November 2012

Hildegard: a woman for women and men of our times

Hildegard of Bingen challenges us to know our task and live it out truthfully in accord with justice, rather than being swayed by popular trends or blind adherence to institutions, writes Good Samaritan Sister Carmel Posa.

BY Carmel Posa SGS

I thought we shouldn’t let this year go by without a word about Hildegard of Bingen who was recognised as a saint and Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI on October 7, 2012. She is accorded this title along with Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and Therese of Lisieux. These are the only four women granted the title among the 33 so named for their contribution to theology and doctrine.

I recently attended the “Festival of Hildegard” in Melbourne which was a testament to the breadth and depth of Hildegard’s contribution to her own world and the legacy she has left for us. What impressed me most was the freedom of voices at the conference, the freedom to explore Hildegard’s words and ideas in dialogue with the needs and struggles of our own times.

Hildegard was a candidate for beatification not long after her death in 1179 at the age of 81. However, there were changes to the process of canonisation taking place at the time and bureaucratic “red-tape” requiring the authority and approval of the Holy See, rather than popular acclaim, was becoming the norm. The nuns of Hildegard’s abbey certainly did make a petition to the pope and a process did begin in the early thirteenth-century. What happened to this process is unclear, but it does seem it never made it to the Roman Curia. In spite of this, Hildegard was accorded a feast day on September 17 in many martyrologies of the time. The cult surrounding Hildegard flourished particularly amongst Benedictines.

It was perhaps, thanks to the work of Matthew Fox that many of us gained access to the extensive writings of this remarkable woman. Notwithstanding many of Fox’s dubious interpretations of her work, this exposure partly enabled the explosion of studies into Hildegard’s writings on a wide range of topics, as well as the popularisation of her music, over the past 30 or so years. It has been said had Hildegard been a man she would have been recognised as a Thomas Aquinas of her own times. At last she has found her rightful place as a Doctor of the Church.

Hildegard, a German Benedictine nun, was steeped in learning, liturgy and Benedictine spirituality. She was a visionary, a prophet and a mystic. She was versed in medicine, astrology and music. Her visions, recorded in art by the nuns of her community, give us an extraordinary insight into her complex revelations, her comprehensive treatment of theology, her political and ecclesiastical views, and her understanding of the operations of nature and the universe. Interestingly, she was asked to write a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict for a group of Benedictine monks. This was a radical departure from the norm – women religious receiving guidance from their male counterparts. This is testament to her remarkable standing in the religious world of the twelfth-century.

Her many letters indicate the range of her influence, from high to low estates. She wrote to kings, queens and popes, archbishops, abbesses and abbots, nuns and monks, laywomen and laymen, seeking advice and giving it, even when it was not sought. She was a seer, allowing God to use her voice as his instrument. Hildegard preached mercy and justice; love rather than fear, compassion rather than anger, moderation rather than fanaticism, and all this with a strong sense of responsibility and discernment characteristic of the leadership that the Rule of Benedict advocates.

What made the pronouncement by Pope Benedict significant for me was that this year I had felt such sadness at the attempts by the Church to silence the voices of women theologians of such standing as Margaret Farley RSM and Elizabeth Johnson CSJ. To have this wise twelfth-century woman elevated to such a position was indeed a moment of deep hope. Why? Because, Hildegard reveals to us a woman profoundly disillusioned with the institutional Church of her time; she was saddened by the fact that it seemed to have lost its true identity. In her major work, Scivias, she envisages the Antichrist coming forth from the womb of the Church.

Hildegard drew attention to the fact that female prophets scandalise the Church. In doing so she believed that this pointed out the greater scandal of the men of the Church who should be proclaiming the Word of God and are not. She recognised her age as an effeminate one, and believed that God had to call a woman to communicate the mysteries of the faith, to do God’s work of breaking open the Scripture and thereby challenging the tepid theologians and clerics.

It was her firm conviction that she would not have been called if there had been no laxity among clerics. In an age when clerical celibacy and pastoral commitments of bishops was at a low ebb (sound familiar?), where the buying and selling of positions of power and prestige in the Church and society was the order of the day, when princes exerted their authority over and against the authority of the Church, as a prophet, Hildegard recognised her responsibility for the reform of the Church. She was to speak out against the lukewarmness of the spiritual leaders and the clergy. She took a strong apocalyptic, prophetic voice against them in many of her letters. She wrote boldly to Heinrich, Archbishop of Mainz:

“He Who Is says: You have been found wanting, and I say to you: The heaven of the Lord’s vengeance has been opened, and now the ropes have been lowered against His enemies. Rise up, however, because your days are short, and remember that Nebuchadnezzar fell and that his crown perished. And there have been many others who have fallen when they rashly exalted themselves to heaven. Ach! you piece of dust, why are you not ashamed at exalting yourself to the heights when you ought to be in the muck?” (Letter 19)

Hildegard of Bingen is a model of one who refused to lose her voice in a male world, convinced that God could work through her – “a feather on the breath of God”. She did not see it as folly to speak, rather she was compelled to speak to the issue of her times.

Hildegard challenges us to know our task and live it out truthfully in accord with justice, rather than being swayed by popular trends or blind adherence to institutions. She was able to see her world as it really was, imagine it otherwise and take responsibility for speaking out in wisdom. She was, and still is for us a model of what Helen Lombard SGS termed, “one capable of “prophetic contestation”:

“… because she is a disciple of penetrating vision, gazing out into her world, eyes open to its reality, with a wisdom that penetrates its facades, pierces its chimeras, reveals meaning and mystery at the heart of its reality. This is a disciple of contemplative vision, one that pierces and penetrates and discerns… This is a disciple who has kept vigil on the edge… She has stood there with courage. She has endured the fasting and the watching, the pain, the dying, the seeming incomprehensibility of it all… She has addressed the crucial issues of interiority in her own heart, at that deep level of consciousness where integrity is formed and a new imagining begins. She comes as a bearer of penetrating wisdom…”

Hildegard was a unifying prophet in an era of otherwise fragmentary leadership. She was a discerning Benedictine Abbess who listened with the ear of her heart and found her own authentic voice because of it. She models for us the listening Joan Chittister OSB describes:

“Listen with a critical ear for the sound of the gospel in everything you do. And don’t do what isn’t a gospel act, no matter who says so, no matter who orders it, no matter how sacred the institution that demands it.”

Yet, she had a deep sense of fidelity to the Church and its teaching. Fidelity is not, however, the opposite of critique. Hildegard’s critique of the Church of her times signalled her fidelity. Indeed, Hildegard would not be silenced by a Church paralysed by its own sins. Unfortunately today, critique is all too often equated with infidelity or negativity.

Surely, Pope Benedict XVI has given all women, and particularly those who have been pressured to keep silent, an inspiring model for our times.

Carmel Posa

Good Samaritan Sister Carmel Posa has been a member of the theology faculty at Notre Dame University, Australia since 1998 and is presently Director of the New Norcia Institute for Benedictine Studies at New Norcia. Carmel has a strong academic background, having been awarded a Master of Arts in Theology in 1996, majoring in Monastic Studies from St John’s Collegeville in Minnesota and a PhD from the Melbourne College of Divinity in 2009.

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