The Lyre & Harp of God’s Kindness

The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self.

Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played.

The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather,

through the touch of the Musician.

I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.

– Abbess Hildegard von Bingen

On Sunday, October 7, 2012, the Benedictine Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), was named a “Doctor of the Church” by the Roman Catholic Church. She was the founder of the Rhineland mystic movement, a healer, composer, administrator, preacher, theologian, poet, artist, visionary, advocate for justice, author and one of the most important medieval European women who wrote numerous letters. For years she served as abbess of the famous monastery at Rupertsberg. Hildegard’s concept of veriditas (greening life-force) speaks of divine justice rolling down like water.

 

Abbess Hildegard of Bingen

In the Roman Catholic Church the title of “Doctor of the Church” is used to designate someone as a contributor of the highest rank to the knowledge and theology of the church. Before 1970 no women were so designated and only four women before Abbess Hildegard have been so honored. However, I must say I feel like the Vatican is a “johnny-come-lately” in recognizing this amazing woman. I am a Protestant who has admired and been inspired by this dynamic abbess for 30 years. [By way of full disclosure, I must also say that I am a Lutheran, by choice, not by birth, who fully agrees with Dr Luther on the nature, authority, limitations and role of the bishop of Rome but that is an essay for another time. Perhaps some day I’ll post my own 95 Theses here.]

 According to reliable sources, “Born the tenth child of a noble couple, Hildebert and Mechtild from Bermersheim in the Rhineland, Hildegard was destined for the religious life from childhood. She was enclosed with a religious noblewoman, Jutta of Sponheim, a recluse, perhaps when she was eight, and she took vows in the monastery of St. Disibod with Jutta in 1112, when she was 14, along with other girls attached to Jutta. Jutta presumably taught Hildegard to read the psalter. Hildegard never had a formal Latin education, and relied on her various secretaries to edit her grammar, but she seems to have read widely through her life.”

 

“As Hildegard’s reputation grew and the number of pilgrims to St. Disibod increased, Hildegard felt more constrained and in 1148 she had a vision that commanded her to move with her nuns (and their dowries) to a new location. Despite Abbot Kuno’s resistance– Hildegard’s presence gave his monastery much prestige– and wariness on the part of the nuns and their families, Hildegard, with the help of a serendipitous illness, had her way, and established a new house at Rupertsberg.”

 “At Rupertsberg, Hildegard cared for the sick, studied their illnesses and wrote two medical works, one theoretical, known as the Causes and Cures, the other more practical, the Physica, which suggests remedies. She also composed religious poems and music, a play, the Ordo virtutum, two other volumes of visions, the Liber vitae meritorum (the Book of Life’s Merits) and the Liber diivinorum operum, (the Book of Divine Works), and a life of St. Rupert.” 

We have extant today almost 400 of her letters. In her correspondence, “Hildegard plays many roles: as the voice of God, the instrument by which God addressed and admonished mankind and the church, admonishing popes and bishops to fight injustice and corruption; as a mediator with the divine, carrying God’s message to humankind and individuals’ prayers back to God; as a mediator among humans, particularly in the monastic world, between abbesses and their nuns or abbots and their monks, telling those who want to give up their responsibilities to carry the burden they took on, but at the same time urging their flocks to behave better; as a source of knowledge and wisdom, theological, prophetic, moral, and practical, both legal and medical; as a crusader for what she believed in (and/or believed God wanted), like her assertion of her right to bury a previously excommunicated but repentant nobleman in the monastery grounds; and as a woman who inspired both awe and affection in the women and men who knew and worked with her. She deals sternly with those in power and sympathetically with those in distress. She preaches mercy as well as justice, love rather than fear, compassion rather than anger, moderation rather than fanaticism, and always a strong sense of responsibility. Her advice is often practical, though her style is usually rich with parables and striking imagery. On occasion she used letters to powerful people to try to get her way, as in her unsuccessful attempt to keep [her favorite secretary, a Sister Richardis of Stade] with her, through letters to Pope Eugene III, two archbishops and a marchioness, and her successful insistence on the right of her convent to a provost of their choice . . . [a matter] which she again took to the pope (Alexander III).”

 

some of her musical compositions

For more information on this amazing woman, see Voice of the Living Light, Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, Barbara Newman, editor (1998); Sister of Wisdom by Barbara Newman (1987); The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, translated by Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (1994, 1998, 2004); Hildegard of Bingen : Devotions, Prayers, & Living Wisdom, edited by Mirabai Starr (2008);Cry Out and Write: a Feminine Poetics of Revelation by Edward P Nolan (1994); Hildegard of Bingen: a Book of Essays, edited by Maud Burnett McInerney (1998). There are over 100 books about Hildegard; this is merely a tastey sample for those interested in learning more.

 A number of fine contemporary musicians have recorded Abbess Hildegard’s music, the finest of which, in my opinion, are the recordings by Anonymous 4. These four women, singing a acappella, take the listener through time and it as listening to Hildegard and her nuns singing in their chapel.

 You can hear a sample at:

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