From Buddhist and Jain monks to Sufi mystics, all religions recognize common traits of holiness. Self-denial, patience, humility, and gentleness are a few that come to mind. During the Middle Ages, European civilization embodied this ideal in the status it accorded members of monastic disciplines. To the medieval mind, monks and nuns fulfilled an immensely practical purpose: to perform charitable works and pray for humanity.
One of the greatest of these figures was Hildegard of Bingen. Her writings, surprisingly, don’t embrace the stereotypical dichotomy that contrasts the profound but dour ascetic with the cheerful, shallow hedonist. Life, for her, wasn’t just a trial of endurance, but a source of beauty and delight.
Hildegard was born in 1098 in Bermersheim, Germany, as the youngest of 10 children. From an early age, she was subject to vivid, emotionally intense visions. As she later saw it, God “impressed” them into her soul in the womb. At age 3, she saw “a great light.” Her first articulated vision came at age 5, when she predicted the precise time a calf would be born and its color. While some of the visions were appealing, like jewel-encrusted castles, many of them were bizarre and even gruesome: fire-breathing beasts or pregnant women carrying full-grown men in their bellies.
Hildegard was a sickly child who grew into a sickly adult. Her frailness was seen as further evidence of her strong spiritual nature. At age 8, her parents sent her to the monastery of Disibodenberg. She lived there with an anchoress named Jutta, where she spent much of her time reading library books.
The monastery attracted more nuns, became a convent, and eventually elected Hildegard as the abbess after Jutta died. Throughout her early life, people were understandably put off by her disturbing visions, so she began keeping them to herself. But after she became abbess, she started writing them down. Around 1151, she brought out her first book, “Scivias,” or “Know the Way,” with the blessing of Pope Eugenius III. Written over a period of 10 years, it includes descriptions and interpretations of 26 visions about creation, redemption, and sanctification.
Hildegard was hailed as a seer. She wrote more books of wisdom and folk medicine, composed music, toured Germany giving sermons, and advised high-ranking leaders in church and state. She attracted many followers and founded an abbey at Rupertsberg. When that in turn became too large, she founded another one at Eibingen. Built in 1165, this last structure is still in existence today.
Lushness of the Soul
Disibodenberg monastery, located on a site between two rivers, was abundant in vegetation. Even today, its ruins exude the ambiance of a peaceful, holy place. It inspired a central concept that pervades all of Hildegard’s writings: “viriditas.” It literally means “greenness” and has often been translated as “moisture.” The word, however, has more of a connotation of life-giving lushness. Hildegard used it to describe the divine breath in all good things large and small. Saints embody viriditas, while sluggish monks and nuns lack it. It’s both the source of virtue and a goal that novices must work toward.
“The soul is the life-force of the body,” she wrote, “just as moisture [viriditas] is the life-force of a plant. Moisture makes a plant grow and be fruitful; so the soul enables the body to behave as it should, and be virtuous” (“Book of Divine Works,” 4.21).
Hildegard didn’t view the material world as merely a veil of tears or a cradle of temptation, but as a beautiful place where man and nature exist in balance. She enjoins us to use all our faculties—soul, body, emotions, and mind—to appreciate creation: “You understand so little of what is around you because you do not use what is within you” (“Scivias,” 1.2.29). She thought that wisdom gave people the moral freedom to cultivate good habits and find fulfillment in a higher purpose: “Although they are small in stature, human beings are powerful in spirit. While their feet are on the ground, their heads can attain great spiritual heights” (“Physica,” 761).
Science Meets Faith
Modern scholars have diagnosed Hildegard with various medical conditions to explain her visions. The famous neurologist Oliver Sacks has perhaps made the most convincing identification in his book, “Migraine.”
He referred to a manuscript of “Scivias” written near the end of Hildegard’s life, in which her strange visions are accompanied by equally strange illustrations. He observed that the drawings based on her descriptions—figures radiating light and set against concentric, wavy lines—are very similar to a type of migraine that appears as bright lights against a dark background. Hildegard’s experience of stars falling into the sea, which she interpreted allegorically to represent the fall of the rebel angels from heaven, is literally, in Sack’s words, “a shower of phosphenes in transit across the visual field, their passage being succeeded by a negative scotoma.”
But does such a rationalization dismiss the divine origin of Hildegard’s visions? Sacks says no. Her disorder changed the entire course of her life and provided her with the “ecstatic inspiration” to lead, advise, heal others, and be a force for good in the world. Despite their physiological origins, her mystical experiences were authentic and their effects were real. The lesson is that science and faith, far from being incompatible, actually interpenetrate.
Courage and Canonization
Throughout her life, Hildegard demonstrated moral courage in standing up to overseers who wanted to control her visionary status for their own interests. When Disibodenberg abbey grew rich from an influx of donations due to Hildegard’s presence there, the abbot initially refused to let her leave with her nuns to start a new one (in other words, he lacked “viriditas”). When she persisted in her ambition, he incited his monks to stir hostility among the locals. Accused of madness and falsifying her visions, Hildegard fell ill in bed. She neither moved nor spoke for weeks. Finally the abbot, afraid she would die, granted her request and her health revived.
On other occasions, she settled conflicts with overbearing monks by appealing to the pope. Eventually, she gained the independence to direct her nuns with minimal oversight. Her moral example and achievements have won her lasting admiration, and in 2012, the “Sybil of the Rhine” was named a doctor of the Church, one of 37 esteemed theologians to receive this title. Spiritual seekers continue to find encouragement in her blending of the material and immaterial realms.
In her book “Causes and Cures,” Hildegard wrote: “When the elements from which the world is made work in harmony, the soil is health, the trees yield abundant fruit, the fields yield abundant harvests, and all are happy. But if the elements do not work in harmony, then the world becomes sick. The same applies to human beings.”