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Catholic Heroes… St. Hildegard von Bingen

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O leafy branch,
standing in your nobility
as the dawn breaks forth:
now rejoice and be glad
and deign to set us frail ones
free from evil habits
and stretch forth your hand
and lift us up — St. Hildegard.

She was a German saint, a mystic, an abbess, a poet and composer. Her writings included the first morality play, illustrated medieval manuscripts of her visions, and hundreds of pages of letters and music: These represent one of the largest surviving remnants of writings of anyone of the medieval period. Today she is also one of only four women doctors of the Church.
Hildegard (1098-1179) was born the tenth child of Hildebert and Mechtild, members of the nobility. But, as she later would write, as early as she could toddle from room to room, at the age of three, she was already experiencing what she would later come to know were visions. She said she experienced them in full cognizance of her senses; that is, she normally did not undergo any form of ecstasy.
Perhaps at the outset we ought to state that with her popularity and her wide gifts, St. Hildegard has also attracted quite a lot of unlikely followers by detractors of Catholicism, from New Agers to “eco-theologians” and the type of feminists who like to loudly proclaim how anti-woman the Church was (or is, by their logic). None of these causes, obviously, would St. Hildegard have endorsed; as is shown by her many far-from-shy letters to bishops, Popes, and emperors, she never hesitated to do what she ought, but this was always within the frame of obedience, humility and her vocation. Perhaps the height of idiocy is those who proclaim that she suffered migraines and these, not God, were the source of her visions.
First, we ought to say that at the age of 42 — skipping ahead a bit — she had a vision that was different, in which God told her clearly that she was to write down what she saw. She hesitated. Ever since she was a child, and had realized others did not see the things she did, she had told almost no one of her mystical experiences. She did not want to put herself forward and garner attention and so wrote to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, asking for advice, and he passed her writings and her dilemma on to reigning Pope Eugenius III. Presiding at the Synod of Trier, the Holy Father liked what he heard so much that he granted her visions a sort of imprimatur, which gave her the courage to do what God asked of her, to make His message known through her voice.
But let us step back again to our saint’s childhood. Perhaps because of her visions, her parents said she was meant for the Church, and by age eight was sent with another girl a few years older, Jutta, to begin her training at the Benedictine Abbey of Disibodenberg and made her profession at 17. When Jutta died not too many years later, Hildegard became the abbess at age 38, elected by the others in community.
Impelled to move the order from Disibodenberg to Rupertsberg, she was denied permission by the head of the abbey, so she went over his head and gained approval. But still, the abbot did not permit it. Then she became ill, so ill she could do nothing. She felt her sickness confirmed God’s feelings in the matter and the abbot gave in. She would later form a second community, was the abbess of both, and even went on trips to speak about God in Germany.
When first she began writing down her visions, it took ten years for just the first illustrated manuscript, Svias, to be finished. The Latin name comes from Scivias Domini, or “Know the Ways of the Lord.” Written in three parts, echoing the Trinity, she describes what she saw and then illuminates the meaning behind her revelations. All concern God and the journey of man toward salvation. The first part concerns six visions, the second seven, the last thirteen. Though other works followed, many consider this her greatest work. It concludes with fourteen songs of her own composition.
Her other music that remains — and as experts seem to disagree on the number of pieces, let’s estimate around 70 — were meant for liturgical use and are monophonic. This means that unlike Gregorian Chant, they used one melody (vs. polyphonic). However, often one syllable can carry over more than one note, and of course, there were no directions to indicate how long a note was to be held, or how fast a piece was to be played, or what accompaniment might have been used.
All that came centuries later. We must use our imagination to carry us back those eight hundred or so years and listen, sitting in a monastery that once stood where only stones remain, with hearts as young in spirit as Hildegard’s. There is no time in the eyes of God, only eternity.
Toward the end of her life, she had a period of trial. A young man who had been excommunicated died and was buried in consecrated ground. She was ordered to remove him, and refused. He had received the sacraments and been reconciled before he died, she said, but for a time she also remained under interdict which included, of course, no Mass.
St. Hildegard’s order was reconciled and she not only made a peaceful death, she died in the Odor of Sanctity on September 17, 1179, now her feast day. She was the first to undergo the canonization process as it is known today. However, though she was beatified, and four Popes restarted the process, her case lingered despite her sanctity for centuries. Finally, 833 years after her death, her countryman and admirer Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI named her a saint, that she might be proclaimed a doctor of the Church. This process was actually begun some years earlier, when he suggested her name to Pope St. John Paul II as such.
During his pontificate, Pope Emeritus Benedict used St. Hildegard numerous times to proclaim the faith in his teachings. When she was proclaimed a doctor of the Church, Benedict showed how her message was timeless:
“Hildegard asks herself and us the fundamental question, whether it is possible to know God: This is theology’s principal task. Her answer is completely positive: through faith, as through a door, the human person is able to approach this knowledge. God, however, always retains His veil of mystery and incomprehensibility….
“Creation is an act of love by which the world can emerge from nothingness. Hence, through the whole range of creatures, divine love flows as a river. Of all creatures God loves man in a special way and confers upon him an extraordinary dignity, giving him that glory which the rebellious angels lost.”
Hildegard was not afraid to chastise, even severely, those who needed to hear it. She was quick to combat abuses by clergy and religious, including a radical German reform group of the time, called the Cathars. Germany’s Pope Benedict also once told his general audience:
“She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message that we should never forget” (general audience, September 8, 2010).
St. Hildegard reaches out to us effortlessly from 800 years ago: “When a person’s reason imitates God, he touches God, who has neither beginning nor end, for the knowledge of good and evil reveals God. Such is the wheel of eternity. May God see to it that you flee that evil which arose on the first day which, lacking good will, stands always opposed to God….And may He cause you to fly in the embraces of God’s love, just as the one anointed by God’s spirit.”

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