A woman for our own time: Hildegard of Bingen
I’d like to introduce to you a woman with powerful wisdom for our time. You may not have heard much about her even though she is a saint. She is one of only four women doctors of the Church – alongside Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Sienna. Her name is Hildegard of Bingen, and the Church celebrates her feast day on 17 September. Although regarded as a saint by popular acclaim, she was only canonised in 2012.
I first ‘met’ Hildegard twenty years ago when I was studying spirituality in the United Kingdom. I was invited by a friend who lived in Germany to visit Hildegard’s birth-place and monastery. The experience of those places suffused me with a deep sense of the sacred, and this has stayed with me.
Hildegard was born in 1098 in Bermersheim and taken to live in a Benedictine convent at the age of eight. She founded several monasteries for women. An extraordinarily gifted woman, she was a polymath, scientist, artist, composer of music, healer, student of medicine and a brilliant theologian. She was gifted with visions from God from an early age, which she recorded in three books.
A prophetic voice – Hildegard’s life and writings speak directly to our contemporary concerns:
She speaks to the current crisis of climate change and the destruction of the earth. She had a powerful sense of God constantly pouring life into creation. She wrote of God: “I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and burn in the sun, moon and stars…I awaken everything to life.” Her insight into how all of creation is connected, and about our relationship to creator and creation, are critical for us today.
Hildegard is a powerful model in a church wounded by patriarchy and clericalism. She experienced God not only as Father but also strongly as the Divine Feminine. In a time when women were silenced – as they still are in the church today – she was not afraid to speak. At the age of 60, impelled by her ‘inner voice’, she left the cloister to preach in the towns along the River Main. Her preaching was so powerful that laity and clergy flocked to hear her. She was unafraid to point out abuses in the church and to challenge church leaders to reform.
Towards the end of her life, she and her community were denied the sacraments and forbidden to sing the office. She had buried a nobleman, who had been excommunicated, in the monastery grounds. While obedient to the interdict, she held firmly to the truth of her conscience, and belief that he had repented. The interdict was lifted just before her death.
I believe Hildegard’s life and writings offer us wisdom as to how we, as people of God, can engage the challenges of our time.