We’ve spoken about Hildegard of Bingen in my last couple of posts. If you haven’t followed along, you might want to look back over them. Previously, we talked about the cultural context of Hildegard’s time in history as well as her ability to be a voice to those around her. During this time, it was unheard of for a woman to be in a place of influence.
Hildegard’s writing, Scivias, opened room for her voice as a woman, due to its endorsement by the Pope. As she was writing it, Hildegard wrote the Abbott of the monastery, who oversaw her convent, about her sense that God was inviting her to establish a convent. The Abbott tried to discourage her and Hildegard became severely ill. He finally relented at her bedside when he was unable to lift her head.
Once given permission, she immediately got up and arranged everything that was required. Eighteen nuns moved with her. The new facility had running water, a scriptorium (a place for copying manuscripts often in a monastery), which gave authority to her work, and a document that established its independence from the monastery.(1)
Hildegard continued to struggle through sickness as her convent grew even more independent of male-dominated leadership. She was a gifted leader who courageously spoke to those in authority with what she sensed from God. She was a product of her time in understanding gender roles, yet she was able to speak to both secular and religious leaders, calling them out on their lax and immoral behavior.(2)
In one way she encouraged women to be submissive in society, but she did not hold herself to that same standard due to her understanding of becoming a “spiritual man.” The thought during this time was that a celibate, cloistered woman gained the position of a “spiritual man.” She viewed her weakness as a woman making God’s power visible.(3)
As time went on, Hildegard’s writing and fame increased. She began preaching tours through Germany, Switzerland, and France. Hildegard left behind copies of her sermons for those who were moved by her teachings.(4) A woman teaching outside of her convent was unheard of at the time. Women were not allowed to hold a priestly office, preach, or be a spiritual counselor.(5) Extraordinarily, Hildegard was able to complete four preaching tours.(6)
Hildegard had courage and boldness in the face of injustice. One story concerns an excommunicated nobleman she allowed to be buried in the convent cemetery. Those in authority demanded that she remove the man’s bones from their grounds. Hildegard refused, and she and her convent were punished by not being allowed to take the sacraments.(7) Limiting sacraments as a place of worship was a real hardship for the nuns. Hildegard, at age 81, removed everything that could have been used to dig the man up. Through this time, she wrote continuous letters and eventually the punishment was lifted. She died soon after, in 1179.(8)
Hildegard considered herself a person like Moses as she called the church to reform and to a new age of the Holy Spirit. In this, she hoped to be a voice into a new morality and a changed understanding of how God and humankind relate.(9) She continually called others to live a life of intense virtue. Anything short of that, she considered lukewarm. Hildegard had singleness of purpose and would threaten people to increase their level of commitment.(10)
Beyond the Scivias, she wrote two more volumes: ethics and a scientific treatise. She wrote nine books on nature, a holistic book of healing, liturgical poetry, music, visionary tracts, and the first morality play.(11) We have over 400 letters written to secular and religious leaders, as well as lay people.(12) In addition to her writing and teaching, she formed two convents which housed 80 women in each.(13) Others viewed her as a spiritual mother and cherished friend.(14)
There is a lot of information available on Hildegard, which is impressive considering she was a woman in the Middle Ages. One could judge her for her tendency to support the class and gender hierarchies during her time. It is essential to consider the cultural understandings that surrounded her and informed her view of the world and God. It is astonishing to see the boldness and courage she used to speak to those in power and how much authority she was granted.
In truth, it was due to both her outspokenness and the endorsement of those in authority that gave her the ability to be published and to preach. Her ability to be bold and walk in how she sensed God leading allowed her to be such an example for those who followed after her. As time goes on, we see other female religious writers allowed a platform.
Hildegard is an example of living a life of faith. However, it is essential to understand her life within her own culture and to recognize her courage and faith. What is the invitation for us in our own time? It will probably look different than Hildegard’s. Can we accept the invitation to refuse to accept the status quo? Are we being invited to speak to a new and fresh relationship with God? These are good questions, and we have an excellent model to follow.
Note: The image at the top is Hildegard praying to the Holy Spirit. The other image is a piece of art, created by Hildegard, depicting the six days of creation.
(1) Katharina M. Wilson, Medieval Women Writers (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1984), 110-11.
(2) Julia Dietrich, “The Visionary Rhetoric of Hildegard of Bingen,” in Listening to Their Voices: The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women, ed. Molly Meijer Wertheimer (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 201.
(3) Ibid., 204, 210.
(4) Carol P MacCormack, “Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th Century Holistic World View,” Blossoming of a Holistic World View (Landenberg, Pa.: Quaker Universalist Fellowship, 1992), 2.
(5) Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 3.
(6) Wilson, 112.
(7) Ibid., 114.
(8) MacCormack, 2.
(9) Ibid., 208.
(10) Elizabeth Dreyer, Passionate Spirituality: Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant, Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2005), 95.
(11) Ibid., 77; Dietrich, 199.
(12) Hildegard of Bingen, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L Baird and Radd K Ehrman, vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 4.
(13) MacCormack, 1.
(14) Dreyer, 95.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!