IN 1981, FIVE VOLUMES of mystical writing literally fell into my lap. They were dropped there by Matthew Fox, who was looking for a translator willing to popularize the renowned German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. That request blossomed into a small book, Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen, and I have been on the trail of all things Hildegard ever since. Let me introduce her.
Born in 1098, the tenth of ten children, she was given as a child-tithe to a monastery (a rather common practice for lesser noble families). A cloistered, frail woman, she dared in her early forties to give voice, at last, to her astounding visionary gift for music, for theological reflection, for healing and even for preaching political reform. In doing so, when even living past 50 was unusual, Hildegard lived almost forty more years of intensely robust life!
At a time when few women could write at all, Hildegard not only produced major works of theological “illuminations,” she also made inspired use of the healing aspects of plants, animals, trees and semi-precious stones. When few women were esteemed, her wisdom was sought by bishops, popes and kings. She gave advice, offered truth and confronted political maneuvering. Her correspondence reveals her outspoken daring, her spiritual innovation and her caring spiritual direction. More than 300 of her letters still exist!
Hildegard is the first woman composer whose biography is known. Passed from generation to generation of women in her abbey, over seventy musical compositions survive, one of the largest repertoires of any medieval composer. Her musical style is characterized by soaring melodies, which were very unusual for the time. Her music and text intuitively intertwine — a rare occurrence in 12th century chant. Hildegard gave her words wing; she set them to soar on the deepest, truest up-drafts of soul. It was her intention to simply be “a feather on the breath of God,” and to heal and make whole what an ignorance of God’s ways had fractured.
Inspired by her visions, Hildegard cultivated a deep appreciation of holistic healing and is credited with recording more than 2,000 remedies. She considered treating symptoms to be a futile effort. The whole body and the all-important soul required consideration for the healing process to be successful. Not only was there a close connection between diet and health, but also between our bodies and foods, and between the human and the cosmos.
Last year, I had opportunity to suggest a Hildegard Fest to celebrate her recent canonization. (Why it took over 900 years is another story!) Plans were made, and wouldn’t it be a lovely idea if we could use some of her recipes? It was her “cookies that bring joy” (with equal parts nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves) that became Fest favorites. Using these “joyful” spices, Hildegard instructs, “Make small cookies and eat these often. They will reduce bad humors, enrich the blood, and fortify the nerves.” How could you not love a theological visionary and prophet that also recommends a happy cure of spice cookies!
This year we’ll celebrate our second annual Hildegard Fest at the Christine Center on September 13 -15, beginning at 6:30 pm. Using her music and visions, participants will experience a feast that offers the timeless wisdom of Hildegard’s “Veriditas” or “greening power” manifest in all God’s glorious creation. Joined by the internationally known Hildegard musician, Susan Lincoln, we’ll give our souls voice, eat amazing food ala Hildegard, and simply celebrate becoming whole. Anyone already enchanted by Hildegard will find a wise, old friend. If you have not met her yet, come and let the most influential woman of the 12th century sing to your heart.