A Continuing Reflection on St. Hildegard

«Theology As Well Can Receive a Particular Contribution From Women»

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 8, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in Paul VI Hall.

* * *

Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to take up again and continue the reflection on St. Hildegard of Bingen, an important woman of the Middle Ages, who is distinguished for her spiritual wisdom and holiness. Hildegard’s mystical visions are like those of the prophets of the Old Testament: Expressing herself with the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted sacred Scripture in the light of God, applying it to the various circumstances of life. Thus, all those who listened to her felt exhorted to practice a coherent and committed style of Christian living. In a letter to St. Bernard, the Rhenish mystic says: «The vision enthralled my whole being: I do not see merely with the eyes of the body, but mysteries appear to me in the spirit … I know the profound meaning of what is expressed in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which were shown to me in the vision. This burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul, and teaches me how to understand the text profoundly» (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).
Hildegard’s mystical visions are rich in theological content. They make reference to the main events of the history of salvation, and adopt a primarily poetic and symbolic language. For example, in her best known work, titled «Scivias,» that is, «Know the Ways,» she summarizes in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation, from the creation of the world to the end times. With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard, specifically in the central section of her work, develops the subject of the mystical marriage between God and humanity accomplished in the Incarnation. Carried out on the tree of the cross was the marriage of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with the grace of being capable of giving God new children, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c.).
Already from these brief citations we see how theology as well can receive a particular contribution from women, because they are capable of speaking of God and of the mysteries of the faith with their specific intelligence and sensitivity. Hence, I encourage all those [women] who carry out this service to do so with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great wealth, in part yet unexplored, of the Medieval mystical tradition, above all that represented by luminous models, such as, specifically, Hildegard of Bingen.
The Rhenish mystic is also author of other writings, two of which are particularly important because they report, as does «Scivias,» her mystical visions: They are the «Liber vitae meritorum» (Books of Merits of Life) and the «Liber divinorum operum» (Book of Divine Works), also called «De operatione Dei.» Described in the first is the unique and powerful vision of God who vivifies the cosmos with his strength and his light. Hildegard stresses the profound relationship between man and God and reminds us that the whole of creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity. The writing is centered on the relationship between virtues and vices, in which the human being must daily face the challenge of vices, which distance him from the way to God, and the virtues, which favor him. It is an invitation to move away from evil to glorify God and to enter, after a virtuous existence, in the life «full of joy.»

In the second work, considered by many her masterpiece, she again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of man, manifesting a strong Christo-centrism of a biblical-patristic hue. The saint, who presents five visions inspired by the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, reports the words that the Son addresses to the Father: «All the work that you willed and that you entrusted to me, I have brought to a good end, and behold that I am in you, and you in me, and that we are but one thing» (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a).
Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests a variety of interests and the cultural vivacity of women’s monasteries in the Middle Ages, contrary to the prejudices that still today are leveled upon that epoch. Hildegard was involved with medicine and the natural sciences, as well as with music, being gifted with artistic talent. She even composed hymns, antiphons and songs, collected under the title «Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum» (Symphony of the Harmony of the Celestial Revelations), which were joyfully performed in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of serenity, and which have come down to us. For her, the whole of creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit, who in himself is joy and jubilation.
The popularity with which Hildegard was surrounded moved many persons to seek her counsel. Because of this, we have available to us many of her letters. Masculine and feminine monastic communities, bishops and abbots turned to her. Many of her answers are valid also for us. For example, to a women’s religious community, Hildegard wrote thus: «The spiritual life must be taken care of with much dedication. In the beginning the effort is bitter. Because it calls for the renunciation of fancies, the pleasure of the flesh and other similar things. But if it allows itself to be fascinated by holiness, a holy soul will find sweet and lovable its very contempt for the world. It is only necessary to intelligently pay attention so that the soul does not shrivel» (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’eta moderna, Milan, 1996, p. 402).

And when the emperor Frederick Barbarossa caused an ecclesial schism by opposing three anti-popes to the legitimate Pope Alexander III, Hildegard, inspired by her visions, did not hesitate to remind him that he also, the emperor, was subject to the judgment of God. With the audacity that characterizes every prophet, she wrote these words to the emperor as God speaking: «Woe, woe to this wicked behavior of evil-doers who scorn me! Listen, O king, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will run you through!» (Ibid., p. 412).
With the spiritual authority with which she was gifted, in the last years of her life Hildegard began to travel, despite her advanced age and the difficult conditions of the journeys, to talk of God to the people. All listened to her eagerly, even when she took a severe tone: They considered her a messenger sent by God. Above all she called monastic communities and the clergy to a life in keeping with their vocation. In a particular way, Hildegard opposed the movement of German Cathars. They — Cathar literally means «pure» — advocated a radical reform of the Church, above all to combat the abuses of the clergy. She reproved them harshly for wishing to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is not achieved so much with a change of structures, but by a sincere spirit of penance and an active path of conversion. This is a message that we must never forget.

Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he will raise up in the Church holy and courageous women, like St. Hildegard of Bingen, who, valuing the gifts received from God, will make their precious and specific contribution to the spiritual growth of our communities and of the Church in our time.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Pope then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:] 
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis on medieval Christian culture, we turn again to Saint Hildegard of Bingen, the great nun and mystic of the twelfth century. Hildegard’s celebrated visions vividly interpreted the word of God for her contemporaries, calling them to a committed Christian life. She brought a woman’s insight to the mysteries of the faith. In her many works she contemplated the mystic marriage between
God and humanity accomplished in the Incarnation, as well as the spousal union of Christ and the Church. She also explored the vital relationship between God and creation, and our human calling to give glory to God by a life of holiness and virtue. Hildegard’s musical compositions reflect her conviction that all creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit, who is himself joy and jubilation. Her vast learning and spiritual authority also led her to work for the renewal of the Church in her day. Through Saint Hildegard’s intercession, let us ask the Spirit to raise up wise, holy and courageous women whose God-given gifts will enrich the life of the Church in our own time!
I am pleased to greet the participants in the Communications Seminar sponsored by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and I offer prayerful good wishes for their work. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience, especially the pilgrim groups from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Nigeria, Indonesia, Canada and the United States of America, I invoke God’s abundant blessings.

© Copyright 2010 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana
 [He concluded the audience with a greeting in Italian:] 
I turn finally to young people, the sick and newlyweds present here. Today we celebrate the liturgical memorial of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Second Vatican Council says that Mary precedes us in the way of faith because she «believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled» (Luke 1:45).

For you, young people, I ask the Holy Virgin the gift of an ever more mature faith; for you the sick, an ever stronger faith; and for you, dear newlyweds, an ever deeper faith.
 [Translation by ZENIT]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation