Claiming a Space for St. Hildegard

St. Hildegard
Icon of St. Hildegard of Bingen, by the hand of the author

I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned about St. Hildegard of Bingen, but when I joined a Benedictine monastery descended from German roots, she became a fast friend. What a remarkable woman! A Renaissance woman of the Middle Ages, she continues to inspire. She was a visionary, theologian, poet, composer and singer, advisor to leaders of Church and state, foundress of two monastic communities, herbalist and healer, at least a supervisor of artistic illuminations, and generally a supporter of the dignity of women. After the longest canonization process in history, in 2012 she finally was officially declared a saint and then a doctor of the Church. Since the 1970s various groups have tried to claim her as their own, including second-wave feminists, New Age writers, and ecological advocates. Her music has been recorded in settings ranging from simple, clear Early Music chant performances, to rhythmic versions set against techno beats and synthesizers. 

St.Hildegard Statue
This statue of St. Hildegard stands in the cloister hall of Monastery Immaculate Conception, Ferdinand, Indiana

I feel a bit protective of St. Hildegard, as I don’t think it is fair to excise her of her original context. While a giant in so many ways, she was a medieval Catholic monastic woman, a Benedictine. When her colorful visionary imagery is unpacked, she is explaining basic Catholic systematic theology. The majority of her chants were written for use in the Divine Office and mass. Her commentary on the Rule of Benedict exudes a sense of moderation.

At the same time, as a contemporary Catholic monastic woman, also a Benedictine, I long to help her images and music live again, to make them a bit more accessible to people of today, particularly in liturgical contexts.

St. Hildegard Window
Window of St. Hildegard, Monastery Immaculate Conception, Ferdinand, Indiana

This is a somewhat challenging endeavor, as her music includes some of the most demanding chant I have ever sung, sometimes using the very bottom and very top of a voice with a pretty wide range. Her melodies include some memorable patterns, but also some complex movements. Musical phrasing has to be interpreted with attention to the play of text and meaning. Moreover, many of the pieces are long. A number were designed to be sung as responsories during Matins, the night office. These are not easily transplanted to liturgical settings more accessible to most people. They are in Latin, so making translations easily available is important. So, too, some of the poetic imagery may need to be clarified for those not familiar with its theological connections. While I have sung her music in recital situations several times, and once or twice as a Communion meditation piece, I would love to see it be reclaimed in other ways too. Perhaps the creative liturgist readers of PrayTell can give us some suggestions!

The recording below is of one of my favorite songs from St. Hildegard, “O Virtus Sapientiae.” It seems a fitting reflection for the week after Trinity Sunday.

Antiphon for Divine Wisdom (translation by Barbara Newman)

O energy of Wisdom, / you who circled circling, / encompassing all / in one path that possesses life, / having three wings, / of which one flies on high / and the second distils from the earth, / and the third flies everywhere. / Praise be to you, / O Wisdom.

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