Hildegard of Bingen

"O quam magnum miraculum" (How Great the Wonder Is!) Hildegaard of Bingen (1098-1179)

"Like a Mother Who Has Born Us"


Hildegard was of lower noble birth. Perhaps due to her visions from a young age, or due to political considerations, she was offered as an oblate to Benedictine monastery at the Disibodenberg perhaps as young as eight years old. She was assigned to a woman named Jutta who taught her the rudiments of reading and writing, and other useful skills. She also learned to play the 10-string psaltery.

Jutta died when Hildegard was 38, and Hildegard was unanimously elected magistra of the community of nuns. Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg asked Hildegard to be Prioress, which would place her under his authority. Hildegard, however, wanted more independence for herself and her nuns, and asked Abbot Kuno to allow them to move to Rupertsberg. This was to be a move towards poverty, from a stone complex that was well established to a temporary dwelling place. When the abbot declined Hildegard’s proposition, Hildegard went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz. Abbot Kuno did not relent until Hildegard was stricken by an illness that kept her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed, a malady she attributed to God’s unhappiness at her not following His orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg. It was only when the Abbot himself could not budge Hildegard that he decided to grant the nuns their own monastery. Hildegard and about twenty nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150 and it grew from there.

In 1148 Pope Eugenius heard about Hildegard’s writings, and gave her Papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit, giving her instant credence and protection. When Hildegard died age 81, her sisters claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross over the room.

Mother Hildegard’s works include three great volumes of visionary theology, a variety of musical compositions for use in liturgy, a musical morality play Ordo Virtutum (the first recorded ‘opera’ in Western music?), one of the largest bodies of letters (nearly 400) to survive from the Middle Ages — addressed to correspondents ranging from popes to emperors to abbots and abbesses, many of her sermons, two volumes on natural medicine and cures, an invented language called the Lingua ignota ("unknown language"), and various other works including a gospel commentary and two works of hagiography (lives of the saints).

Hildegard wrote both the text and the music for this morning’s prelude (a Gregorian Chant). Of course Mother Mary looms large in Hildegard’s creative output…

How great the wonder is!
Into the female form subdued
the King has come.
This God has done,
for meekness mounts o’er all.
And O how great the happiness is in that form,
for malice, which from a woman flowed —
a woman then this malice wiped away,
and ev’ry sweet perfume of virtues she has raised —
the heavens graced far more than e’er the earth in chaos cast.