Hildegard of Bingen: Ever Ancient, Ever New

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.


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Mary Sharratt
6 years 8 months ago
What a beautiful, insightful essay! I'm sure the students who took your course were very lucky.

My novel ILLUMINATIONS, based on Hildegard's life, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in October to coincide with Hildegard's elevation to Doctor of the Church. I would love to send you a review copy, if you're interested. Your feedback as a woman religious would be especially welcome.

Thank you and have a wonderful day!

Jerry Felty
6 years 8 months ago
I am wonderfully entertained and impressed with her music which I find very unique and original. I purchased an album by a group called Annonymous 4, who sing and record early and Middle Age music. The album is called....THE ORIGINAL OF FIRE: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen. I recommend it to those who enjoy chant, although she takes it to another level. The artistry in these compositions is undeniable, and I believe, spiritually inspired.
John David
6 years 8 months ago
On the issue above of complementarianism.  Hildegard's concept could not have been more radical. The prevailing view in the Middle Ages was that women were ''chattel'' - property owned by men.  Complementarianism raises women from this status of subordination to one in which women and men are different, but EQUAL.  Complementarity relocates the male-female relationship in mutuality rather than power.  This is one of the greatest leaps forward in the history of feminism.  It also completely supercedes the concept of female as temptress, which arose from a crazy misreading of Genesis.  While there has been further evolution of these ideas in the 900 years since, Hildegard's departure from the hierarchic paradigm of her time - which affected everything from social stratification under monarchy to ecclesial and interpersonal structures - was nothing short of revolutionary.
Daniel Rondeau
6 years 8 months ago
Thank you for your essay. I look forward to reading more. Bridget, one of the authors for the WiT (Women In Theology) blog, opened my eyes to this amazing woman. I commend her post, Dies Natalis of Hildegard of Bingen, to you: http://bit.ly/N3cs9O Thanks again for your words today.
Boreta Singleton
6 years 8 months ago
Great to read your comments, Peggy! I have always loved Hildegard's writings. Blessings to you!
Sara Damewood
6 years 8 months ago
Thanks for this fascinating introduction to Hildegard, Sr. Peggy, and thanks to all for the interesting comments.   Wish I could take the course!    Any suggestions for further reading?
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 8 months ago
I would like to take your course, Peggy!  Researching Hildegard on the web, I can't get a good feel for her.  She seems so strange.
John David
6 years 8 months ago
What a crash-course in this amazing person! You have certainly made it clear why Hildegard's ''ancient'' voice is ''ever new.'' Great example of what we mean by the communion of saints, how our ancestral sisters and brothers in the faith support us ''heart to heart.'' So glad the church is recognizing her with this honor. Thank you for the post!
Crystal Watson
6 years 8 months ago
I don't know very much about her aside from the general stuff - her music, her art work, visions.  BTW, there's a recent movie about her ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_-_From_the_Life_of_Hildegard_von_Bingen

But recently I read that she was one of the first people to champion the idea of sexual complementarianism.  I found this kind of depressing - I guess I assumed any woman who stood out in the middle ages would necessarily be a feminist and a liberal, so to speak.
Mikhail Zhuchkov
5 years 11 months ago
I am currently writing about Hildegaurd von Bingen as a social reformer for my Leaving Cert can someone please help me by giving me more information on her because i have looked all over the web and cannot find enough information how she was a social reformer I have look every where and do not seem to find enough. Any type of help would be appriciated. My email adress is mzhuchkov07@clongowes.net if you would be kind enough to send the information there or any websites you might recomend. Thank you for your time Mikhail Zhuchkov


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