28 Feb Hildegard the Polymath: Catholic Saint
Today is the feast day of Saint Hildegard. Ora pro nobis.
by Ed Masters
In the year of Our Lord 1098, Hildegard was born of noble parents in Bockelheim on the Nahe river in southwestern Germany. She grew up to become a polymath —a prophetess, writer, composer, philosopher, abbess, and visionary – famous as “the Sybil of the Rhine.”
Hildegard would have been a remarkable woman in any day or age.Tradition has it that Hildegard was the youngest of ten children born to Mechtilde (Matilda) and Hildebert; she was weak and prone to illness. St. Hildegard’s parents were interested in worldly affairs, yet they entrusted their eight-year-old daughter to the monastery of Mount Saint Disibode, under the care of a relative, Jutta — a holy, devout nun and sister to Count Stephen II of Spanheim.
Hildegard’s Famous Visions
From an early age Hildegard experienced visions:
“Up to my fifteenth year I saw much, and related some of the things seen to others, who would inquire with astonishment, whence such things might come. I also wondered and during my sickness I asked one of my nurses whether she also saw similar things. When she answered no, a great fear befell me. Frequently, in my conversation, I would relate future things, which I saw as if present, but, noting the amazement of my listeners, I became more reticent.“
Hildegard had little formal education: She learned the Psalter in Latin but never mastered the Latin language. Nevertheless, following God’s command, she wrote down everything she was shown in her visions. Hildegard herself described it thus:
And it came to pass…when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming…and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…
Feeling unworthy and unqualified for such a task, she was reticent about God’s command, and wrote:
But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of God, I fell onto a bed of sickness.
Hildegard knew her visions were of Divine origin, but she yearned for them to be approved by the Church. Beset by this dilemma, she wrote to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who notified Pope Eugene III (1145-1153) of the situation. The Pontiff encouraged her to the task God commanded. Knowing she now had papal approval, the immediate result of her first recorded visions was her book Scivias (‘Know the Ways of the Lord’) and her fame spread throughout Europe.
Hildegard the Abbess
After Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard became the superior of the convent that had grown up around the anchorage where people devoted themselves to a solitary life of penance and prayer. As this convent grew in numbers Hildegard decided to go elsewhere, encouraged by a Divine command. She settled in Rupertsburg near Bingen on the left bank of the Rhine.
Having been granted permission by Count Bernard of Hildesheim, she stayed in her new home with eighteen sisters from 1150, until she founded another convent in 1165 at Eibingen on the right side of the Rhine. During these years, she was privileged to meet with the Emperor Frederick and to correspond with Popes Eugene III, Anastasius IV, Adrian IV, and Alexander III, as well as the Emperors Conrad III and Fredrick I.
Luminaries as well common people asked Hildegard for advice, Biblical interpretations, and explanations of the divine mysteries. She made predictions for the Holy Roman Emperor — which he confirmed came to pass — as well as predictions for the future that have yet to be fulfilled.
Against Abuses of the Clergy
Of interest to modern-day Germans, Hildegard strongly condemned venal priests and prelates for their luxurious lifestyles, sexual immorality, and other abuses. On one occasion a prior asked her to pray for him as he was praying for her; Hildegard chided him for having a pagan outlook on prayer. Hildegard also left many written works and a number of prophecies about the future of the Church and of Europe that have yet to come to pass.
She wrote a variety of musical compositions for use in the liturgy; the musical morality play Ordo Virtutum; sermons, which she preached in the 1160s and 1170s; two volumes on natural medicines and cures, Physica and Causaeet Curae, (including a cure for the then-dread disease of leprosy). In addition, she invented a language called “Lingua Ignota”; wrote a Gospel commentary and two works of hagiography; in addition to Liber Vitae Meritorum (‘The Book of Life’s Rewards’) and Liber Divonorum Operum (‘Book of Divine Works’). She completed the last of these works when she was in her 70s.
Hildegard also had some interesting observations about the earth and the universe regarding its elements and function.In the interior of the earth, she believed, are two vast spaces shaped like truncated cones, where punishment was endured, and from whence great evil came forth. She thought the earth itself was composed of the four elements that are represented as being curiously unequal in proportion and shape. Their arrangement, she believed, is not orderly, and this very disorder illustrates one of Hildegard’s fundamental doctrines regarding the relation of this world to the universe: Before man’s fall, the elements were united in an harmonious combination, and earth was paradise; after that catastrophe, the harmony of the universe was disturbed, with the center of all the trouble on this planet which has ever since remained in its now familiar state of chaotic confusion or mistio, as Hildegard’s age called it.
[The elements] thus mingled will remain until subjected to the melting pot of the Lord’s Judgment, when they will emerge in a new and eternal harmony, no longer mixed as matter, but separate and pure, parts of a new heaven and a new earth.
The Real Hildegard
Hildegard had no use for schismatics and heretics such as the Cathars, who thrived in southern France and northern Italy at the time. She preached against them her entire life, rebuking them severely.
Hildegard, like her friend St. Bernard of Clairvaux, also supported the Second Crusade. When Philip of Flanders arrived in the Holy Land in 1176 AD to lend support to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the leper King Baldwin IV, he was supported by Hildegard’s mandate: “If the time shall come when the infidels seek to destroy the fountain of faith, then fight them as hard as, with God’s help, you may be able to do.”
In what was to be her final year of her earthly sojourn Hildegard was forced to go through a grim test. In a cemetery next to her convent, an excommunicated young man had been buried. The Church authorities in Mainz demanded that she remove his body, which she refused to do, because the young man had received the Last Rites and had been reconciled to the Church. Her convent was placed under interdict by Christian Buch, Bishop of Mainz. After notifying Rome of her predicament, she was successful at having the unjust interdict removed. She died a peaceful, holy death in 1179 AD.
There has been a renewal of interest in Hildegard’s life in recent years, especially after her fellow countryman, Pope Benedict XVI, made her a Doctor of the Church in 2012. (Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, various New Age groups within and outside of Catholicism have hijacked some of that interest. No doubt St. Hildegard would have had as much use for them as she had for the Cathars.)
Hildegard was beatified by Pope John XXII on August 26, 1326 and formally canonized after almost seven centuries by Pope Benedict XVI.
Image: Hildegard von Bingen empfängt eine göttliche Inspiration und gibt sie an ihren Schreiber weiter. (6)
Photos taken by Beverly Stevens and Eddie Masters