Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church

Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church October 7, 2012
Hildegard icon by Sr. Jeana Visel, OSB. Used by permission.

Today Pope Benedict has formally declared my beloved patroness Hildegard of Bingen, along with John of Avila, the newest Doctors of the Church – a rare honorific title (the two bring the total to 35) given to those who have made significant contributions to the Church’s tradition.  After making it official, the pope offered this tribute in his homily at today’s opening of the Synod of Bishops

Saint Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the twelfth century, offered her precious contribution to the growth of the Church of her time, employing the gifts received from God and showing herself to be a woman of brilliant intelligence, deep sensitivity and recognized spiritual authority. The Lord granted her a prophetic spirit and fervent capacity to discern the signs of the times. Hildegard nurtured an evident love of creation, and was learned in medicine, poetry and music. Above all, she maintained a great and faithful love for Christ and the Church.

The context is fitting for a theologian who got her big break, so to speak, by earning a round of applause from the bishops at the Trier Synod eight and a half centuries earlier, to whom Pope Eugenius III read excerpts from what would become her first book of visions.

Medieval scholar Nathaniel M. Campbell has written some intriguing speculations on what Hildegard’s “doctor name” could be, based on a few of the most prominent facets of her manifold contributions.  (Update: he provides an impressive news roundup here.)  Personally, I like to think of her as the original Anti-Dichotomy Queen: a rational mystic, a poetic visionary who believed in an ordered universe, an artist and scientist, a prophetic and innovative reformer deeply committed to orthodoxy and tradition, a brazen leader who didn’t hesitate to give scoldings to anyone from laypeople to fellow monastic leaders to popes and emperors while openly expressing profound self-doubt when requesting encouragement from mentors and other leaders.

In light of her paradoxical qualities and the polarizations of our day, I hope others will join me in asking Hildegard’s intercession for the healing of the divisive wounds in our church and in our world.  Saint Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, pray for us.

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  • As you may or may not know, among the many other things she did, Hildegard actually invented a language, Lingua Ignota. She’s apparently the first known person to have constructed an artificial language (or “conlang”). As a linguistics buff, I like that about her. Doctor Linguistica? More seriously, I’m really glad to hear this. Sancta Hildegard, ora pro nobis!

  • crystal

    I’ve been looking forward to seeing the movie about her …

    One thing I don’t especially like about her though is her championing of complementarianism.

    • Julia Smucker

      I’ve seen the movie, and it gives a much more well-rounded portrayal than it appears from the trailer.

  • Ronald King

    Thanks for posting this Julia. You influenced me to do a little research this morning in order to learn a little about St. Hildegard. One item, among many, which caught my attention was her vision of the Holy Trinity. Between you and I, the Luminous Light which surrounds Christ and the Holy Spirit is the same Light which filled the ceiling of my room and told me around Christmas of 2004 in a voice that was neither male nor female, “I love you.”. I hadn’t returned to the Church yet and had been away for 40 years. I am going to do more research on her life and work. God Bless.

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    While I’m not sure St. Hildegard wasn’t something of a nut (as with her design of an arcane nomenclature, though maybe she did it just as a hobby), I’ve been gratified, since I first heard of her from Jacques Maritain’s citation (in note 2 to Chap. XIII) in his book On the Church of Christ, that in a century that was tending more and more to execute or otherwise kill heretics, she wrote, “Make the heretics leave the Church: but do not kill them at all; for they are made as we are [*or* “as you are”] in the image of God.”
    Now I suppose some of Hildegard’s remarks can at first glance make her seem a sort of Stockholm-syndrome misogynist; but in the context of certain other things that I understand she’s written, a more likely interpretation of her “misogynist” remarks is that, asserting equality between the sexes in dignity, she has a “vive-la-différence” outlook, in which, rightly or wrongly, she bad-mouths both effeminacy in men, and mannishness in women.
    Two of her other views that go toward refuting misogyny are that Eve should not be blamed more than Adam for the original sin; and that in the divine design, sexual intercourse between spouses is not for procreation exclusively, but also for fostering their conjugal love.

    • J. H. M. Ortiz

      Actually, since I don’t know for a fact that Hildegard explicitly bad-mouthed mannishness in women, I’d have done better to write instead that it’s more likely that she “reckons deleterious both effeminacy in men, and mannishness in women.”