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Wise women

The long wait for Hildegard, a “feather” of great talent

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29 May 2021

Proclaimed saint and doctor of the Church only after a thousand years


Little, tiny, fragile Hildegard, who escaped death the day she saw the light. What is it that she saw, that appeared to her on her days as a solitary child, shy of words, when her gaze was enchanted and followed images that others could not interpret?

Hildegard of Bingen, Samaritan of the gaze, and theologian of vision, “What I do not see, I do not know”. She repeats. She speaks to us moderns who are immersed in the world of the image.

While she was still alive, she was recognised as a woman of God, and venerated immediately after her death, but it was only in 2012 that she was formally proclaimed a saint and Doctor of the Church. This is a long wait for the attribution of an intellectual dimension so difficult to confer to women in the Church, who are more easily accepted as mystics rather than as theologians. After all, nothing in Hildegard’s life was easy. From her laborious birth, as tenth child. Neither were the early years of her life, as a complicated, very particular and disturbing child. Neither the convent, which she entered at a very young age. Even in the twelfth century, it was not common to authorise entry into a convent at the age of eight, which may sound terrible, and it was. However, at that time children were loved and let go of in a different way from what we know today. It is not easy for us to imagine, but we can try.

Hildegard was born in Bermersheim, diocese of Mainz, in 1098, into a family of the lower nobility. According to the Life of St Hildegard written by Gottfried of Disibodenberg and Theodoric of Echternach, she was often ill, to the extent of almost being on the point of dying.  She had visions and spoke very little. When she entered the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg she was entrusted to the care of the young noblewoman Jutta of Spanheim, who lived there the life of an anchorite in a cell built by her family and who agreed to educate her in the spiritual life. In a letter to Bernard of Clairvaux Hildegard writes that she knows the inner meaning of the Psalms and other texts of the Bible that are shown to her in her visions, but that she can read them “only in a simple way”  and does not know the individual words.  This profession of ignorance is confirmed by the Life, which states that Jutta only taught her to sing the Psalms of David accompanied by the ten-stringed psaltery, and that apart from this “she learned nothing else of literature or music from other human beings, although there remain of her many writings and a few volumes that are anything but slender”.  This is most probably untrue, because what both Hildegard and her hagiographers wish to emphasise is that in her it is God who speaks. Her exceptional role at the time could have been very dangerous because visions were suspicious as they are today because who knows whether they came from God or the devil. Not even Hildegard as a child could know, and in fact, for a long time she learned to keep them secret. All around her they understood the exceptional nature and the danger she ran and sending her to the convent was a form of extreme protection from the chatter of the world. However, for her it became something else. As Chiara Frugoni writes, the monastery was a space of autonomy for the woman of the Middle Ages, a place where she can have a “room to herself” that allows her to equal and surpass men in prayer, meditation and culture.

To be a woman who is full of wisdom is to live on the border, where it is difficult not to overflow, but dangerous to do so too. An exhausting act of welcoming and containment. Even in the convent it was too, because the convent must also protect itself, above all from the suspicion of heresy. There too Hildegard received from the abbot Kuno the imposition of silence, which she accepted, “Until my fifteenth year of life I saw many things, and some I told simply but those who heard them were so amazed that they wondered where they came from and by whom... So I marvelled myself and hid the Vision as much as possible”.  She cannot speak of what she sees, but she sees and sees in a completely clear way, her mind is not at all confused, “I hear these things […] with open eyes, so that in visions I am not affected by the lack of ecstasy: I see them in a state of wakefulness, day and night”.  God presents himself as Light. In Hildegard’s texts, the words light, luminous, sun, illumination, glow, return as the key to interpreting creation. The visions are precise, cultured, based on the biblical text but highly original. What she knows and does can only come from God.

Moreover, she knew a great deal. Hildegard repeatedly gave a beautiful definition of herself as “a feather entrusted to the wind of trust in God”. A feather because it is exposed to the wind of suspicion or idolatry. In the time, it takes for a single breath she could be thought of as a saint or a witch.  She was very close to her noble disciple Riccarda di Strade, whom she favoured, educated and loved. She was not afraid of affection, she who is loved by God. It is faith in God that moved her, and although she knew the doubts of the Old Testament prophets, she was finally aware of her own value as an instrument in the hands of God. What she called Living Light showed her clearly what she had to do, and that was to write, so Hildegard wrote. From the age of forty-two, she began to dictate her visions, and was helped to do so by the monk Wolmar, who was assigned to her, as long as the revelations did not leave the monastery. He also painted her visions, beautiful, allegorical, complex miniatures on the cosmos, the human being, the city and the Spirit that vivifies all creatures. She produced three theological and prophetic works, the Scivias [Know the Ways], the Liber vitae meritorum [The Book of the Merits of Life] and the Liber divinorum operum [Book of Divine Works]. Meanwhile Hildegard founded the monastery of Rupertsberg, in a place indicated to her by God, near Bingen, on the Rhine. It was a struggle to obtain Abbot Kuno’s permission, who was accustomed to vocations and thus to the rich gifts that Hildegard’s presence brought to the monastery. Then the Viva Luce told her to cure and she cured and healed. The presence of the infirmary was normal in Benedictine monasteries, but the Living Light also dictated to her the fundamentals of the art of healing and Hildegard wrote the Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturarum creaturarum [The book of the subtle differences of the different natures of creatures]. A theological-naturalistic collection of knowledge about plants, diseases and the balance of the body; the body and the spirit, the spirit working in and with the body. The unity between nature and spirit, animals, plants and humans too. The subtle spirit world of universal shamanism comes to mind, in which the idea is that there is absolute continuity between the life of man and nature. Alternatively, an anticipation of the modern unitary worldview. This is so, but for Hildegard, it was God who was the author of this harmony.

Meanwhile she transcribed the celestial music that accompanied the visions. It is a new music and guides the sister nuns to join in with it during the celebrations. The sisters are also visions. She dressed them in light, with veils and crowns that caused a scandal, but this did not stop her. She was the first woman composer whose music we have and who proudly defended the role of song in the life of faith.

It is without human measure what happened to her. She loved God through the bodies she cared for. First, she loved him through words, then through music, and finally through plants and flowers, and all of nature.

And then, when she was old, and already old for her time, the Living Light ordered her to preach, which was an absolutely exceptional activity for a woman. So, she left, heading first to Cologne, then Trier, onto Liège, then Würzburg. We have to imagine these journeys in the other Middle Ages, for a woman who had always been fragile, the cold, the mud of the snowmelt, the Rhine river to cross. Illness made her a Samaritan in need of care, but it is the Living Light that healed her and through her, she healed the bodies, the heresies, the temptations of power.

In how many ways was Hildegard a Samaritan. She never changed sides even though she was a woman, alone, with no great personality to protect her, “paupercula feminea forma”, commanded by men, powerful priests and Levites who controlled her gift. The Easter sequence comes to mind, “death and life faced each other in an extraordinary duel”, in her, in her body.

The world around her wonders how this is possible, but these are questions fade to nothing when faith and love for creatures inhabit us.

There were two bright rainbows cross the sky, one from north to south and one from east to west, right above the cell of the monastery of Rupertsberg when Hildegard died on the evening of September 17, 1179. At the point where the two rainbows met, a very bright light appeared in which a cross, surrounded by coloured circles, was evident. The movement of light spread to the whole firmament and descended to the earth until it illuminated the mountain around the monastery, and embrace all her beloved earth, full of energy.  This earth was what she called Viriditas, a green life force, in which all creation is sustained. Creation to which God sends the “Dew of his gentleness” every day.

[Quotations are from Il libro delle opere divine [The book of divine works], edited by Marta Cristiani and Michela Pereira, Mondadori 2010].

By Mariapia Veladiano
A writer, graduate in philosophy and theology