In 2012, Pope Benedict named Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church.

What might Benedict wish for us to learn from St. Hildegard, whom he has called “a true master of theology and a great scholar of the natural sciences and of music”?

Leroy Huizenga, PhD | Administrative Chair of Human and Divine Sciences, University of Mary

In Honor of Sr. Miriam Schmitt OSB, Scholar of St. Hildegard

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Many people use the word “medieval” as an epithet meaning dark, backwards, violent. The term simply means “middle ages,” as if at the very best not much happened in the thousand years between the glories of classical pagan Greco-Roman culture and its attempted resuscitation in the Renaissance. But ever more people are discovering that the medieval world offers answers to the questions postmodernity poses anew: questions of nature, community, meaning, peace and ultimately of God.

The medieval centuries presented glories that were stifled by modernity in its will to power to make man the pinnacle of all things by excluding God and subjugating nature. These brilliant glories, however, are experiencing a present-day, postmodern renaissance in thought, religion, culture, art and architecture, as incarnated in such extraordinary figures as St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). In her visions, the cosmos—although fallen and in need of the redemption that Christ, through the Church, established—is a unity communicating God’s beauty, goodness and truth with man at the center as a microcosm reflecting the cosmos. “Humanity, take a good look at yourself,” wrote St. Hildegard. “Inside, you have heaven and earth, and all of creation. You are a world—everything is hidden in you.”

A Medieval and Modern Saint

St. Hildegard’s medieval era was much like our modern age, with its widespread cultural and ecclesial malaise, with the State encroaching increasingly into Church affairs and the clergy often indolent and ineffective, and with the laity poorly catechized and gnosticism advancing. Into this age stepped St. Hildegard armed with divine visions, a keen creative intellect, a life of monastic prayer, and a love of reason, nature and the Church. Indeed, the similarity of the ages led Pope Benedict XVI not only to name St. Hildegard an official saint and also to declare this Benedictine sister a Doctor of the Church. He called her “a true master of theology and a great scholar of the natural sciences and of music,” hoping her medieval witness would illuminate our modern day.

St. Hildegard was born in 1098. As a tithe child, she was dedicated to the monastic life from birth by her noble family. They sent her at eight years of age to live and study with Jutta, a comely young anchoress, also from a wealthy family, who lived as a monastic in a tiny room attached to a church in Disibodenberg, Germany. Jutta provided young Hildegard and other girls with a rudimentary education and instruction in the spiritual life. Hildegard lived as a member of Jutta’s monastic community in the tiny anchorage for thirty years until Jutta’s death, when Hildegard was chosen to lead the community. Later, as membership grew, she relocated to found a convent at Bingen, Germany, on the west bank of the Rhine.

Compendium of Scripture and Divine Visions

In 1141, St. Hildegard had a God-given vision commanding her to write down the interpretations of religious texts He would give her. She did not doubt but did hesitate. Eventually, she wrote to St. Bernard who conferred with Pope Eugenius (1145-53), who in turn instructed St. Hildegard to obey the visions and start writing.

The inscribed visions are contained in her major work, Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord), in which she writes as a graced interpreter of sacred Scripture, integrating her divine visions with her thorough biblical knowledge. She prayed Scripture as a Benedictine, interpreted it for her sisters as well as for monks and others, and preached it in major European cathedrals, such as in Mainz, Cologne and Trier. St. Hildegard pays careful attention to the details of the text with mind and spirit fully and prayerfully engaged, as she interprets Scripture in accord with the Church’s rule of faith. St. Hildegard’s interpretations flow from an assumed cosmic harmony among God, humans, nature, Church and liturgy.

Gnostic Heresy Then and Now

Although some writers today present St. Hildegard as a rebel, she always thought, prayed and acted in conscious concord with the Church. Pope Benedict recommended her to contemporary Catholics, noting that “the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to 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.”

St. Hildegard’s obedience to the Church flowed from faith, not a submissive personality. She showed herself to be an implacable enemy of the gnostic Cathars, by preaching, teaching, and writing against them. Their nature-denying, creation-hating, Churchless descendants remain with us today.

Gnosticism is a perennial heresy rooted in a radical interpretation of Plato that sees matter—and thus bodies—as inherently evil prisons of the spirit. Since the body is bad, gnostics often engaged in all manner of licentiousness and practiced contraception and abortion as a matter of principle. Further, the belief that creation is evil means sacraments are impossible, rendering the Church irrelevant.

Many scholars, such as Harold Bloom, have seen contemporary American religion and culture as gnostic, as shown for example by our confusion about the body in the ever-increasing acceptance of physical modifications, such as tattoos, piercings and plastic surgery. Other examples include the dramatic increase in eating disorders, from bulimia to obesity, and the popularity of the “heroin chic” look in runway models. This devaluing of the body fuels the ever-broadening regime of contraception and abortion, backed by state power.

Fierce Fidelity

St. Hildegard’s day was thus not unlike ours and so her visions might help us bear witness in the present. For St. 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, divided and impotent, unable to speak the beauty and goodness of truth? To answer, Pope Benedict pointed us to Hildegard’s example and to her call for renewal as a way to battle gnosticism:

“In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They … 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.”

In the same spirit of fierce, fervent fidelity, St. Hildegard opposed Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s attempts to install antipope after antipope—false popes who would do his imperial bidding—on the Throne of Peter. With holy boldness she wrote, “You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!” Confronting him not only with her pen but also in person at Ingelheim on the Rhine, she risked her position and convent to protect the liberty of Holy Mother Church.

Creative Works

Controversies occupied comparatively little of St. Hildegard’s work, however. Her creative work includes beautiful chants and antiphons composed in honor of various saints for their feast days, as well as dramas, including her morality play Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues), which was performed by her sisters. For St. Hildegard, the arts—and especially music—were crucial, since they reflect Edenic paradise in a fallen world cast far from Eden. She considered vocal chant as the original and highest possible form of Edenic praise.

Reason, Nature and Religion

For Catholics and all Christians who take reason and nature seriously, religion is not a matter of raw submission to divine revelation enforced by ecclesiastical authority. God also speaks to all people through nature, which reason can read even in humanity’s fallen state. St. Hildegard 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 12th-century West) are rooted in observation, not divine inspiration, and geared toward healing in their medicinal application.

For St. Hildegard, although nature is not a matter of revelation, it is inseparable from the divine.  As Pope Benedict observed, “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.” In this, she anticipates Pope Benedict’s and Pope Francis’ repeated calls for an “ecology of man” that seeks to understand and promote the location of the human person in his or her rightful place within the ecology of nature, from which modern man is so severely estranged.

Calling All Proclaimers

Peter Berger, a renowned sociologist of religion, once remarked, “Ages of faith are not marked by ‘dialogue’ but by proclamation.” If only our age was marked more by holy women and men like St. Hildegard, fearless in faithful proclamation for the sake of God and His creatures, finding man’s place in deep harmony with the cosmos. In the meantime, we can learn from a humble and powerful Benedictine, St. Hildegard of Bingen, the Sibyl of the Rhine.