Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) lived during the Middle Ages, after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire. The Middle Ages were a time of kings and queens and knights, a deeply spiritual age of beautiful art, when cathedrals began to soar. St. Hildegard was the tenth child born into a family of minor nobility. She was dedicated to the Church from her birth, and her education began at eight. At 15, she became a nun, and in time, Hildegard became the leader of her monastery (or convent).
A monastery is a place where consecrated monks or nuns live in community under a ‘rule’ of life (Hildegard lived under the Benedictine Rule and thus was a Benedictine nun). Sometimes the word ‘convent’ is used to describe a monastery of nuns, and sometimes, the word ‘abbey’ is used, which is a monastery or convent that is run by an abbot or abbess. Hildegard was an abbess, the Mother Superior of her group of nuns and had authority over her abbey, and in the middle ages, that could mean being responsible for vast lands and properties besides. These monks and nuns lived what is sometimes called a cloistered life because of the beautiful cloister garden within the walls of the abbey that creates, on a small scale, a kind of paradise or a world made more perfect by grace. Monks and nuns do not marry, but live a celibate life. They begin on earth the life that the saints live in heaven. They contemplate God and devote themselves to prayer and study.
In her day, Hildegard was called the Sibyl of the Rhine, because sibyls were wise prophetesses of old, and Hildegard was herself a mystic, visionary, artist, philosopher, playwright, poet, and Benedictine abbess respected for her wisdom. Bishops, popes, and kings consulted her for her counsel, and she would one day be declared a Doctor of the Church. She lived to the venerable age of 82, which was remarkable given that the average lifespan at the time was around thirty. No woman before her had ever written as much, not only theological pieces, but also medicinal and botanical treatises. Still, Hildegard is most known for the genius and extraordinary originality of her musical compositions. In fact, she is the first composer that we know much about at all, as most composers were anonymous before Hildegard.
The plainsong of her day was steady and predictable. It was practical music that could sustain the habits of most monks and nuns. It was like its accompanying Romanesque architecture, round, compact, and strong. It was the music to sustain us through the attacks of Norsemen and Saracens. But Hildegard’s music, by comparison, breathlessly arched and soared into the ecstatic heights past the cosmological celestial spheres into the angelic light of heaven itself. Her music was more like the newly evolving architecture of its day, more perpendicular, more highly vaulted, more filled with color and light. As a Benedictine nun, Hildegard chanted the Divine Office eight times a day and sang at the Mass every day. Her whole life was a life of prayer and praise, and singing was her constant art. Over her lifetime, she composed antiphons, responses, sequences, and hymns.
She was not formally trained in music, but few people were in her day, as musical notation was only just being developed. Still for whatever convention there was, Hildegard was not bound by it. She had a Catholic love for beauty, and this is dramatically expressed in her exquisite compositions that are highly melismatic. They are like the sparks of a campfire carried up in smoke and hovering in the night sky, flickering and burning as they go. There is a beautiful clarity and lightness to her compositions. They have been described as haunting and mystical. There is no beat to her music. The brute soldier cannot belt them out. A man’s voice is simply too heavy for Hildegard’s music – a masculine voice is compelled by gravity to remain within the four lines of the staff, whereas Hildegard’s music defies gravity. Her music is more ballet than march, but whereas ballerinas must all eventually fall back to earth, Hildegard’s music keeps flying higher. The average singer might not command the range, confidence, or ability to attempt Hildegard’s chants. Certainly a congregation could never sing them. Her music skips and leaps fearlessly and boldly in a virtuoso style. Yet for Hildegard and her nuns, cloistered as they were within their convent walls, their audience was God alone, and their singing was never a performance, but always a prayer. Still, this music is so lovely that when we are privileged to hear it over the cloister walls, we find ourselves almost as breathless as the singers within.
It is probable that Hildegard employed instruments, as she writes of the character of some instruments like the organ, the trumpet, strings, the flute, the harp, and the tambourine (among others). Still, the greatest instrument of Hildegard was her voice singing praise to God, and even today, nearly a thousand years hence, her music enchants us like nothing that we have ever heard anywhere. Her music is timeless, ageless, and perhaps still a thousand years ahead of its time. As a composer of music, Hildegard is simply peerless. Through her genius, we have a glimpse of heaven’s harmonic light. We are always blessed, as a parish, to hear a little bit of Hildegard now and then. It is important that we, as a Church, do not let the world forget the genius of Hildegard von Bingen, who is not only one of the greatest artists of our Catholic Tradition, but also one of our greatest saints. Hildegard von Bingen, pray for us.
Our icon of St. Hildegard of Bingen shows her dressed in the habit of a Benedictine nun, holding the crosier and wearing the pectoral cross of an abbess (just as abbots and bishops do). The Benedictine monks and nuns had come from England to Germany three and a half centuries before Hildegard was born. The Benedictines were an essential part of the evangelization of the German people (just as the Benedictines had been an important part of evangelizing the English people before that). As a religious order, the Benedictines are historically linked with Catholic worship. At a time before the printing press, they were the ones who made and preserved our prayer books. They brought literacy and learning into a dark age. They copied our Bibles and our chant books. These were the monks and nuns who spread the Gospel through their prayer, their study, their work in their great libraries and scriptoriums, and by their preservation of our way of worship. They were masterful architects and artists, and they also were healers, as they understood herbs and medicine. Benedictines also organized society into industries; wherever they went they took with them the production of wine or beer or bread, teaching techniques of farming and the harnessing of the power of water for mills.
In iconography, St. Hildegard is sometimes shown with a flame that seems to settle upon her head. The image of fire, or this transcendent and heavenly light, is part of her visions. This light represents the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as she was a woman who was truly luminous with gifts of the Spirit. When Hildegard lay dying, the sisters reported that streams of light crossed the sky over the convent and that when she did die, a still more remarkable light filled the sky.