Posts Tagged ‘St. Hildegard of Bingen’

A Pogrom in 1389 Remembered

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Readers of S&SJ know that I admire the work of the medieval scholar Barbara Newman of Northwestern University, known by many for her studies of St. Hildegard of Bingen.

But Prof. Newman’s recent analysis of a document memorializing the 1389 anti-Jewish pogrom, the Passion of the Jews of Prague, is an education in itself.

The philosopher Bernard Lonergan, SJ, noted that scholarship can bring us to the common sense of another time and another place.
This Prof. Newman can do as can few others, with superb storytelling.

Antisemitism has a long and terrible history. It is very present today, sadly among a few heads of governments, notably in Iran.

For centuries, Jews experienced deadly pogroms at the hands of Christians and others, the pogrom of 1389 being particularly vicious.

For this reason, Prof. Newman’s article, The Passion of the Jews of Prague: The Pogrom of 1389 and the Lessons of a Medieval Parody [Church History 81:1 (March 2012), 1–26. © American Society of Church History, 2012. doi:10.1017/S0009640711001752] is worth close attention and study.

I’m looking forward to Prof. Newman’s forthcoming book, Medieval Crossover: Reading the Secular against the Sacred.

© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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Hildegard of Bingen — Soon to be Doctor of the Church

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Some good news for those of us who admire St. Hildegard of Bingen, the “Sybil of the Rhine,” and to those who will now benefit for the first time from her spiritual and artistic legacy: According to usually reliable sources and Rome Reports, St. Hildegard is to be named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in October, 2012.

For further background, please see the blog by leading Hildegard scholar, Prof. Barbara Newman of Northwestern University. My previous posts on St. Hildegard are here.

© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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Pope Cites 1170 Vision of St. Hildegard of Bingen in Address on Abuse Scandal

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI has been reading St. Hildegard of Bingen:

In a vivid 12/20/10 address to the Roman Curia citing the past year’s abuse scandals, the Pope quoted at length a vision of St. Hildegard from the year 1170 about the corruption of the Church–

We had begun the Year for Priests with great joy and, thank God, we were also able to conclude it with great gratitude, despite the fact that it unfolded so differently from the way we had expected. Among us priests and among the lay faithful, especially the young, there was a renewed awareness of what a great gift the Lord has entrusted to us in the priesthood of the Catholic Church. We realized afresh how beautiful it is that human beings are fully authorized to pronounce in God’s name the word of forgiveness, and are thus able to change the world, to change life; we realized how beautiful it is that human beings may utter the words of consecration, through which the Lord draws a part of the world into himself, and so transforms it at one point in its very substance; we realized how beautiful it is to be able, with the Lord’s strength, to be close to people in their joys and sufferings, in the important moments of their lives and in their dark times; how beautiful it is to have as one’s life task not this or that, but simply human life itself – helping people to open themselves to God and to live from God. We were all the more dismayed, then, when in this year of all years and to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime.

In this context, a vision of Saint Hildegard of Bingen came to my mind, a vision which describes in a shocking way what we have lived through this past year.

“In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 1170, I had been lying on my sick-bed for a long time when, fully conscious in body and in mind, I had a vision of a woman of such beauty that the human mind is unable to comprehend. She stretched in height from earth to heaven. Her face shone with exceeding brightness and her gaze was fixed on heaven. She was dressed in a dazzling robe of white silk and draped in a cloak, adorned with stones of great price. On her feet she wore shoes of onyx. But her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened. And she herself, in a voice loud with sorrow, was calling to the heights of heaven, saying, ‘Hear, heaven, how my face is sullied; mourn, earth, that my robe is torn; tremble, abyss, because my shoes are blackened!’

And she continued: ‘I lay hidden in the heart of the Father until the Son of Man, who was conceived and born in virginity, poured out his blood. With that same blood as his dowry, he made me his betrothed.

For my Bridegroom’s wounds remain fresh and open as long as the wounds of men’s sins continue to gape. And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests. They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood; they darken my cloak by neglecting, in every way, the precepts which they are meant to uphold; my shoes too are blackened, since priests do not keep to the straight paths of justice, which are hard and rugged, or set good examples to those beneath them. Nevertheless, in some of them I find the splendour of truth.’

And I heard a voice from heaven which said: ‘This image represents the Church. For this reason, O you who see all this and who listen to the word of lament, proclaim it to the priests who are destined to offer guidance and instruction to God’s people and to whom, as to the apostles, it was said: go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk 16:15)” (Letter to Werner von Kirchheim and his Priestly Community: PL 197, 269ff.).

In the vision of Saint Hildegard, the face of the Church is stained with dust, and this is how we have seen it. Her garment is torn – by the sins of priests. The way she saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year. We must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal. Only the truth saves. We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen. We must discover a new resoluteness in faith and in doing good. We must be capable of doing penance. We must be determined to make every possible effort in priestly formation to prevent anything of the kind from happening again. This is also the moment to offer heartfelt thanks to all those who work to help victims and to restore their trust in the Church, their capacity to believe her message. In my meetings with victims of this sin, I have also always found people who, with great dedication, stand alongside those who suffer and have been damaged. This is also the occasion to thank the many good priests who act as channels of the Lord’s goodness in humility and fidelity and, amid the devastations, bear witness to the unforfeited beauty of the priesthood.

We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility. But neither can we remain silent regarding the context of these times in which these events have come to light. There is a market in child pornography that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society. The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times. From Bishops of developing countries I hear again and again how sexual tourism threatens an entire generation and damages its freedom and its human dignity. The Book of Revelation includes among the great sins of Babylon – the symbol of the world’s great irreligious cities – the fact that it trades with bodies and souls and treats them as commodities (cf. Rev 18:13). In this context, the problem of drugs also rears its head, and with increasing force extends its octopus tentacles around the entire world – an eloquent expression of the tyranny of mammon which perverts mankind. No pleasure is ever enough, and the excess of deceiving intoxication becomes a violence that tears whole regions apart – and all this in the name of a fatal misunderstanding of freedom which actually undermines man’s freedom and ultimately destroys it.

Benedict XVI Address to the Roman Curia, 12/20/10.

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Here is the link for the Pope’s complete 12/20/10 address to the Roman Curia.

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The visions of the seer St. Hildegard of Bingen continue to speak to us . . .

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For more on St. Hildegard, please see my earlier background post, and my post on the film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen.

© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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True Christian love: Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis von Stade

Monday, November 15th, 2010

When one thinks of a touching (and doomed) medieval love story, the first historic couple who come to mind are Abelard and Heloise.

But this same 12th Century renaissance revealed another very intense and well-documented love, the spiritual love between the Benedictine Abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and her protege, the Abbess Richardis von Stade (ca. 1123-1151).

This friendship is dramatized in the film Vision: From the life of Hildegard von Bingen, as directed by the noted German artist Margarethe von Trotta (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Promise, Rosenstrasse, Rosa Luxemburg).

First, some background on the film, which was scripted personally by director von Trotta from Hildegard’s own writings and letters, and accompanied by Hildegard’s music. Von Trotta therefore lets Hildegard substantially speak (and sing) for herself.

The film carries the viewer through major episodes in Hildegard’s life from her eighth year to her sixtieth (Hildegard lived until the age of 81, and indeed faced and overcame many other challenges not depicted by this film). Vision presumes that the moviegoer know who Hildegard is, and something of her life story. For further background on Hildegard, please see my previous post.

Vision demonstrates through a number of vignettes the many foundational contributions of Hildegard in music, theology, botanical medicine, gynecology, drama, and ecclesiastical polity as Hildegard strove for the foundation of an all-female abbey while seeking ecclesiastical permission to convey her visions to paper.

The warm collaboration between Hildegard (played by the luminous German actress, and I might add, singer, Barbara Sukowa) and Richardis (depicted by the lovely and intense Hannah Herzsprung), a young noblewoman for whom her family had ambitious plans, allowed Hildegard, who despite her genius had significant gaps in her formal schooling, not to mention poor health, to finish and illuminate her books of visions, theology, and science, with a significant assist from the monk Volmar, one of Hildegard’s earliest teachers and advocates (played with occasional humor by Heino Ferch).

Von Trotta utilizes the character of the nun Jutta (Lena Stolze), raised with Hildegard from a young age by the anchorite Jutta von Sponheim (Mareile Blendl), to bring Hildegard down to earth as the “prophet in her own country.”

Like Robert Bolt’s film A Man for All Seasons, von Trotta’s Vision depicts in part conversations which in real life were based upon letters.

Warning: film spoiler. If you don’t want to know the ending of the film, stop reading here, see the film, then come back to this article.

It is therefore appropriate at this point to turn to a few of the letters of the actual players in this drama. Thanks to the continuous tradition of the Benedictines, and to the work of many scholars, we can read today what these characters were actually saying to one another over 800 years ago.

Vision dramatizes the struggle between Hildegard and the family of Richardis over the appointment of Richardis to leave Hildegard at Mt. St. Rupert to serve as abbess at Birsim (today Bassum). Hildegard made no secret of her opposition to this appointment, viewing it as based upon human ambition (presumably, to extend the influence of the von Stade family, rather than to follow a divine calling). Hildegard was not shy about her feelings, and wrote, literally, to everyone who would listen, from the Pope on down to Richardis’ mother and brother, respectively, the Margravine (played in the film by Sunnyi Melles) and Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen. Finally, Hildegard wrote to Richardis herself, all to no avail. Richardis moved away from Hildegard.

We turn now to the collection of letters, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, ably compiled and presented by the scholar Joseph L. Baird, and published by Oxford University Press in 2006. Here are a few key excerpts.

First, an impassioned plea from Hildegard to Richardis–

“Daughter, listen to me, your mother, speaking to you in the spirit: my grief flies up to heaven. My sorrow is destroying the great confidence and consolation that I once had in mankind. From now on I will say: ‘‘It is good to trust in the Lord, rather than to trust in princes’’ [Ps 117.9]. The point of this Scripture is that a person ought to look to the living height, with vision unobstructed by earthly love and feeble faith, which the airy humor of earth renders transient and short-lived. Thus a person looking at God directs his sight to the sun like an eagle. And for this reason one should not depend on a person of high birth, for such a one inevitably withers like a flower. This was the very transgression I myself committed because of my love for a certain noble individual. Now I say to you: As often as I sinned in this way, God revealed that sin to me, either through some sort of difficulty or some kind of grief, just as He has now done regarding you, as you well know. Now, again I say: Woe is me, mother, woe is me, daughter, ‘‘Why have you forsaken me’’ [Ps 21.2; Matt 27.46; Mark like an orphan? I so loved the nobility of your character, your wisdom, your chastity, your spirit, and indeed every aspect of your life that many people have said to me: What are you doing?"

"Now, let all who have grief like mine mourn with me, all who, in the love of God, have had such great love in their hearts and minds for a person— as I had for you— but who was snatched away from them in an instant, as you were from me. But, all the same, may the angel of God go before you, may the Son of God protect you, and may his mother watch over you. Be mindful of your poor desolate mother, Hildegard, so that your happiness may not fade."

From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 47-48.

Then we skip ahead to the very sad turn, the sudden death of Richardis at the age of about twenty-eight within a year of her departure from Mt. St. Rupert. The following two letters are perhaps among the most forthright and touching in Christian literature, first the letter from Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen, notifying Hildegard of his own sister Richardis' passing--

"Hartwig, archbishop of Bremen, brother of the abbess Richardis, sends that which is in the place of a sister and more than a sister, obedience, to Hildegard, mistress of the sisters of St. Rupert.

I write to inform you that our sister— my sister in body, but yours in spirit— has gone the way of all flesh, little esteeming that honor I bestowed upon her. And (while I was on my way to see the earthly king) she was obedient to her lord, the heavenly King. I am happy to report that she made her last confession in a saintly and pious way and that after her confession she was anointed with consecrated oil. Moreover, filled with her usual Christian spirit, she tearfully expressed her longing for your cloister with her whole heart. She then committed herself to the Lord through His mother and St. John. And sealed three times with the sign of the cross, she confessed the Trinity and Unity of God, and died on October 29 in perfect faith, hope, and charity [cf. I Cor 13.13], as we know for certain. Thus I ask as earnestly as I can, if I have any right to ask, that you love her as much as she loved you, and if she appeared to have any fault— which indeed was mine, not hers— at least have regard for the tears that she shed for your cloister, which many witnessed. And if death had not prevented, she would have come to you as soon as she was able to get permission. But since death did intervene, be assured that, God willing, I will come in her place. May God, who repays all good deeds, recompense you fully in this world and in the future for all the good things you did for her, you alone, more even than relatives or friends; may He repay that benevolence of yours which she rejoiced in before God and me. Please convey my thanks to your sisters for all their kindness.”
From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 48-49.

And then, here follows Hildegard’s restrained and irenic response. But note, however, her parting turn on the concept of obedience, with which Hartwig began his letter–

To Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen

“O how great a miracle there is in the salvation of those souls so looked upon by God that His glory has no hint of shadow in them. But He works in them like a mighty warrior who takes care not to be defeated by anyone, so that his victory may be sure. Just so, dear man, was it with my daughter Richardis, whom I call both daughter and mother, because I cherished her with divine love, as indeed the Living Light had instructed me to do in a very vivid vision.”

“God favored her so greatly that worldly desire had no power to embrace her. For she always fought against it, even though she was like a flower in her beauty and loveliness in the symphony of this world. While she was still living in the body, in fact, I heard the following words concerning her in a true vision: ‘‘O virginity, you are standing in the royal bridal chamber.’’ Now, in the tender shoot of virginity, she has been made a part of that most holy order, and the daughters of Zion rejoice [Zach 2.10, 9.9]. But the ancient serpent had attempted to deprive her of that blessed honor by assaulting her through her human nobility. Yet the mighty Judge drew this my daughter to Himself, cutting her off from all human glory. Therefore, although the world loved her physical beauty and her worldly wisdom while she was still alive, my soul has the greatest confidence in her salvation. For God loved her more. Therefore, He was unwilling to give His beloved to a heartless lover, that is, to the world.”

“Now you, dear Hartwig, you who sit as Christ’s representative, fulfill the desire of your sister’s soul, as obedience demands. And just as she always had your interests at heart, so you now take thought for her soul, and do good works as she wished. Now, as for me, I cast out of my heart that grief you caused me in the matter of this my daughter. May God grant you, through the prayers of the saints, the dew of His grace and reward in the world to come.”

From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 49-50.

While von Trotta’s film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen is beautiful and inspiring, the letters above complement the film in a profound and touching way. I highly recommend close study of Joseph L. Baird’s collections of Hildegard letters.

Indeed, such close examination of Hildegard scholarship reveals that it is very possible that Richardis was dead by the time Hildegard’s morality play, The Play of Virtues, or the Ordo Virtutum, was performed in its final form. Therefore, the lovely “play within the play” within von Trotta’s Vision, with a prominent role played by Richardis, may or may not have ever really happened with Richardis personally playing the part. The brilliant Hildegard scholar Barbara Newman astutely pointed out (Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, U. California Press, 1997, p. 223) that the very same words of praise for Richardis’ virginity contained in Hildegard’s letter to Richardis’ brother the archbishop appeared again in the very final version of the Ordo Virtutum. Therefore, who else but Richardis, according to “Central Casting,” would ever play the virtue Castitas, as inspired by Hildegard’s vision? Director von Trotta, by getting history probably wrong, more likely got a truth of the vision right.

How do I support my assertion that the love of Hildegard for Richardis was true Christian love? It is clear from the letters and the testimony of herself and others, at least on Hildegard’s part, that she loved Richardis completely and complexly, in all commonly describable ways, as a friend, a sister, a religious superior, a teacher, a student, a surrogate parent, an admirer, as a seer, as a patient to a caregiver, and by way of sacrificial Christian love, except for the love of sexual intimacy. This relationship appears to make concrete the teachings of Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. This multifaceted love might only be successful across a lifetime between two very strong and talented colleagues.

This kind of relationship would also probably not be tolerated in modern religious life! Even in her own time, Hildegard was asked, “What are you doing?”

I also can’t help recalling, however, that Jesus had his own Beloved Disciple.

To the modern witness, it may make perfect sense that Richardis would step away from Hildegard to lead another abbey shortly after the great project of Scivias was completed, especially since, to the modern understanding, the child must step away from the parent, no matter how loving. But we may never know Richardis’s mind on this subject to the degree that we know Hildegard’s. Whether Richardis received a spiritual call, had her own ambitions, was forced into accepting the abbey by her mother and her brother the archbishop (his letter points in this direction), or was seeking to put distance between herself and Hildegard (the timing of waiting to leave after Scivias was finished may indicate a planned departure), or all of the above, will remain an open question.

I am grateful that, into these open questions, such a director as von Trotta did not fear to step!

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I end this post by sharing a number of reviews of the film, which are, as evidenced also by their titles, rather, if not humorously, divergent in their attempts to apply paradigms of various ages and interest groups upon the film and to Hildegard.

To the New York Times reviewer, Hildegard, known otherwise to history as a polymath, or universal genius, was the “multitasking nun.”

The Boston Globe applies in an otherwise perceptive review, the post-Freudian saw of “repressed eroticism.”

The dignified review from the National Catholic Reporter carefully relates that experienced nuns would recognize the “special friendship” (years ago also called, a “particular friendship”) that the film depicts in the story of a woman who “humbly initiated change.”

To the Christianity Today reviewer, the film did not convey enough of a “sense of the transcendent.”

Variety’s reviewer appears eager to end the review since the subject of the film is so obviously Catholic.

The San Francisco Chronicle thinks that Hildegard was a “very cool nun.”

NYPress.com sees “female will and independence” in the film.

The LA Times sees a “feminist centuries ahead of her time.”

Flip comments from the NPR reviewer, whose knowledge of the subject of the film (e.g., nuns, history) appears to be gleaned from. . . other films.

Roger Ebert sees the love between the characters as sublimated lesbianism, and is apparently unaware that Benedict XVI, like other recent Popes, explicitly recognized the sainthood of Hildegard in two Fall, 2010 general audiences, linked at my earlier post.

America Magazine, the Jesuit publication, saw Hildegard “caught in a riptide of lesbian love.”

Finally, two interviews with the director–

From FilmMaker Magazine, and from the Huffington Post.

Director von Trotta, in her FilmMaker Magazine interview linked above, explains why in this film she depicted participants kissing each other on the mouth in many different situations. She refers to a scholarly theory about mouth-kissing being more common prior to the Black Death, but it is probably safe to say that she is making a statement about a less inhibited and perhaps idealized “wholesome” approach to human love.

One final tale of the book Scivias, produced by Hildegard in collaboration with Richardis and Volmar. One important original manuscript of Scivias was taken to Dresden for safekeeping during World War II, where it was lost. Copies remain.

Vision as of 2011 is available for viewing on demand from Netflix.

Here is the link to the official website for the film at Zeitgeist Films.

© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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The Sibyl of the Rhine

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

September 17 marks the date on which several places in the world recall Benedictine Abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), one of the only medieval composers to win a Grammy award centuries later, in her case for the 1982 album (recorded in 1981) A Feather on the Breath of God.

Source: Public Domain, Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias.

But Hildegard was much more than a great composer of music of incomparable beauty. She stands among the most extraordinary polymaths, or universal geniuses, in human history. Hildegard served as a fountain-head of European music and drama, of gynecology, of psychology, and mystical theology.

“No woman previous to Hildegard revealed such a wide range of knowledge and creative thought. The extraordinary breadth of her writing skills, which ranged from music to drama, to scientific texts on the classification of stones and herbs, to theological speculation, to language games, to the philosophy of psychology, reveal a genius unparalleled by a woman and matched by very few men up to the twelfth century. The additional discovery that Hildegard was the first person to develop an original theory in support of the philosophy of sex complementarity makes her contribution to the history of the concept of woman in relation to man all the more significant.”

From Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 BC-AD 1250, 1985, Eden Press, p. 295.

“Among the countless ‘firsts’ and ‘onlies’ to her credit, Hildegard was the only woman of her age to be accepted as an authoritative voice on Christian doctrine; the first woman who received express permission from a pope to write theological books; the only medieval woman who preached openly, before mixed audiences of clergy and laity, with the full approval of church authorities; the author of the first known morality play and the only twelfth-century playwright who is not anonymous; the only composer of her era (not to mention the only medieval woman) known both by name and by a large corpus of surviving music; the first scientific writer to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective; and the first saint whose official biography includes a first-person memoir.”

From Barbara Newman, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, 1998, University of California, p. 1.

Prudence Allen described Hildegard’s pioneering work in medicine and psychology:

“Benedictine monasteries often had a hospice for pilgrims and for the sick. Hildegard worked as a nurse-physician in the hospice connected to her monastery. As a result of her acute powers of observation and organization of information, she wrote a scientific treatise classifying the curative powers of herbs. More germane to the question of sex identity, Hildegard also wrote a text in which she analysed the biological composition of men and women and the effects of these factors on personality and human interaction. In Causae et Curae, one of the earliest books on the psychology of personality written in the west, Hildegard produced numerous personal observations on human nature. In this way, she functions as a philosopher who supports her views with empirical evidence. Therefore, although Hildegard claims to have received her knowledge directly from God, when the texts she wrote are examined in some detail, they reveal a sophisticated philosophical mind generating fresh and original hypotheses in new areas of thought.”

Prudence Allen, Ibid.

But Hildegard was also a visionary, as can be seen from her parable of the feather:

“A strong king sat in his hall, high pillars before him covered in gold bands and adorned with pearls and precious stones. And the king chose to touch a tiny feather, so that it soared up marvelously, and strong wind bore it up so that it did not fall. . . .

Listen now: a king sat on his throne, high pillars before him splendidly adorned and set on pediments of ivory. They showed the king’s vestments in great honor everywhere. then the king chose to lift a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly just as the king himself wished. But a feather does not fly of its own accord; it is borne up by the air. So too I am not imbued with human doctrine or strong powers. Nor do I desire good bodily health. Rather, I depend entirely on God’s help.”

From Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, 2001, Penguin, p. xxvi.

In her book Scivias, (Scire or vias Domini, or vias lucis, to know the ways of the Lord, or of light), Hildegard views the human person within both a theological and anthropological perspective:

“A human being contains three paths: namely, soul, body and senses. On these three paths, human life runs its course. The soul fills the body with life and brings forth the senses; for its part the body attracts the soul to it and opens up the senses; in turn the senses touch the body and draw the soul to them. The soul provides the body with life like fire flooding the darkness with light; it has two major powers like two arms: the understanding and the will. Not that the soul has these limbs to move herself about; rather she reveals herself in these two powers like the sun manifesting itself in the splendour of its light. Therefore human being, you are not a bundle of veins; pay attention to the knowledge of the scriptures.”

Atherton, Ibid., p. 7.

Hildegard possessed great insight into human behavior. She generated a typology of both male and female personalities. According to Prudence Allen, Hildegard “developed a unique theory of the complementarity of woman and man both within the internal structure of their personal identity as well as in the external dynamics of their interaction in either married or celibate relationships.” Hildegard deeply understood the role of friendship in successful relationships between women and men, whether these relationships were physically intimate or celibate.

Hildegard also considered the physical effects of celibacy on men and women. She concluded that some types of men and some types of women needed an intimate relationship with a member of the opposite sex to that point that these suffered in terms of their health and happiness without it. She also held that social, non-intimate relations between men and women contributed to their general health and happiness, and that of a certain personality group of women, “when they do avoid the company of men, they are quite difficult and unbearable in their manners.”

One fiery type of man was to be avoided by women:

“[These] love coition with women and are anxious to get out of other men’s way and to avoid them, for they are more inclined to women than to men. . . . As soon as they get sight of a woman, hear of one or simply fancy one in thought, their blood is burning with a blaze. Their eyes are kept fixed on the object of their love like arrows as soon as they catch sight of it.”

Prudence Allen, Ibid., p. 305

Hildegard considered another type of man as being hateful of women. But she regarded a second, more balanced personality type of man who:

“tames the fiery power within themselves. . . That is why one refers to them as a golden edifice of sexual embrace. . . With women they can have an honorable and fruitful relationship. The eyes of such men can meet squarely with those of the women, much in contrast to those other men’s eyes that were fixed on them like arrows.”

Prudence Allen, Ibid.

There is so much more to Hildegard of Bingen than the short excerpts above. I highly recommend Prof. Barbara Newman’s edited volume herein mentioned, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Of Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM’s multi-volume work, The Concept of Woman, the several pages (292-315) of the first volume devoted to Hildegard of Bingen provide an essential summary of Hildegard’s views on sexual complementarity and personality.

I might add that Sr. Allen’s magisterial multi-volume work, the Concept of Woman, provides a critical resource for insight into human society and ideas, and is too often the intellectual road not taken by those who begin their expositions on “race, class, and gender” without sufficient study or reflection.

I must in addition emphatically state that Professor Barbara Newman is a stupendous scholar who has opened up new views of the medieval world. Her earlier book on St. Hildegard, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, merits close study and reflection.

The following resources also provide useful introductions to the significance of Hildegard of Bingen–

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07351a.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildegard_of_Bingen

One partial online edition of: Scivias.

Atherton’s edited: Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings.

Benedict XVI recently spoke about St. Hildegard during his 9/1/10 General Audience and his 9/8/10 General Audience. Multilingual videos of these audiences are also available:

9/1/10 audience video

9/8/10 audience video

In his 9/8/10 General Audience, Benedict XVI referred in several ways to St. Hildegard as an example for today’s Christian faith, witness, and for church reform. I think it better to combine the entire 9/1/10 and 9/8/10 audience statements below to keep these reflections in context:

Saint Hildegard of Bingen

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, Venerable John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem on the precious role that women have played and play in the life of the Church. “The Church”, one reads in it, “gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine “genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms that the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (n. 31).

Various female figures stand out for the holiness of their lives and the wealth of their teaching even in those centuries of history that we usually call the Middle Ages. Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: St Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in 1098, probably at Bermersheim, Rhineland, not far from Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, in spite of having always been in poor health. Hildegard belonged to a large noble family and her parents dedicated her to God from birth for his service. At the age of eight she was offered for the religious state (in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 59), and, to ensure that she received an appropriate human and Christian formation, she was entrusted to the care of the consecrated widow Uda of Gölklheim and then to Jutta of Spanheim who had taken the veil at the Benedictine Monastery of St Disibodenberg. A small cloistered women’s monastery was developing there that followed the Rule of St Benedict. Hildegard was clothed by Bishop Otto of Bamberg and in 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta who had become the community magistra (Prioress), the sisters chose Hildegard to succeed her. She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life. A few years later, partly because of the increasing number of young women who were knocking at the monastery door, Hildegard broke away from the dominating male monastery of St Disibodenburg with her community, taking it to Bingen, calling it after St Rupert and here she spent the rest of her days. Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.

During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of St Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God. She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: St Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in several Catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard. However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene iii, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the “Teutonic prophetess”. 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.

I shall speak again next Wednesday about this great woman, this “prophetess” who also speaks with great timeliness to us today, with her courageous ability to discern the signs of the times, her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music, which today has been reconstructed, her love for Christ and for his Church which was suffering in that period too, wounded also in that time by the sins of both priests and lay people, and far better loved as the Body of Christ. Thus St Hildegard speaks to us; we shall speak of her again next Wednesday. Thank you for your attention.

BENEDICT XVI, GENERAL AUDIENCE, Papal Summer Residence, Castel Gandolfo
Wednesday, 1st September 2010

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to take up and continue my Reflection on St Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the Middle Ages who was distinguished for her spiritual wisdom and the holiness of her life. Hildegard’s mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle. In a letter to St Bernard the mystic from the Rhineland confesses: “The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries…. I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).

Hildegard’s mystical visions have a rich theological content. They refer to the principal events of salvation history, and use a language for the most part poetic and symbolic. For example, in her best known work entitled Scivias, that is, “You know the ways” she sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time. With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).

From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.

The Rhenish mystic is also the author of other writings, two of which are particularly important since, like Scivias, they record her mystical visions: they are the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of the merits of life) and the Liber divinorum operum (Book of the divine works), also called De operatione Dei. In the former she describes a unique and powerful vision of God who gives life to the cosmos with his power and his light. 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. The work is centred on the relationship between virtue and vice, which is why human beings must face the daily challenge of vice that distances them on their way towards God and of virtue that benefits them. The invitation is to distance themselves from evil in order to glorify God and, after a virtuous existence, enter the life that consists “wholly of joy”. In her second work that many consider her masterpiece she once again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of the human being, expressing a strong Christo-centrism with a biblical-Patristic flavour. The Saint, who presents five visions inspired by the Prologue of the Gospel according to St John, cites the words of the Son to the Father: “The whole task that you wanted and entrusted to me I have carried out successfully, and so here I am in you and you in me and we are one” (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a).

Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests the versatility of interests and cultural vivacity of the female monasteries of the Middle Ages, in a manner contrary to the prejudices which still weighed on that period. Hildegard took an interest in medicine and in the natural sciences as well as in music, since she was endowed with artistic talent. Thus she composed hymns, antiphons and songs, gathered under the title: Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), that were performed joyously in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of tranquillity and that have also come down to us. For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.

The popularity that surrounded Hildegard impelled many people to seek her advice. It is for this reason that we have so many of her letters at our disposal. Many male and female monastic communities turned to her, as well as Bishops and Abbots. And many of her answers still apply for us. For instance, Hildegard wrote these words to a community of women religious: “The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel” (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’età moderna, Milan 1996, p. 402). And when the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander iii, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God’s judgement. With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: “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!” (ibid., p. 412).

With the spiritual authority with which she was endowed, in the last years of her life Hildegard set out on journeys, despite her advanced age and the uncomfortable conditions of travel, in order to speak to the people of God. They all listened willingly, even when she spoke severely: they considered her a messenger sent by God. She called above all the monastic communities and the clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. 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 that we should never forget. Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women, like St Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.

BENEDICT XVI, GENERAL AUDIENCE, Paul VI Hall,
Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Let’s let St. Hildegarde speak in her own words:

O choruscans lux stellarum,
o splendidissima specialis forma
regalium nuptiarum,
o fulgens gemma,
tu es ornata in alta persona,
quae non habet maculatam rugam.

Tu es etiam socia Angelorum
et civis sanctorum.

Fuge, fuge speluncam antiqui perditoris,
et veniens veni in palatium Regis.

If you search the Web on any five or six consecutive words of text above, you will surely find a translation.

For Hildegard events and items of interest, consult the website of the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies.

(The name Hildegard refers to a battle stronghold. I offer this post in honor of my great aunt, Hildegarde A. Schorsch, MD (1903-2000), a pioneering female physician in Chicago and faithful Catholic.)

© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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