a tenth child, as many considered it to be regarded as a form of tithing their one tenth. Hildegard was given to the care of the anchorite Jutta at the age of eight, and she took the veil at age of twelve. Jutta was a large influence on Hildegard’s life as they lived together at the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. Not much is known of those silent years, but when Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard took over as abbess of Dsibodenberg. A few years later, she revealed the truth of her visions, something that she had kept secret since the age of five. This crucial point in time indicates the beginning of Hildegard’s more public role as visionary, traveling speaker, and writer. Around 1148 Hildegard moved her nuns to Bingen and settled the convent of Rupertsberg. A monk named Volmar served as the provost of the convent, but even more importantly as Hildegard’s confessor, secretary, and encourager. Volmar was the one who aided Hildegard in completing her works– Scivias (“Know the Way”), Liber vitae meritorum (“Book of Life’s Merits”), Liber divinorum operum (“Book of Divine Works”), Physica and Causae et Curae (books on natural science and medicine), her morality play Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), and a number of musical works and other writings. Hildegard endured a number of hardships over the years, such as migraines, debilitating pain, and ongoing arguments with authorities such as the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. For almost twenty years she traveled along the Rhine preaching to many. Hildegard founded another monastery in Eibingen in 1165 and would travel occasionally between the two. Unfortunately, in 1175, Volmar died, and this left Hildegard quite heartbroken. The last few years of her life were filled with more controversies and arguments, and Hildegard was finally laid to rest in 1179. Despite efforts at having her canonized early on, it took centuries before Hildegard would finally be recognized as a saint– and in 2012, she was appointed a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. It was quite a phenomenal life for a “feeble” woman from the Rhineland.
While all of Hildegard’s writings are significant, her largest work, Scivias, is foundational in understanding her beliefs and views on life. The book is broken into three sections. The first section covers the Creator and Creation, describing angels, the universe, and the Fall of humanity. The second section is focused on the Redeemer and Redemption, speaking of subjects such as the Church, the devil, and Christ’s sacrifice. The third and final section of the book, as large as the other two combined, describes the history of Salvation using the imagery of a building. Altogether, they present Hildegard’s in depth theology of God, Creation, Christ, and humanity. Hildegard maintains her role as the humble recipient of visions and words from God. Often she writes from God’s viewpoint, sometimes to God, and much of her writing consists of explaining specific images in her visions, interpreting them for greater understanding. Her descriptions are vivid and sometimes unusual. For example, Hildegard describes the Trinity using this language: “And that bright light bathes the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathes the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire pour over the whole human figure, so that the three are one light in one power of potential” (Hildegard 161). She portrays the Trinity as a union of “bright light” (Father), a man “the color of a sapphire” (Son) and “a gentle glowing fire” (Spirit). This description accompanies an iconographical illumination, as most do, and the words and images work together to give a stunning image of God. Scivias is filled with many similar eye-opening passages.
The twin images of light and fire feature prominently throughout the text, especially in relation to Hildegard’s visions, to knowledge, and to sanctification. Hildegard’s visions often caused her great suffering. Many have associated this with migraines, as her visions always came with experiences of bright light: “Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch” (Hildegard 59). Her first memory of a heavenly experience came to her at the age of three: “I saw so great a brightness that my soul trembled; yet because of my infant condition I could express nothing of it” (Boyce-Tillman 86). Sometimes the pain was intense and incapacitated her, but she would see it as partaking in the sufferings of Christ. To Hildegard, she was receiving a gift from God and she diligently recorded all that she saw, no matter what. Light also correlates to understanding and knowledge; however, she has trouble describing this light.
The light that I see thus is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud that carries the sun. I can measure neither height, nor length, nor breadth in it; and I call it “the reflection of the Living light.” And as the sun, the moon, and the stars appear in water, so writings, sermons, virtues, and certain human actions take form for me and gleam within it… I can no more recognize the form of this light than I can gaze directly on the sphere of the sun. (Hildegard 18).
Hildegard recognizes the intensity and severity of the light of God’s revelation and treats it as she should, with reverence. Though she explains the minute details of her visions, Hildegard does not aim to gain mastery over what she sees, simply to receive it in humility, an instrument in the hands of the Lord.
Fire and light also correspond to knowledge. To know is to truly see, and one cannot see without light. Knowledge is also an empowering force, given to humanity by God as the very strength of life. “The soul, burning with a fire of profound knowledge…[which] is not corporeal or transitory like a human body, gives strength to the heart and rules the whole body as its foundation” (Hildegard 120). Hildegard sees the body as a tabernacle for the soul, and highly values knowledge, specifically of spiritual matters.
Once again, Hildgegard explains the Trinity, this time using a flame as her example. She writes that “a flame is made up of brilliant light and red power and fiery heat” (Hildegard 163). Brilliant light is how one can know the Father, “Who with paternal love opens His brightness to His faithful” (Hildegard 163). God is the revealer of truth and wisdom, allowing Himself to be known. The Son and his miraculous works are symbolized by the red power of the flame, while the Holy Spirit is the fiery heat, “Who burns ardently in the minds of the faithful” (Hildegard 164). This polymath, writer, composer, and more obviously values knowledge and understanding, though only as a gift given by God. She records His command on this subject: “You must not search into the secrets of God beyond those things the Divine Majesty wills to be revealed for love of those who trust in Him” (Hildegard 154). Hildegard values knowledge, but also reveres God– she is content to accept His mysteries as mysteries.
Many of Hildegard’s visions relate to another specific purpose of fire: purification. Hildegard holds to the medieval concept of purgatory, and she says that after death lost souls go to the fires of hell and saved souls to the purifying flames of purgation, preparing them for heaven. In both cases, fire does the work of God. Fire is not limited to simply the afterlife, however; it seems that God works purification in the world as well. In her description of the universe, Hildegard writes:
Outside it, surrounding its circumference, there is bright fire with, as it were, a shadowy zone under it. This shows that God consumes by the fire of His vengeance all those who are outside the true faith, and those who remain within the Catholic faith He purifies by the fire of His consolations. (Hildegard 94).
This shows that God purifies both by extinguishing the power of any who are not within the faith and by cleansing the souls of the faithful. This is crucial to Hildegard’s philosophy, for she considers herself to be a co-worker with God. She is part of this purification process, and much of her writing is concerned with the wayward Church and the sins of the Christians of her time. Though Hildegard is a humble figure, she speaks loudly and unashamed, for it is not merely her voice, but the voice of God.
According to Hildegard, God focuses not only on the cleansing and redemption of humanity, but is concerned with the whole universe, with all of Creation. God worked to redeem the Fall of the devil and his angels, and Hildegard describes God’s work in a rather unique way. She describes the rebellious beings as one “great and beautiful” star and “a great multitude of shining sparks” that turn away from God, “the Shining One seated upon the throne”; however, “in the very act of turning away their gaze, they were all extinguished and turned into black cinders” (Hildegard 309). This alone is perhaps simply a creative way of describing the Devil’s fall, but Hildegard goes on to say that the very light that God takes from the fallen angels is the light that He instills into humanity. “And so I, the God of Heaven, kept the illustrious light, which departed from the Devil because of his crime, and hid it within Myself until I gave it to the mire of the earth, which I had formed in My image and likeness” (Hildegard 320). This idea might be somewhat heretical, but it certainly displays one aspect of Hildegard’s God: he is the Omnipotent Redeemer. He is able to take anything and transform it for His glory. Even more, she writes that God created the universe, created humanity so that Christ could be born as a human and redeem all of Creation. Redemption was in the mind of God from the very beginning, because He found it altogether pleasing.
PERSONAL GROWTH AND SERVICE
Hildegard has much to say on what pleases God. Much of it concerns behavior, what is right and wrong for the followers of Christ; however, she is much less concerned on the outward appearance and more on the heart and attitude of the person. She believes that virtues are vitally important, and they appear as figures later on Scivias: Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude, Peace, Truth, Piety and many more. Two are held up as the highests virtue, though, and they are Charity and Humility. They are, respectively, like the body and soul– “they cannot be disjoined but work together as long as a person lives in the body” (Hildegard 90). Christ is defined by His humility, “for humility caused the Son of God to be born of the virgin” and God “conquered [the Devil] by humility through His Son” (Hildegard 89). In fact, humility is the very strength by which a Christian can conquer the Devil, though it is difficult.
Humility always groans, weeps, and destroys all offenses, for this is its work. So let anyone who wishes to conquer the Devil arm himself with humility, since Lucifer fervently flees and hides in its presence like a snake in a hole; for wherever it finds him, it quickly snaps him like a fragile thread. (Hildegard 89).
This is important for all Christians to remember. The sin of the Devil was pride, and this is also a dangerous path that many believers accidentally stumble upon. It is crucial to remember ourselves as coming from the earth, brought to life by the breath of Heaven. An appropriate fear of God is, after all, the beginning of wisdom, as Solomon writes. In one vision, Hildegard writes that she cannot behold God’s appearance, it is too bright and wonderful. We must have a similar view of God, and in the light of his greatness, we can see ourselves as we are: His beloved children and humble followers.
Hildegard praises Mary and her humility, a common theme for Christians of all ages, but she also challenges her age’s views of women in general. In fact, when God speaks to her, He tells her to speak out until “they who now think you contemptible because of Eve’s transgression are stirred up by the flood of your irrigation” (Hildegard 67). She describes Eve as “a white cloud that had come forth from a beautiful human form and contained within itself many and many stars,” representing Eve’s role as mother of humanity (Hildegard 73). In fact, she even writes that Satan tempted Eve first because “Adam burned so vehemently in his holy love for Eve” that he would follow suit if Eve took of the fruit (Hildegard 77). This language shows Eve to be a valuable person, despite her role in the Fall. Hildegard describes Virtues as holy women and even says that God was speaking to women in her time because of the waywardness and failure of the men. She even misquotes Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:12, saying “Women was created for the sake of man, and man for the sake of woman” (Hildegard 78). Yes, Hildegard values women, but she also speaks of herself as a member of the weaker sex and other somewhat discouraging statements about women. No doubt this is due to common beliefs in her time, but it is also likely due to her humility. She saw herself as nothing important, simply an instrument in the hands of the Lord. These insights are important for Christians today, as the Church grows to value women all the more. Hildegard blazed the trail almost 900 years ago, and we must continue to build this path to proper acceptance of women as cherished and valued by God.
As Hildegard broadens the view of women, she also deepens the understanding of how children should be brought up in faith. This is especially relevant to me as I go into children’s and youth ministry, but it is important for all believers to see children in the proper light. Hildegard writes from experience, as she entered the monastery at the age of eight. Though this definitely helped her become so influential upon history (if she hadn’t joined Jutta and befriended Volmar, she probably would never have reached the rank of abbess, which allowed her the freedom and privilege of writing, traveling, and speaking), she found it to be inappropriate for her young age. She writes on oblates:
Let people who want to subject their children to [holy orders] not do it with imprudent and inconsiderate haste, but examine the matter with wise discretion and not force them to do without their consent what the people themselves could not bear. (Hildegard 227).
She provides the analogy of offering a ram as a sacrifice. If someone brings a ram to the altar without tying its horns, it will break free and run away. Likewise, if parents “do not honor [the child’s] will, which is his horns, by assiduous care or supplication or entreaty or diligent exhortation,” the child will also break free from the holy way and run in the way of sin (Hildegard 227-228). The child must make his or her own decision when it comes to faith, especially when the it comes to entering a convent or monastery. Hildegard is fine with baptizing infants, but she is vehemently against forcing children into the religious life. I find this both refreshing and disappointing– refreshing that this is not only an issue of our time, but disappointing that children have been forced into faith for centuries. I have learned through my experience and have been encouraged by Hildegard’s writings that a soul must find its own path, that faith is a matter of choice and God values those who freely choose Him. I must be sure to consider all of this as I continue in ministering to young people– Am I valuing their will? Am I exhorting them or forcing them on the path of faith? Am I molding their beliefs about God or am I allowing God to form their beliefs? I think Hildegard is the greatest example that shows how unique one person’s perspective on God can be and how influential just one perspective can become.
Hildegard stands out as a powerful figure, both in all of history and in the life of the Church. She wrote the earliest morality play and might have been one of the first women scientists, but she also offered powerful words, images, and stories of God to His people of her time and all time. She reflected the light of knowledge and revelation, rebuking sin in order to participate in God’s purification of the world and His Bride. She valued humility and the lowly of the earth– women and children– while much of the culture looked down upon them. Yet she did this all not in pride or hopes of grandeur, but merely in faithfulness to God. She viewed God in all his majesty and lived her life as His instrument– and like a well-tuned instrument, she brought beautiful music and truth to the world.
*A graduate school paper written in Spring 2013 at Wheaton College
Boyce-Tillman, June. The Creative Spirit. Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 2000. Print.
Fox, Matthew. Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2002. Print.
Hildegard of Bingen. Scivias. Trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. New York: Paulist Press, 1990. Print.
Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Print.