Why St. Hildegard of Bingen Is a Doctor of the Church

St. Hildegard’s massive body of writing includes records of her visions, books on the lives of the saints, medicinal treatises, theological writings, plays, poetry and original compositions.

St. Hildegard of Bingen
St. Hildegard of Bingen (photo: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock)

When I first read about St. Hildegard of Bingen, the most recently named female Doctor of the Church, I felt almost as if I had slipped into a fairy tale. Her very name evokes poetry, and her life does not quite seem real. But Hildegard was very real, and her life as a holy nun nestled in her monastery, building a world of music and language, defending the faith she loved so much, is an unlikely and captivating blaze of brilliance.

Hildegard’s extraordinary life came from the most inauspicious of beginnings. She was born on the cusp of the 12th century into a wealthy noble family in Germany, the youngest of her many siblings. Deemed too ill and weak to merit much attention in her large family, little Hildegard received minimal education and was left largely to her own devices as a child. In these quiet hours of solitude, Hildegard’s soul turned toward God. Rather than wallow in her loneliness, she basked in the love of her Creator and cultivated an interior life that became a fortress for her soul. In her later years, when she was a respected abbess and known mystic, she would recall that as a child she first began receiving divine visions. Ignored by her family, she was granted the extreme privilege of understanding God’s love at a level unknown to most people. Pious and humble, she kept her visions largely to herself and eventually was sent off to a monastery to complete her education and become a Benedictine nun as a teenager.

Nestled in the gentle rhythms of the Benedictine order to which she belonged, Hildegard’s true range of talents came to the surface. A veritable Renaissance woman who lived centuries before the actual Renaissance period, the sheer breadth and depth of Hildegard’s accomplishments are staggering. Aside from her deep mysticism, which already distinguished her from her peers, she was an able administrator, becoming abbess and later establishing two more Benedictine houses for her and her sisters. Hildegard also became a prolific poet, author and composer. The young girl who had been marked as too sick even to learn how to read and write, and who surely had expected to live a life of quiet obscurity, became one of the most brilliant minds of medieval Christendom.

Her massive body of writing includes records of her visions, books on the lives of the saints, medicinal treatises, theological analyses of the Gospels and Church Fathers, plays, poetry and original compositions. Today, there are more surviving chants composed by Hildegard than by any other composer from the Middle Ages, and modern academics acknowledge the groundbreaking nature of her research and methods of scientific observation.

It was not Hildegard’s intellectual contributions that led to her fame. Her beautiful faith, which had endeared her superiors to her as a child, now drew hordes of visitors to her convent, seeking her wisdom. A constant stream of men and women arrived, desperate to learn from the gentle nun with the bright eyes who saw in each person the living spark of God himself. Hildegard’s gift for teaching led her to travel widely, speaking to the large crowds drawn to the woman whose love for God illuminated her every action. Even when she remained within her convent, she corresponded extensively. She challenged heresies in her time, confronted monarchs who questioned the pope’s authority, and answered dozens of theological questions with tremendous mental acuity.

No one expected Hildegard to live until adulthood, and when she did, no one could have imagined what she could accomplish. But God knew, and how he must have rejoiced when that lonely little girl turned to him in her quiet life, seeking to learn his will as she spent days abed, unable to play with her many brothers and sisters. He gave her an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a love for truth, and in turn, she put her remarkable talents to use for him, becoming a tremendous light by which others could see him better, as she did.

St. Hildegard of Bingen, pray for us.