The Church Fathers ABCs
A Frail Rib with Mystical Lungs: Preaching Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard was justly famous all over Europe. She was a prodigious writer, playwright and poet, a composer, an annoyance as well as an advisor to kings and prelates, and a renowned healer of physical and mental ills. Her meditations and musical compositions have recently enjoyed a notable revival, which has proven to be a mixed blessing. Author Charlotte Allen describes how Hildegard has been re-invented as a posthumous spokeswoman for feminist causes and an icon of church rebellion. A prime example involves her best-known religious work, Scivias, or in English, Know the Way. The manuscript elaborates on Hildegard's many visions of Divine Wisdom, that eternal, upright, and prudent quality of divine existence that characterizes the faithful of God. For Hildegard, wisdom gives energy to all life, sustaining all things. Hildegard asserted that wisdom is manifest in the revelatory and redeeming knowledge of God, incarnate as Christ and vocal through the Scriptures. She is manifest finally in the redeemed church of God, the bride of Christ.
Because wisdom gets personified as female throughout Scripture, and thus by Hildegard throughout her own writings, Hildegard's latter-day literary admirers have cast her as a worshipper of the Goddess Sophia (which she wasn't). Her writings on medicine and healing have gotten her labeled a holistic-health nut (which she wasn't). The fact that Hildegard occasionally let her followers dress in silk rather than the customary habits nuns wore has caused her to be cast as something of a dress-code rebel (which she wasn't), while her practice of self-mortification (fasting and flagellation), has caused her to be honored by anorexics as their own patron saint. Charlotte Allen writes that the real Hildegard would have scoffed at the insipid victimology she inspires among contemporary writers and scholars. Instead, this nun, Allen writes, "was one tough sister."
Hildegard was born to a noble family in southwestern Germany in 1098, soon after Pope Urban II commenced the first crusade. The tenth child in her family, Hildegard was dedicated by her parents to the church as a tithe—a regular practice among medieval families. However, the fact that Hildegard was a sickly child may have also had something to do with her parents handing her off to a convent.
At the convent, an anchoress named Jutta took Hildegard under her wing. For those unfamiliar with the Anchorites, they were those members of religious orders who took being dead to the world as literally as a person still living could take it. Considering the digs of a convent too posh, Anchorites lived their lives confined to one-room cells attached to a church or a convent or monastery, with only a small window to link them to the world. There they prayed and meditated on Scripture. So austere was their existence that Anchorites participated in their own funerals, complete with last rites and being laid out in a coffin, prior to their being metaphorically buried in the self-confinement of their small crypt of a room.
Jutta's room wasn't as bare as most anchorite cells—she did have a door. And it was through this door that Hildegard and about half a dozen rich girls entered to be tutored by Jutta (perhaps to the chagrin of some of their noble families). Hildegard hung out with Jutta for thirty years in that small room, learning Latin, praying to God, and writing. And then when Jutta died, Hildegard was the unanimous choice to lead the group that had formed into a cloister around Jutta's leadership.
Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.