Hildegard of Bingen (born Bemersheim nr. Alzey 1098; died 17 September 1179) was a German writer, composer and mystic. She was one of the “great creation-centered mystics of the West” (Mathew Fox). This multitalented and prolific abbess of a Benedictine abbey was an influential preacher, healer, scientist, composer, theologian, artist, and poet. She coined the term viriditas, or greening power, connecting it closely with creativity.
Hildegard was born into a noble family. Her parents sent her to a monastery because she was the tenth child of the family. She took the veil (became a nun) at the age of 15. By the time she was 38 she had the title of “mother superior”. She founded a monastery on the Rupertsberg in the Rhine valley near Bingen. Later she founded a daughter house on the other side of the river near Rüdesheim. She travelled a lot and talked to many important people. She later had the title of “abbess”. After she died several popes suggested she should be made a saint, but this never happened. She does, though, have a feast day on September 17, which is celebrated in some parts of Germany.
Known as the “Sybil of the Rhine”, Hildegard had many visions, many of which she wrote down.They were mostly about God and his relationship with humans, the church, redemption from God, and creation. She wrote lyrical poetry which was very colourful and had lots of visionary ideas. Her music does not use plainchant like the music of many other medieval composers at the time. It mostly has small patterns of melody which are repeated many times in slightly different ways. Her music was also different because the chants she wrote were written for female voices, in a higher range than earlier chants. This made them easier for women’s voices. She wrote a morality play in verse with 82 melodies. It was a completely new art form at the time, but over the centuries it developed into what we know as opera. Her music is mainly monophonic, and exquisitely angelic. Music was extremely important to her, and seemed to be the most accurate way she could record the subtle Heavenly atmospheres in her visions. Eighty of her compositions have survived, and she remains the earliest composer whose biography is known.
Hildegard was also a scientist, basing her many botanical, medical and geological dissertations on Greek cosmology and the relationships between the elements. She was a powerful, well-respected, and highly educated woman, which was extremely rare in her day. Many abbesses and abbots looked up to her for blessings and guidance. She communicated with Popes, statesmen and emperors who respected the wisdom of her opinions. Her life was an inspirational triumph: for music, spirituality and womanhood.
Hildegard of Bingen is the first composer whose life we know about. She may possibly be the first woman to write about female sexuality.
Excerpts from her writings and songs:
“You are the living light in every respect. From You all light shines.”
“The soul is not in the body; the body is in the soul.”
“The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.”
“The earth is at the same time mother, she is mother of all that is natural, mother of all that is human. She is the mother of all, for contained in her are the seeds of all. The earth of humankind contains all moisture, all verdancy, all germinating power. It is in so many ways fruitful. All creation comes from it. Yet it forms not only the basic raw materials for humankind, but also the substance of Incarnation.”
“God is the good and all things which proceed from him are good.”
“Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthly. . . . The earth is at the same time mother, She is mother of all that is natural, mother of all that is human.
She is the mother of all, for contained in herare the seeds of all.”
“The truly holy person welcomes all that is earthly. Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars. Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. Now, think: What delight God gives to humankind with all these things. . . . All nature is at the disposal of humankind. We are to work with it. For without we cannot survive.”
“The fire has its flame and praises God. The wind blows the flame and praises God. In the voice we hear the word which praises God. And the word, when heard, praises God. So all of creation is a song of praise to God.”
“God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”
“Good People, most royal greening verdancy, rooted in the sun, you shine with radiant light.”
“I welcome all the creatures of the world with grace.”
“Now in the people that were meant to be green there is no more life of any kind. There is only shriveled barrenness. The winds are burdened by the utterly awful stink of evil, selfish goings-on. Thunderstorms menace. The air belches out the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples. The earth should not be injured! The earth must not be destroyed!”
“Divinity is aimed at humanity.”
“With my mouth,” God says, “I kiss my own chosen creation. I uniquely, lovingly, embrace every image I have made out of the earth’s clay. With a fiery spirit I transform it into a body to serve all the world.”
“Mary, ground of all being, Greetings! Greetings to you, lovely and loving Mother!”
“Humankind, full of all creative possibilities, is God’s work. Humankind alone is called to assist God. Humankind is called to co-create. With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life-sustaining.”
“God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else.”
“All of creation God gives to humankind to use. If this privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.”
“Love abounds in all things, excels from the depths to beyond the stars, is lovingly disposed to all things. She has given the king on high the kiss of peace.”
“The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self. Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played. The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather, through the touch of the Musician. I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.”
“Now, O son of God, set in the valley of true humility, walk in peace without pride of spirit, which, like a precipitous mountain, offers a difficult, or near-impossible, ascent or descent to those who attempt to scale it, and on its summit no building can be built. For a person who tries to climb higher than he can achieve possesses the name of sanctity without substance, because, in name alone without a structure of good works, he glories in a kind of vain joy of the mind.”
“The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions. With interior yearning, grace and blessing are bestowed. It is a yearning to take on God’s gentle yoke, It is a yearning to give one’s self to God’s Way.”
“Because a woman brought death a bright Maiden overcame it, and so the highest blessing in all of creation lies in the form of a woman, since God has become man in a sweet and blessed Virgin.”
“Just as a mirror, which reflects all things, is set in its own container, so too the rational soul is placed in the fragile container of the body. In this way, the body is governed in its earthly life by the soul, and the soul contemplates heavenly things through faith.”
“A human being is a vessel that God has built for himself and filled with his inspiration so that his works are perfected in it.”
“Angels, living light most glorious! Beneath the Godhead in burning desire in the darkness and mystery of creation you look on the eye of your God never taking your fill: What glorious pleasures take shape within you!”
“O Beloved, your way of knowing is amazing! The way you recognize every creature even before it appears. The way you gaze into the face of every human being and see all your works gazing back at you. O what a miracle to be awake inside your breathing.”
“O Highest Wisdom, who circles the great circle, who envisions the whole world as one living path, you have three wings. One soars above the sky, another moistens the ground with sweat, while a third flies everywhere at once. O Wisdom, we sing your praise.”
“All living creatures are sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance, and these sparks emerge from God like the rays of the sun. If God did not give off these sparks, how would the divine flame become fully visible?”
“Next I saw the most lucid air, in which I heard . . . in a marvelous way many kinds of musicians praising the joys of the heavenly citizens . . . And their sound was like the voice of a multitude, making music in harmony.”
“O, You who are ever giving life to all life, moving all creatures, root of all things, washing them clean, wiping out their mistakes, healing their wounds, You are our true life, luminous, wonderful, awakening the heart from its ancient sleep.”
“The soul is the greening life force of the flesh, for the body grows and prospers through her, just as the earth becomes fruitful when it is moistened. The soul humidifies the body so it does not dry out, just like the rain which soaks into the earth.”
“The Spirit of God is a life that bestows life, root of world-tree and the wind in its boughs. Scrubbing out sin, she rubs oil into wounds. She is glistening life alluring all praise, all-awakening, all-resurrecting.”
“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows. I gleam in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon, and stars. With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awaken everything to life. I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”
“All the angels are amazed at humans, who through their holy works appear clothed with an incredibly beautiful garment. For the angel without the work of the flesh is simply praise; but the humans with their corporeal works are a glorification! Therefore the angels praise humans’ work.”
“Every element has a sound, an original sound from the order of God; all those sounds unite like the harmony from harps and zithers.”
“I, the fiery life of divine wisdom, I ignite the beauty of the plains, I sparkle the waters, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.”
“When the words come, they are merely empty shells without the music. They live as they are sung, for the words are the body and the music the spirit.”
“No creature has meaning without the Word of God. God’s Word is in all creation, visible and invisible. The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant, all creativity. This Word flashes out in every creature. This is how the spirit is in the flesh – the Word is indivisible from God.”
“Loving tenderness abounds for all from the darkest to the most eminent one beyond the stars. Exquisitely loving all she bequeaths the kiss of peace upon the ultimate King.”
“You, all-accomplishing Word of the Father, are the light of primordial daybreak over the spheres. You, the foreknowing mind of divinity, foresaw all your works as you willed them, your prescience hidden in the heart of your power, your power like a wheel around the world, whose circling never began and never slides to an end.”
“Underneath all the texts, all the sacred psalms and canticles, these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.”