The Church Fathers ABCs
A Frail Rib with Mystical Lungs: Preaching Hildegard of Bingen
By this time, perhaps due to the pedigree of many of its nuns, Hildegard's cloister had become lavishly endowed to the point where the ladies were living lives rather more comfortably than the monastic rules allowed. So around 1150, Hildegard along with twenty of her nuns, left to found a Spartan new convent near Bingen. "When the fear of the Lord leads, those who are poor in spirit follow;" she wrote, "for the fear of the Lord holds fast in humble devotion to the blessedness of poverty of spirit, which does not seek boasting or elation of heart, but loves simplicity and sobriety of mind, attributing its just works not to itself, but to God in pale subjection, wearing, as it were, a tunic of subdued color and faithfully following the serene footsteps of the son of God."
Life in Hildegard's cloister was devoted to worship and prayer, much of which was done in accordance with music and lyrics she composed. Here's a link to a piece of this music, here classically performed by the group Anonymous 4. Whether Hildegard's music inspires you to worship or gives you a migraine, either way, you get a sense of its ethereal nature. Her intent was to mimic the sounds of heaven, which she claimed to have heard in her own headache-inspired visions, sounds that consoled her by reminding her that her seat was already saved with God. It was this sense of safety, her confidence in being loved by Him, that enabled her to follow him wherever and however her faith took her, even to the corrupt halls of royal and ecclesial power. "I've not got the sinew of a lion, because I've never been classically taught. I'm also nothing like an early church father, because I've never been officially a student. I'm merely a too-sensitive, frail rib with mystical lungs, who saw a living, blazing fire that couldn't be put out."
In time, Hildegard's writing and musical compositions caught the attention of another 12th-century mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, a founder of the rigorous Cistercian order. Bernard and Hildegard became avid correspondents, and eventually, Bernard secured Pope Eugenius III's approval of Hildegard's theology. Soon she was traveling all over Germany on a speaking tour, a most unusual venture for a medieval abbess, especially since most of that tour entailed her rebuking monks, clergymen, secular officials, and rank and file laypeople for their carnal transgressions and fondness for luxury.
Some of her rebukes were embarrassingly practical. To men she wrote, "One who burns strongly in lust while either asleep or awake should take care not to add flame to his fire. How? Let him not inflame himself by those foods that stir up lust. He should humbly abstain from the flesh of animals that come forth from their mothers naked and without covering, that is, beef and meat; for there is a fire of heat in them that is not as great in the flesh of birds, which are born not uncovered but as an egg covered with a shell, and therefore they have less inflammatory power." Basically, curb your lust by eating more chicken.
Hildegard was passionate about virtue, understanding it as the gift of God accessible to any with the will to want it. "When anger tries to burn up the temple of my body," she wrote, "I look to God's goodness and will become sweeter than the breeze whose gentleness moistens the earth. I'll look to the God of peace, because then I'll have spiritual joy as the virtues begin to show themselves in me. . . . And when hatred tries to diminish who I am, I'll look to the kindness of Christ and to the pain he bore. I'll accept the thorns that give off the delicate fragrance of roses. They grew to honor the One who was faithful, and by controlling myself, I'll bring honor to my Lord."
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.