Today is St. Hildegard of Bingen’s feast day, on which she died in 1179. I wrote a piece on her a year ago on the occasion for First Things; here it is:
It’s an age of widespread cultural and ecclesial malaise: the State encroaches ever more into the affairs of the church; the clergy is indolent and ineffective, oft corrupt and unchaste; the laity is poorly catechized; and Gnosticism advances. It’s the twelfth century, into which a Teutonic prophetess stepped, prepared to confront the spirits of the age with visions from on high. Nihil sub sole novum, and thus it’s worth considering on the occasion of St. Hildegard of Bingen’s feast day (tomorrow, Saturday, September 17) how her sauce for medieval geese might go well with our modern ganders.
Many have made Hildegard in their own image. She became a mystic to later medievals who saw her through the lens of her popular disciple Elisabeth of Schönau, although she was more properly a visionary and prophet. To humanists like Jacob Faber Stapulensis she became a woman of letters, to Reformers like Andreas Osiander a Protestant, and (in our own day) to the feminists like filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta a proto-feminist. She has become all things to all people that she might serve some. Like Jesus, of the making of Hildegards there is no end.
The real Hildegard, however, was of course a hardcore medieval Catholic: among many other things, a defender of hierarchy in Church and society and a hammerer of heretics whose visions were in essence doctrinal expositions of Scripture according with the beliefs of the times. Frankly, those who disdain various aspects of modern feminism should nevertheless rejoice that feminist scholars and filmmakers have played a major role in stoking contemporary interest in Hildegard even if they sometimes neglect the more traditional aspects of her person, activity and legacy.
For instance, von Trotta’s recent film on Hildegard, Vision, is exceptional, only occasionally falling into two-dimensional clichés about the middle ages and power and gender relations therein. But while von Trotta presents Hildegard speaking truth to the power that is Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, a notorious supporter of antipopes against Alexander III, she presents Hildegard’s seeking the support and approval of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius III with less interest and passion.
Indeed, for Hildegard’s defense of the freedom of the visible Church the Holy Father of today, Pope Benedict, himself confronted by millions of armchair antipopes, recommends her to contemporary Catholics in the recently issued collection of his series of catechetical talks on female saints entitled Holy Women:
This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church, and the Church, through her pastors, recognizes its authenticity.
Yet Hildegard is not only an example of extreme submission to the grace of divine revelation defined, promulgated and enforced by ecclesiastical authority. She also investigated nature on its own terms in a spirit of profound curiosity. Unlike her visionary Scivias, her scientific treatises (the only such works extant from the twelfth-century West) are rooted in observation, not divine inspiration, and geared toward the good of man in their medicinal application.
Even if her knowledge of nature is not a matter of revelation, for Hildegard nature is not separate from the divine. Rather, Benedict reminds us, “Hildegard stresses the deep relationship that exists between man and God and reminds us that the whole creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity . . . For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.”
Indeed, nihil sub sole novum, save the Incarnation, the only truly new thing in the world, in which we see the most extreme union of grace and nature, around which Hildegard’s entire theology revolves. The Creator is the incarnate Word who became man, and the form of man stands at the center of the cosmos as microcosm.
Her theology coupled with her iron personality made her an implacable enemy of the dualistic and gnostic Cathars. Their descendants are with us today, for the modernity in which we live and move and have our being is a Gnostic flight from any constraints of nature, a secularized version of grace destroying nature (and thus all too often human persons) by means of technology, an insanity running headlong into death that will heed no warnings from the Church, preferring the antipope in its belly; being Gnostic, our age cannot even conceive of the possibility of a visible Church. In contrast, Hildegard’s incarnational, sacramental vision takes seriously the concept of a visible, authoritative Church speaking truth about the goodness and harmony of God, nature and man as its microcosm.
What if, however, the Church on earth appears feckless and fallible? Benedict here too points us to Hildegard’s example:
In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They (cátari means literally “pure”) advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message we should never forget.
Peter Berger once remarked, “Ages of faith are not marked by dialogue but by proclamation.” Would that our own age was marked more by holy women and men like St. Hildegard, fearless in faithful proclamation for the sake of God and his creatures. In the meantime, while we wait for another and doubtless very different St. Benedict (or do we have one now right under our very noses?), may we learn from a humble and powerful Benedictine, St. Hildegard of Bingen, the Sibyl of the Rhine, for she is singing still.