Hildegard of Bingen: Sibyl of the Rhine, Singing Still

Pope speaks on medieval mystic, Hildegard of BingenIt’s an age of widespread cultural and ecclesial malaise: the State encroaches ever more into the affairs of the church; the clergy is indolent and ineffective, oft corrupt and unchaste; the laity is poorly catechized; and Gnosticism advances. It’s the twelfth century, into which a Teutonic prophetess stepped, prepared to confront the spirits of the age with visions from on high. Nihil sub sole novum, and thus it’s worth considering on the occasion of St. Hildegard of Bingen’s feast day (tomorrow, Saturday, September 17) how her sauce for medieval geese might go well with our modern ganders.

Many have made Hildegard in their own image. She became a mystic to later medievals who saw her through the lens of her popular disciple Elisabeth of Schönau, although she was more properly a visionary and prophet. To humanists like Jacob Faber Stapulensis she became a woman of letters, to Reformers like Andreas Osiander a Protestant, and (in our own day) to the feminists like filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta a proto-feminist. She has become all things to all people that she might serve some. Like Jesus, of the making of Hildegards there is no end.

The real Hildegard, however, was of course a hardcore medieval Catholic: among many other things, a defender of hierarchy in Church and society and a hammerer of heretics whose visions were in essence doctrinal expositions of Scripture according with the beliefs of the times. Frankly, those who disdain various aspects of modern feminism should nevertheless rejoice that feminist scholars and filmmakers have played a major role in stoking contemporary interest in Hildegard even if they sometimes neglect the more traditional aspects of her person, activity and legacy.

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