“God hugs you! You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God!” Hildegard of Bingen
Long before the Women’s Liberation Movement came to prominence, Blessed Hildegarde of Bingen, the “Sybil of the Rhine”, gained international acclaim as a mystic, poet, musician, abbess, and founder of religious communities. This was especially unusual in mediaeval times when women were considered inferior to men and expected to be meek and obedient to their fathers and husbands.
Hildegarde was born to wealthy and noble parents in 1098 AD at Bermersheim, in the Rhineland in Germany. She was the youngest of ten children and had been promised to the service of God from an early age. In those days it was customary to “tithe” your children as well as your income.
Hildegarde was a frail child, and from an early age spoke of having visions. When she realized that everyone didn’t have the same experiences, she was embarrassed and didn’t speak freely about them for many years.
In 1106, at the age of eight, she was sent to a Benedictine monastery and placed in the care of Blessed Jutta, the abbess of a small community of nuns. There, Hildegarde received only a basic education in domestic skills, and knowledge of the Bible. Although she learned monastic spirituality, as well as how to read and sing the Psalms in Latin, she never learned to write.
When she was fifteen, in 1113 AD, she became a nun and remained at the convent at Disibodenberg for 23 years. Because of frequent illnesses, she was often left to her own devices and used the time to develop a highly advanced spiritual life. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegarde was made Superior of the congregation of sisters.
Shortly after becoming abbess, she was directed by her inner voices to “tell and write” what she saw and heard in her visions. She recounted her instructions to her spiritual director, who related them to the Archbishop of Mainz.
A monk was directed to transcribe whatever Hildegarde related. Some of her nuns also assisted her in writing. The writings were submitted to the Archbishop and the clergy of Mainz, who, after careful study, pronounced them as coming from God.
The matter was brought to the attention of Pope Eugene III, who read her partially-completed work. He blessed her endeavour and told her to keep on writing. Hildegarde finished her first book, “Scivias”, a religious volume, in 1151, after ten years’ work.
Papal recognition increased Hildegarde’s prominence. Pilgrims flocked to the monastery from all over Germany and Gaul; women sought to join the order. Clergy and political leaders came to hear her words of wisdom: kings, emperors, archbishops, bishops, and laity came to seek advice, and ask for physical and spiritual healing.
Hildegarde wrote to many others, passing on reproaches and prophecies which she had received through visions. Her correspondence was extensive, and she spoke bluntly. She was did not sugar-coat her comments.
Because of the ever-increasing number of sisters, a second convent was needed. In a vision, Hildegard was ordered to take over and restore an abandoned monastery where St. Rupert had lived. With eighteen nuns, she moved to the abbey in Rupertsberg near Bingen in 1150 AD.
In 1165, she founded yet another convent at Eibingen, across the Rhine River.
After her first and greatest work, “Scivias”, Hildegarde composed the words and music to seventy hymns, wrote fifty homilies, authored a morality play, and wrote books on nature and on healing through natural remedies.
Although her health continued to deteriorate as she got older, she made several journeys to preach, to reform monasteries, and encourage both clergy and laity to lead better Christian lives. She even spoke in public in many of the towns she visited. In the Middle Ages, a woman preaching in public was an unheard of occurrence.
Hildegarde continued to lead her order of sisters until her death in 1179 AD. After her death, many miracles were said to have occurred through her intercession.
All the manuscripts found at the convent in Eibingen were transferred to the state library at Wiesbaden, Germany in 1814 AD. Hildegarde’s relics have rested in the parish church in that city since 1642.
The first biography of St. Hildegarde was written by two monks of her time, Gottfried and Theodoric.
“Just as circle embraces all that is within it, so does the Godhead embrace all. No one has the power to divide this circle, or surpass it, or to limit it.” Hildegard of Bingen