"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

St. Hildegard of Bingen, O.S.B. – “A Feather on the Breath of God”

Born: 1098 at Bermersheim vor der Höhe, County Palatine of the Rhine, Holy Roman Empire

Died: September 17, 1179 (at the age of 81) at Bingen am Rhein, County Palatine of the Rhine, Holy Roman Empire

Canonized: May 10, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI

Feast Day: September 17

Named Doctor of the Church1: October 7, 2012

“This great woman truly stands out crystal clear against the horizon of history for her holiness of life and the originality of her teaching. And, as with every authentic human and theological experience, her authority reaches far beyond the confines of a single epoch or society; despite the distance of time and culture, her thought has proven to be of lasting relevance.” – Pope Benedict XVI


Of the 36 saints who have been named Doctors of the Church, four are women. While most of us are familiar with St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Ávila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, not everyone would recognize the fourth woman: the 12th century theologian, visionary, mystic, poet, musician, healer, and naturalist, St. Hildegard of Bingen.

floatingAlthough St. Hildegard lived in medieval times, she was a true ‘Renaissance woman’. Yet despite her many talents, she was very humble. Of herself she simply wrote, “Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around Him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”2

Hildegard’s Life

Born in 1098 in Bermersheim (near the city of Mainz, Germany), Hildegard was the tenth and last child of a noble family who were well-connected, wealthy landowners. Her parents offered her as a living “tithe” to God when she was only 8 years old, entrusting her to the care of Jutta, the prioress of a small, cloistered women’s monastery that followed the Rule of Benedict and was attached to the male Benedictine Abbey at Disibodenberg.3 It was there that Hildegard made her religious profession in 1115. When Jutta died in December 1136, Hildegard succeeded her as magistra – “mistress” or “teacher” – and took over the administration of the school.4

germanyThe community continued to grow and by 1150, there were 20 sisters under Hildegard’s care. Her visions and writings had received the approval of Pope Eugene III, and Hildegard had become a celebrity throughout Europe. The cloister had become overcrowded, and the women no longer wanted to be dependent on the men’s community.

“Sometime in 1148, [Hildegard] received a new revelation declaring that she and her ‘girls’ must move to their own house, which she was called to establish on Mount St. Rupert.”5 But not everyone was excited about this news. “Many of the nuns, their families, and their patrons objected to the hardship and poverty such a move would entail, while Kuno [the abbot of the monastery] was livid at the prospect of the nuns’ secession.”6 Hildegard had attracted many followers who brought rich dowries and donations; she had become not just a spiritual, but also a material asset to the monastery. For the monks, the departure of the nuns meant the “loss of a visionary of growing fame, of recluses with strong ties to the local nobility, and of the material gifts they had brought to the house.”7

It was also unprecedented for a woman – as opposed to an emperor, bishop, or prince – to found a monastery.8 But Hildegard was undeterred by any of these obstacles. Distressed that she had not been given permission to follow God’s will, she took to her bed with a paralyzing illness. She was unable to get up or do any work at all until Abbot Kuno finally “acknowledged that she was suffering no human illness but a divine chastisement, and he grudgingly released her to depart.”9

The new monastery was located at Rupertsberg, beside the Rhine River near Bingen (about 30 kilometres southwest of Frankfurt). Fifteen years later (in 1165), the number of sisters had increased even more, so Hildegard founded a daughter house across the river at Eibingen – the Abbey of St. Hildegard – where her relics are still enshrined today. She served as “mother” of both communities until her death on September 17, 1179.10


The Abbey of St. Hildegard at Eibingen (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – see footnote 11)

Hildegard’s leadership proved to be both insightful and perceptive, and many turned to her for advice. “Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community,”12 wrote Pope Benedict XVI. “Within the walls of the cloister, [Hildegard] cared for the spiritual and material well-being of her sisters, fostering in a special way community life, culture and the liturgy. In the outside world she devoted herself actively to strengthening the Christian faith and reinforcing religious practice, opposing the heretical trends of the Cathars,13 promoting Church reform through her writings and preaching and contributing to the improvement of the discipline and life of clerics. At the invitation first of Hadrian IV and later of Alexander III, Hildegard practised a fruitful apostolate, something unusual for a woman at that time, making several journeys, not without hardship and difficulty, to preach even in public squares and in various cathedral churches, such as at Cologne, Trier, Liège, Mainz, Metz, Bamberg and Würzburg. The profound spirituality of her writings had a significant influence both on the faithful and on important figures of her time and brought about an incisive renewal of theology, liturgy, natural sciences and music.”14

St. Hildegard of Bingen – painting by artist, Marcy Hall

St. Hildegard of Bingen – painting by artist, Marcy Hall

Who was St. Hildegard?

As we can already see, St. Hildegard was no ordinary ‘feather of God’. Peter Dronke, a specialist in medieval literature, described her as “an overpowering, electrifying presence—and in many ways an enigmatic one.”15 Barbara Newman, an authority on St. Hildegard, wrote that, “Among the countless ‘firsts’ and ‘onlies’ to her credit, Hildegard was the only woman of her age to be accepted as an authoritative voice on Christian doctrine; the first woman who received express permission from a pope to write theological books; the only medieval woman who preached openly, before mixed audiences of clergy and laity, with the full approval of church authorities; the author of the first known morality play and the only twelfth-century playwright who is not anonymous; the only composer of her era (not to mention the only medieval woman) known both by name and by a large corpus of surviving music; the first scientific writer to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective; and the first saint whose official biography includes a first-person memoir.”16 Hildegard even invented her own language – her so-called Lingua ignota (Unknown Language) – a glossary of about a thousand imaginary nouns, complete with their own ‘secret alphabet’ (litterae ignotae).17 But despite her many intellectual gifts, St. Hildegard could also be thoroughly practical. “Cerevisiam Bibat!” she writes. “Drink beer for health!”

St. Hildegard also corresponded with many well-known twelfth century figures, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa (also known as Frederick I).18 The 12th century was a time when emperors and popes were struggling for power and control; it was a time of schism and civil war. On top of that, there was also “the careerism of contemporary prelates [high-ranking members of the clergy], the rising threat of the Cathar heresy, the Second Crusade, the invigorating developments and crises in monastic reform, the nascent evangelical poverty movement, the competition for lucrative endowments and relics, [and] the struggle over clerical celibacy.”19

But no false sense of decorum or protocol ever stopped Hildegard from speaking the truth; she vehemently attacked bishops, priests, and emperors alike.20 Surprisingly, they didn’t respond by attacking her in turn. Instead, they actually “invited her to preach and then wrote to her afterward, begging for transcripts of her sermons.”21 Newman writes, “Recognizing that the dissident movement [the Cathars] profited from the chaos of the Catholic Church, she blamed the rapid spread of heresy chiefly on negligent prelates. Thus she broke with, even threatened, Barbarossa for persisting in his schismatic policies, and in a flood of letters she tirelessly harangued the bishops themselves, exhorting them to fairness and vigilance in pastoral care, warning them against schism and heresy, reminding them of their duty to obey God rather than man, and calling them sternly to judgment.”22 Inspired by a vision from God, Hildegard once wrote the Emperor, saying: “You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!”23

Hildegard’s Visions

Hildegard was famous for her mystical visions, which began when she was only three years old. They were unique in that they weren’t primarily conversations between her and a heavenly figure (such as Jesus, Mary, or an angel). Instead, they were much more visual. St. Hildegard was wide awake and retained the full use of her senses during her visions. She wasn’t dreaming or in a state of ecstasy, and yet she ‘saw things’ in living colour: “mountains, cosmic eggs, spheres of shimmering light, colossal figures, towering walls and pillars – sometimes in static tableaux and sometimes in dynamic motion.”24

Hildegard designed complex mandalas based on visions she had during prayer.

Hildegard designed complex mandalas based on visions she had during prayer.

“I have always seen this vision in my soul,” she wrote, and in it “my soul, as God would have it, rises up high into the vault of heaven and into the changing sky and spreads itself out among different peoples, although they are far away.” … On rare occasions she saw … ‘the Living Light’ itself, by which she seems to have meant a direct experience of God. “I cannot describe when and how I see it, but while I see it all sorrow and anguish leave me, so that then I feel like a simple girl instead of an old woman.”25

The Day of the Great Revelation Illumination by Hildegard of Bingen in Scivias. Part III, vision 12.

The Day of the Great Revelation
Illumination by Hildegard of Bingen in Scivias. Part III, vision 12.

Hildegard’s Writings

In her best-known work, Scivias (“You Know the Ways”), Hildegard “sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time.”26 In a second volume, The Book of Life’s Merits, she was among the first authors to give “a detailed account not only of the specific torments of purgatory (envisioned as a lake of fire or a stinking, oozing marsh) but also of their theological rationale.”27 Her last great work, the Book of Divine Works, is “a masterful study of the harmonies between macrocosm and microcosm. In this vision, the seer wrote in her memoirs, ‘I saw the height and depth and breadth of the firmament, and how the sun, moon, and stars are arranged in it’. But she also saw how all of these are correlated with the proportions and functions of the human body, as well as with the subtle working of God within the soul.”28

Pope Benedict XVI remarked that in her works, “Hildegard asks herself and us the fundamental question, whether it is possible to know God: This is theology’s principal task. Her answer is completely positive: through faith, as through a door, the human person is able to approach this knowledge.”29

Despite the originality of Hildegard’s thought, there was never any question that her work was inspired by God. Everything she did and said was characterized by a humble submission to the authority of the Church. Even when she spoke severely, everyone listened willingly for they considered her to be a messenger from God. “This, dear friends,” said Pope Benedict XVI, “is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.”30

Painter, Composer, Poet, Dramatist, Medical Writer, Healer

As important as Hildegard’s contributions were to theology, she made many contributions in other areas as well. For example, the Scivias was not just a manuscript of written text but also included 35 pictures, painted by Hildegard, illustrating her visions.


Hildegard’s Awakening – a self-portrait

She was also a gifted composer. Singing had a central place in monastic life, and this was especially so for the Rupertsberg nuns. Margot Fassler writes, “The emphasis that Hildegard placed on the act of singing within the monastic community has made her unique in the history of Western music. No other twelfth-century composer has left such a large corpus of varied and securely attributable compositions as Hildegard of Bingen. She is quite simply the most prolific composer of monophonic chants known to us, not even from the twelfth century but from the entire Middle Ages.”31

Composers usually set their music to lyrics written by others, but Hildegard was a poet in her own right. Newman observes, “Her lyrics were not meant as art for art’s sake but were designed for the liturgical use of her nuns and, in some cases, neighboring monks. … The lyrics aim in their own way to teach as well as delight, for the mind must be edified even as the spirit sings.”32

As a dramatist, Hildegard didn’t just write plays; she also conceived a new artistic form – the morality play.33 Her Ordo virtutum (“Order of the Virtues”) pre-dates the earliest morality play by more than a century.

Hildegard was also renowned as a medical writer and healer. To the Renaissance humanist and bibliophile Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), Hildegard’s “writings about the human body, disease, and medicines seemed so perceptive that, to his mind, they must have been the product of supernatural inspiration. … In Trithemius’s day women did not produce medical literature of expansive scope in a bookish, Latin presentation, and he could scarcely conceive of a time when such a marvel might have lain within a woman’s capabilities.”34

A Light for Her Time

During her lifetime, visitors of all kinds – rulers, clerics, and laypeople – flocked to Hildegard to seek her advice and cures. And though the world seemed to forget about her after her death, her reputation for holiness lived on in the Rhineland. Many continued to regard her as a saint, and in 1324, an indulgence was granted to pilgrims who visited her shrine. Later – in the 16th century – her name was included in the Roman list of saints, thus assuring that she would continue to be venerated as a saint.

In 1979, on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of her death, Pope St. John Paul II referred to Hildegard as a “light for her people and her time,” and a “prophet of Germany.”36 In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of how “This great woman, this ‘prophetess’, … speaks with great timeliness to us today, with her courageous ability to discern the signs of the times, her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music, which today has been reconstructed, her love for Christ and for his Church, priests and lay people, and far better loved as the Body of Christ. Thus St. Hildegard speaks to us.”37

In St. Hildegard’s life and work, we are reminded that women throughout the centuries have always contributed to the development of society and culture in distinct and unique ways – and that they continue to do so today. The field of theology is no exception, notes Pope Benedict, for it “can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity.”38

– Sharon van der Sloot


Doctor of the Church … is a an official designation that is bestowed by the Pope in recognition of the outstanding contribution a person has made to the understanding and interpretation of the sacred Scriptures and the development of Christian doctrine.” Marcellino D’Ambrosio, “Introduction to the Doctors of the Catholic Church,” available from https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/128/doctors_of_the_church.html; Internet; accessed 25 July 2015.

Hildegard of Bingen Quotes; available from http://www.azquotes.com/quote/726104; Internet; accessed 25 July 2015.

Although we might have trouble understanding how parents could entrust their children to a monastery at such a young age, this practice was not unusual at that time. Chapter 59 of the Rule of St. Benedict, entitled “On the Sons of Nobles and of the Poor Who Are Offered,” reads: “If anyone of the nobility offers his son to God in the monastery and the boy is very young, let his parents draw up the document which we mentioned above; and at the oblation [offering] let them wrap the document itself and the boy’s hand in the altar cloth. That is how they offer him. As regards their property, they shall promise in the same petition under oath that they will never of themselves, or through an intermediary, or in any way whatever, give him anything or provide him with the opportunity of owning anything. Or else, if they are unwilling to do this, and if they want to offer something as an alms to the monastery for their advantage, let them make a donation of the property they wish to give to the monastery, reserving the income to themselves if they wish. And in this way let everything be barred, so that the boy may have no expectations whereby (which God forbid) he might be deceived and ruined, as we have learned by experience. Let those who are less well-to-do make a similar offering. But those who have nothing at all shall simply draw up the document and offer their son before witnesses at the oblation.” Quoted from The Rule of Benedict, trans. Leonard J. Doyle, OblSB; available from http://www.osb.org/rb/show.asp?month=4&day=13&toMonth=1&toDay=1; Internet; accessed 25 July 2015.

It would be incorrect to assume that Hildegard was forced to enter the monastery against her will, however. In fact, she herself later commented on the negative effects of this kind of coercion. “Parents who wished to offer their children to the Lord’s service, she taught in her Scivias, should promise – that word suggesting the oblation ceremony itself – to care for them up to the age of reason, all the while exhorting their children to choose the religious life; then the parents should either hurriedly agree when the child consented or consider themselves unbound and blameless if she dissented.” Children were considered adults – i.e., to have arrived at the age of reason – once they reached the marriageable age, which was somewhere between the ages of fourteen to sixteen. Quoted from John Van Engen, “Abbess,” Voice of the Living LightHildegard of Bingen and Her World, Barbara Newman, ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1998), 33.

There were 10 women in Hildegard’s community at the time of Jutta’s death.

Barabara Newman, “Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, Barbara Newman, ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1998), 12.


Van Engen, “Abbess,” Voice of the Living Light, 37.

Cf. Ibid., 42.

Newman, “Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 12.

10 “Between 1150 and 1177, the number of sisters increased from 20 to 50.” Hildegard was never given the title of “abbess” because of the newness of her foundation. However, Newman notes that … “as abbess in all but name, Hildegard bore full responsibility for the spiritual growth and discipline of her daughters.” (Newman, “Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 40, 17) “She organized a community, secured its land and incomes, procured and protected its privileges, gathered (and lost) sisters, built a monastic complex, and put in place a distinctive set of religious observances.” (Van Engen, “Abbess,” Voice of the Living Light, 42.)

11 Photo courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAbtei_St._Hildegard_(Eibingen).jpg. By Tiggr (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons.

12 Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience Wednesday, 1st September 2010,” available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20100901.html; Internet; accessed 29 July 2015.

13 The Cathars, a German movement, “were dualists who rejected the material world and the body as creations of an evil god, whom they renounced by abstaining from procreation, following a strict vegetarian diet, and, ideally, ending their lives in a sacramental act of self-starvation.” (Newman, “Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 20.) They “advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. [Hildegard] harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures.” Quoted from Pope Benedict XVI, Holy Women, 14.

14 Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter “Proclaiming Saint Hildegard of Bingen, professed nun of the Order of Saint Benedict, a Doctor of the Universal Church,” (October 7, 2012); available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_letters/documents/hf_ben-xvi_apl_20121007_ildegarda-bingen.html; Internet; accessed 25 July 2015.

15 Sandra Miesel, “Hildegard of Bingen: Voice of the Living Light,” The Catholic World Report [online news magazine]January 25, 2012; available from http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/1079/hildegard_of_bingen_voice_of_the_living_light.aspx; Internet; accessed 29 July 2015.

16 Newman, “Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 1.

17 Ibid., 16

18 Frederick Barbarossa, also known as Frederick I, was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1155 until his death in 1190. He participated in the Second Crusade, undertook six expeditions into Italy, and headed up the Third Crusade to the Holy Land (where he died). He was a charismatic leader who seemed almost superhuman to his contemporaries. He caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander III, who was the legitimate Pope.

19 Newman, “Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 2.

20 Newman writes, “Strong emperors tried to control the papacy itself by naming ‘antipopes’ of their own choosing to that office, while ‘legitimate’ popes retaliated by excommunicating emperors and appointing ‘antikings’. One of the longest and bitterest of these schisms broke out in 1159, when Frederick Barbarossa challenged Pope Alexander III by supporting the election as antipope first of Victor IV, then of two successors on his death.” (Newman, “Sibly of the Rhine, Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 19.)

21 Newman, “Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 21.

22 Ibid., 20.

23 E. Gronau, Hildegard: Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’età moderna, Milan, 1996, 412.

24 Newman, “Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 9.

25 Ibid.

26 Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience Wednesday, 8th September 2010”; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20100908.html; Internet; accessed 30 July 2015.

27 Newman, “Sibyl of the Rhine, Hildegard’s Life and Times,” Voice of the Living Light, 18.

28 Ibid., 23-24.

29 Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter “Proclaiming Saint Hildegard of Bingen, professed nun of the Order of Saint Benedict, a Doctor of the Universal Church.”

30 Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience Wednesday, 1st September 2010”; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20100901.html; Internet; accessed 30 July 2015.

31 Margot Fassler, “Composer and Dramatist,” Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, 150. To listen to St. Hildegard’s music, check out Hildegard von Bingen – Voice of the Living Light at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dehwp_dRlYQ.

31 Ibid., 155-156.

32 Barbara Newman, “Poet,” Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World,177.

33 A morality play is an allegorical play in which the protagonist encounters personifications of moral attributes (such as virtues or vices) who try to prompt him to choose a godly life over a life of evil. Morality plays were especially popular in the 15th and 16th centuries.

34 Florence Eliza Glaze, “Medical Writer,” Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, 125.

35 Lettre du Pape Jean-Paul II au Cardinal Hermann Volk, Évêque de Mayence, Pour le 800ème Anniversaire de la Mort de Sainte Hildegarde, 9 September 1979; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/fr/letters/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_19790908_800-ildegarda.html; Internet; accessed 25 July 2015.

36 Pope Benedict XVI, Holy Women (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2011), 10.

37 Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience Wednesday, 8th September 2010.”


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