Hildegarde of Bingen

Mystic, Religious

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Hildegarde of Bingen
Mystic, Religious
Image:Hildegarde and her Nuns

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Hildegarde of Bingen was the youngest of 10 children. At 8 yrs old she was given to the recluse, Jutta of Sponheim, as a pupil and handmaid. As other women gathered round the recluse, their small community was incorporated as a Benedictine nunnery. In her teens Hildegarde took a vow of virginity and, when Jutta died in 1136, she was elected abbess. Later, when the community outgrew the facilities at Sponheim, it moved to Rupertsberg near Bingen.

Five years after becoming abbess, Hildegarde received a call to “proclaim and write” the visions she had been receiving for some time. After overcoming her initial reticence, Hildegarde began to write her first book, the Scivias (“Know the ways [of the Lord]”). She illustrated the work with her own drawings. She received official, if cautious, recognition from Pope Eugenius III. Among her champions were the archbishop of Mainz and Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom Hildegarde had written for counsel. Thanks to this support, she was able to write and preach without incurring the usual sanctions against female teaching.

The Scivias was followed by the Book of Life’s Merits and the Book of Divine Works. In addition, she wrote an encyclopaedia of medicine and natural science, the lives of two saints, several occasional writings, commentaries on the Gospels, the first known morality play, and a body of liturgical music that includes about seventy chants. In the midst of this intense literary activity she also found time to establish two monasteries for women, one of which, today known as the Abbey of St Hildegarde, is still thriving.

Always staunchly orthodox, despite the unconventional style and imagery of her writings, she thundered vigorously against heresy and corruption in the church “in head and members”. Concern for reform led her at the age of 60 to undertake 4 extended preaching tours. She gave sermons in cathedral cities like Cologne and Trier as well as in numerous monasteries. During her lifetime Hildegarde achieved remarkable fame as a visionary, prophet, and healer. Pilgrims thronged to her in search of miracles or spiritual counsel, and those who could not come in person wrote letters. More than three hundred of her letters survive. Among the people she wrote to were Henry II of England, Frederick Barbarossa, and Pope Eugenius III. Later generations remembered her less as an author than as an apocalyptic prophet, and especially cherished her writings on the Antichrist and the coming tribulations of the church.

Hildegarde was 81 when she died, after a life marked by chronic and often excruciating illness as well as inexhaustible energy. She immediately became the object of a cult and was widely celebrated for miracles. In recent decades both her writings and her music have been rediscovered and made more widely available. She is celebrated for her holistic theology of divine wisdom, uniting God, nature, and humanity; for her brilliant visionary language and liturgical poetry; and for a unique mode of vision that combines charismatic jubilation with prophetic indignation, the longing for social order with the quest for social justice.

BORN:1098, Bermersheim vor der Höhe, County Palatine of the Rhine (Germany), Holy Roman Empire

DIED:1179, Bingen am Rhein, County Palatine of the Rhine (Germany), Holy Roman Empire.