Understanding the Writings of St. Hildegard

Hildegard was first referred to as the “Rhenish Sybil” in the Late Middle Ages, a sybil being a common reference to a female oracle or prophetess. The concept originated in ancient Greece but over time appeared in many cultures including medieval Europe. It is a poor choice of a nickname for Hildegard as it historically represented characters from pagan religions. A recent study argues that Hildegard was following in the footsteps of this long standing tradition of pagan female visionaries which would include other Catholic mystics like Sts. Brigitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena. The intention was to demonstrate that pre-Christian pagan influence on the religious customs of the Church in the Middle Ages was more dominant than is generally held.(1) But to suggest that Hildegard was a reflection of a pagan tradition would have provoked her ire, yet is typical of recent academic literature on the saint.

It must first be acknowledged that without the diligent work of Latin and medieval scholars in the latter part of the twentieth-century who brought Hildegard out of obscurity, it is doubtful that she would have become one of the Church’s newest Doctors. Most of her works had never been translated into English and, as all her translators agree, her Latin was exceptionally difficult to understand.

In reading the more highly regarded studies on the life and works of St. Hildegard one will often encounter language that reveals a decidedly feminist perspective. This, in part, is understandable; as a woman living in a patriarchal society she rose nearly to the top of what was a completely male-dominated institution. Women would not have been expected to rise to her level of authority and influence. An example of the perspective many scholars approach the works of Hildegard is exemplified in an introduction to a selection from Scivias in a medieval reader edited by notable historian Norman Cantor:

“Abbess Hildegard, …has in recent years become a focus for high attention in women’s studies courses, and this is appropriate. She is probably the leading feminist theorist of the Middle Ages, and her writings can be read today as a provocative and compelling, if somewhat conservative, statement of late-twentieth-century Catholic feminism.”(2)

The feminist approach to Hildegard studies can be best explained by the timing of her discovery in the English-speaking world. In the latter part of the twentieth-century Latin scholars rediscovered her writings and began translating them for the first time into English. It was at the same time that gender and women’s studies were becoming serious academic disciplines and rapidly expanding in the universities. For these new disciplines the rediscovery of the life and works of Hildegard of Bingen can be compared to what the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls meant for biblical scholars. Hildegard’s many achievements and especially her writings, translated into English for the first time, offered the perfect subject for these growing disciplines.

Unsurprisingly, this was also at a time when the priorities of the objectives of political correctness had come to dominate higher education in the West. One can often recognize when the record of an important figure from history is being subject to “revision”, redefined on more politically acceptable terms, by simply comparing it with earlier studies. Reviewing the historical literature of a subject before its scholarship had been affected by political correctness lays bare the social and political biases. Since studies of Hildegard’s writings before the eighties, at least in English, are few in number, research tends to be one-sided.

The rise of Hildegard’s influence in the male-dominated Church hierarchy should not come as a complete surprise. In reality, women could achieve a great deal during the Middle Ages. The distinguished medieval historian Regine Pernoud reminds us that Hildegard was an abbess, a prestigious and powerful position in medieval times with extensive administrative responsibilities often associated with an accumulation of wealth. The French medievalist even refers to the position as comparable to a “…feudal lord, whose power was respected equally with other lords.”(3) Records show that even in double abbeys, where a convent is coupled with a male monastic order, the superior of both could just as well have been an abbess.(4) Moreover, evidence is clear that women were not barred from receiving an education in the Middle ages. They wrote extensively, and had educational levels that earned some the titles of grammarian or theologian.(5)

Tax records from Medieval France provide examples of women starting businesses, voting on local issues, working as physicians, apothecaries, plasterers, binders, etc. Pernoud has argued that women in the twelfth-century were far more likely to ascend to positions of power than in the later renaissance era, when the status of women and their role in society began to fade. The renaissance represented a renewed appreciation of ancient Rome and Roman law, in which women’s position in the social order was far lower.(6)

Hildegard often appeals to her poor education and female frailty when addressing her male superiors. This should not be understood as a strategy for gaining their attention, but in the context of her claim of having received the prophetic gift. By professing her weaknesses, she wants the Church authorities to recognize that she is not claiming to seek attention as a theologian, even though her writings are loaded with theological instruction, She wanted to make it clear that the information she passes on does not originate from her but directly from God. She is emphatically disassociating herself from her writings, arguing that she could not possibly have composed such material on her own.

Her public ministry began in 1147 with the sending of two letters, one to St. Bernard of Clairvaux followed by one to Pope Eugenius III. Historians generally agree that at the time these two men governed the Catholic Church. She had been working on Scivias for six years, and though uncompleted, it was time, she felt, for the book to be recognized for what it was, authentic prophetic literature. The letter to St. Bernard included a description of her project, and a humble request that he advise her whether she should continue writing:

“Now, father, for the love of God, I seek consolation from you, that I may be assured. More than two years ago, indeed, I saw you in a vision, like a man looking straight into the sun, bold and unafraid. And I wept, because I myself am so timid and fearful. Good and gentle father, I have been placed in your care so that you might reveal to me through our correspondence whether I should speak these things openly or keep my silence, because I have great anxiety about this vision with respect to how much I should speak about what I have seen and heard.”(7)

She received a brief reply that provided the answer she was looking for:

“We rejoice in the grace of God which is in you. And, further, we most earnestly urge and beseech you to recognize this gift as grace and to respond eagerly to it with all humility and devotion, with the knowledge that ‘God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble’” [James 4:6; I Peter 5:5].(8)

It is not unreasonable to assume that she might have expected this response. She must have considered the question of why God would have given her these visions in the first place, and command her to record them if the Church would not, at some point, acknowledge her gift as authentic. Also, she was certainly aware that Bernard was a Cistercian abbot; Cistercians were originally Benedictines following a more austere rule. Hildegard was a Benedictine abbess; on that basis alone she could have been confident that Bernard would have at least taken her letter seriously and perhaps even provide a positive response.

In the letter to Pope Eugenius, a former Cistercian monk himself, she depreciates both her womanhood and her intellect, referring to herself as “a poor creature formed from a rib, ignorant of philosophical matters.”, again disassociating herself from her writings.(9) If she was emphasizing her weaknesses, it may have also been because she knew that this Pope was not timid when it came to judging the acceptability of theological writings, having formally condemned a number of works and their authors.

Yet she is more direct with the Pope than she was with Bernard, and there is a tone of confidence that the publication of Scivias would gain his approval. She is even inspired enough to address the Pope in the first person voice of God:

“Prepare this writing for the hearing of those who receive Me and make it fruitful with the juice of sweet savor; make it the root of the branches and a leaf flying in the face of the devil, and you will have eternal life. Do not spurn these mysteries of God, because they have a necessity which lies hidden and has not yet been revealed.”(10)

It was likely no surprise to Hildegard that the Pope’s eventual reception of her work was with enthusiasm and thanksgiving.

Hildegard’s Prophetic Gift

The general perspective of secular academia is that Hildegard’s visions are psychological phenomena and can be explained in human terms. These range from viewing them as the result of Hildegard’s chronic migraine headaches to that of a mid-life epiphany resulting from her mental absorption of many years of strict Benedictine education. In a popular study of the saint, Hildegard of Bingen, A Visionary Life, Sabina Flanagan prefers the latter explanation. She suggests that Hildegard’s breadth of acquired knowledge constituted the raw material for her self-identification as a prophet: “She perceived her own knowledge primarily as a series of visions.”(11)

But were Hildegard’s visions just a pedagogical tool she developed as a means of providing theological instruction to the Church? If so, why would she not have presented them as such? As a result of these various attempts to account for the visionary experiences, scholars make an effort in trying to find the specific literary or experiential sources that influenced her in her creation of the extremely unusual apocalyptic imagery and symbolism. They have had limited success; the general conclusion is that most of Hildegard’s symbolic imagery is original to her gifted imagination.

For Catholics, the authenticity of her claim that these visions are directly from God is first and foremost determined by ecclesiastical authorities. We have many examples of prophetic claims upon which the Church has refrained from comment, and a few which the Church has declared to be false or even of demonic origin. In Hildegard’s case, the Church unequivocally pronounced the text of Scivias as prophetic communication. Some opposition to Hildegard as a person is evident in her correspondence, she more than occasionally made an enemy, but any serious challenge to the validity of her prophetic gift, however, is lacking in the record.

This brings into question the value to Catholics of academic research that originates from a presumption that Hildegard’s visionary experiences are to be interpreted in strictly human terms. It may partially explain why this Doctor of the Church is so unfamiliar to Catholics today despite her having been a central figure in the study of medieval Latin literature for the last thirty years. Strictly Catholic perspectives on the life of St. Hildegard, biographies that highlight her spiritual gifts and their miraculous interventions in the life of the Church are rare.

This is problematic for Catholics because Hildegard’s life and works reflect the prophetic gift in ways more spectacular than most other saints. At the same time it must again be acknowledged that Hildegard’s use of Latin was complex, and without the painstaking work of Latin scholars, the English-speaking world would not have access to many of Hildegard’s works. There are still, however, more of her writings awaiting translation

Notre Dame professor Thomas Kselman approaches the question of secular scholarship and religious texts in an interesting manner. He defines the issue by dividing the differing perspectives on the same event in religious history according to the respective discipline in order to avoid contention. He references John 12:28-29 to make his point:

“’Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it and will glorify it again.’ The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder; but others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’”(12)

He differentiates between the fact of a miracle or the reality of a prophecy, and the reaction to it. The latter being the realm of the historian while the former is the focus of the theologian.

Kselman makes a relevant point, different disciplines can add value to the study of religious texts by sharing their respective expertise irrespective of personal beliefs or skepticisms. But the fundamental understanding of St. Hildegard as a prophetess called by God to support of the Gregorian reform movement is how she was understood in her day by Church authorities as well as herself. This should be the starting point for interpreting Hildegard’s work.

In her collected letters, of which there are hundreds extant, one thing stands out as an urgent priority of Hildegard’s, the call to holiness and purity. They clearly reveal that for Hildegard a spiritual battle was raging in the twelfth-century, particularly with regard to corruption and immorality among the clergy. In a speech to priests given in Cologne she exhibits 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.”(13)

Hildegard’s correspondence gives evidence of her personal saintliness and tireless commitment to the goals of the reform movement.

Her original calling came to pass one day in the year 1141. It is recounted in the declaration page which opens Scivias:

“When I was forty-two years and seven months old, 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. And immediately I knew the meaning of the exposition of scriptures, namely the Psalter, the Gospel and the other catholic volumes of both the Old and New Testaments, though I did not have the interpretation of the words of their texts or the division of the syllables or the knowledge of cases or tenses. But I had sensed in myself wonderfully the power and mystery of secret and admirable visions from my childhood – that is, from the age of five – up to that time as I do now.”(14)

She also heard a voice directly from heaven:

“O human, who receives these things meant to manifest what is hidden not in the disquiet of deception but in the purity of simplicity, write, therefore, the things you see and hear.”(15)

Biographical Notes on Hildegard

One of her biographers, Gottfried of Disibodenberg noted that she hesitated to begin the project that would result in Scivias because she did not feel confident in her ability to write Latin. She then found among the monks in the brother monastery one named Volmar who would serve as her writing guide. Yet she continued to delay beginning the project while at the same time falling ill to the point of being confined to a bed. She soon came to the realization that she was experiencing divine punishment for her reluctance to obey God’s command. As soon as she and Volmar began work, her illness ceased.(16)

After several years of toil, Gottfried reports, Volmar approached Archbishop Henry of Mainz as it was time for Hildegard’s work to be reviewed by Church authorities. This was likely coordinated with Hildegard’s letters to Bernard and Pope Eugenius. It seems apparent that the Archbishop was much impressed since he presented a manuscript of the uncompleted Scivias directly to Pope Eugenius. The timing of this papal encounter is intriguing, the Pope happened to be nearby:

“At this same time, after the general council of Rheims, the Bishop of the Holy See of Rome, Eugene of happy memory, was staying at Trier at the invitation of Adelbert, Archbishop of Trier. It seemed to the Archbishop of Mainz and the majority of the clergy there that these matters should be brought to the attention of the apostolic see, so that one would know on his authority what should be accepted and what refused from these matters about which they were now informed.”(17)

He then sent a delegation headed by the Archbishop of Trier to Hildegard’s abbey in Disibodenberg, a short distance away:

“They were to learn from her what the facts were, without tumult or prying. When, in response to their humble inquiries, she had made known to them straightforwardly what was happening to her, they returned to the Pope.”(18)

Pope Eugenius demanded to read the writings of Hildegard himself and portions of Scivias were brought to him; he was astonished by what he was reading. Gottfried describes the reaction:

“Holding them in his own hands and functioning as a rhetor for [the] archbishop and all the cardinals who were present from among the clergy, he publicly read them and the responses of the men he had sent to investigate them. As he spoke he lifted up the minds and voices of all in praise of thanksgiving to their creator.”(19)

Gottfried notes that one of those in attendance was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who shared the Pope’s enthusiastic reception of Hildegard’s prophetic gift:

“Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, of happy memory, was also there. At his intervention and with the support of others, the supreme pontiff was warned that so a brilliant light should not be allowed to be covered in silence; rather, he should confirm with his authority the great grace the Lord had chosen to make known at this time. To these suggestions the most revered father of fathers benignly and wisely assented. He sent letters of greeting to the blest virgin in which, in the name of Christ and blessed Peter, she was granted to make known whatever she had learned through the Holy Spirit.”(20)

Guibert of Gembloux, a fellow Benedictine who also worked with Hildegard after the death of Volmar wrote to her requesting an explanation of the nature of the visions she receives. She would often refer to her visions as the “Voice of the Living Light”, but here she responds by focusing on the understanding of the vision itself, the meaning of the symbols; for this she uses the phrase “Shadow of the Living Light”. The former constituted the vision itself, its images and symbols, and the “Shadow” represented its interpretation and understanding:

“The light that I see is not local or confined. It is far brighter than a lucent cloud through which the sun shines. And I can discern neither its height nor its length nor its breadth. This light I have named ‘the Shadow of the Living Light,’ and just as the sun and moon and stars are reflected in water, so are writings, words, virtues, and deeds of men reflected back to me from it. …Whatever I see or learn in this vision I retain for a long period of time, and store it away in my memory. And my seeing, hearing, and knowing are simultaneous, so that I learn and know at the same instant.”(21)

The structure Hildegard uses to present her visions in Scivias is to briefly describe the entire vision from a visual perspective and then, breaking it down to individual elements, she explains the meaning of the symbolism in detail through a series of chapters. Not always the case with other writers of apocalyptic literature, Hildegard reveals fully what the imagery signifies. In this sense Scivias is not comparable to the book of Revelation, for example, where much of the symbolism revealed to St. John is left unexplained or whose meaning is only partially or vaguely revealed. It is in Hildegard’s explanations and commentary that we receive her prophetic instruction.

It should also be noted that there is a remarkable simplicity that emerges from her exposition of the complex imagery that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to comprehend. Regine Pernoud may have described the Saint’s gift best:

“Hildegard renews for her times, with an unexpected violence, the expression of the mysteries that the Bible teaches and that the Church transmits. And her whole work thus casts a new gaze, ardent and enchanting in its simplicity, on the content of faith.”(22)

Summary

Gottfried’s biography is not the story of a great thinker or theologian, but tells the story of a humble woman with the gift of prophecy that is offered for the service of the Church. It places emphasis on her life as one of humility and sanctity, and also a life of suffering for Christ due to chronic illnesses. A cloistered nun from childhood, she was called by God at the age of fifty to begin an active public ministry. While St. Bernard would be called home to the Lord in 1153, Hildegard’s ministry would continue until her death in 1179. From her increasing role as a spiritual authority in the Church, evidenced by her extensive correspondence and numerous preaching tours, it is not hard to draw the conclusion that in a very real sense she took over Bernard’s influential role after his death.

As a Doctor of the Church, the rediscovery of St. Hildegard’s writings represents a new and exciting source of instruction for Catholics today. The world of St. Hildegard, Latin Christendom, has been abandoned and replaced by societies that have embraced secularism. Christians in many parts of Europe are being systematically deprived of their ability to practice their faith. The religion of Christ is being replaced by the religion of Mohammed or no religion at all. In light of the many crises facing the Church, it is tempting to see the hand of God in Hildegard’s return from the past.
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Notes:
1. C. Lebbe, “The Medieval Sybil,” in The Pagan Middle Ages, ed. Ludo J.R. Milis (Rochester: Boydell Press, 1998), 4ff.
2. Norman F. Cantor, ed., The Medieval Reader (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 224. See also Newman, Barbara, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Visionary Women: Three Medieval Mystics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002); Bynum, Caroline Walker, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1992).
3. Pernoud, Regine, Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, trans. Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 105.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 106.
6. Ibid., 100.
7. Baird, Joseph L., The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 19.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid., 22.
10. Ibid.
11. Flanagan, Sabina, Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life (New York: Routledge, 1985). 55.
12. Kselman, Thomas A., Miracles and Prophecies: Popular Religion and the Church in Nineteenth-Century France (New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 1983), 93.
13. Baird, 42.
14. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, trans., Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias (The Abbey of Regina Laudis: Benedictine Congregation Regina Laudis of the Strict Observance, Inc.: Paulist Press, 1990), 60.
15. Ibid.
16. Hugh Feiss, trans., The life of the Saintly Hildegard (Toronto : Peregrina Pub., 1996), 28.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., 29.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid., 30.
21. Baird, 138-139.
22. Pernoud, Regine, Hildegard of Bingen: Inspired Conscience of the Twelfth-Century, trans. Paul Duggan, (New York: Marlowe & Co., 1998), 52.