September saint: Hildegard of Bingen
We would consider it a remarkable achievement in the 21st century if any one person could rightfully claim to have been, in a single lifetime, an artist, writer, composer, pharmacist, preacher, theologian and mystic. How much more extraordinary, then, that all these attributes can be applied to one woman who lived, not today, but in the 12th century.
St. Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098 at Bermersheim, Rhineland Palatinate (now Germany). As was customary for large families at the time, Hildegard, being the 10th child, was considered a tithe and was thus dedicated to the Church at birth.
A sickly child — she frequently had difficulty walking and often could not see — she began to have visions when she was three years old, which those around her did not understand. Soon realizing that she was quite different in this regard, she chose to keep her gifts hidden from all but those closest to her; it would be many years before she would have them written and then only when it was revealed in one of her visions that she was to make them known.
At the age of eight, her parents sent her to an anchoress named Jutta of Sponheim, who took charge of the young girl’s religious education. Although Hildegard was able to learn enough Latin to recite the Psalter, she never learned to write and would rely on secretaries to transcribe for her for the rest of her life.
When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard, at the age of 38, was elected abbess of the Benedictine convent which had grown up around Jutta’s anchorage. Then, in 1141, when she was 42, Hildegard received the vision that impelled her to commit all that she had seen to writing: “…[T]he heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain,” she later recalled. “And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming … and suddenly I understood of the meaning of the exposition of the books. …” Thus began an outpouring of work which began with “Scivias” (“Know the Ways”) and continued on to “Book of the Merits of Life” and “Book of Divine Works.”
In addition, she dictated hundreds of letters to people who sought her advice and composed many shorter essays on subjects as diverse as medicine, botany, cosmology and physiology. Her music, which she also composed around this time, remains popular even today.
As a mystic — she was sometimes referred to as the “Sybil of the Rhine” — Hildegard saw the harmony of all God’s creation and human beings in particular as “living sparks” of God’s divine love. Sin destroys this harmony, she said, but virtuous living can begin to repair the damage it causes. This sense of unity among all things, though obvious to Hildegard, was not always apparent to her contemporaries.
Hildegard died at Bingen in Germany in 1179 of natural causes; she was canonized and named Doctor of the Church in 2012. Her feast day is Sept. 17.
Sources for this article include:
Mershman, Francis. “St. Hildegard.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.
“Saint Hildegard von Bingen.” CatholicSaints.Info. March 8, 2019.