During his general audience on Sept. 8, the solemnity of the Nativity of Mary, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).
St. Hildegard’s visions vividly interpreted God’s word for her contemporaries, calling them to a committed Christian life, the Holy Father noted. She also brought a woman’s insight to the mysteries of the faith.
Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that St. Hildegard explored the vital relationship between God and creation as well as our human calling to give glory to God by a life of holiness and virtue. Her vast learning and spiritual authority led her to work for the renewal of the Church in her day. St. Hildegard, the Holy Father said, is a model for all wise, holy and courageous women today who wish to make their specific contribution to theology.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to continue my reflections on St. Hildegard of Bingen, a woman of the Middle Ages who is notable for her spiritual wisdom and holiness.
Hildegard’s mystical visions are like those of the Old Testament prophets. Expressing herself in the cultural and religious parlance of her time, she interpreted sacred Scripture in God’s light, applying it to various circumstances in life.
Thus, all those who heard her speak felt called to live a Christian lifestyle that was both consistent and committed.
“The vision enthralls my whole being,” the mystic from the Rhineland confessed in a letter to St. Bernard. “I do not see merely with the eyes of the world; rather the mysteries appear to me in my spirit. … I know the deep significance of what is found in the Book of Psalms, the Gospels and the other books that are shown to me in the visions. It burns like a flame in my heart and my soul and teaches me how to understand the texts deeply” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCM 91).
Reflections on Salvation History
Hildegard’s mystical visions are replete with theological content. They make reference to the principal events of salvation history, using a language that is mainly poetic and symbolic.
For example, in her best-known work, Scivias, that is, “Know the Ways,” she summarizes in 35 visions the events of salvation history, from the creation of the world to the end times. With those traits that are characteristic of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops — specifically in the central part of her work — the theme of the mystical marriage between God and mankind that took place in the Incarnation.
On the wood of the cross, the marriage of the Son of God with the Church, his bride, was brought about. The Church was filled with grace and made capable of giving God new children in the love of the Holy Spirit (see Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).
Even with these brief remarks, we see how women can make a special contribution to theology, because they are capable of speaking about God and about the mysteries of the faith with their unique sensitivity and way of understanding.
Therefore, I would like to encourage all those women who undertake this service to do so with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their reflection with prayer and with an eye towards the great wealth — which remains partially unexplored — of the medieval mystical tradition, especially the tradition that such shining examples as Hildegard of Bingen represent.
On God and Man
St. Hildegard is also the author of other writings, two of which are particularly important because, like Scivias, they record her mystical visions. They are the Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of the Rewards of Life) and the Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), which is also known as De Operatione Dei.
The first describes a rather unique and powerful vision of God, who gives life to the universe through his power and his light. Hildegard emphasizes the deep relationship between man and God and reminds us that all of creation, with man at its apex, receives life from the Trinity.
This work focuses on the relationship between the virtues and the vices. Man must daily face the challenges that the vices pose, as they distance man from the path towards God. The virtues, on the other hand, help him advance on his journey. It is an invitation to flee from evil in order to glorify God and enter into a life “full of joy” after a virtuous existence.
In the second work, which many consider to be her masterpiece, she again describes the relationship between God and creation, and the centrality of man, revealing a powerful Christ-centeredness with a biblical and patristic flavor.
St. Hildegard presents five visions that were inspired by the prologue of the Gospel of John and relates the words that the Son addressed to the Father: “All the work that you willed and that you entrusted to me I have brought to fruition, and now I am in you and you are in me and we are but one” (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a).
Her Cultural Vitality
Finally, in other writings, Hildegard shows us the variety of interests and the cultural vitality of convents of women in the Middle Ages, contrary to the prejudices that are still associated with that era. Hildegard was involved with medicine and the natural sciences, as well as with music, being endowed with artistic talent herself.
She composed hymns, antiphons and canticles, which were collected together in a work called Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations), which were performed joyfully at her convents, creating a peaceful atmosphere, and which have been handed down to us today.
For her, all of creation was a symphony of the Holy Spirit, who is in himself joy and contentment.
Renewal of the Church
Hildegard’s popularity led many people to consult her. For this reason, we still have many of her letters. Monastic communities, both male and female, as well as bishops and abbots, all sought her guidance. Many of her responses are still relevant to us today.
For example, Hildegard wrote the following to a convent of women: “Great care must be given to the spiritual life. At first, the effort is bitter, because it requires giving up extravagance, the pleasures of the flesh and other similar things. However, if it lets itself be enticed by sanctity, a holy soul will find sweetness and love even in contempt for the world. You only need to take heed so that the soul does not wither” (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’età moderna, Milano 1996, p. 402).
When Emperor Frederick Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting three anti-popes in opposition to the legitimate pope, Pope Alexander III, Hildegard, inspired by her visions, did not hesitate to remind him that even though he was the emperor, he was still subject to God’s judgment.
With an audacity that is typical of every prophet, she wrote to the emperor as though on behalf of God: “Woe, woe to this wicked conduct of the evildoers who scorn me! Take heed, o king, if you wish to live! Otherwise, my sword will run you through!” (Ibid, p. 412).
Her Prophetic Role
With the spiritual authority she possessed, Hildegard began to travel during the final years of her life, despite her advanced age and the discomforts of travel at the time, in order to speak about God to the people.
Everyone eagerly listened to her, even when her words were severe. They considered her a messenger sent by God.
In particular, she exhorted monastic communities and the clergy to live a life in keeping with their vocation. Hildegard especially opposed the German Cathar movement. The Cathars — their name literally means “the pure ones” — advocated a radical reform of the Church, primarily to combat clerical abuses. She reprimanded them harshly, accusing them of wanting to subvert the very nature of the Church and reminding them that the true renewal of the ecclesial community is not achieved so much by a change in structures as by a sincere spirit of repentance and a proactive journey of conversion.
This is a message we must never forget.
Let us constantly ask the Holy Spirit to inspire saintly and courageous women in the Church who — like St. Hildegard of Bingen — making full use of the gifts received from God, will make their valuable and unique contribution to the spiritual growth of our communities and to the Church in our time.