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Happy Feast of St. Hildegard

Hildegard of Bingen was my doorway into the Benedictine life.  While in graduate school I was studying for my “History of Christian Spirituality” comprehensive examination (a fearful and awesome task if there ever was one) and actually had a slight disdain for those ancient monks.  My spirituality up until that point had been quite infused by the Ignatian vision of working for justice.  I was turned off by the body-denying practices of monasticism (at least in its earlier forms) and wondered how those who chose a cloistered life could truly be engaged with the suffering of the world.

Of course, I hadn’t yet seen how my own life and spiritual practice up until that point had actually been thoroughly monastic already with my love of silence, my longing for sacred rhythms, my love of books and art, my ability to see God pulsing in all of Creation.  Art and Nature had been my two primary places of revelation for most of my life.  Then I began reading Hildegard.  I had to read her for those exams I mentioned, but I was captivated by her because of the sheer brilliance and expansiveness of her life.  Here was a 12th century woman who was a visionary, musician, artist, spiritual director, Abbess, writer, herbalist, and more.  She challenged the hierarchy of the church of her day, telling them if God had to send a woman to deliver his message things must have gotten really bad.  My feminist heart cringed, but I could see the rhetorical device between the lines and the way she was able to shame those in power using their own stereotypes and limited vision against them.  I don’t believe for a minute Hildegard thought she was any less capable because she was a woman.  Her letters demonstrate all the fierce ways she fought passionately for the things she believed in.

What I grew to love about her was her complexity.  Certainly I felt a kinship to her because of her love of the arts – she believed that singing chant was the most important practice of her community – and her ability to see God in nature – she coined the term “viriditas,” which means the greening power of God, and engaged the image of nature’s vitality and greenness as a symbol for the soul’s own vigor.  The soul which allows God to infuse it is verdant, moist, alive.

I also loved that while I identified fully with her vision of art and creation as essential sources of revelation of the Divine Nature, I found myself challenged by her apocalyptic mindset.  She believed in the end times and the fiery wrath of God.  She had powerful visions which showed what was to come.  She lived in a very different age when elements of her theology made me entirely uncomfortable. And I grew to love that she was complex enough for me to discover in her a kindred spirit and a strange bedfellow all at once.

The more I studied her, the more I wanted to know about this Benedictine tradition she was so steeped in.  I consider her in many ways the patron saint of my journey toward becoming an Oblate.  And her complexity which makes me wrestle with the things I both love and hate about theology continues to inspire me in my spiritual practice.  For me, one of the hallmarks of the Benedictine journey is in what I call “radical hospitality” – the welcoming in of all that is uncomfortable (especially within ourselves) as a primary place of God’s revelation.

As Ashley Makar asks in her article about Hildegard (worth a read): “What if we were to stay on the cusps of serious choices, on the slashes that separate the either/ors of life? What if we were to abide between as and if?”

Happy Feast of St. Hildegard.  May you find yourself today embracing the complexity of the world rather than seeking simple answers.  May you discover holiness beating within the strange, the uncomfortable, the challenging.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCED for Hildegard of Bingen:

Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life (a good basic overview of her life)

Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World (my favorite of the three – a collection of essays by different authors on Hildegard’s many roles in life as artist, healer, etc.)

Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum (a wonderful translation of Hildegard’s poetic lyrics)

If you’re interested in reading one of the articles I published from my graduate research on Hildegard, you can find it here (on the connection between art and virtue)

© Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
Transformative Living through Contemplative & Expressive Arts

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks Christine! I’m a devotee of Hildegard as well. I like the Matthew Fox book, but my favorite way to experience Hildegard is her music. A modern version of her work is performed by sequentia entitled “canticles of ecstasy” available on CD. sequentia is a Swedish ensemble for medieval music, I first heard them on Seattle’s KEXP.

  2. Thanks, so much, Christine. This was a second introduction for me. I rebelled at some of her more fundamentalistic thoughts years ago and, instead, fell in love with the work of Julian of Norwich. Now I am more comfortable with that which is dark in me and want to learn more about this woman. Any ideas for books? (I see Tricia is asking the same question!). Sunrise Sister, what is the book you are reading?

  3. I had no idea that the word viriditas came from Hildegard. So that’s a good piece of learning today. A lovely and heartfelt post about your spiritual journey. I was particularly struck by your comment about being simultaneously kindred spirits and strange bedfellows. That’s the sort of challenge by which we grow (as you have found and demonstrate so well).

  4. Hi Christine, My Renovare group this fall is returning to one of the original “primers” that we studied probably in the first year of our meeting together – 7 years ago. It was filled with religious figures/personalities from C.S. Lewis to Hildegard of Bingen. Having just begun to scratch the surface with the personalities and traditions in that first book, I am thrilled to be going back and uncovering in more depth such person’s as Hildegard. I’ll be saving this post for the group when she comes up again in our study. Thank you so much – your description of your discovery is a real endorsement for a person who never would have suspected a 21st Century even of mankind much less her being a presence in that century!

  5. Thanks, Christine, for this great introduction to Hildegard. And also for the reference to Ashley Makar’s post. Can you recommend any books that would tell me more of her story?