Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hildegard von Bingen: 12th Century Visionary (c) By Polly Guerin

Dear Hildegard von Bingen: You have been called by your admirers “one of the most important figures in the history of the Middle Ages,” and “the greatest woman of her time.” Known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine you were a Christian mystic, German Benedictine abbess, visionary and elected magistra by your fellow nuns in 1136. You were truly a woman ahead of your time determined to succeed in a medieval universe where few women would have dared to tread. You were a composer of Gregorian chants, a playwright, poet, and scientific pioneer in the fields of healing, herbal medicine and botany. Hildegard, who had the will of a modern feminist, has emerged from the shadows of history as a forward-thinking pioneer of the holistic approach to medicine and a prophetic warning that elements could turn against us. Similarly today we speak of nature turning against us if we do not protect it.
Instilling the world of a cloistered existence began in early childhood. Hildegard was the daughter, the tenth child of a noble German family and as was the custom of the time, her parents gave her to the church when she was eight years old. She was sent to live with Jutta, a holy hermit/nun, the sister of a count whom Hildegard’s father served as a knight, at the Benedictine monastery at Mount S. Disibode to be educated. When Hildegard was eighteen, she became a nun. However, during her youth she experienced visions but kept them secret. When Jutta died, Hildegard replaced her as the mother superior.
After becoming mother superior, Hildegard had a vision that she should spread the knowledge of her visions instead of keeping them secret. She devoted the years from 1140 to 1150 to writing them down, describing them and commenting on their interpretation and significance. After recording her visions with the aid of a monk, her writing and letters became popular and the abbey overflowed with the arrival of novice nuns. People of all classes wrote her for advice, and one biographer called her “the Dear Abby of the 12th Century. After a power struggle in 1150 with the abbot who wanted Hildegard to remain at Disibode, she moved her nuns to a location near Bingen, and founded a monastery for them completely independent of the monastery. She oversaw its construction, which included, innovative at the time; water pumped through pipes and advocated regular exercise, singing and musical instruments. She refused to allow the church to treat women as subservient to men, and she rejected negative stereotypes of evil seductresses, and taught that woman was indeed created in the image and likeness of God.
As her abilities as a doctor and natural healer spread the crowds gathered at the doors of the visionary for a miracle healing. While Hildegard was working on books on medicine, Scivias and Causae et Curae (Cause and Cure and Physica, as well as numerous other writings about herbalism, she was also writing hymns and some of her songs were apparently known in Paris by 1148. This was the period in which Hildegard collected her songs as symphony of harmony and heavenly revelation. One of her works as composer, the Ordo Virtutum is an early example of liturgical drama. Musicologists credit her with the invention of opera and recognize her as a Gregorian composer.
Hildegard wrote and spoke extensively about social justice, about freeing the downtrodden, about the duty of seeing to it that every human being, made in the image of God, has the opportunity to develop and use the talents that God has given him, and to realize his God-given potential. Around 1158 Hildegard began to write Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits), a book of moral instruction. Unheard of for a woman to do so, over the next thirteen years Hildegard, the visionary preacher, also began a series of travels to men’s and women’s monasteries and to urban cathedrals to preach religious and secular clergy. She died in 1179 and her oeuvre leaves 90 songs, numerous books and surviving works of more than 100 letters to nobles, popes, bishops, nuns and emperors.
The recent release of the film “VISION,” written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, a Zeitgeist Films attests to the fact that the Cult of Hildegard is finding new admirers along with the nuns who revered her teachings and continue to live in the Rhineland. The film’s release exalts the diverse accomplishments of Hildegard von Bingen, the Benedictine nun, portrayed by Barbara Sukova, who presents her character with complete conviction and unfaltering devotion. For more information about the film: www.zeitgeistfilms.com/vision.

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