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.


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.


Something to Share (with a Smile): International Buy a Nun a Book Day

Today, the anniversary of 9/11, with the world holding its breath about Syria and in the sad knowledge that many other parts of the globe are experiencing tragic wars, I thought I would delay writing a more sombre post and give you something to smile about instead — not because I’m being insensitive, but because I know others will provide better reflections on the day than I can. So,

International Buy a Nun a Book Day
International Buy a Nun a Book Day: design by Endre Kormos

Yes, 17 September, the feast of St Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church and polymath, who, among other things, devised an alternative alphabet, is International Buy a Nun a Book Day, when you are encouraged to search out a nun or sister and give her that most precious gift, a good book (preferably asking her first what she’d like). It doesn’t matter whether it’s printed or an electronic download or a voucher to spend in a bookshop. Hopefully, you’ll get to meet some nice people and maybe find a few of your ideas about nuns need revising. We ourselves will be posting a Wish List on FB and here on the blog, which is rather angling of us, but then, did you know that the first book in English on fly fishing was written by a Benedictine nun? Or that one of Britain’s finest Private Presses was run by Benedictine nuns? Books and nuns (especially Benedictine nuns) go together.



Thinking about Saints

Today we celebrate the memorial of Blessed John Henry Newman. Unusually, his feastday is kept not on the date of his death but on the anniversary of his conversion to Catholicism. That tells us something important about the way in which the Church views his life and work. The gradual development in Newman’s theological understanding is held up to us as a model to emulate but also, I think, as an encouragement. If we seek truth ardently, we shall be rewarded by an ever greater understanding.

On Sunday the pope declared two very different saints Doctors of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen, the Benedictine nun, and John of Avila, the diocesan priest. In declaring them doctors, the pope was saying, in effect, here are two people on whose holiness of life and soundness of teaching you may rely. Very few saints are accorded that status in the Catholic Church, indeed only 35 to date.

I think all three saints share what we would today call a concern for evangelisation, for right teaching and fidelity to the mind of the Church. Hildegard was something of a polymath and pushed the boundaries of what was expected of a Benedictine nun. In her letters and her teaching she instructed many of the clergy. John of Avila, by contrast, is remembered chiefly for the personal holiness and zeal which informed his preaching and a book of advice addressed to a nun, Audi Filia. Hildegard’s missionary zeal spread out from the cloister; John’s flowed back in. And Newman? Newman is an interesting case of someone who wrote and spoke voluminously and probably did his greatest thinking about the Catholic Church and her mission as an Anglican. All three remind us that the saints of the Church do not conform to a single pattern; there is hope even for us, if we are prepared to make the sacrifice. The holiness of each one was rooted in the Cross of Christ and in the renunciation of self that discipleship demands. That isn’t a very fashionable doctrine, but it is a true one. Some things never change.