On May 27th, the Feast of Pentecost, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will declare St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. John of Avila Doctors of the Church. The title “Doctor of the Church” is bestowed on an individual who is seen to possess “eminent learning,” “great sanctity,” and whose writings are deemed to be of universal importance to the Church. The Pope will make this declaration on October 7, 2012 at the beginning of this year’s Synod of Bishops.
I was especially delighted to hear that Hildegard of Bingen will become the 4th woman to be named a ‘Doctor of the Church,’ after Sts. Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux. As a woman religious, I have always been drawn to the lives and writings of the Christian mystics, but my own personal interest in Hildegard of Bingen really began in 1998, the year that the 900th anniversary of her birth was being remembered and celebrated in various ways. I began to read more and more about this fascinating twelfth-century German mystic, Benedictine nun, abbess, prophet, healer, musician, writer, composer, poet, visionary, and reformer who has come to be recognized as one of the most remarkable and gifted women of the middle ages.
The more I learned about her and the more I became immersed in her writings and her unique ‘visions,’ masterfully described in her first major work, “Scivias,” (“Know The Ways”), the more I wanted to learn and share her with others. I developed a one-credit graduate course which I entitled “Hildegard of Bingen: Mystic and Prophet” to introduce others to this fascinating woman who, despite being a cloistered nun, played such a significant role in the ecclesiastical, cultural, and political world of her time.
Each time I have taught her and taught about her, I have been drawn more deeply into the richness of her spirituality, her breadth of insight into the whole of Christian Revelation, and her holistic and integrated vision of God, humanity, and all of creation. Her knowledge, she tells us, was not based solely on human learning, but on something much deeper - direct inspiration from the “ living Light” – her phrase to describe the divine presence, and the luminous backdrop of her visions. As a mystic, she paid close attention to the “voice” of this “living Light,” and as a prophet, she spoke with its radiance, exhorting and challenging both Church leaders and Emperors to a much-needed reform of corrupt practices and attitudes. She saw herself as “a small trumpet,” and “a feather on the breath of God.”
Hildegard’s visionary life and words encourage and challenge all of us, especially women in the church, to trust our own experience, to listen attentively to the voice of the “living Light,” God’s Spirit, to discern the good, the true and the beautiful—and to use our voices, as Hildegard did, to bring about a more just and transformed church and world. To borrow St. Augustine’s words, Hildegard is “ever ancient, ever new!” Let us welcome this new Doctor of the Church, and pray that she will raise up mystics and prophets like herself in our hour of need.
Peggy McDonald, I.H.M.