“I liked St Hildegard of Bingen better before she became a New Age icon. . . . 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.”
There is a further point to make, however, and it is one that might give us pause. Many of the things Hildegard undertook in the twelfth century would be difficult for a cloistered nun in the twenty-first (e.g. those preaching tours and the scientific study) because monastic life for women now is freighted with expectations it didn’t have back then. Probably very few people really think about monastic life for women today, choosing instead to assume that it runs on the same lines it always has. In many ways it does; but sometimes it gets into a time-warp that has nothing very monastic about it. A recent questionnaire from the Vatican department that deals with these things left the community here shaking with a mixture of laughter and irritation that there was so little understanding of our way of life or the difficulties we face and how. I think Hildegard would have had something useful to say about that. I rather hope she will say something from her place in heaven, and that the powers that be will listen.