St. Hildegard (1098-1179) is the perfect subject for the study of Catholic mystical literature; there are simply no red flags associated with her. We know precisely who she is, a twelfth-century nun born into a noble family and who, because of her visionary gift, was given as a child to be raised by the Church and eventually became an abbess. She is not only a saint but a Doctor of the Church. Her writing was prolific, covering her extraordinary visions of salvation history, medicine, and even music composition. We also have hundreds of her letters; she corresponded with kings, queens, popes, abbots, nuns, etc.
Hildegard was left out of the history books and it is not clear why. She fell into obscurity shortly after her death. She was rediscovered in the late twentieth century by Latin scholars looking for new material for their students; her Latin works were first translated into English in the late 1980s. She was elevated to Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. It is as though she came back after 800 years of obscurity to continue her service to the Church in a world she had described for us in her vision of five beasts, which she explained were symbols of the last days (vision 11 from her book, Scivias, Latin, “Know the Ways“)
In her letters one thing stands out as an urgent priority, the call to holiness and purity. They clearly show that for Hildegard a spiritual battle was raging in the twelfth-century, particularly with regard to corruption and immorality among the clergy. She writes with impressive authority:
“The Spirit of God says earnestly: ‘Oh shepherds, wail and mourn over the present time, because you do not know what you are doing when you sweep aside the duties established by God in favor of opportunities for money and the foolishness of wicked men who do not fear God.’ And so your malicious curses and threatening words are not to be obeyed. You have raised up your rods of punishment arrogantly, not to serve God but to gratify your own perverted will.” [Letter to Heinrich, Archbishop of Mainz. Baird, Joseph L. The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, p.42.]
The correspondence on the whole gives evidence of her personal saintliness and tireless commitment to the reform of the Church.
Another reason to study the early writings of Hildegard is that we have access to a copy of an original manuscript of Scivias, the book within which the prophetic vision of five beasts is recorded by her and her scribe, Volmar. It was not second hand information or subject to transmission errors. The true original manuscript was destroyed during the allied bombing of Dresden at the end of WWII, but not before it was completely photographed by a group of nuns. It was also examined and approved by a committee of theologians commissioned by Pope Eugenius III. There are many Catholic prophecies that would be worthwhile to study, but if there are any questions regarding authenticity, such as authorship, text or translation quality, or most importantly, the spiritual condition of the person claiming to have the gift, I would be inclined to disregard them.
The timing of St. Hildegard’s rediscovery by the Church, (thanks to secular academia), suggests divine intervention, though perhaps it was not. Nevertheless, she brings to our generation a new and impressive corpus of Christian literature that has been formally raised to the level of that of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and her close friend, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in time, she becomes just as familiar as they are.