Child of Her Time: St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen is one of those people who both attract and repel. As I tried to show in my posts of last year and the year before, it is easy to be dazzled by the multi-faceted nature of her life and achievements, and rightly so. She was, quite literally, extraordinary. There is a temptation, however, to ignore the ordinariness of extraordinary people, to make of them something they never were. How many think of Hildegard, for example, as spending all her time in pursuit of learning — reading, dictating, experimenting — and forget the dailyness of her life as a nun, with its regular round of prayer and observance and the small irritations of a common life?

For me, that monastic context makes Hildegard very approachable, even when I don’t understand or share other aspects of her life that make her seem more distant. Her visions, for example, have always left me cold. We English Benedictines don’t do visions or spiritual revelations. We are too reticent, I believe, so you are unlikely to find us writing our spiritual autobiographies or indulging in spiritual raptures. Nor do I share Hidlegard’s social attitudes. She refused to have anyone who was not nobly-born in her communities because she did not want divisions. Today we would label that unBenedictine, snobbish even. The historically-minded will remember that Smaragdus, the earliest commentator on the Rule of St Benedict, argues that nobly-born guests should receive better treatment than those who are of baser origin. We miss the point entirely unless we are aware of the very different attitudes of the Middle Ages, when noble birth was often identified with spiritual as well as social gifts. Hildegard was, in this, very much a child of her time.

It is worth taking the trouble to get to know the real Hildegard rather than the feminist icon or New Age travesty we are frequently presented with. She was, indeed, ‘ahead of her time’ in many things; but not in all. Her value to us as a saint and Doctor of the Church lies precisely in her being of her time (1098–1179). She shows us how sanctity is achievable in the ordinary circumstances of our lives, in this age rather than any other. Her remarkable gifts were all brought to bear on her search for God, just as ours must be, but it was not her giftedness that brought her close to God but her determination to live a holy life, to make everything a means of following Christ. She heard the music of heaven in all things. May we do the same.

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