Ok, so technically she’s a woman for the 12th century, and since God’s plan is perfect and all, let’s assume she fits squarely in her own times.
Let’s pause and take a moment to appreciate one of the early female mystics in the West.
Well, actually, let’s throw it out there that there have probably been scores of unknown Christian mystics, male and female, throughout the centuries whose names and accomplishments didn’t get passed down. All the mystics we know of today remain with us because their writings survived in one form or another.
Nevertheless, the figure of Hildegard of Bingen – the Sybil of the Rhine – is absolutely remarkable. Growing up for most of my formative years in and around Frankfurt Germany, I have a soft spot for this figure, who lived less than an hour’s drive from my childhood home.
She was majestic. A polymath, a doctor, a musician, a reformer, a visual artist, a mystic.
Bernard of Clairvaux advocated on her behalf to the Pope to recognize her as a legitimate female prophet of the church, and he did.
She had mystical visions from a young age and her writings are full of light, rapture, and a desire for God.
In her teaching she connected Wisdom (Latin sapere) with tasting (Latin sapientia). The sense is that wisdom is always to be experienced, to be embodied. But also, hers is a sensual mysticism, that is, the divine is to be experienced in part through the senses.
Hildegard taught of God’s maternal, all-inclusive, universal love of creation and humanity. In her work Scivias or Know The Ways, she unpacks her 26 mystical visions, touching on the order of creation and the order of God’s redemption through symbol and allegory.
Fierce, independent, and true to her vision, her writing ranks among the most lyrical of the mystics. Touching on God’s feminine aspects, she writes
“She is so bright and glorious that you cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines. For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightning, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans.... But she is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.”
O, for a Hildegard of Bingen right now. For a vision of beauty and light to lift the soul upward toward God. To be shot through with a light divine right now.
Richard Rohr on Hildegard of Bingen
Devendra Banhart’s playful song Fur Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard is one of the twenty mystics in our course Living Sacraments: The Christian Mystics & The Inner Journey To God