Seven Flowers of St. Hildegard von Bingen
Viriditas means “greenness” in Latin. It is one of the key concepts found in St. Hildegard’s works, meaning fecundity, freshness, vitality. Hildegard understood it as referring especially to God’s vivifying power in the natural and supernatural realms. Viriditas also perfectly describes her flourishing soul. She was like a luxuriant garden, continually putting out marvelous flowers. This article considers seven of her flowering achievements.
Hildegard was born into a noble family of Bermersheim, Germany, in 1098. Because she was the tenth child or “tithe,” her parents destined her for the Church. At the age of eight, her parents thus entrusted her to a devout noblewoman named Jutta, who took her to the Disibodenberg monastery. Together they lived a life of reclusion adjacent to the monastic church, where Mother Jutta taught Hildegard how to read, write, and practice various crafts and garden work. Hildegard also learned to play the ten-string psaltery, a harp-like instrument. Other women started gathering around them and a convent was born. After Mother Jutta’s death in 1136, the nuns unanimously voted Hildegard to be their superior. Her life was relatively quiet up to this point, but then came a series of events that blazed her fame across Europe.
The first major turning point in Hildegard’s life was her election as abbess. Her fellow nuns must have valued her leadership abilities, as this role is permanent in Benedictine monasteries. Indeed, it was not long before Hildegard revealed her assertiveness, as she desired to move her nuns from the Disibodenberg, which was a male monastery, to found her own monastery. When the Abbott, Kuno, refused her request, Hildegard went to a higher authority, the Archbishop of Mainz, who accepted her proposal.
Hildegard consequently moved twenty of her nuns to Bingen, where an abandoned Carolingian monastery stood on top of a hill, overlooking the Nahe and Rhine rivers. She named the monastery the Rupertsberg, in honor of St. Rupert. Through her connections and hard work, the new monastery took shape, boasting even of piped-in water, quite a modern feature in those times. When the monastery swelled to over fifty nuns, she founded a second community in Eibingen, which today is thriving with nearly fifty nuns following the Benedictine rule. Naturally, they look to St. Hildegard as their spiritual mother, finding nourishment in her visionary theology.
2. Visionary and Writer
Though Hildegard was the recipient of heavenly visions from her earliest years, she was extremely hesitant to share these with others. At the age 42, however, with her revelations pressing upon her, God told her, “I am the living and inaccessible Light, and I enlighten whomever I will. According to my good pleasure, I show forth through any man marvels greater than those of my servants in time past.” She received the instruction, “Write down that which you see and hear.” Still reluctant, Hildegard became physically ill, but finally overcame her hesitation and wrote down her visions through the encouragement of the monk Godfrey, her confessor.
She accordingly dictated her revelations, primarily about the charity of Christ, Heaven, the good angels, and the Devil. Godfrey submitted these writings to his abbot, who in turn showed them to the Bishop of Mainz. After reading them, the bishop said, “These visions come from God.” The abbot appointed a monk, Volmar, to act as her secretary, and write down all that Hildegard revealed. After ten years of work, the result was Scivias, condensed from scito vias [Domini], or Know the Ways of the Lord. These writings stem from 26 visions, dealing with such topics as the relationship between God and humanity, Creation, Redemption, the Church, and apocalyptic messages. Some modern scholars deduce that her visions were the result of migraine headaches, ruling out the supernatural element. Nevertheless, if one reads the history of her visions and visionary theology in general, it is evident that a divine power is at work, quite beyond her control.
In any case, the writings came into the hands of Pope Eugenius, who discussed the work with a team of advisers, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He had Hildegard examined in person. His report was favorable and he encouraged the continuation of her work. Other visionary writings include The Book of Life’s Merits and a book On God’s Activity. She also wrote the first known morality play, Ordo Virtutem, two volumes on medicine and natural science, over 400 extant letters (one of the largest collections from medieval times), and several other smaller works. She also composed a volume of poetic text, which became the basis for her musical compositions.
Hildegard’s music has gained enormous popularity in recent decades. Though never formally trained, she was nonetheless naturally talented and learned to play the psaltery at a young age. Seventy-seven musical compositions survive, one of the largest known repertoires from medieval times. They include antiphons, hymns, sequences, and graduals. This collection of hymns, called the Symphonia, was for use of her nuns. Hildegard also composed the texts, which celebrate the mysteries of the faith, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. There is an abundant use of poetic imagery, particularly gardens, greenery, and flowers.
While her musical style fits into the genre of Gregorian chant, it is quite distinct by its use of moon-reaching melodies. Her music is also highly melismatic, which means that several notes carry a single syllable of text. Although there are diverse interpretations of her music, such as with the addition of electronic instruments, the nuns of her own abbey founded 900 years ago at Eibingen, chant it perfectly, in my estimation. The following video features the nuns of Eibingen Abbey chanting the antiphon, O Aeterne Deus. The nuns graciously gave me permission to use their music for this video. This is the English translation: “O eternal God, may you now be pleased to blaze once more in love and remake us as the limbs you fashioned in that love, when you first bore your Son upon the first dawn before all creatures. Look on the need that falls upon us and banish it for the sake of your Son, and lead us back into the joy of health.”
4. Holistic Healer
With the wave of interest in holistic healing in our day, many who practice this art look to Hildegard as a pioneer. Multitudes of books and articles have appeared on the subject. In addition, many health spas turn to her as a type of patroness for their institution, such as the Pirchnerhof in Austria.
In her first book on the subject, Physica, Hildegard describes the healing and scientific attributes of certain kinds of plants, fish, stones, and animals. In her second book, Causae et Curae, she investigates the nature of the human body, its relation to the natural world, and the causes and cures of various diseases. In these works, she gives hundreds of health remedies derived from products found in nature. For example, for the treatment of wounds, she recommends the wild flower, yarrow, also known as milfoil: “Milfoil is rather warm and dry, and it is a sovereign remedy for wounds. Wash the wounds with wine and let plenty of milfoil cooked moderately in water be laid on the cloth, while still warm, and so bind over the wound.” Her remedies are practical, as they deal with common injuries such as burns, cuts, and fractures, but also with depression and overexcitement.
It is unsettled whether she received an understanding of plants and their healing powers through her visions. However, a recent study by a team of German and Swiss scientists explains that Hildegard’s remedies were more than just lucky discoveries. Their study focused on 85 plants mentioned by her and are still used today for medicinal purposes. The study concluded that the odds of Hildegard discovering her remedies by chance are 1 in 10,000,000. One may infer that her understanding came through divine intervention.
In Old Testament times, God intervened through the ministry of prophets to foretell blessings or chastisements. In like manner, God made use of Hildegard to solve Church and secular troubles. For instance, the uprising of the heretical Cathar movement was among the challenges facing the twelfth-century Church. Two popes gave her permission to preach in public squares and churches to strengthen orthodox faith, something most unusual for a woman of her time. In spite of weak health and advancing age, she went on four preaching tours.
Her work as reformer was intimately associated with the knowledge she received through her visions and revelations. If not understood from this angle, one may think of her as exceedingly arrogant. She gives her own disclaimer on this score by explaining, “I am a poor earthen vessel and say these things not of myself but from the serene Light.” Hence, among her hundreds of letters, she wrote many to various clergy in Germany, including archbishops, telling them plainly that God would punish their evil lives unless they repented. For example, when the Archbishop of Mainz intended to remove one of her nuns to make her an abbess elsewhere, Hildegard wrote him a sharp rebuke, concluding with, “As for yourself, arise! For your days are numbered.” He in fact died shortly thereafter.
Her reforming efforts were not limited to clergy. She wrote strong letters to the Emperor Conrad III and other secular princes. She went to visit the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to correct his interference in Church affairs. Her efforts were courageous because he had been a generous benefactor to Hildegard’s monastery. However, she kept the bigger picture in view.
Scholars regard St. Hildegard as the first female polymath. A polymath is a person with a universal knowledge and who excels in several fields- a type of Renaissance person, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. As mentioned, she excelled in administrative duties, music, the natural sciences, and medicine.
However, her creative efforts extended into other fields. For example, she invented an “unknown language,” a type Esperanto, of about 900 words and a new alphabet, presumably created for her nuns. Her first published work, Scivias, contains 35 beautiful illuminations. Some recent literature suggests that Hildegard herself painted them, especially in view of their remarkable uniqueness, but it’s most likely that she oversaw the work. The artwork is nonetheless exceptional, as it depicts several examples of mandali, which are unusual in western art, as they are typically associated with Hinduism.
Her study of medicine is significant in as much as she came close to explaining certain later discoveries. For example, she posited on the circulation of blood in the human body 500 years before William Harvey’s conclusive discoveries. She also probed various forms of psychology, including insanity, phobias, and obsessions. Consequently, many persons came to her for healing of psychological or bodily infirmities.
O Humility, who lifts to the stars the oppressed and the crushed! O Humility, glorious queen of the virtues! What a strong and victorious protector you are to all who are yours! No one falls who loves you with a pure heart.— St. Hildegard of Bingen
7. Saint and Doctor of the Church
Not least of Hildegard’s achievements is her enrollment among the spiritual stars heaven. Though the Catholic Church has long honored her as a saint, the official ceremony did not take place until 2012, when Pope Benedict canonized her. This was in recognition of her virtues, especially humility, charity, and purity. Her charity, for instance, was manifest in her solicitude for the wellbeing of her nuns and those persons who came to her monastery for healing. Her reception of visions from her earliest years likewise reveals deep purity and humility. She went to great lengths to have her writings approved by the Church authorities, which reveal her obedience and humility.
Pope Benedict also bestowed on her the rare title of Doctor of the Church. This title designates a person who has made a substantial contribution to theology or doctrine. Only 36 persons have received this honor throughout the church’s history. She is the fourth woman Doctor of the Church.
A Green Legacy
St. Hildegard’ flourishing legacy to culture, medicine, and spirituality have multiple benefits to our everyday lives. Persons seeking holistic healing, for example, treasure her natural remedies. Her musical gifts are a source of inspiration for many persons, especially in conjunction with meditation and relaxation. Individuals of diverse religious views find spiritual nourishment from her theology. Finally, her example shows the potential of a soul by means of diligence and the grace of God.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. II, Christian Classics, Westminster, MD, 1958; p.580-585
Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Paulist Press, New York, 1990; p. 1-25
Additional facts about St. Hildegard
Details on study of Hildegard’s herbal remedies by German and Swiss scientists
This is the website of Eibingen Abbey, founded by St. Hildegard
Pirchnerhof Austrian health spa emphasizes the holistic remedies of St. Hildegard
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Bede