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.
This is an adapted version of a sermon I gave on the Feast of Hildegard von Bingen several years ago
Today is the Feast of Hildegard von Bingen, an unusual person, especially for a woman of the twelfth century. In an era when few women wrote she produced major theological works and visionary writings. At a time when few women were accorded any respect she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises about natural history and the medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She is the first composer whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed.She was one of the most amazing persons of her time.
She was born in the year 1098 to Mathilda and Hildebert Stein. They were a wealthy and noble family and Hildebert was a professional soldier under the Count of Spanheim. Hildegard was their tenth child, and, as was the custom of that time, she became a “tithe;” her parents dedicated her to God. She learned to chant and sing in Latin at an early age, although her family didn’t teach her to read or write. At the age of three she had visions of luminous objects but she soon realized that this made her different from those around her, so she hid this gift for many years. There is a story about a conversation she had with her nurse. They were looking at a cow which was heavy with child, and Hildegard described the unborn calf as "white... marked with different colored spots on its forehead, feet and back." The nurse, amazed with the detail of the young child's account, told Hildegard's mother, who later rewarded her daughter with the calf, whose appearance Hildegard had accurately predicted. When Hildegard was eight years old, it was time for her parents to honor their tithe. They brought her to a woman named Jutta for her religious education. Jutta was also a woman of noble birth who had dedicated her self to God. But instead of entering a convent and becoming a nun, she took a much more harsh route; she became an anchoress. These were women who led an ascetic life, cut off from the world in a small room attached to a church with a small window so that they could observe the Mass. Food was passed to the anchoress through this window, and refuse from the cell was passed through it, too. An anchoress would spend her time in prayer, contemplation, or solitary handwork such as stitching and embroidering. Since an anchoress was dead to the world, she would receive the Last Rites from the bishop before entering her cell. The ceremony was a complete burial rite including the anchoress lying on a bier. The only difference between Jutta’s cell and that of most anchoresses was that hers had a door, a door by which Hildegard and about a dozen other young women entered to live their religious lives, all attracted by Jutta’s fame in her later years. Even though Jutta was supposed to be in charge of Hildegard’s education, it was very rudimentary and Hildegard was plagued by feelings of inadequacy in regards to her education. She learn to read the Psalter in Latin, and while the grammatical intricacies of the language escaped her, she had an intuitive feel for the intricacies of the language itself, and she wrote sentences with meanings on multiple levels which are still a challenge to students of her writings. When Hildegard was 38 years of age, Jutta died, and Hildegard was made Abbess of the small convent which had grown around Jutta’s anchorage.
During all these years Hildegard continued to experience visions, but she only shared these visions with Jutta and a monk named Vomar, who became her lifelong secretary. In one of her writings she describes a vision she had at the age of 42, in which she was told to write down her visions. She was uncomfortable about this, and sought approval from the Church before she would publish them. Hildegard was living during a time when those with outlandish visions and preaching strange doctrines could attract a large following. She was against schismatics and especially the Cathars (a twelfth century version of Gnosticism) so she wanted her visions to be sanctioned by the Church. She wrote to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whom we heard about last month, and he brought her visions and writings to the attention of Pope Eugenius, who encouraged her to finish her writings. With the pope’s approval, her writings and fame began to spread through Germany and Christendom. She wrote several plays and much music. She also wrote about natural science. Her scientific views were derived from the ancient Greek cosmology of the four elements-fire, air, water, and earth- with their complementary qualities of heat, dryness, moisture, and cold, and the corresponding four humours in the body-choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy (black bile). Human constitution was based on the preponderance of one or two of the humours. Indeed, we still use words "choleric", "sanguine", "phlegmatic" and "melancholy" to describe personalities. Sickness upset the delicate balance of the humours, and only consuming the right plant or animal which had that quality you were missing, could restore the healthy balance to the body. That is why in giving descriptions of plants, trees, birds, animals, stones, Hildegard is mostly concerned in describing that object's quality and giving its medicinal use. Thus, "Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous flowing humours and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy. It will bind humors so that they do not overflow, and thus will lessen."
I mentioned earlier that at the age of three Hildegard had visions of luminous objects. Nowadays we can recognize these as symptoms of one who suffers from migraine headaches.It is now generally agreed that Hildegard suffered from migraine, and that her visions were a result of this condition. The way she describes her visions, the precursors, to visions, to debilitating after-effects, point to classic symptoms of migraine sufferers. Although a number of visual hallucinations may occur, the more common ones described are the "scotomata" which often follow perceptions of phosphenes in the visual field. Scintillating scotomata are also associated with areas of total blindness in the visual field, something Hildegard might have been describing when she spoke of points of intense light, and also the "extinguished stars." Migraine attacks are usually followed by sickness, paralysis, blindness -all reported by Hildegard, and when they pass, by a period of rebound and feeling better than before, a euphoria also described by her. Also, writes Oliver Sachs, the noted neurologist, “Among the strangest and most intense symptoms of migraine aura, and the most difficult of description and analysis, are the occurrences of feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude... or its opposite. Such states are experienced, momentarily and occasionally,by everyone; their occurrence in migraine auras is marked by their overwhelming intensity and relatively long duration.” It is a tribute to the remarkable spirit and the intellectual powers of this woman that she was able to turn a debilitating illness into the word of God, and create so much with it.
In the last year of her life Hildegard had to undergo a very severe trial. In the cemetery adjoining her convent a young man was buried who had once been under excommunication. The ecclesiastical authorities of Mainz demanded that she have the body removed. She did not consider herself bound to obey since the young man had received the last sacraments and was therefore supposed to have been reconciled to the Church. Sentence of interdict was placed on her convent by the chapter of Mainz,
and the sentence was confirmed by the bishop, Christian (V) Buch, then in Italy. After much worry and correspondence she succeeded in having the interdict removed. She died a holy death on September 17, 1179, and was buried in the church of Rupertsberg.
Hildegard was an amazing person. She was able to take the disability of migraine and use it as a means of experiencing God. She was able to move above her limited education and become a theologian and visionary. She was the advisor of Bishops, Popes, and Kings. Her visionary writings are an inspriation to this day, and her music can bring one closer to God and to a mystical experience similar to her own. She was able to travel and preach, an experience which other women of her age were denied, and her example has lasted almost one thousand years. So, let us rejoice for the example of Hildegard, woman of Bingen, Theologian, Composer of sacred music, Visionary, and advisor of Bishops and Kings. May we all learn to use our own gifts to the Glory of God.