Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hildegard of Bingen

Our saint for today, Hildegard, was born in 1098 in present-day Germany, in the Rhineland Valley. Also known as the “Sybil of the Rhine,” Hildegard was a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, abbess, visionary, doctor, scientist, and … polymath. She was a Renaissance woman well before the Renaissance!

Hildegard was her parents’ tenth child, so naturally, they tithed her to the Church (!). A lifelong monastic, she served in a Benedictine monastery as a child, went on to a convent, became the abbess, and later founded two other convents. She lived only among women, and with no men around, she found that her efforts to learn and to express herself were unhampered. So Hildegard was a real rarity of the 11th century in her opportunities for artistic expression.

From the age of three, Hildegard was subject to divine visions that she only began to write down at the age of 43. She described the source of her visions as “The Shade of the Living Light.”

Here is a sample of Hildegard’s writing:

She is Divine Wisdom. She watches over all people and all things in heaven and on earth, being of such radiance and brightness that, for the measureless splendor that shines in Her, you cannot gaze on Her face or on the garments She wears. For She is awesome in terror as the Thunderer's lightning, and gentle in goodness as the sunshine. Hence, in Her terror and Her gentleness, She is incomprehensible to mortals, because of the dread radiance of divinity in Her face and the brightness that dwells in Her as the robe of Her beauty. She is like the Sun, which none can contemplate in its blazing face or in the glorious garment of its rays. For She is with all and in all, and of beauty so great in Her mystery that no one could know how sweetly She bears with people, and with what unfathomable mercy She spares them.

- From "The Holy Spirit as Wisdom: Scientia Dei (Knowledge of God)," St. Hildegard von Bingen, trans. B. Newman (mod.)

Hildegard was famous in her own time as a counselor for royalty and church officials. She was a traveling preacher and evangelist and also a doctor who focused on women’s needs. Even as a woman outside the convent, Hildegard was able to exert great influence on the culture around her.

Most recently, we have known Hildegard as a composer who pushed the 12th-century musical envelope. One claim to fame is that she composed what is certainly the oldest surviving morality play, Ordo Virtutum (“The Soul’s Journey”). I listened to it online this week: it is an hour-long musical drama, all in Latin, about a soul being wrestled over by the Virtues and the Devil. My favorite feature of this piece is the fact that the character of Satan never sings—he only speaks, for as Hildegard herself wrote, Satan is unable to participate in the divine harmony.

The rediscovery of Hildegard’s music took place too late for her to earn a place in our 1982 Hymnal. But I did find a copy of one of her pieces in Voices Found, a hymnal that specifically celebrates the contributions of women in church music. If you dare, please sing with me #105, “Laus trinitati,” in its original Latin.


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