St Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church and Polymath

I liked St Hildegard of Bingen better before she became a New Age icon. Let me explain. Long, long ago, when I was a young research student, industriously reading obscure tomes in the University Library at Cambridge, Hildegard was still someone who invited heated discussion among the comparative few who had read any of her works or heard any of her music. Now, almost everyone seems to think of her as a marvel (which she was) and loves playing her music (cheerfully ignoring the problems about authenticity and interpretation that excite musical scholars), but I am not sure how many actually read her or ask her prayers. Which is a bit odd when you think about it, for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church (the only Benedictine woman to be so named), meaning that we could profitably study her life and writings in order to become better Christians.

New Age advocacy of Hildegard as a kind of non-doctrinal mystic has distorted our historical sense of her. She was a feminist avant la lettre, say some. Nonsense, say others: she was simply a formidably intelligent medieval woman who did what formidably intelligent women have always done: confounded the stereotypes. The inner life of her community, as disclosed through her letters and other writings, both attracts and repels. It certainly wasn’t as ‘normal’ a Benedictine life as most, but then, St Hildegard was too big a personality, with too much curiosity about the world and the things in the world, to be considered ‘normal’ herself. If she were alive today, I suspect she would make mincemeat of many of us, for her intellectual power was vast. Her spirituality is difficult to get hold of and one can see how it could be interpreted in an unorthodox way. The truth is, to understand Hildegard one must put some real effort into reading her, and I must confess that I have only played around on the edges of Scivias and read her letters and a few other things. But I have no difficulty asking her prayers, knowing that she is part of the Church Triumphant, ever ready to intercede for us below.

Hildegard is an excellent patron for International Buy a Nun a Book Day, for she valued learning and contributed much to the theology and science of her day. Her studies in language (she devised a kind of secret code for her nuns to use) and her development of an alternative alphabet have always made me smile. For that is one thing those who have never experienced the life of the cloister often forget. Along with the asceticism, the mortification of the senses and the seriousness of the search for God, there is a great well of laughter and fun. The ‘feather on the breath of God’ does not only tremble in awe of his Word; it also shakes with laughter and gladness at his beauty and nearness.

International Buy a Nun a Book Day

International Buy a Nun a Book Day
International Buy a Nun a Book Day

The idea behind this day is that you should spread a little ‘book love’ among nuns and sisters. Ask a nun or sister what book they’d like, then make a gift of it. A lot of religious have very limited resources for book-buying so would be very glad of such a gift. As books are expensive, and not everyone can cope with digital downloads, do think about vouchers instead. (We were reluctant to ask for one or two volumes we’d dearly love because they are so costly, but with vouchers we should now be able to afford them.) Please note that dumping unwanted books on your local monastery or convent isn’t quite in keeping with the spirit of the day!

Our own book wish-list has been fulfilled, thanks to the kindness and generosity of our friends and supporters, but we shall be posting a new wish-list on our Facebook page later in response to a little bit of research we did earlier.

Update 18 September
Thank you to all who responded so generously to International Buy a Nun a Book day. Religious in the Philippines, U.S.A., Canada and the U.K. have all benefited (including us!) — and those are just those we know about.


4 thoughts on “St Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church and Polymath”

  1. Thank you for this lovely and informative blog about Hildegard.

    When I was going to be admitted as a Reader (lay preacher) in the C of E I felt rather downhearted for reasons to do with how my vocation had been dealt with. Nobody in my church seemed very interested in what I was doing and I myself was somewhat ambivalent as the calling I believed I had experienced was to ordination but I had been obedient to the suggestion that I should be a Reader.

    One morning in the week before I was licensed, I’d arranged to meet a friend after morning prayer at the Cathedral. I missed the start of prayers, and as I walked into the Cathedral at the back I heard the provost, who was leading the prayers, name Hildegard of Bingen whose day it was. he then launched into the most wonderful extemporary prayer of thanks for the gifts of lay women in the Church of England, and I was then prayed for in the intercessions.

    Hildegard has always been special to me for this reason! I haven’t looked at her writings but you have inspired me to find out more about her.

  2. Many years ago, I was lying in bed one night unable to sleep and, as I often do, turned on the radio to listen to the World Service. The most beautiful music I had ever heard streamed out of my tiny radio. It was by Saint Hildegard. Later on, I acquired a couple of CDs of her music and read a Life of this extraordinary woman. She truly had exceptional gifts.

    I rather dislike it that this Saint has become a “New Age icon”. It seems to rob her of her essence and misses the point of her life. However, one never knows the ways of the good God and perhaps some people may encounter Saint Hildegard and be drawn towards the Church.

  3. We celebrated Hildegard yesterday in our Parish mid-week Eucharist.

    I have to admit that I knew little about here and her biography in ‘Exciting Holiness’ is all to brief. So, your blog post has fleshed out the person of Hildegard, much more than a brief biography of someone saintly can do.

    Will have to read more and find her prayers, which sound like something worthwhile to follow up with.

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