Welcome to the fourth article in the “Celebrating Women” for Women’s History Month! It’s my first author guest article series to celebrate women in history or women making history! Thank you to JoAnn Shade for offering the fourth article in this series. If you’d like to continue on with the tour, which runs March 19-31, 2014, follow along each day on the main blog or head to this blog page, Women in History, which will be updated daily with the scheduled link.
Hildegard von Bingen: “Feather on the Breath of God”
–12th Century Visionary, Abbess, Musician, Writer, Saint
by author JoAnn Shade
In the novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë could have been describing the life of Hildegard of Bingen when she wrote: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Born in 1098, this visionary Benedictine nun was a theologian, prophet, poet, musician, healer, and influential abbess, and stands out as the most prolific female writer of her age, a Renaissance woman long before the Renaissance took place. Stubborn and resourceful, imaginative and devout, Hildegard holds a unique place in history, for as Charlotte Allen suggests, “this nun was one tough sister.”
From a contemporary point of view, life could not have appeared to be promising for the young girl, as her father and mother separated her from their other offspring; abandoning her to hope in God’s mercy alone. Born as a tenth child to Hildebert and Mechthilde, Hildegard of Bingen apparently was “tithed” to the Church, given over to the care of Jutta at age eight, either as an anchorite (permanently enclosed in a small cell attached to a church) or at Jutta’s family estate in Sponheim. By age fifteen, Hildegard made her own profession of vows, becoming a Benedictine nun, and it appears as though the fame of Jutta and Hildegard began to attract other women to the community of nuns, so that over time, their anchorite cell became a Benedictine nunnery.
What must it have been like as an eight-year-old being given to the church as a tithe, or to be confined in such a way for so many years? She seemed to have accepted her life as providential, and while as a young girl she could not have known the cultural factors at play, it would appear as though Hildegard reached such a sense of her full potential because she was enclosed.
Hildegard’s story was shaped by the visions she began to have as early as age three. Unsure what to do with these sensations, she asked her nurse if she had seen anything, as Hildegard was fearful of revealing her visions to anyone. It would appear that her unwillingness to act on her visions brought her ill health, although it is possible that the ill health brought the visions, with their visual impact being derived from migraines.
Subsequently, Hildegard wrote (or had transcribed) three major works of a visionary nature, as well as two medical and scientific works, The Physica (Natural History) and Causae et curae (Causes and Cures). This writing included chapters on plants, the elements, trees, jewels and precious stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles, and metals, as well as general medical questions such as the signs of life and death, uroscopy, and herbal remedies for a variety of ills. She also addresses the differences between the sexes and adds some discussion of sexuality and conception. In his classic work from the 1950’s, From Magic to Science, Charles Singer suggests that Hildegard really does not have specific categories of her work, such as science, ethics, theology, etc., but rather that “her ideas not only are interdependent, but also closely interwoven . . . for in her mind the material and spiritual are really interfused.”
We glimpse much of the person and the perceived power of Hildegard in her letter-writing. The breadth of her correspondents is amazing, for in terms of today’s culture, she would have written to (and received replies from) the US president, the Pope, Billy Graham, the parish priest, and the woman down the street. And yes, she would have been active on Facebook!
Listen to what she dared write to Pope Anastasius:
You, O man, who are too tired, in the eye of your knowledge, to rein in the pomposity of arrogance among those placed in your bosom, why do you not call back the shipwrecked who cannot rise from the depth without help? And why do you not cut off the root of evil which is choking out the good and beneficial plants of sweet taste and delightful aroma? You are neglecting the King’s daughter who was entrusted to you, that is, heavenly Justice herself.
Here’s her challenge to Conrad, King of the Romans “Again, O king, He Who knows all says to you: having heard these things, O man, restrain your pleasures, and correct yourself, so that you may come purified to those times when you need no longer blush for your deeds.” And one more quote, written to a Certain Person: “Get a grip on yourself until you see better times, and you will live.”
Among her many teachings, Hildegard believed that laughing, crying, singing and dancing were intimately linked with the health of the body. In that light, Hildegard was also an accomplished composer, writing many religious lyrics and composing the music for at least some of those works, which are considered both monastic and liturgical. Not surprising to the student of Hildegard, she was a maverick in her music writing, and she “preferred the archaic nonmetrical sequences,” and often wrote in what we would now call free verse.
Completing her biographical information, in 1136, Hildegard took over the leadership of the nuns following the death of Jutta. After receiving a command from God, she moved her nuns to Rupertsberg in 1150, removing them from the protection and authority of the monks at Disibodenberg (a move the monks fought against). In the years to follow, she began to gain prominence outside of the convent, and took part in a number of preaching tours. After a long and active life, Hildegard died in September 1179.
Hildegard stands out in history as a prophet and reformer within the church, and. her correspondence made at least some impact on the decisions of world leaders and church fathers. Her work as an artist, poet and composer was brought to new light in the late twentieth century, as her music was recorded and her literary works published again. Her medical writings have led her to being called one of the first woman doctors and scientists, yet she would have seen this work to be a part of her total life as a nun and as a woman of God. Long before the term was coined, Hildegard wrote and spoke extensively about social justice, desiring to seek freedom for the downtrodden, and believing that every human being, made in the image of God, should have the opportunity to cultivate the talents that God has given him or her.
Self-described as a “feather on the breath of God,” Hildegard’s cultivation of her own gifts enabled her feather-flight to be powerful and long-lasting. Yet as Hildegard’s words would remind us, “Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along.”
For an engaging treatment of her life story, see Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen.
JoAnn Streeter Shade, Biography~
JoAnn Streeter Shade has walked alongside many women in a variety of ministry settings for more than thirty-five years. She has served in Salvation Army congregations and social service programs, has ministered at North Coast Family Foundation, a Christian counseling center in Northeast Ohio, and has also written extensively about the issues facing women in today’s culture. She writes a weekly column in the Ashland Times-Gazette, and is the author of more than a dozen books on topics such as spiritual growth (The Heartwork of Hope, The God Gallery), sexual abuse (Rapha’s Touch), marriage (The Guerilla and the Green Beret), biblical narrative (The Other Woman, WomenVoices), and the joy of living in Ashland (Only in Ashland: Reflections of a Smitten Immigrant).
She is married to Larry, is the mother of three adult sons, Greg, Drew and Dan, and Lauren, a beloved daughter-in-law, and is Nana to the lovely Madelyn Simone. With an M.A. in pastoral counseling and a D.Min. in the Women in Prophetic Leadership track from Ashland Theological Seminary, she combines her academic training with a writer’s eye, a pastor’s heart and a grandmother’s joy.
Keep up with JoAnn’s writing at www.gracednotesministries.blogspot.com.
JoAnn has written many inspirational books; however, we choose to highlight the one below:
The Other Woman: Exploring the Story of Hagar, Synopsis~
The author touches on a vast range of subjects, from abuse and pregnancy and revenge to single parenting, abandonment, grief and more.
Any seeking soul, any student of the Bible, anyone who is craving hope and encouragement, will profit from it.
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