“And so, in my own age, when learned men, quoting Saint Peter, call woman the weaker vessel, even they have to concede that a woman can be a font of truth, filled with vision, her voice moving like a feather on the breath of God.”
Sybil of the Rhine, The Living Light, healer, abbess, visionary, musician & composer, author, Benedictine nun, philosopher, mystic, and all around badass; Hildegard von Bingen lived in a time when women were severely oppressed, the Catholic Church was in turmoil, and anyone who practiced natural healing and experienced visions (she had visions from the age of 3) were questioned and often considered a heretic or witch. No, I’m not talking about this century, I’m talking about the High Middle Ages.
A modern feminist and humanist of her time, Hildegard fought for the right of everyone to be forgiven, to let your hair down, to not be ashamed of your sexuality, to take responsibility for the care of creation, and for her music to be heard. She fought the patriarchy by speaking out against the corrupt and selfish men of the church. She didn’t take “no” for an answer. She cared for the sick, the poor, the oppressed, and the excommunicated. She used tinctures, herbs, and precious stones to heal people, saying (modern interpretation) “prayer and fasting aren’t enough, God gave us these tools in nature to put to use.” She believed that (modern interpretation) in complete opposition of the church “Menstruation does not render a woman unclean, but the shedding of blood in war certainly renders a soldier unclean."
The word “viriditas” is Latin for “greenness,” also “vitality, lushness, and growth.” Hildegard used this word referring to spiritual and physical health. She used tinctures, herbs, and precious stones to help heal people. She had a large apothecary garden at her convent and taught her fellow nuns how to identify and use plants. She is also believed to be the first person to write a book (“Physica”) about the healing attributes of nature.
Hildegard was betrothed to the church at the ripe age of 8, committing her life to God, and lived as a student of Jutta, an anchoress (a symbolic “anchor” to the world of God) only 6 years her senior. While young Hildegard hated every moment of living in the cell away from the forests, unable to climb trees and play with her siblings, she did learn from Jutta how to read, write, sing, and play music.
Jutta practiced asceticism, penitential self-flagellation, prayed barefoot in the extreme cold, and wore a spiked chain under her clothes that left brutal and bloody wounds lingering with infection and caused constant pain and suffering. When Jutta died, Hildegard was responsible for tending to her body and discovered the rusty metal chains wrapping her torso, vowing and even insisting that the other nuns not partake in this selfishly violent act. Since her predecessor was gone, Hildegard was named Abbess and made it her mission to build a monastery of their very own, set apart from the one they shared with the men of the church at Disibodenberg. After much struggle and pushback from her fellow monastics, she was finally given permission to build her dream monastery in the forests of Rupertsberg along the Rhine River.
Hildegard’s closest friend, confidant, and teacher, Brother Volmar, moved to the monastery as the nun’s prior and father confessor. He encouraged Hildegard to write about her visions, thus instigating the process of having to prove herself as a holy woman of God and mystic to the church who was firm on not believing her.
Near the end of her amazing and long life, Hildegard took in a young man who was abused by the church and excommunicated. He soon died in her care and made a promise to him on his death bed that he would be buried on their consecrated grounds. The canons of the church demanded that the young man’s body be exhumed. Hildegard, being the stubborn and “good trouble” kind of woman that she was, refused, saying that he had been forgiven and confessed his sins on his very death bed. The canons gave orders to local authorities to dig up the young man’s body. But before the authorities arrived, Hildegard and her brood blessed every grave in the cemetery, then removed each and every headstone so the excommunicated man’s body was lost in the now mass grave. Enraged by her clear actions of disobedience, the canons placed the abbey under interdict (services, sacraments, and singing were now strictly forbidden). But remember, Hildegard doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and she certainly doesn’t let the patriarchy tell her, a woman, what to do. So, she reminded the “holy men” that those who prevent God’s praises in this life, will go to the “place of no music” in their own afterlives. Subsequently, they were partaking in the sacraments and singing in their abbey once more.
I don’t know about you, but I think Hildegard is someone I would be friends with. I can picture drinking tea together in her garden and discussing the social injustices of this world and what we can actively do about it. I want to wander through the trees with her, singing, laughing, and learning about nature. But most of all, I want to be like her; fighting for the rights of others, doing the right thing, and getting into “good trouble.”
Hildegard is known for her music that resonates in the church to this very day; her operatic notes floating through the air “like feathers on the breath of God.” She is the patron Saint of musicians and writers and is also a Doctor of the Church. She was canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI and her feast day is September 17th.
Prayer written by Hildegard
Holy Spirit, Comforting fire, Life of all creation. Anointing the sick, cleansing body and soul, Fill this body!
Holy Spirit, Sacred breath, Fire of love, Sweetest taste, Beautiful aroma, Fill this heart!
Holy Spirit, Filling the world, from the heights to the deep, Raining from clouds, filling rivers and sea, Fill this mind!
Holy Spirit, Forgiving and giving, uniting strangers, reconciling enemies,
Seeking the lost, and enfolding us together, Fill these gathered here!
Holy Spirit, Bringing light into dark places, igniting praise, Greatest gift, our Hope and Encourager, Holy Spirit of Christ, I praise you!