12th Century Feminist
Feast of St. Hildegard is September 17th
Why did it take the Church over 800 years to recognize the sanctity of Hildegard of Bingen? What facets of her life gave previous generations pause, and why did the Church decide to honor her in our time? To explore these questions and examine Hildegard’s legacy, Alicia von Stamwitz interviewed Joan Chittister, "Hildegard of Bingen:12th Century Feminist" in St. Anthony Messenger (07-2014). Here is an excerpt.
Q. Hildegard was one of the greatest intellectuals and mystics of her day. Why do you think she was only recently made a doctor and a saint?
A. When you look at the profile of Hildegard of Bingen, you could pick her up from the 12th century and plop her down in the middle of New York City in 2014 and she’d have no problem. People would be in awe of her natural brilliance. She would easily find a job, and she would be an international figure. As far as I’m concerned, that explains why it took almost a thousand years for the Church to get around to canonizing her...This woman was simply bigger than life—too big to handle, and too big to understand.
Q. Can you tell us about her intellect and influence?
A. Fortunately, 400 of her letters are extant. She wrote to barons and kings, emperors and bishops, saying, “Get it right. Stop the nonsense. Shape up. This is what the Gospel demands in this situation.” She also wrote the first medical encyclopedias in Germany. How do you ignore a woman who wrote the first encyclopedias in her region? How do you ignore someone who set out on speaking tours of the Rhine after she was 70? She’s a phenomenal figure, and she’s a woman’s woman. She’s a woman of the Church, too, by which I mean that she read the Church and its mission and ideals quite clearly, and then she insisted that the Church keep them.
Q. Can you give us an example of St. Hildegard’s struggles within the Church?
A. There’s a famous story of her burying in the monastic cemetery a man who had been censured by the local bishop. The man had been excommunicated, so the bishop demanded that she dig up the body and take it out of blessed ground. Instead, she led her community to the cemetery, and they scraped off the tops of every grave with their walking sticks so that nobody would be able to tell where the new grave was. She refused—she absolutely refused!—to dig up that young man just because a bishop didn’t like him and had condemned him to hell. (Hildegard’s) community suffered (as a result). That bishop put them under what the Church calls interdict, meaning that they couldn’t receive the sacraments, they couldn’t have Mass, and they couldn’t sing the Divine Office. But that community, all of them, hung together and went on living their religious life under those conditions. The people around them knew that the interdict was wrong, and when a new bishop came in, the interdict was lifted.
But it is that dogged determination to make the Gospel plain, even in the face of individuals claiming law over love, that is at the very heart of Hildegard’s story. When you get into these stories, you get into the very heart of the function of Church—both ecclesiastically and as a body.
To read the entire interview, click here.