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Hildegard, recognition of a wise woman

Last May, Pope Benedict XVI canonised St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and earlier this month he declared her to be a doctor of the Church.

In the restless western world people give themselves little time to reflect
- Fr Robert Soler

Who was Hildegard, when did she live, what role did she play in the Church in her day? Why does it matter that she has been canonised and declared to be a Doctor of the Church?

Hildegard is a 12th-century figure from the Rhine valley in Germany with its splendid vineyards, and is associated with the city of Bingen. She joined a Benedictine community and, along with a sound spiritual formation, received a very thorough literary formation from the abbess Jutta of Sponheim.

Four areas make Hildegard an outstanding medieval figure. Firstly, she was a great Christian mystic whose writings include passages of lyrical simplicity and ravishing beauty. The manuscript of her first great mystical work, Scivias [Know the Ways (of the Lord)] was made public during her lifetime with the explicit approval of Pope Eugenius III in 1151. Her other theological works include The Book of Life’s Rewards and The Book of Divine Works.

Secondly, Hildegard was also a gifted literary and musical figure. In The Order of the Virtues, she combines poetry with music she composed, thereby creating the earliest known morality play.

Thirdly, Hildegard could dexterously wield her pen. Beyond her purely literary capacities, in the 400 of her letters that have survived, we can see how many different people sought her advice. She writes to ordinary citizens, but also to abbots, bishops and those in high civil or ecclesiastical office. She was bold too: even the Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa earned one of her strong reproaches.

Some of her letters are addressed to prominent Church figures like St Bernard of Clairvaux and the above-mentioned Pope Eugenius, who had both written to her on theological matters.

The letters alone guarantee Hildegard’s place in spiritual and cultural history.

Fourthly, clearly a sign of her undoubted charism and personal authority – in the Catholic Church which did not allow women to preach – Hildegard was called upon to preach publicly on several occasions. Besides, as abbess in her monastery, she delivered to her sisters a whole series of gospel homilies, the earliest known collection of homilies written by a woman.

Hildegard now joins Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and Thérèse of Lisieux to become the fourth feminine Doctor of the Church. This is important both because it affirms the importance of Christian wisdom and because it proposes a female figure as a model of such wisdom.

In the restless western world that is permanently on the move, and where people give themselves precious little time to reflect, wisdom is not highly prized. The figure of a Doctor of the Church is a very timely reminder to Catholics that wisdom is a vitally important feature of Christian discipleship.

In the Old Testament, wisdom at first appears as the experience and skill gained in active contact with men and things. In the later wisdom literature, however, wisdom is divine insight and power personified.

In the New Testament it also appears as a human quality, but the accent is more clearly and consistently theological: Christ in the Synoptic gospels appears in the role of Wisdom, and in St Paul, the crucified Christ himself is called “Wisdom from God” (1 Cor 1:30).

Therefore, the recognition of Hildegard from Bingen as a Doctor of the Church is a timely reminder to Christians that they need to desire, ask for and seek Christian wisdom, which, it will also be recalled, is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This requires a greater space for silence and thoughtful reflection in our busy lives.

The fact that the wisdom figure chosen for recognition is a woman is a further sign that the Catholic Church is seeking new ways of liberating feminine energies and integrating the female genius within the community of believers. This will enhance its mission to the world.

Fr Soler is a member of the Society of Jesus.

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