Gifts from the Past – Saints Hilda of Whitby and Hildegard of Bingen

By Sr Antonia Curtis OSB, 25 October 2022
A composite image of Saint Hilda of Whitby and Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Image: Wikimedia Commons


Whilst not allowing the past to dictate present realities or offer solutions to issues, it is still of benefit for us to wonder and to listen for what it might have to say to us today. As I continued with my own wondering, especially following the Plenary, and in regard to the place of women in the Church, the lives of two Benedictine women came to mind. Both Hilda of Whitby (b 614) and Hildegard of Bingen (1098) were forthright and accomplished women who held their positions of authority with courage, wisdom and tenacity.

Most of what we know of Hilda’s life comes from St Bede, a Benedictine monk who is widely regarded as one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholars. According to St Bede, Hilda was born in England in 614 to a royal household and lived a secular life until the age of 33, when she became a Benedictine nun.

In 657, Hilda, after spending her formative years as a Benedictine nun at Northumbria in England, later founded a monastery at Whitby. St Bede praises her for implementing a monastic regime that required strict observance of ‘justice, piety, chastity’ and ‘particularly of peace and charity’. In her monastery, ‘no one there was rich, and none poor, for they had all things common’.

The monastery was unusual by today’s standards in that it contained both a women’s and a men’s monastic house, with Mother Hilda as spiritual head of both. Whitby became a training ground for priests and bishops, with five men from Hilda’s monastery eventually becoming bishops. She was very much sought after for spiritual counsel by the common people as well as by bishops, popes and kings.

So what might Hilda have to say to our situation today I wondered? What does the 7th Century practice of having a woman as an abbess over a men’s monastery foretell? Perhaps her story has more to say about the men of her time than the women: as far as one can tell, it was not a strange, not a threatening arrangement for them to have a woman rule over them. And whilst there would have been the normal scuffles usually associated with problems that go with authority in any given situation, the fact that this practice continued for five centuries attests to its widespread acceptance.

A Benedictine Abbess or Abbot is called to lead the community by their teaching and example. Hilda would have been a teacher to the monks in her care and being Benedictines, for whom listening is at the heart of their spirituality, they would have listened deeply and humbly for God’s word speaking to them through what their abbess she taught and how she lived. Perhaps we could wonder how and why things changed to such an extent in more recent centuries.

In the second reflection of this series, I spoke about the capacity to listen as well, in relation to the story of Scholastica and Benedict. If one has the capacity to listen truly, then the Spirit will be heard by them and knowing the way forward will become clear. It requires an emptying of whatever concepts and opinions have already formed… and this can be a very threatening thing to do. Assuming that the men of Hilda’s time seemed to have the humility and the capacity to listen to her and to learn from her, to allow a woman to lead them without feeling threatened, does challenge present-day mores. Those who have come very close to having an Abbess General of their order in our day are the Cistercians.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179 CE) was a strong leader like Hilda. She was a Christian mystic and Benedictine abbess who was extraordinarily gifted. Quite a few centuries separate she and Hilda, yet they still had much in common. Both were unafraid to speak out against clerical abuses and did not cower in the face of power. Hildegard knew philosophy, musical composition, herbology, medieval literature, cosmology, medicine, biology, theology, and natural history. She would never hesitate, simply because she was a woman, to say what she thought needed to be said. Nor did she hesitate to do what she thought needed to be done: when a pope or emperor needed to be challenged, she challenged and corrected them.

Around three hundred of Hildegard’s letters survive and they attest to her extensive correspondence with high-ranking contemporary figures, including four popes. Her letter to Pope Anastasius IV, in which she challenges him and his policies, reveals both her courage and her capacity for standing up for her convictions.

One famous incident toward the end of Hildegard’s life, when she was in her 80s, shows her willingness to call for justice no matter the price. What happened was she had allowed a nobleman who had been excommunicated to be buried at the monastery and, as a result, her ecclesiastical superiors intervened, ordering the body to be exhumed. Hildegard defied the authorities by hiding the grave, and as a consequence, she and the entire monastic community were excommunicated. She saw her decision to bury him as a just one, claiming she’d received word from God to that effect; she knew the man had received the last rites and was sure of herself in this regard.

Hildegard complied with the interdict by not having the community sing or receive communion as decreed, but she refused to comply with the command to exhume the corpse. Instead, she appealed the decision to yet higher church authorities and finally had the interdict lifted.

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light. – Hildegard of Bingen

What I hear in Hildegard’s story is the courage of her conviction that God was directing her choices. She would have had to be a woman of prayer for such courage and conviction to take root in her heart. (And she wasn’t shy of questioning herself in this regard.) In a male-dominated church, she went on preaching tours at a time when women were not supposed to preach, especially in public, and she refused to behave in the way society, and the Church, expected a woman to behave.

And so I’m wondering once again if this story is saying something to us in our day. Again, as before, my sense is that both men and women have a lesson to take from what we have heard. To be humble enough to listen for God’s word wherever and from whomever God chooses to reveal it, takes courage and insight. And acting on it is another matter altogether. These women were strong and courageous. And at least some of the men in the Church of their day were insightful and humble enough to realise that they needed to really listen. Perhaps openness to surprises from the Holy Spirit could be a key for us.

Hildegard was certainly heard. She was canonised as a saint in 2010. On October 7, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared her a Doctor of the Church.

Sr Antonia Curtis OSB is a member of the Benedictine Sisters community at Jamberoo Abbey, NSW.

You can read the full series of six reflections by Sr Antonia Curtis:


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