Fearless Hildegard: A saint for extroverts and doers

Tina McCormick

How do modern, outspoken, confident women fit into the daily life of the Catholic Church? To find an answer to such age-old questions and fresh inspiration for today’s gutsy women, we need look no further than 12th-century Germany and the life and works of Hildegard von Bingen.

Hildegard von Bingen was the tenth child of a German noble family and dedicated to the Church at birth in 1198. At age eight, she was entrusted to a Benedictine monastery where the nuns spent their days studying, illustrating monastic publications, nursing the sick, and praying. Elected abbess at age 38, Hildegard’s career as writer, scientist, healer, and spiritual counsel began to take shape within her particular context of medieval monastic life and ecclesiastical power politics. Yet, however foreign and removed such a context might appear to us, her life and faith offer an intriguing example of faith in action to women today.

Hildegard’s visions of dramatic imagery and highly symbolic character and her interpretations of them as divine instruction (recorded in Scivias (“Know the Way of the Lord”), Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits), and Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works) contained many pronouncements on the nature of femininity, its power and spiritual importance. Simultaneously, Hildegard’s accomplishments as an administrator, writer, scientist, and counselor reveal tremendous confidence and leadership. However, beyond seeking permission for any of her endeavors from the hierarchy, Hildegard revealed a deep humility and self-deprecation that ran as a thread through her publications and letters. Ego paupercula feminea forma (“I, a poor little figure of a woman”) was one of her favorite self-descriptions.

But how exactly did Hildegard turn such humility into strength? She had a strong practical sense and a spiritual openness to God’s plan for this world. Her deeply held convictions sprang from what God, as the “Living Light,” revealed to her. Despite her humility, or, more likely, because of it, her energy knew no bounds.

Multi-tasking women of today, take note! St. Hildegard presents us with a fascinating paradox of strength and humility. Evidence of her strong-willed nature and unrelenting personality abounds. Despite ill health, she overcame strong opposition to build and move her group of nuns, along with their substantial dowries, to a new convent in 1150. This involved hard work and leadership: establishing monastic discipline, supervising construction, obtaining gifts and bequests, and securing a charter of independence. Furthermore, she kept an active correspondence with convents and the powerful, including the pope, bishops, and kings, and emperors, who sought her counsel, whom she both advised and chastised based on her deep spirituality and knowledge of scripture. In addition, she went on three lengthy preaching tours, instructing numerous monasteries and giving fiery sermons in the Cathedral of Cologne and Trier in Germany. She spoke truth to power, condemning Church corruption, laxity among the clergy, and the spread of heresies. Besides the publications of her visions, she authored several scientific and medical books on animals, on herbs and trees, on gems, metals, and elements, and healing and composed music. Hildegard was a learned, outspoken, fearless kind of woman. Yet she remained humble and never doubted the legitimacy of the Church.

The root of her strength was not vanity, a quest for power, or other personal ambition. She consistently emphasized ecclesial power over secular power, order over change, and demonstrated obedience to higher authorities, never calling for radical change of social or ecclesiastical structures; it was the abuse of authority, not the nature of it that she opposed. She had a zeal for orthodoxy and Ordo is a key word in Scivias.

In Hildegard’s case, female “otherness” – as we say today was turned into strength. While she admitted the generic frailty of her sex, she felt obligated to remind men of their own moral and spiritual weaknesses in the context of Gregorian reform and attempts to curtail the spread of heresies. One vision of the Scivias elaborates on how Mary’s humility and obedience as a “poor maiden” made her capable of bearing Christ. “So let anyone,” she continues, “who wishes to conquer the Devil arm himself with humility.” (Scivias I. 2: 33.) Likewise, Hildegard described herself as a musical instrument touched by God, “just as a string touched by the harper sounds not by itself but by his touch.” (Liber vitae meritorum VI. 68) Similarly, she compared herself to a little feather uplifted by the Holy Spirit. (Vitae S. Disibodi Prooemium 8, ed. by J.-B. Pitra, Analecta Sacra 8 (Monte Cassino, 1882), 357.) Humility and what appeared as female weakness were thus transformed into moral and spiritual authority as instruments of the Holy Spirit.

Her story gives today’s confident women courage to defend their faith in a secular world, to speak out against injustice, to give counsel, and contribute significantly to the Church’s work of charity, theology, and the maintenance of spiritual purity and moral conduct. The Church will always be our fortress and we must both guard it and reveal its timeless truths and splendor. Like Hildegard, we must speak out against laxity and complacency among the faithful and show mercy and compassion. Above all, we must ensure that the “good news” is known not only for its goodness, but continues to be experienced as new and fresh.

When Pope Benedict XVI declared Hildegard a Doctor of the Church in the fall of 2012, the timing was hardly a co-incidence. It was the day that 262 cardinals, bishops, and priests convened in Rome for the synod dedicated to “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” Hildegard presents the timelessness of our Church. What was true then, is true now. Like her, we must discover the truth anew and allow ourselves to be challenged to live the gospel in its fullness. In our great task of evangelization, we must show that the news is truly good and that it is always new.

Topics: Church history , Saints , Women in the Church

Tina McCormick, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard, is raising her five children in Massachusetts. She is a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA.

View all articles by Tina McCormick

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