The visionary abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) has long been regarded as a saint, with her feast day of September 17, yet she was only officially canonized in May 2012. Why did it take the Vatican over eight centuries to canonize this great polymath, composer, and theologian?
The first attempt to canonize Hildegard began in 1233, but failed as over fifty years had passed since her death and most of the witnesses and beneficiaries of her reported miracles were deceased. Her theological writings were deemed too dense and difficult for subsequent generations to understand and soon fell into obscurity, as did her music. According to Barbara Newman, Hildegard was remembered mainly as an apocalyptic prophet. But in the age of Enlightenment, prophets and mystics went out of fashion. Hildegard was dismissed as a hysteric. Even the authorship of her own work was disputed as pundits began to suggest her books had been written by a man.
Newman states that Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence was due mainly to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen, Germany. In 1956 Marianna Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship. Their research provides the foundation of all subsequent Hildegard scholarship.
In the 1980s, in the wake of a wider women’s spirituality movement, Hildegard’s star rose as seekers from diverse faith backgrounds embraced her as a foremother and role model. The artist Judy Chicago showcased Hildegard at her iconic feminist Dinner Party installation.
Medievalists and theologians rediscovered Hildegard’s writings. New recordings of her sacred music hit the popular charts. The radical theologian Matthew Fox adopted Hildegard as the figurehead of his creation-centered spirituality. Fox’s book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen remains one of the most accessible and popular books on the 12th-century visionary. In 2009, German director Margarethe von Trotta made Hildegard the subject of her luminous film, Vision. And all the while, the sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey were exerting their quiet pressure on Rome to get Hildegard the official endorsement they believed she deserved.
Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard’s burgeoning cult, possibly because he was repelled by her status as a feminist icon. Ironically it was his successor, Benedict XVI, one of the most conservative popes in recent history—who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, expelled Matthew Fox from the Dominican Order where Fox had served for thirty-four years—finally gave Hildegard her due. Reportedly Joseph Ratzinger, a German, had long admired Hildegard. He not only canonized her but elevated her to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title given to only the most distinguished theologians.
But I believe the true credit for Hildegard’s triumph is due to the Benedictine Sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey for keeping Hildegard’s flame burning.
This is drawn from Ann K. Gebuhr’s book, Hildegard!
Take some time to listen to and contemplate Hildegard’s beautiful musical meditation on the Holy Spirit, O ignis spiritus paracliti:
O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort,
Life of the life of every creature,
You are holy, anointing those perilously broken;
You are holy, cleansing festering wounds.
O breath of loveliness,
O fire of love,
O sweet savour in our breasts,
Infusing heart with the scent of virtue.
O clearest fountain,
In which we see
How God gathers the alienated
And finds the lost.
O breastplate of life
And hope of the whole human body,
O belt of honour, save the fortunate.
Guard those imprisoned by the enemy
And free those who are bound,
Whom the divine power wishes to save.
O mightiest course
That has penetrated all things
In the heavens and on earth
And in every abyss–
You reconcile and draw all humanity together.
From you clouds flow, wind flies,
Stones produce moisture,
Water flows in streams,
And the earth exudes living greenness.
You are always teaching the learned,
Who, through wisdom’s inspiration,
Are made joyful.
Thence praise be to you who are the sound of praise,
And joy of life,
And hope and greatest honour,
Granting the gift of light.
(This is Susan Hellauer’s translation from the insert booklet of Anonymous 4’s CD, The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen.)
Read Hildegard’s poem slowly as a prayer, contemplating how the Sacred Flame, however you envision it in your own spiritual tradition, relates to your life.