Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess, composer, and mystic. She is known by many today because of her music, but her creativity was born of mystical experiences which found their expression in a variety of ways. The book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader, is a reader which includes selections from her songs, theological texts, drama, liturgical music, and letters. Each section is introduced by the translator and editor, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, who also provides an introduction to this German woman who challenged the Church while producing in an astonishing range of artistic outlets.
Her songs can be especially moving, and Butcher says we may take that as a sign of being written in happy times. “But there were no such periods for this nun. She lived from illness to illness, conflict to conflict, responsibility to responsibility, and perhaps that is why we feel close to her, because, despite Hildegard’s many accomplishments, her life was clearly filled with the daily grind we all experience; and she through it.”
One example, her song “The Most Sanguine Moment” (Note: she did not give them titles — this is from the translator):
When the Creator actually spilled
His blood on the elements,
earth, air, water, and fire
collapsed with grief,
shook from sadness.
Now, Father, with this gift
anoint our weaknesses.
Her letters show a very human side, and she never hesitated to direct people (including royalty
and Popes) as she thought best. Her drama seems unusual to our modern ears, but is worth reading as it is the earliest known morality play ever recorded.
It is in the theological works where her mystic self, as seen in visions, is most clear. She has tremendous visions which she describes in detail, and then explains. Giant people, piles of excrement, and speaking fire, water, earth, and air, are all part of what she sees. At times, her visions seem grand for the simple lessons, but at times they make us rethink our most basic beliefs. In explaining how one vision teaches us about the soul’s power, she says, “A person’s physical body is bigger than their literal heart, just as the soul is stronger than the body. This is what I mean: A person’s heart lies hidden within their body, just as the physical body is surrounded by and hidden in the soul’s powers, which cover the entire globe. Your body is in your soul, not your soul in your body.”
In both her visions and her life, she was willing to turn things upside down to help profess God’s word. Although she battled with Church leaders, she was greatly respected and is now recognized as a Saint. In 2012, Pope Benedict the XVI recognized her as a Doctor of the Church, meaning one to study as well as imitate.
As such, this book is a great introduction as it provides a wide selection of her work, and just enough background to give it some context.