Episode 21 Beginning to Pray: St. Hildegard von Bingen and “The Iron Mountain”
From Dr. Lilles’ “Beginning to Pray” blog site:
September 17 is the feast of St. Hiildegard of Bingen. She lived from 1098-1179. A Benedictine Nun, at the age of 42, she was given visions and commanded rise up and cry out what she saw. She obeyed and produced a set of writings known today as Scivias.
Her first vision is of a hidden mountain, the mountain of God’s throne, an iron mountain of immutable justice hidden in divine glory. A purifying Fear of the Lord contemplates this splendor. Not the kind of fear that pulls away to protect itself. Rather the kind of fear that is vigilant and sees the truth. Eyes which gaze with this holy fear can never be satisfied with the merely mediocre. They guard against every form of compromise. The glory they behold demands absolute allegiance, complete surrender, and total humility.
In this description, is St. Hildegard suggesting a way by which we might enjoy the same vision she has shared in? This is no exercise in esoteric navel gazing. Her vision demands a journey beyond our own self-pre-occupation and into real friendship with God, a friendship protected by the strength of divine justice. She sees the truth in a way that demands an ongoing conversion of life.
She is well-formed in St. Benedict’s conversatio morum. The mountain she sees is not a truth we scrutinize so much as the truth that scrutinizes us: a scrutinizing of all our thoughts and actions in light of the Gospel. The truth she beholds demands repentance from the lack of justice we allow ourselves to slip into. The iron mountain she contemplates renders futile every effort to conform the Gospel to our own ways and invites us to be transformed by its just demands.
Today, where all kinds of cruelty are so easily excused and any form of self-indulgence so readily lifted up to the level of a fundamental human right, we need to rediscover the shadow of the iron mountain from which St. Hildegard cries out to us. Only under the glory of this mountain can we find the peace that the Lord has come to give. Only in the blinding light into which Holy Fear gazes can we find the humility to love one another the way Christ has loved us.
Dr. Anthony Lilles is a Catholic husband and father of three teaching Spiritual Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. He teaches spiritual theology and spiritual direction to transitional deacons, and the spiritual classics to the men who enter the Spirituality Year, a year of prayer in preparation for seminary formation. He is the author of the “Beginning to Pray” catholic blog spot.
For other episodes in the series visit the Discerning Hearts page for Dr. Anthony Lilles
The music that is used comes from
This the text we use for our readings comes from:
Benedict XVI is set to appoint Hildegard of Bingen as a Doctor of the Church in October of 2012. She was a German Benedictine nun and was known for her visions and prophecies.
Hildegard of Bingen lived in the twelfth century. In addition to being a nun, she was a composer, philosopher, physicist and ecologist. A multi-talented woman, and a pioneer for many of these fields during the Middle Ages.
She came from a wealthy family and when she was only eight years old was sent to study in a monastery. She eventually decided to become a nun and later became an abbess.
Her visions and prophecies were recognized by the pope during that time, allowing her to speak about them publicly.
Since she has not been officially canonized, the ceremony is likely to take place before the pope names her as a Doctor of the Church in October.
Benedict XVI dedicated several of his general audiences to this German nun, saying that she “served the Church in an age in which it was wounded by the sins of priests and laity”.
September 8, 2010
“She brought a woman’s insight to the mysteries of the faith. In her many works she contemplated the mystic marriage between God and humanity accomplished in the Incarnation, as well as the spousal union of Christ and the Church. She also explored the vital relationship between God and creation, and our human calling to give glory to God by a life of holiness and virtue.”
So far there are 33 doctors of the Church, only 3 of whom are women. During World Youth Day, Benedict XVI also announced that the Spanish San Juan de Avila would also be appointed as a Doctor of the Church.
With this appointment, the Church recognizes a person’s contribution to Catholic theology, which is still felt despite the passage of time.
Vatican City - Pope Benedict’s General Audience from Vatican.va
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Today I would like to take up and continue my Reflection on St Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the Middle Ages who was distinguished for her spiritual wisdom and the holiness of her life. Hildegard’s mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle. In a letter to St Bernard the mystic from the Rhineland confesses: “The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries…. I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91). Hildegard’s mystical visions have a rich theological content. They refer to the principal events of salvation history, and use a language for the most part poetic and symbolic. For example, in her best known work entitled Scivias, that is, “You know the ways” she sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time. With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).
From these brief references we already see that theology too 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. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.
The Rhenish mystic is also the author of other writings, two of which are particularly important since, like Scivias, they record her mystical visions: they are the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of the merits of life) and the Liber divinorum operum (Book of the divine works), also called De operatione Dei. In the former she describes a unique and powerful vision of God who gives life to the cosmos with his power and his light. Hildegard stresses the deep relationship that exists between man and God and reminds us that the whole creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity. The work is centred on the relationship between virtue and vice, which is why human beings must face the daily challenge of vice that distances them on their way towards God and of virtue that benefits them. The invitation is to distance themselves from evil in order to glorify God and, after a virtuous existence, enter the life that consists “wholly of joy”. In her second work that many consider her masterpiece she once again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of the human being, expressing a strong Christo-centrism with a biblical-Patristic flavour. The Saint, who presents five visions inspired by the Prologue of the Gospel according to St John, cites the words of the Son to the Father: “The whole task that you wanted and entrusted to me I have carried out successfully, and so here I am in you and you in me and we are one” (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a). Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests the versatility of interests and cultural vivacity of the female monasteries of the Middle Ages, in a manner contrary to the prejudices which still weighed on that period. Hildegard took an interest in medicine and in the natural sciences as well as in music, since she was endowed with artistic talent. Thus she composed hymns, antiphons and songs, gathered under the title: Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), that were performed joyously in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of tranquillity and that have also come down to us. For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.
The popularity that surrounded Hildegard impelled many people to seek her advice. It is for this reason that we have so many of her letters at our disposal. Many male and female monastic communities turned to her, as well as Bishops and Abbots. And many of her answers still apply for us. For instance, Hildegard wrote these words to a community of women religious: “The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel” (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’età moderna, Milan 1996, p. 402). And when the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander iii, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God’s judgement. With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: “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!” (ibid., p. 412). With the spiritual authority with which she was endowed, in the last years of her life Hildegard set out on journeys, despite her advanced age and the uncomfortable conditions of travel, in order to speak to the people of God. They all listened willingly, even when she spoke severely: they considered her a messenger sent by God. She called above all the monastic communities and the clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They cátari means literally “pure” advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy.
She 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. This is a message that we should never forget. Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women, like St Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.
There has been a strange dismissal of St. Hildegarde over the years, and I am not sure why. This was a woman who was a great mystic, writer, poet, musician, artist…oh you name it AND a Benedictine nun! Maybe this distancing of Catholics from her is in part because of New Agers, like Anglican Episcopal priest Matthew Fox, who have tried to claim her. Or that radical feminists have their t-shirts and flags covered with her image and wave her around like an icon for the modern woman…which really reveals the sad fact that they actually probably never have read her, otherwise they would hide from her rebuke of their behavior. St. Hildegarde valued the hierachy and authority of the Church, and even sought counsel and received validation from the great mystical doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. It’s time we reclaim St. Hildegarde and hold her up high as a saint and model to learn and grow with! You go Holy Father (we have such a GREAT Pope)…..
” While still superior of the convent of St. Disibod the saint began to dictate her mystical visions to her spiritual advisor, the monk Volmar, and to her own secretary, Richardis of Strade. “As is always the case in the lives of true mystics, Hildegard wished to place herself under the authority of the wise, in order to discern the origin of her visions, which she was afraid could be the fruit of illusions and not from God”.
To this end she spoke with St. Bernard of Clairvaux who calmed her fears and encouraged her. In 1147, moreover, she received the crucial approbation of Pope Eugene III who, in the Synod of Trier, read out one of the texts dictated by Hildegard which had been presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz.
“The Pope authorised the mystic to write her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige grew to the point that her contemporaries gave her the title of the ‘Teutonic prophetess’“, said Benedict XVI.” – Vatican Information Service
God is the foundation for everything
This God undertakes, God gives.
Such that nothing that is necessary for life is lacking.
Now humankind needs a body that at all times honors and praises God.
This body is supported in every way through the earth.
Thus the earth glorifies the power of God.
Hildegard of Bingen
More to come on St. Hildegarde, her life and teachings in future posts!
St. Hildegarde, pray for us!!!