Perhaps the remarkable St. Hildegard of Bingen is best known for her visions. However, she is one of the four female Doctors of the Catholic Church because of the writings of St. Hildegard. And, she is one of the most remarkable women of the middle ages because of the depth and breadth of her writings which included works on the theology, science, and medicine. In addition, she composed sacred music and plays.
Raised by Nuns
Born in 1098 to Hildebert and Mechtildis, who were nobles, St. Hildegard of Bingen became an extraordinary woman not only for her time, but for all time. As the tenth child, her parents dedicated her to God which was a way of assuring that if they could not take care of her, she could be given to a religious person to be raised (a tithe).
As early as the age of three, Hildegard began to have visions. When she discovered that not everyone had these, she hid these gifts from others for many years. At eight years of age, her parents gave her to an anchoress named Jutta in order for her to be raised. Jutta, herself, had come from a noble and wealthy family, but she had forsaken the world to pursue God. Through Jutta, Hildegard received a very basic education including learning to read a Latin Psalter and how to chant the Divine Office.
The anchorage was adjacent to the church of the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. Hildegard frequented the masses and services at the church, and eventually, at age fourteen, Hildegard took religious vows and joined the Benedictine order. Through the influence of Jutta, women had begun to gather and a convent was established. When Jutta died, Hildegard was elected abbess of the convent at thirty-eight years of age.
An Abbess with a Vision
As the numbers grew in the convent, Hildegard moved the group fifteen miles away to Rupertsburg near Bingen on the banks of the Rhine river. Along with about eighteen sisters, she moved in to a property provided by a count.
Throughout her time with Jutta, Hildegard had shared the visions she had received only with Jutta and a monk named Volmar. As Hildegard had never learned to write, Volmar became her lifelong secretary when the abbot who supervised her community ordered that he write down her visions.
An Author Sought by Many
The Lord gave Hildegard extraordinary understanding of Scripture which she reluctantly shared out of humility and feelings of inadequacy. Eventually, after an illness and receiving approval to continue her writings from St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius, she began to share more of what God revealed to her. With this encouragement, she completed her mystic work entitled "Know the Ways of the Lord." She would later compose two other theological works based on her visions.
As her book was read and as word spread about this holy nun, Hildegard soon became well-known. She began to receive visitors and to keep up a large volume of correspondence. People of all walks of life, including numerous bishops and abbots, princes and princesses and kings and queens, sought out her wisdom.
She was always anxious to have Church approval, and several times submitted to being reviewed by bishops who always provided favorable reports after their investigation.
Exhorting Backsliders to Return
Although popular, she also became controversial because her mission included encouraging the backsliders to reform which was not always a message they wanted to hear. In obedience to the knowledge she received, she courageously spoke out against the powerful leaders of the day.
Her prophetic words included exhorting bishops, heads of religious orders, and civic leaders to cast off their sins and follow the ways of the Lord. Indeed, for a period of almost ten years (1152 - 1162), Hildegard kept up almost a full time ministry of prophetic witness against lax churches and monasteries and schismatics. During this time, she conducted four preaching tours in which she gave talks to both clergy and laity. Her theme was often calling for personal reform and condemning corruption.
When challenged by those who found her message uncomfortable, her response was to note that she was simply the messenger,
"I am a poor earthen vessel, and say these things not of myself but from the serene Light."
Her gifts of knowledge and practical wisdom extended to music, medicine, and science, and Hildegard composed a number of liturgical hymns, a book on medicine, and a book on natural history (science). She also wrote what is considered the first known morality play and invented an alternative alphabet. Hildegard died in 1179 at the age of 81. In 2012, She was named one of the four female Doctors of the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI.
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Feast Day (Memorial): September 17th