Hildegard von Bingen to be made Doctor of the Church
And once again I heard a voice from heaven instructing me. And it said, “Write down what I tell you.” – Hildegard von Bingen
In December, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to canonize the Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen and to appoint her a Doctor of the Church in October of 2012.
A Doctorship is regarded by the Catholic Church as one of the highest honors it can bestow. The title recognizes individuals for special contributions to theology or doctrine. There are currently only 34 Doctors of the Church, including distinguished luminaries such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John of the Cross.
Only three woman have been so honored: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna, and Thérèse de Lisieux. The first woman to be named a doctor of the church, Teresa of Avila, was recognized in 1970. Hildegard von Bingen will be the fourth woman doctor to be designated in a row.
Hildegard (born in Bermersheimin 1098; died in Rupertsberg, 17 Sept 1179) was famous in her day as a mystic whose visions were widely known through a popular series of written testimonies. She began having religious visions at the age of 5, and she was presented by her family to a Benedictine order at the age of 14. She received approval from the church to begin writing down her visions with the aid of her assistant Volmar in 1141, at the age of 43.
Hildegard earned an unusually high stature as a mystic, which was one of the few avenues by which women in the Middle Ages could achieve authority within the Catholic Church. Her fame made her an object of veneration, and she was a sought-after correspondent and adviser to some of the most important political and religious figures of her day, including famed theologian Bernard of Clairvaux and Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who offered her recognition and protection when she founded her own abbey.
A campaign seeking her canonization began in 1223, but was it rejected by Pope Gregory IX, and later by Pope Innocent IV. In 1940, her feast day was officially approved for all Catholics, reflecting her continuing popularity. (1)
Hildegard is known by many today as a composer of early church music, which has been popularized by excellent recordings by artists including Anonymous 4 and Sequentia.
Her monophonic composition is highly original and greatly affecting, employing idiosyncratic modal variations, not drawn from Plainchant, but personally devised to offer a musical commentary on the contemplative themes of her texts. The intimate dialog between her music and texts is perhaps most evident in her musical drama Ordo Virtutum, which dramatizes the Soul’s struggle with the Devil, aided by a series of Virtues. It is the earliest-known morality play of the Middle Ages.
The following excerpt from her testimony Book of Divine Works is typical of her style. It relates an encounter from one of her visions:
I am Love, the splendor of the living God. Wisdom has influenced me, and the humility rooted in the living fountain is my helper. Peace is associated with humility. Through the splendor that is my essence, the living light of the blissful angels shines. For just as a ray of light shines, this splendor shines for the blissful angels. It could hardly keep from shining, for there can be no light that does not shine. I have designed the human species, which has its roots in me like a shadow, just as one can see the shadow of every object in water. And so I am a living fountain because all creation is like a shadow within myself. As regards this shadow, the human species is formed from fire and water, just as I am both ‘fire’ and ‘living water.’ The human species has within its soul the ability to arrange everything according to its own wish. (2)
As with her lyrics, her prose is characterized by schematic, didactic allegory, which is periodically illuminated by moments of lucid, lyrical power.
(1) “Hildegard of Bingen.” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
(2) Hildegard of Bingen, ed. by Matthew Fox. Book of Divine Works. Bear & Co. 1987.