-by Norma Gentile
Long ago, but not so far away, an extraordinary woman named Hildegard was born. She lived in a time when few people lived past the age of forty. Yet she lived until her 81st year. She lived at a time when woman had two career choices - marriage or taking the veil of service to God as a nun.
Hildegard's own writings indicate that she was born as the tenth child into a wealthy family in 1098. Had she married, her responsibilities would have been those typical of managing a large and noble household. She would have overseen the servants, made or arranged for purchases of food and goods for the household, born several children, and entertained and seen to the welfare of visitors. As a woman she would typically not have been taught to read and write as a standard part of her education. Although as the lady of a noble house, she might have been coached in basic reading and writing in order to manage household affairs.
During Hildegard's her early childhood she experienced visions, as she later wrote in her biography. These appeared as images of brilliant white light and symphonies of sound from which figures and colorful images emerged. She also experienced a series of illnesses, and was noted as having a frail constitution. It is understandable that her parents choose to have her live within the church setting from the age of eight with the understanding that she would in all likelihood commit herself to becoming a nun later in life. In this way no doubt they believed that she would be cared for, and her visionary experiences accommodated. As a matter of course, she would also have the opportunity to learn to read and write her own native German as well as some Latin, to read musical notation, and follow a generally contemplative lifestyle.
Her next few years were spent living with the anchoress Jutta at the monastery of Disibode. These early years are uneventful, or at least unrecorded. As there are references to more women joining them, it is assumed that this happened gradually, over the course of many years and that the original quarters allotted to Jutta, a single room cell, expanded with the addition of the new converts.
As Hildegard grew up, she was exposed to the eight daily services of the Benedictine monks, besides the tutoring in Latin, bible studies and perhaps some music that Jutta provided. Jutta's knowledge of Latin and music was not infinite. Jutta herself was the sole woman in the monastery, living alone, in seclusion, until Hildegard arrived.
Much of what Hildegard learned from Jutta and later from the monks she adapted to her own needs and style. Anyone who has read Hildegard's Latin texts knows that there are many unorthodox usage's that defy direct translation. Hildegard noted that her music, both text and notes, were inspired by her visions. She believed she was translating the Cosmic Symphony, for as she wrote "...all of Creation is a song of praise to God."
In the year 1136 Jutta died, and those women gathered at Disibodenberg elected Hildegard to lead them. Although she continued to experience visions, she seems not to have confided in others about them.
Under her guidance the nuns continued to flourish. They were a wealthy community - the daughters and widows of well to do families and even some nobility. As one might imagine, it was a concern to the families that they be well cared for and be housed in appropriate settings. It was here, amid the mountains of Rhineland Germany, that Hildegard rose to prominence.
At first it was simply her role as head of a growing and wealthy monastery of women adjunct to the men's monastery. But unbeknownst to most, her visions had continued from childhood, and grew to such a level that in her 42nd year she became bedridden, seeing images, hearing voices, yet unable to move. As she later recounted, she was being called upon to write and teach of all that she knew, so that her insights, including those regarding Biblical texts, might be shared with others.
Hildegard lay in her sick bed for weeks without responding to the call to write and teach. In her humility as a 12th century woman, she believed that writing was the domain of men only, and that to write was to overstep the boundaries of what God ordained to be her path. Even among men of this time it was typical to not assign ownership to written musical works, as a token of divine humility. It was the intensity and the length of her illness, and the coaxing and support of her dear friend, the monk Volmar, which eventually changed her mind. As she put pen to paper in earnest, her strength and life vitality returned to her.
This first set of writings took about 10 years to complete, and emerged as Scivias, or Know the Ways. The Pope, hearing of her work, sent a group of representatives to meet with her and collect samples of her writings. Finding them much to his liking, he gave her writings his blessing. As a result, even more visitors and women wishing to join Hildegard began to flow into the monastery.
Undoubtedly it was soon apparent to Hildegard that her dream of having a separate monastery, not under the rule of certain men within the Catholic Church, was within reach. She had, or was gaining, both the financial support of many women and the political allies within the Church and nobility which would make this a reality.
For much of Christian history, there has been a debate as to whether women serving the Catholic Church should or even could be left to live alone without men (usually monks) as 'protectorates'. Typically the discussion centered around a woman's vulnerability to rape or her 'weaker nature' which allowed her to be seduced and hence lose her chastity.
In Hildegard's case these issues would have certainly been discussed, but the heart of the matter seemed to be the wealth, land and possessions of the women who were choosing to follow her to a new monastery. All that these women had brought with them into the monastery at Disibode would now follow them to the new monastery. Political roadblocks arose from within the church to retain the women's assets at Disibodenberg, but in time those assets were transferred to the new monastery, Rupertsberg.
Hildegard created quite a stir by proposing not only to relocate her women to a new monastery, but to build one on a mountainside that stood alone and was not protected by a men's monastery or the dwelling of a bishop. She choose to take with her only a single monk as celebrant for the mass; her friend, her scribe, her editor and her confidante, Volmar.
The new monastery was built near the ruins of a monastery founded by the mother of St. Rupert. The building had been destroyed by the Normans several centuries earlier, and the area was scarcely populated when Hildegard and her nuns took up residence. Not all of the women from Disibodenberg choose to move with her up to the Rupertsberg. There was some resentment from within the community of nuns, many of whom had no desire to follow her to this unpopulated area and live under less than ideal conditions during construction. In the end many stayed behind at Disibodenberg. For those that did move up to the new monastery, the living conditions were poor, especially at the outset. A personal side note on this new monastery - it had fresh water running within the building - one of the first examples of 'indoor plumbing' in Western Europe.
Hildegard oversaw the process of designing and constructing the new monastery. Several of her chant texts allude to this process as she addresses the details of architectural construction and its similarity to building a spiritual community. In the sequence "O Jerusalem" she equates the process of building her community to building the eternal city. The opening line - O Jeruslaem, aurea civitas (Oh Jerusalem, golden city of the dawn) invokes the feeling of the new beginning, and of the communal movement among the women necessary for it to come to fruition. The gems which the nuns wore on special feast days show up as decorations around the windows in the city's towers. (Your windows, Jerusalem, are carefully decorated with topaz and sapphire.)
The next years were filled with a growing fame. Hildegard was asked to compose music for churches in other areas and was sought after as a teacher and traveling preacher. In her sixty-seventh year Hildegard founded a second woman's monastery at Eibingen, and began to travel between the monasteries regularly.
One of her greatest challenges came towards the end of her life. An interdict, which barred communion and the singing of the divine office was held upon her nuns for many months. As a result, she wrote a series of letters describing her experience of the role of music as a bridge uniting the sacred into the profane.
"But the body is the garment of the soul and it is the soul which gives life to the voice. That's why the body must raise its voice in harmony with the soul for the praise of God...For all the arts serving human desires and needs are derived from the breath that God sent into the human body.
"Sometimes when we hear a song we breathe deeply and sigh. This reminds the prophet that the soul arises from heavenly harmony. In thinking about this, he was aware that the soul itself has something in itself of this music..."
(Hildegard of Bingen's Book of Divine Works, Letter 41, Hildegard to the prelates of Mainz, pages 358-359)
Hildegard continued to write - eventually completing two biographies of saints; books on health and healing which include references to using gem stones, herbs and specific diets to balance the body; as well as additional books on theology. We have music for more than seventy chants and an entire morality play, "Ordo virtutum", all her own original Latin texts set to music.
There are also a series of illuminations which are based upon Hildegard's visions. They probably were created in the scriptorium, or writing room, of one or both of the monasteries by other nuns. Hildegard may have sketched their design roughly into a wax tablet, and left others to complete the work, following her detailed description of each vision.
Suggestions for further reading are found at the Hildegard page of my Bookstore
Norma Gentile is an intuitive healer
working with sound. Besides singing meditation concerts and
teaching workshops on sound healing, she offers individual
healing sessions of both energy and information. For more