“Dare to declare who you are.
It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech.
The path is not long, but the way is deep.
You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.”
St. Hildegard of Bingen
Recently I had a conversation with a young woman about how I’ve survived being in Catholic pastoral ministry as a woman for so long. Well, after I had a moment of feeling my age, I could only reply with what I’ve learned through hard fought battles and long discernment. You need to know your own identity. You need to know your vocation. You need to have a community of women with whom you can have honest, loving conversation and commiserating. I then was reminded of the above quote from St. Hildegard of Bingen and it struck me as entirely on point for that conversation, and for all of us women in whatever our role in the world, our families, our society may be.
Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098 to nobility in Germany. She was given to the Benedictines early in life, around age 8, and was mentored in all ways by another noblewoman turned religious, Jutta. From an equally early age, Hildegard had visions. Eventually around age 40 she began to write them down, sending them to the now St. Bernard, asking for his discernment on if they should be shared. Soon her visions were shared with Pope Eugenius and the monastic life would be altered for Hildegard as she would spend time on itinerant preaching, become a prolific correspondent, and be inundated with those seeking her wisdom.
Personally, as anyone who knows me can attest, I am fascinated by Hildegard. She is one of the only women in the western world to write of women’s medical care until modern times. Popes, emperors, monarchs, future saints, and countless average individuals sought her advice and wisdom. At a time when women were rarely given space in teaching men, especially in ecclesial circles, she preached and taught clergy and religious. She was also a prolific musician and poet. While theology was on the precipice of turning academic and scholastic due to the rising universities, Hildegard offered a theology of image and mysticism, a theology of the earth grounded in the everyday and her experience as a physician (of sorts).
With all that she did and all that she wrote, I find so much in her that speaks to me. When I am struggling with my own headaches, physical or proverbial, she is the patroness of that ailment. She was a complex woman who lived a complex life. In reading her letters and studying the changes in her thoughts, I can see how she grew, how life and the struggles she faced changed her, how her exposure to the wider world and the larger Church affected her theology.
Hildegard gives me strength. She found a path and a way to have her voice heard. She could as easily focus on correspondence with a Pope as the medicinal uses of plants in the monastery garden. She could navigate the mystical and the earthly and see how both manifested the wonder of God. She saw the cosmic meaning of herbs in the abbey garden and introduced the Cosmic Christ into the everyday struggles of life. Hildegard reminds me that even in the midst of my chores, in the screaming of the bugs in the tree, in the stress of work, in the particular challenges of being a woman in ministry, in the messiness of human life, God is there and so is a bit of heaven.
I ask St. Hildegard to help you find God in the earthiness of your day today. May bits of Heaven be found in the cracks and crevices of imperfect moments.
“There is the music of Heaven in all things.”
I am indebted to my dear friend Rakhi McCormick for the lovely image of St. Hildegard and permission to share it with you all. Please visit her site to see this print of St. Hildegard and other lovely pieces.