Renowned as polymath, pastor—and prophet
For a woman in medieval Europe, the Benedictine abbess later known as St. Hildegard occupied a relatively privileged position.
In part, this was due to privilege of birth: as the child of a noble family who possessed the clout to get her into a monastery, she could learn to read, to sing and perform music. In part, it was due to her own formidable talents: an autodidact gifted with innate genius and intellectual curiosity, she was self-taught in a range of disciplines and produced numerous scientific writings.
But in the view of Barbara Newman, a medieval scholar and religious historian at Northwestern University who has written three books on Hildegard, one factor above all facilitated the immense authority and renown Hildegard garnered in her time.
“She was a prophet,” Newman says of Hildegard. “She heard the voice of God. She literally saw visions. She had unshakeable conviction that God was calling her to do what she did, to say what she said, to write what she wrote.… She was tremendously charismatic. The force of that conviction made her … kind of irresistible.”
Born in 1098 in what was then the Holy Roman Empire, Hildegard joined the Benedictine monastery at the Disibodenberg as a child oblate. Under the careful training of mentor Jutta of Sponheim, she was able to nurture her nascent abilities in music and the study of scripture and theology.
From an early age, Hildegard saw visions. Newman compares her to the anchoress Julian of Norwich; Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, a priest of the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles and scholar at Claremont School of Theology, calls Hildegard “the precursor to the great women medieval mystics.” But where Julian had one vision of Christ’s Passion at age 30 and spent the rest of her days pondering it, Hildegard experienced visions throughout her life.
Newman describes many medieval visions as relatively simple, serving essentially as an “excuse for discourse”: for example, Jesus or the Virgin Mary might appear to say something to the visionary. Hildegard, in contrast, “had a very painterly imagination.… She would see a whole scenario, sometimes like a moving picture, sometimes a kind of tableau in full colour, and she would actually describe each thing that she saw.”
During these visions, Newman says, Hildegard did not experience ecstasy or go into a trance or rapture. Rather, she would see them in a waking state with eyes wide open, observing both the ordinary world and the visionary world “on two planes at once”—a unique experience in the annals of visionaries.
“For her, visions were a teaching technique … a way of visualizing the doctrine that God was calling her to teach to the church,” Newman says.
Though famed as a mystic, Hildegard also excelled in practical leadership. After Jutta died, Hildegard was unanimously elected as the magistra or leader of the small group of nuns at the Disibodenberg, which at the time was attached to a male monastery.
Eventually, Hildegard desired independence for the nuns. Her powerful connections enabled her to purchase land elsewhere and lead a secession of her group from the Disibodenberg.
The new community, called the Rupertsberg, would include 50 nuns, with Hildegard as their undisputed leader. Hildegard exercised judicial authority over the nuns, served as their spiritual teacher and composed music for the liturgy. She also took charge of the herb garden, enabling the community to provide medical care for locals.
Kujawa-Holbrook notes that Hildegard’s superiors permitted her to write about her visions, which gained her some renown: “Though she had some detractors—mostly those who opted for a more traditional version of the religious life than she did—there is evidence that she was known by religious and secular leaders throughout Europe, as evidenced by her letters,” Kujawa-Holbrook says.
By the time she was about 50, Hildegard had gained a reputation as a visionary, prophet and healer. She became the only woman of the Middle Ages authorized by ecclesiastical leaders to go on preaching tours. Her extensive correspondence led her to become what Newman describes as the “Ask Amy of her day,” responding to clergy who sought her advice on questions from how to resist sin to the best ways of managing monastic communities.
A keen observer of the natural world, Hildegard wrote about animals, birds and minerals in a desire to learn more about their medicinal properties. She eventually produced a compendium of medicine that, although not especially influential in her own time, has shaped many modern holistic health practices.
Her writings on the interaction between human beings and the environment have also been influential through her concept of viriditas or “greenness,” which Kujawa-Holbrook describes as “the life-giving power that animates all of creation—the greening power of God.”
After her death in 1179, Hildegard became predominantly known as an apocalyptic prophet due to her writings on the End Times and the Second Coming, which would end up being widely circulated among both Catholics and Protestants. Later, she gained new popularity in the wake of 20th century feminism, which found inspiration in her work from a time when opportunities for women were severely limited. In 2012, the Roman Catholic Church canonized her as a saint and Doctor of the Church. Only four women hold this title, and Hildegard is the earliest of them, Newman says.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Hildegard’s legacy is her impact on music and the arts. There are approximately 75 musical pieces known to have been composed by Hildegard. She wrote a “sacred music drama,” akin to an oratorio, entitled Play of the Virtues and likely designed or sketched images in one manuscript of her writings.
Today, Hildegard maintains a strong following in the Anglican tradition, where her feast day is celebrated on Sept. 17. Choirs, study groups and religious communities have all been named after her, and many Anglicans participate in an annual Hildegard pilgrimage in Germany.
Within the Anglican Church of Canada, Hildegard was the inspiration for St. Hildegard’s Sanctuary, an “inclusive, arts-based, contemplative Christian community” in the parish of St. Faith’s in the diocese of New Westminster. The Rev. Melanie Calabrigo, who serves as visionary and gathering priest for St. Hildegard’s, says the community chose Hildegard as its patron saint due to her diverse spiritual practices.
Members of St. Hildegard’s Sanctuary, Calabrigo says, “resonate with Hildegard‘s sense of connection between creativity and the Holy and the ways in which the work of our hands connects us to the Divine. The community is rooted in a theology of aesthetics and the notion of encountering the Holy in the experience of beauty, which results in hope and healing.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hildegard has stayed relevant. Calabrigo quotes one community member, who called Hildegard “a healer of body, soul, and spirit” and noted, “We certainly need healers in these times. And to learn from them as we navigate this pandemic, as well as the pain and grief caused by deep systemic brokenness.”