Part One: Hildegard of Bingen shows Philippa “the liberating power of Christianity for women”
She forcefully corrected the Emperor, prolifically composed celebrated music and founded scientific natural history in Germany.
How can this shining light and Saint from the ‘dark ages’ be so little known and appreciated by Roman Catholics?
Dr Philippa Martyr says Hildegard has received wider appreciation in recent decades.
Dr Martyr is an Australian academic, historian and writer who isn’t afraid of being described as a Catholic feminist. She is familiar with the Diocese of Parramatta, having made a retreat at the Tyburn Priory in Riverstone and lectured in western Sydney.
“The first thing you usually find out about Hildegard of Bingen is that she’s been adopted by a range of different feminist and gnostic movements,” Dr Martyr told Catholic Outlook.
“It’s tempting to see her through the secular feminist lens of a powerful woman in a man’s Church, but I’ve always felt that this approach was very limited,” she said.
Hildegard’s herbal medicine, musical compositions, visions and writings garner her a wide spectrum of admirers today, as she had in the Middle Ages.
Her writings were renowned in their own right and merited inclusion in the Patrologia Latina, as one of the great minds of the Church, along with the Church Fathers.
Her work includes the Scivias, ‘Know the Ways of the Lord’, which details her theological visions in three parts. The first part details Creation and the Fall. The second part describes salvation through Christ, the Church and the sacraments. The third part is about the second coming of Christ.
In appreciation of her brilliance, Pope Hadrian IV and then Pope Alexander III invited her on a preaching tour of Cologne, Trier, Liege, Mainz, Metz, Bamberg and Wurzburg.
The main streams of Hildegard’s thought are her insights into the nature of God, God in nature and her visions of the Kingdom.
Some snippets of Hildegard’s writing on these themes demonstrates her elevated and symbolic style:
“Man contains in himself the likeness of heaven and earth. In what way? He has a circle, which contains his clarity, breath and reason, as the sky has its lights, air and birds; and he has a receptacle containing humidity, germination and birth, as the earth contains fertility, fruition and animals.” What is this? O human, you are wholly in every creature, and you forget your Creator; you are subject to Him as was ordained, and you go against His commands?” (Scivias, Book 2,2)
“And when the Gospel of peace had been recited and the offering to be consecrated had been placed upon the altar, and the priest sang the praise of Almighty God, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts,” which began the mystery of the sacred rites, Heaven was suddenly opened and a fiery and inestimable brilliance descended over that offering and irradiated it completely with light, as the sun illumines anything its rays shine through. And, thus illuminating it, the brilliance bore it on high into the secret places of Heaven and then replaced it on the altar, as a person draws in a breath and lets it out again; and thus the offering was made true flesh and true blood, although in human sight it looked like bread and wine.” (Scivias, Vision 6)
Paradoxically, Dr Martyr says the first thing Hildegard of Bingen taught her is “that she is not remotely extraordinary”.
“That she was a woman in charge of a monastery was completely normal for the medieval period. There was a whole network of abbesses and prioresses and female religious superiors all across Europe, owning property, running large businesses, managing spiritual questions, giving advice, writing books, and generally being heard (often loudly) in the medieval Church,” she said.
More: The Institute for Mission’s online resource eBooks include A Companion to Hildegard of Bingen (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition)
Part Two will be published tomorrow.