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