Sunday 28 October 2012

The Doctor Is In: St. Hildegard of Bingen

By Eric Hanna, S.J.
When we think of the middle ages, we think of cold, dark castles, miserable and dirty peasants, and austere holy men preaching damnation. But the middle ages were as dynamic and full of life as any period in the human story, with personal struggle, vivid imagination, intellectual curiosity, and love of beauty. And one of the shining lights of these so-called dark ages was a brilliant woman called Hildegard of Bingen, eleventh century Abbess, composer, biologist, healer, writer and spiritual advisor. And today, Hildegard is both a saint and a doctor of the church.

On October 7th, Pope Benedict XVI opened the Synod on the New Evangelization with the announcement that saints Hildegard of Bingen and John of Avila would be officially declared Doctors of the Church. This title is bestowed on writers to recognize that the whole church has “benefited greatly from their doctrine”. Hildegard's writing is an example of excellence both in nature and grace. She writes brilliantly on the basis of a keen intellect and her personal experience of many facets of human life. She was also inspired by holy visions received as part of a lifetime of devoted prayer.

As regards to nature and the natural world, Hildegard was exceptional: a Leonardo Da Vinci five centuries before the renaissance. She grew up without many opportunities for formal education, but her entrance into religious life as a Benedictine nun permitted her to begin a life of learning and self-cultivation. She is noted for her contributions to the world of music, composing songs and developing systems of notation that would influence the way we still perform music today.

As a writer in the middle-ages, Hildegard had a lot of qualities we would find impressive. She would have been able to converse in both latin and her native German. She would have been able to memorize large sections of text and recite them, holding a great deal of knowledge in her head, retreiving it by associating it with various symbols and images. She was also an extremely practical person, able to take on the project of founding a new monastic house and guiding the personal and spiritual lives of both her sisters and those pilgrims who journeyed to her seeking her wisdom, from bishops and political leaders to peasants and all points in between.

Hildegard was also known for her knowledge of what we would now call ecology: plant and animal biology, agriculture, climate, and medicine. She was careful to catalogue the various kinds of plants and their various properties systematically. She also turned the same careful attention to the human body, its arrangement of parts and the way they connected to the mind and spirit in a person's disposition. Her scientific eye for detail and the data of experience went hand-in-hand with a spirituality based on the beauty and goodness of the created world. For her, the patterns and ordered relationships she discovered in nature revealed the wisdom of their creator.
Hildegard, Vision of the Cosmos

She did not see the divine as separate from the world: she saw grace as intricately interwoven with the patterns of our everyday experience. So when she received amazingly vivid visions from God, she was careful to seek spiritual counsel in order to understand them and made a careful practice of prayerfully interpreting them. Hildegard came to see her visions as revelations of the way the cosmos and nature were ordered and what role God and the people of God played in creation. Her vision of Christ was of a brilliantly shining ligh, a mirror reflecting heaven into the world. Her vision of heaven was of a mystery that one never got tired of exploring, of growing to understand more and more. And her vision of the earth was of a place where the practice of love towards others healed and repaired the delicate and intricate balance in the relationship between people and each other, people and nature, and between people and God.

I have been inspired by St. Hildegard because she lived an extraordinary intellect with humilty and lived a humble station with boldness and energy. Where she saw pain, she wept with empathy and did her best to heal. Where she saw beauty, she wept with joy and let herself be inspired to create so as to reflect what she saw. She was a person of sickly body, yet she lived full of joy and life. And that is what Saints and Doctors of the Church are: life. Every saint's story is unique, yet each one inspires us to be brilliantly and vibrantly alive. That we, like them, may be light when all around seems dark.

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