Rebooting Hildegard of Bingen

(RNS) — In my parish we celebrate vespers for all four of the women who have been named doctors of the church: Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, Thérèse of Lisieux and Hildegard of Bingen. While the other three tend to be revered as mystics, reformers or holy examples, modern imagery of Hildegard, whose feast is Sept. 17, would have us believe she is all about brewing beer, folk remedies, cosmology and recipes featuring spelt.

But if we look deeper, we find a saint and doctor with messages relevant to us in our turbulent times.

Hildegard’s times were filled with turmoil. She was born in 1098 in Germany, when there were constant disputes between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Clerical corruption was widespread. Heresies turned heads. The crusades caused horrifying carnage. Local lords fought over land.

A call to remember God was in order, and Hildegard became the prophet issuing that call.

At a young age, Hildegard was tithed to the church by her parents and began her monastic life in a hermitage attached to a male monastery in southwestern Germany. She learned from all the written resources available as well as from her own mystical experiences. As with most saints, it was the call of God that made life interesting and Hildegard bold. Her friendship with God made her tick. She said, “I want what God wants,” and set to work for God.

Hildegard von Bingen. Line engraving by W. Marshall.Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Creative Commons

Hildegard of Bingen. Line engraving by W. Marshall. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Creative Commons

First, she took the nuns with her and founded a new abbey for women, and then she founded a second one across the Rhine River. Next, she began to write and to preach against corruption, expressing her concern that the church itself would become a source of evil if it did not change its ways.

She believed that conversion of heart was the starting place. She urged, “Do not be forgetful of God.” She went on preaching tours, urging the clergy to “embrace the straight path … (and) the crown of integrity.”

She wrote beautiful music to support the spiritual lives of others and became the most prolific composer of sacred music in the Middle Ages. She treasured the harmony of body and soul that sung prayer brings, something we sorely miss during pandemic restrictions. Hildegard was a deeply respected spiritual authority, calling others to “befriend their souls” in order to “become the friends of God.”

My favorite Hildegard insights are about prayer, an excellent way to befriend one’s soul and seek friendship with God. She said, “The human being is a house of prayer.” That wonderful image reminds us to seek God in our own depths — something all four women doctors of the church emphasize. Imagine treating ourselves and others as houses of prayer.

She asks us to “look to God in all that we do” and warns that this requires “great trust” and “a lot of effort.” She reminds us to “carry God’s light diligently.” She promises that the Holy Spirit “comes softly to a faithful soul and wondrously brings all its strength.”

Illumination from Liber Scivias, showing Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision, dictating to her scribe and sketching on a wax tablet. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Illumination from Liber Scivias, showing Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision, dictating to her scribe and sketching on a wax tablet. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Hildegard says, “When any faithful heart fixes its spirit upon God, it cannot be torn away from God … nor does one walk in an unstable whirlwind.” Our whirlwind is the pandemic, political divisions, the battle against racism, crises within the church, and the havoc of climate change.

But these need not tear us away from God, she says: “The grace of God is near you … so do not cut yourself off from it.” In turn, God will “make us alive invisibly” and “will always hear.” She says God’s mercy and compassion “are available to those who seek them.”

I am touched by Hildegard’s hope and faith amid the turmoil of her time. Even when she might have been tempted to give up, what with the erring ways of humankind, she believed “something of that original light remains in us.” Her image is like a little candle by which we can find our way back to God. I’m also fond of her humorous images. She declares our good fortune in being created round “like a wheel, … so that we roll back to God.” Some days it seems our main mission is to roll out of bed and roll back to God.

My all-time favorite Hildegard insight is a powerful one: “God will demand that we be raised up.” A saint and doctor who reminds us of that is well worth celebrating.

(Susan Garthwaite is a spiritual director, spiritual writer and retreat leader in the Chicago area, and author of “Saint Hildegard: Ancient Insights for Modern Seekers .” You can find her online at susangarthwaite.com and on Twitter @SusanGarthwait2. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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