Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was one of the most powerful abbesses of medieval times. She ruled a Benedictine convent on the Rhine in what is now Germany. Hildegard is best known for her “waking visions,” in which she beheld a brilliant light and received revelations from God. Corresponding with kings, bishops and popes long before the Reformation, Hildegard pleaded for reform within the clergy, and her writings begged readers to look to the Scriptures as their authority and to Christ for salvation, rather than to priests. In addition to her visionary writings, theological treatises, plays and music, Hildegard also wrote books on medicine and nature. Her book on what is now called gynecology, from a female perspective, was possibly the first of its kind.
The tenth child of a well-to-do family, Hildegard was committed at birth to the newly-formed women’s wing of a Benedictine monastery. In time she became the abbess herself. She was probably subject to migraines, which accounted for the sensation of brilliant light she had during her visions, but not for the wisdom and beauty that she was able to impart to others.
Hildegard’s visions included a vision of the Trinity as “living light” in which “fire and light” surround a “human figure.” She often used the Latin feminine form “sapienta Dei” (“Wisdom of God”) to describe Christ, equating Christ with the female figure of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. In a time when women were regarded as being by nature inferior to men, Hildegard suffered from self-doubt and a sense of inferiority-- but she never doubted the truth of her visions, which did not take part in the binary masculine-vs.-feminine of the theology of the times. Instead, she saw the nature of God as containing both masculine and feminine aspects in balance, and the female form as a source of creative power in its own right, rather than as simply a receptacle for male procreation. Hildegard’s views raised women above the limitations imposed on them through male-centric theology.
For 13 years, beginning in 1158, Hildegard traveled from monastery to convent to city cathedral, preaching to monks, nuns and clergymen alike, imparting her visions and wisdom. She claimed to carry messages directly from God, warning against a “supposed sanctity” that sought reputation and a good name rather than true service and good works. Though she herself embraced her monastic calling, she was against children being committed to it against their will, as she had been.
Hildegard was one of many women of her age who found that though the church officially limited her teaching authority to other women only, her visions, considered to be a direct impartation from God, carried her over those limitations and gave her a vehicle to impart not only her visions, but all of her creativity, knowledge and ideas, to the church as a whole.
Towards the end of her life, Hildegard opposed her ecclesiastical superiors by allowing a nobleman who had been excommunicated to be buried on holy ground, saying that God had revealed to her in a vision that the burial was to be allowed. When the church ordered the body exhumed, Hildegard, fully convinced that the man was forgiven by God, hid the grave so that they could not locate the site and remove the body. For this she and her convent were forbidden communion and the singing of hymns. Hildegard appealed the ruling to higher church authorities and was eventually exonerated.
But Hildegard was no mere rebel. Throughout her life, she did what she believed was right, regardless of cost to herself-- and yet she upheld church leadership and order, and opposed those sects considered heretical in her day. She was, in every sense that we use the words today, a church leader-- and one full of integrity and worthy of respect.
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Fordham University: The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen
Other Women’s Voices
Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Woman and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, Zondervan Publishing House, 1987, pages 149-151.