Saint Hildegard of Bingen: Newest Doctor of the Church

Country: Germany
Born: 1098
Died: September 17, 1179
Religion: Roman Catholic
Beloved by both Pope Benedict XVI and feminist theologians, found in the lists of both Catholic saints and New Age heroes, Hildegard of Bingen transcends categories.

My cat named Bingen passed away last year. There was nothing about her that recalled Saint Hildegard of Bingen, O.S.B., but I was moved 15 years earlier to honor Hildegard in this silly way. Long before Pope Benedict elevated her to sainthood this May, Hildegard elicited this kind of admiration from a wide range of devotees. Feminists love her strength and the boldness with which she forced her way on the church patriarchy of her time. Alternative health advocates are drawn to her study of herbal medicine and botany and her insistence on recording this female wisdom in print. Mystics are moved by her visions, which she recorded in three volumes. Lovers of sacred choral music and liturgical drama are swept up by her compositions, including what is considered the first morality play, Ordo Virtutum, from 1151.

Though Hildegard was one of the first people beatified when that process was formalized in the Middle Ages, her canonization process stalled four times, in part perhaps because she was a controversial woman. Pope Benedict made Hildegard a saint this year by invoking something called “equivalent canonization,” which essentially says this person is already a saint and it’s only for technical reasons that it isn’t already official. He did this especially to make possible the further step of declaring her a Doctor of the Church in October. She will be the fourth woman, joining Saints Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, and Thérèse de Lisieux in that elite group of 35 — all four women having been added since 1970. (Doctor simply means teacher in Latin, and the Doctors of the Church are considered its key teachers, whether theologians, mystics, historians, or apologists.)

Hildegard experienced visions from the age of 3, but kept them secret from everyone but her confessor and her childhood mentor. At age 42, she had a vision that she should share her visions and the result is Scivias, (“Know The Ways”) and two subsequent volumes, which describe her visions and also go heavily into interpretation of scripture. (She referred to God’s presence in these visions as the “living Light” — “the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain” — and it is widely believed that she suffered from migraines with accompanying visual aurae.)

Hildegard expected more of her blessed church than she was seeing in the corrupt priests that surrounded her. She took on her abbot, several archbishops, and the Holy Roman Emperor — writing letters to friends and foes alike with her opinions. Among her friends, she counted King Henry II of England, his even more powerful wife, the patroness Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. She conducted preaching tours throughout Germany, railing against clerical corruption and demanding reform. This public preaching and her interpretation of Scripture were acts normally taboo for women at the time.

Hildegard’s first battle with church authorities came when she was chosen to lead the community of nuns she had joined 24 years earlier at the age of 8. She wanted to move them to a separate convent outside the male abbot’s control, he declined, and after a battle of wills she prevailed. Her community became a favorite destination and burial ground for the elite (along with their donations). Later, she allowed an excommunicated knight to be buried on her grounds, saying he’d repented and received reconciliation and last rites from her, but the local bishop saw this as an affront to his power and insisted on digging up the body. When Hildegard refused, he cut off her community, denying them the Eucharist and forbidding them from singing — the latter particularly harsh punishment for her. She relented about the body and eventually won restoration for her community.

There is a wonderful 2009 movie recounting the life of Hildegard called Vision (available for streaming on Netflix). Though it is frustratingly narrow in focus — largely ignoring her mysticism and her music — it is still a wonderful glimpse into the life of this soon-to-be Doctor of the Church.

Hildegard of Bingen experienced a new wave of popularity in the 80s and 90s, when her mix of mysticism with a strong connection to nature, holistic herbal medicine, powerful opposition to the patriarchy, and compositions of female choral music aligned with the times. I first encountered her through my love of sacred choral music, which she described as the best way to recapture the beauty of Paradise, and I felt a connection to her through sharing a struggle with migraines.

Beloved by both Pope Benedict XVI and feminist theologians, found in the lists of both Catholic saints and New Age heroes, Hildegard of Bingen transcends categories, and that more than anything speaks to her greatness.