A Feather on the Breath of God

hildegard_of_bingen_and_nuns
Hildegard and her nuns

In the year 1112, a young girl who had been given to the church by her parents as a tithe was entombed in an anchorite’s cell with another woman, Jutta. The mass of the dead was performed over the enclosed cell, as was customary, and the girl became an anchoress until her eventual release in 1136 upon Jutta’s death. The girl, now around 38 years old, was then unanimously declared as the next abbess of the Disenbodenberg convent. She went on to become a renowned theologian, composer, and mystic. The girl was Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 Sept 1179), medieval firebrand, visionary, thorn in the side of her male contemporaries, and she remains as relevant today as she was in her own time.

Hildegard was a product of her time and was not a feminist by any modern definition of the word, but she was a fierce advocate of the sacred value of women. Her theology was feminine, focusing largely on the idea of God as a cosmic egg, a womb that nurtures all things. She acknowledged the dogma of her time, which decreed that God was male, but she claimed that she was unable to bear looking upon the divine in her visions unless it presented as female. Although women were prohibited from preaching, nevertheless, she persisted, going on several tours to preach to her male superiors about the sins of the Church, which was rife with sexual misconduct and corruption. One of Hildegard’s more interesting visions, Ecclesia, depicts the Church giving birth to the Antichrist because of the venality of its clergy. She was not afraid of confrontation, and even wrote scathing letters to Pope Anastasius IV about the sad state of his Church:

You are neglecting justice, the King’s daughter [the Church], the heavenly bride, the woman who was entrusted to you. And you are even tolerant that this princess be hurled to the ground. Her crown and jeweled raiment are torn to pieces through the moral crudeness of men who bark like dogs and make stupid sounds like chickens which sometimes begin to cackle in the middle of the night. They are hypocrites. (Fox, 1987, p. 274)

At one point, Hildegard and her nuns were even placed under interdict for refusing to comply with orders to disinter a suspected apostate, whom Hildegard allowed to be buried in hallowed ground in her convent. Hildegard refused to relent and eventually the interdict was lifted. She could, and did, go toe to toe with male authority, and bravely fought for her beliefs within the system that was available to her.

Hildegard was also a gifted composer of music, another realm generally designated for men only. Because she was a Benedictine nun and adhered to that order’s strict daily schedule, she sang the Divine Office eight times a day. She believed that singing was the highest form of prayer and music connected humankind directly to the divine. During her interdict, she was prohibited from singing, which was the harshest punishment for her. Hildegard said in a letter to the prelates of Mainz that “the soul is arises from heavenly harmony” (Fox, 1987, p. 359) and in music she referred to herself as a feather on the breath of God. She wrote over 70 songs and Ordo Virtutum, which is sometimes considered to be the first opera. A sampling of her songs may be found at the following sites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8gK0_PgIgY or http://www.slacker.com/artist/hildegard-von-bingen

Her mystical visions still bring inspiration. Often, they reflect her concept of Viriditas, the greening power, which she believed was the divine made manifest in everything on earth. She wrote, “I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars … I awaken everything to life” (Fox, 1987, p. 8-10). Hildegard felt the creation of all things reflected the face of the divine and that nature was sacred, something that is “highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats” (Sharratt, 2012, para. 6).

Hildegard’s death on September 17, 1179 marks a date of commemoration for this woman, a medieval mystic, visionary, healer, and saint. She was ordained a Doctor of the Church 900 years after her death. Today, women the world over still find solace and strength in her words and songs. We can use her for guidance to find our own viriditas, strength, and sacredness in nature, regardless of faith or lack thereof.

References

Classical Music goturhjem2. (2013, Feb 13). Hildegard von Bingen – Music and Visions [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8gK0_PgIgY.

Hildegard of Bingen. (1987). Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs. Matthew Fox (Ed.). Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.  

Hildegard von Bingen. (n.d.). Slacker Radio. Retrieved from http://www.slacker.com/artist/hildegard-von-bingen.

Newman, B. (1987). Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sharratt, M. (2012, Oct 27). 8 Reasons Why Hildegard Matters Now. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-sharratt/8-reasons-why-hildegard-matters-now_b_2006626.html.

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