In 1150 St. Hildegard completed her first major work, Scivias (“Know the Ways of God”), a description of 26 highly symbolized visions that manifest the history of salvation. Soon after her death, inexplicably, Scivias and Hildegard fell into obscurity. It wasn’t until the late 20th-century that the work was rediscovered by Latin scholars looking for material for their students. The first complete English translation appeared in the 1990s.
In Book Three, Vision 11, Hildegard describes five symbolic animals as the forerunners of the Antichrist: a Fiery-Red Dog, Yellow Lion, Pale Horse, Black Pig, and Grey Wolf. She explains that each one represents individual and brief historical periods that follow each other in succession. She also reveals how each animal symbolizes a particular evil that afflicts society during the corresponding period.
In my book The Five Beasts of St. Hildegard: Prophetic Symbols of Modern Society, I start with an examination the 20th-century with the intention of seeing how historians divided it up and then how they characterized the individual eras that the divisions would unveil. It turned out that there is general agreement among them; certain years marked major social and geopolitical changes in Western society: 1914, 1945, and 1991. Continue reading “St. Hildegard’s ‘Five Beasts’ in a Nutshell”→
One consequence of the fall of man was the corruption of marriage and the eventual institution of legal divorce. Even in Hildegard’s day (12th-century) divorce and remarriage were common in Latin Christendom. Marriages were utilitarian and pre-arranged, and consequently, loveless. They facilitated alliances between noble families in order to protect their respective fiefs or wealth. When circumstances would change and an alliance was no longer advantageous, the nobleman would discard the wife who was the basis of the pact and form another one with a different feudal lord.
One of the best weapons the Church employed to break down feudal society’s marriage customs was its insistence on consent as the basis for a valid marriage. Girls in their early teens were considered too young to grant consent and arranged marriages precluded it. Invalid marriages were a problem for the nobility because any children produced in them would be regarded as illegitimate and unable to inherit. The people of Christendom finally accepted that it was Church law, not civil law, that determined the validity of a marriage.
“Held hostage by feudal customs and threatened by the Cathar heresy, the institution of marriage at the outset of the twelfth-century in Latin Christendom was in urgent need of reform. Liberating Christian Marriage in an Age of Heresy reveals for the first time the role Hildegard played in the Church’s efforts to establish its jurisdiction over the institution and restore marriage to its Christian ideal. With little consensus on matters such as indissolubility and divorce, marital consent, contraception, clerical marriage, etc., the battle for marriage would not be easily won. Called out of her cloistered life and invested by the Church with the authority of an Old Testament prophet, abbess Hildegard, guided by mystical visions, reinforces the efforts of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the reforming popes to restore marriage to the institution God originally intended it to be.”
As I studied Hildegard’s vision of the creation and fall of man (Scivias, Book 1, Vision 2) I was surprised by the fact that she interpreted the story of Adam and Eve almost entirely in terms of sex and marriage. Scholars have suggested that this was the result of her concern about the growing heresy known as Catharism. Cathars did not believe that marriage was a valid institution and forbade procreation. Hildegard was using her vision to uphold the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. She begins with a brief description of the vision itself which is followed by 33 short chapters explaining the meaning of the symbolism with some additional commentary.
Her instruction often comes in the first person voice of God using very blunt language. Here, assuming God’s voice, she bitterly condemns the Cathars and their depraved practices:
“They are wicked murderers, killing those who join them in simplicity before they can turn back from their error; and they are wicked fornicators upon themselves, destroying their semen in an act of murder and offering it to the Devil. …By devilish illusion, they pretend to have sanctity. …By his arts he shows them things he pretends are good and holy, and thus deludes them. …And after you pour out your lust in the poisonous seed of fornication, you pretend to pray and falsely assume an air of sanctity” (Bk 2, Vis. 7, Chap. 22).
Notice that here Hildegard refers to their practice of contraception as an “act of murder”. Her instruction is unequivocally orthodox and covers all aspects of marriage: divorce and indissolubility, consent, consanguinity (incest), etc. There was clearly enough material for a short study of her teaching on marriage presented in the historical context in which her first major work, Scivias (an abbreviation of Scito vias Domini, “Know the Ways of God”) appeared.
My book clearly demonstrates that the hand of God was with the Gregorian reformers in the 12th century, particularly with respect to the institution of Christian marriage. Abbess Hildegard was called out of her cloistered life at nearly fifty years old to assist that movement in a prophetic role. This was officially acknowledged by multiple popes who not only recognized the inspired nature of Scivias, but authorized her to conduct preaching tours on the Church’s behalf. The instruction of this new Doctor of the Universal Church on sex and marriage is now on record, a time when, for the Roman Catholic Church, the subjects have taken center stage.
Listening to Hildegard explain aspects of the conversion of bread and wine to the real presence of Christ reveals the uniqueness of the visionary’s prophetic gift as well as how that gift was viewed by Church authorities in the twelfth-century.
While the doctrine of transubstantiation can be traced back to apostolic times, because of its mysterious nature theologians have had a difficult time explaining it. They employed philosophy and logic to draw their conclusions and thus had little success in making various aspects of the miraculous transmutation understandable. In his discourse on the subject, Hildegard’s contemporary, the early scholastic theologian Peter Lombard wrote, “If, however, it is asked of what sort this conversion is, whether formal, or substantial, or of another kind, I am not capable of defining it” (Book of Four Sentences, Book IV, Distinction 11). Continue reading “St. Hildegard’s Vision of the Moment of Consecration”→