I have been a student of the multi-talented medieval Benedictine abbess and theologian Hildegard of Bingen for a quarter century. Thus, to hear on Pentecost Pope Benedict XVI’s intention to make her a doctor of the church was an extraordinary moment. “The sanctity of life and depth of teaching makes [her] perpetually present,” the pope proclaimed. “The grace of the Holy Spirit, in fact, projected [her] into that experience of penetrating understanding of divine revelation and intelligent dialogue with the world that constitutes the horizon of permanent life and action of the church.”
Hildegard stands in a category by herself because of the expanse of her creativity and productivity, her intimacies with God, her courage and leadership, and her wide-ranging accomplishments.
By any standards, Hildegard of Bingen was simply remarkable. This medieval nun wrote prolifically between the ages of 42 to her death at 81 in 1179. The Benedictine abbess authored a trilogy of theological texts. She is best known for her Scivias [a Latin abbreviation for “Know the Ways of the Lord”], which is a multi-media manuscript of 26 mystical visions with theological commentary on topics such as creation, original sin, the Incarnation, the Trinity and the sacraments. Hildegard’s theology-in-pictures, which arose from her own active imagination and inner dialogue, was inspired by a force beyond her own will that she named “the umbra viventis lucis” (the reflection of the Living Light).
From 1163 to 1174, Hildegard continued her writing and completed her most mature work, the “Book of Divine Works,” which explores her cosmology and in which she discloses the interdependency of humanity and creation as related to God and each other. She was an ecological theologian before such a concept even existed.
Hildegard authored the only two medical books written in the west in the 12th century. She is well known for her original music, composing more than 77 hymns. She began her preaching tours at the age of 60 and 50 of her homilies and more than 300 letters from her active correspondence remain.
Her imaginative, complex and doctrinally intriguing writing caught the attention of Rome and a commission was established to interrogate her emerging work. The examiners took their findings to the Synod of Trier in 1147-1148. With the support of respected Bernard of Clairvaux, portions of the Scivias were read aloud to the assembled bishops who examined and discussed her work. Pope Eugenius III bestowed on Hildegard the apostolic license to continue and “commanded” her to complete her “divinely inspired” work. Hildegard was the first woman theologian to receive such ecclesiastical sanction.
Clearly, Pope Benedict XVI, as a German, has been steeped in Hildegard, who has been revered for centuries in Germany. One can only imagine the profound joy of the 51 Benedictine nuns that currently inhabit the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Germany. Thirty- nine generations of abbesses have worked and prayed for what took place in the papal Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 7. I had the unique opportunity to walk among them for a brief moment and share their delight as together we relished looking at the towering tapestry of her image hanging from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Pope Benedict has been drawing attention for some time to Hildegard through his papal addresses. On Sept. 8, 2010 the pope, referring to Hildegard’s mystical visions with rich theological content, said, “From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.”
To my surprise and through the influence of Cardinal George, my ticket, among the 45,000 other tickets given to throngs of participants in St. Peter’s Square, was a ticket to a seat in the sanctuary. It was from this exquisite vantage point that I could see the expression on Pope Benedict’s face when he said, “We, having obtained the opinions of numerous brothers in the episcopate and of many of Christ’s faithful throughout the world, having consulted the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, after mature deliberation and with certain knowledge, and by the fullness of the apostolic power, declare St. Hildegard of Bingen, professed nun of the Order of St. Benedict, doctor of the Universal Church. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
In Hildegard, we experience a female religious leader within the prophetic tradition; a woman of faith who discovered the graced capacity of fidelity to ecclesial authority without abandoning the daring claims of the Spirit of the Living Light within her. Hildegard’s visionary holiness, profound doctrinal insights, and timeless truth-telling contributions to the Catholic tradition provide us today — whether bishop or nun, priest or lay leader — the style and substance of how we might negotiate our way through threats and fear, interrogations and interdicts to gracefully broker the resolutions of many painful impasses, and thus emerge with a newfound ecclesial spirit of deeper communion.
St. Hildegard, doctor of the church, may your luminosity shine ever brighter within our church. Amen.
Clendenen is professor of religious studies at St. Xavier University in Chicago and author of “Experiencing Hildegard: Jungian Perspectives.”