On Saturday, September 17, the Church remembers Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a medieval woman of many gifts: mystic, visionary, poet, composer, visual artist, doctor, scientist, theologian, preacher, and abbess. She is also one of my all time favorite saints, and one whose work with the natural and spiritual worlds feels especially important today.
Hildegard was born in 1098 into a wealthy family in the German province of Rhenhessen. Hildegard was their 10th child, and when she was eight her family gave her to the anchoress Jutta, who lived at a Benedictine abbey nearby (an anchoress was a woman who lived in seclusion, often attached to a religious community). Jutta cared for and educated Hildegard until she was 18 and joined the Benedictine abbey as a nun.
For most of her life, Hildegard experienced intense visions. She wrote, “These visions which I saw I beheld neither in sleep nor dreaming nor in madness nor with my bodily eyes or ears, nor in hidden places; but I saw them in full view and according to God’s will, when I was wakeful and alert, with the eyes of the spirit and the inward ears.” To express them, Hildegard painted, composed music, and wrote poetry and accounts of the visions. (You can see examples of her paintings from her major text Scivias here and here, and listen to one of her musical compositions here.)
After Jutta’s death, Hildegard became prioress of her community, eventually founding and leading two independent convents. Though she lived during a time when male governance was the norm in matters of religion and state, Hildegard operated with authority within her spiritual communities and outside of them. She was recognized as a holy preacher as well as a mystic and made preaching tours through the Rhineland. Beyond her immediate area, Hildegard corresponded with and counseled kings, queens, popes, theologians, and clergy, sharing both spiritual insights and criticism. She died in 1179.
One of Hildegard’s legacies is the connection between the spiritual and natural worlds. In addition to the music, poetry, spiritual commentary, and visual art she left behind, she also wrote medical and pharmacological texts (which are incredible repositories of medieval medical knowledge). Hildegard understood humanity as co-creators with God in shaping the world. Human sin fractured the world, sending us out of harmony with God, but that sin did not “erase the original goodness and blessing of creation” (Ellsberg). Through Christ, Hildegard believed, we and all of creation find our way back to God and our original harmony. In all things, Hildegard saw viriditas, or greenness, shining through: the animating energy of life or grace of God.
We are in an age of disharmony with our natural world. Humanity has altered its patterns and courses, causing harm to nature and to our fellow people. The most vulnerable are at the greatest risk: not only to the impacts of inclement weather and natural disaster, but also to the public health, economic, political, and humanitarian crises that arise from climate change.
If you were at the 10 a.m. Eucharist on Sunday (or caught it on the live stream), you may have noticed that our altar frontal changed from Ordinary Time green to the quilted Creation frontal. In early fall, Christians around the world celebrate a Season of Creation, a time to reflect on God’s incredible gift, our place as part of it, and our care for it. As the season continues, I wonder: Where do you see Hildegard’s viriditas shining through? How are you connected with the world beyond yourself? How might you live in greater harmony with creation, and with God? What practical changes, big or small, can you make to co-create a world less bound by sin and more by Christ’s love?
I’ll leave you with Hildegard’s collect to help us on our way, a reminder of both the joy of our shared life and the action we are called to take:
God of all times and seasons: Give us grace that we, after the example of your servant Hildegard, may both know and make known the joy and jubilation of being part of your creation, and show forth your glory not only with our lips but in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
For more about Hildegard, check out:
Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), 405-6.
Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (Church Publishing Incorporated, 2010), 588-9.
Additionally, I just started reading God’s Hotel, by Victoria Sweet, which delves more into Hildegard’s medical work and its relationship to modern medicine.