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As if the stars did not shine

· Hildegard of Bingen’s preaching ·

Cologne, 1163: from the pulpit of the majestic cathedral, the old abbess of Bingen gave her eagerly awaited sermon. All the clergy of the city had gathered for her and were intent on listening to her. Her voice rang out between the mighty walls: not a tremor could be heard in it. It was not in fact the woman who was afraid, although she was facing the powerful male audience alone; rather it was the latter, harshly reprimanded for the grave corruption into which they had plummeted and for their inertia in preventing the spread of the Cathar heresy. Not one of the onlookers stood up to refute her attacks. They knew that the words of the sermon were not hers but came directly from God and the impression these words made on them was indelible.

“The preaching of Hildegard of Bingen” (altarpiece of Hildegard, detail, Bingen, Rochuskapelle)

This was the background to one of the most dramatic homilies preached by Hildergard of Bingen (1098-1179), whom Benedict XVI proclaimed a saint and a doctor of the Church: “this great woman, this ‘prophetess’ who also speaks with great timeliness to us today”, Pope Ratzinger said, “with her courageous ability to discern the signs of the times, her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music…”. It was far from easy for the Church in those years – but let us rather say for the Church in any epoch – to accept a woman who lived an intense mystical experience and was capable at the same time of scientific thought and artistic creation.

Hildegard lived in a sombre time in which the stars were “obscured”, as she herself metaphorically reported, because of the clergy’s moral degeneration. It was essential to uproot simony and to combat concubinage, and only someone endowed with indisputable authority could attend to this supreme task. But where did the authority of the Sybil of the Rhine come from? And how was it possible, at the height of the Middle Ages, for a woman to hold such a high public office? An answer undoubtedly comes from the state of emergency through which the Church was then passing.

Hildegard’s charism alone could exert a strong influence on the faithful and bring them back to the heart of the ecclesiastical institution, thereby healing the rift between the people and the clergy caused by the latter’s moral and religious disengagement. In 1147 Eugenius iii recognized the authenticity of Hildegard’s visions which were also strongly defended by Bernard of Clairvaux, the teacher of the Pope himself.

This Benedictine nun, who in herself was considered timida et paupercula, a timid and poor creature, was thus the first woman to replace episcopal authority in preaching, filling the void left in pastoral leadership by the indolence of the prelates. She was humble and at the same time absolutely intrepid as God’s spokeswoman, as emerges from a passage of the sermon she gave in the cathedral of the Rhine in 1163.

Hildegard spoke in the first person, directly addressing the listening clergy and referring to them what God had revealed to her. “The cosmos was created according to an order and lacks nothing. I created you as the sun and stars, so that you might shine among men and women with the fire of doctrine, but you do not meditate on God’s justice. Your tongues lack the light of justice, as if the stars were not to shine. You do not instruct your people who are dispersed like ashes and on every occasion act as they please. Yet in this manner you attract innumerable and infinite torments. I who am… say to those who hear me: when the time comes, ruin will fall upon you through a people who will persecute you everywhere and will reveal your actions. These people will appear with wan faces, robed in black and tonsured. They will seem outwardly serene and peaceful. They will not love avarice, they will have no money and will practice abstinence. Yet the devil is within them. Oh! These people of no faith [the heretics] stray from the truth, they know not what they do and will be your scourge to discipline you rigorously”.

One can perceive in her words an impetus or pressura, as the prophetess herself described it, which obliged her to write quickly so as not to pass over in silence any part of what the divine vision had shown her. The language was direct and pressing precisely because it flowed from the impulse of a personal revelation.

What is striking is the close interconnection between the two phenomena that the Sybil of the Rhine was called to combat: heresy on the one hand – the people who “will come with wan faces robed in black” – and the corruption of the Church on the other. As a reformer, Hildegard had to show the prelates their direct responsibilities with regard to the heretics. If the Cathars observed absolute chastity and the mortification of the body, it was as a harsh reaction to the laxity of many of these prelates.

The Cathar’s error, their heresy, was in fact rooted in something else: so deeply were they impressed by the evil in the world that they believed creation was not a work of God but the work of an evil, opposite principle and that the spirit alone was created by God. The clash with the Church was thus inevitable.

In contrast to the heretical extremism that condemned the world for its iniquity, Hildegard affirmed the intrinsic sacredness of the cosmos and of the microcosm-man in their indisputable link with the spirit of God.

Claudio Leonardi has emphasized that Hildegard spoke with absolute certainty of what she was asserting, since it was founded on God’s own authority; “throughout the Middle Ages”, he wrote, “criticism of the papacy continued, even from explicitly Christian sides. But this criticism of Hildegard’s is different, in the sense that she did not assume moralistic but rather authoritative tones. It is she, even in God’s name, in the vision of the reality and of the people which she claimed to have had from God, who places herself as one who knows how the papacy must be exercised. A Petrine charism seems to have been working within her which impelled her to recall the Pope to his role”.

With Hildegard it is the first time that prophecy appears so forceful in a woman, to the extent that, as Leonardi wrote further, “her words seem to invest the episcopal (and papal) roles and as it were to replace them”.

There is a strong optimistic note in her final message. This woman author did not preach the imminent event of the Anti-Christ but prefigured the “purification of the Church”, while at the same time referring to the end of the world. In this perspective the Cathars assumed a specific positive significance, placed as a necessary scourge to punish the decadent clergy and induce them to profound conversion.

The prophetess explained the reasons for the divine vendetta and proclaimed the reinstatement of justice to offer sinners a concrete possibility of redemption.

This may be one of the most valuable aspects of Hildegard’s preaching. In such a dark period, when the Church was betrayed by an inner evil, a woman gave a new message of hope to man. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, an eminent scholar of Hildegard, has written: “Hildegard disclosed to the world the divine end hidden in history”; it is not by chance that among Hildegard’s most revealing contributions it is precisely the one she made in the context of the theology of salvation that should be recognized.

Valentina Giannacco

Sixty-one homilies

Hildegard preached between 1158 and 1170, when she was already elderly, not only in the prestigious archiepiscopal sees of Trier and Cologne but also in Metz, Würzburg, Bamberg and Kirchheim in Swabia. The sources attest that wherever her word reached, the Cathar movement was contained before the wave of persecution was unleashed by Innocent iii, Pope from 1198 to 1216. Sixty-one of her homilies have come down to us: three which testify to her commitment to the reform of the Church and against the Cathar heresy, written at the request of prelates who had invited her and which have been preserved in her correspondence, as well as 58 comments on Gospel texts, published in a special section in her minor works.

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