Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), whose feast day is September 17, is one of the Church’ most accomplished canonized saints, and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Born into a noble German family, she entered the Benedictine cloister of Disibodenberg before founding her own convent at Bingen. Even in childhood, Hildegard had mystical visions. In 1141, she had a vision that commanded her to “cry out and write.” With the help of her secretary Volmar, Hildegard wrote the Scivias, short for Sci Vias Domini or “Know the Ways of the Lord.” Near its completion, she turned to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux for advice, who assured her that she was not being duped by the devil. Soon after, Pope Eugene III read an early manuscript of her visions and publicly endorsed them.
The Scivias cemented Hildegard’s reputation as a prophetess–not so much in the sense of predicting the future (although she does have statements about the End Times and the Antichrist) but as someone who receives messages from God. (Her nickname is the Sibyl of the Rhine.) Abbots, abbesses, bishops—all turned to her for advice, as her over 300 letters attest. Despite chronically bad health, Hildegard also went on four preaching tours throughout Germany. In public forums and religious chapter houses, she denounced clerical corruption and called for reform. She was also a master herbalist who wrote extensively on botany and medicine. The plant genus Hildegardia is named in gratitude for her work in herbal healing.
One musical accomplishment in particular stands out in her corpus: the theatrical performance Ordo Virtutum. The play is groundbreaking. It is the world’s first morality play, wherein the Soul and Virtues are personified as characters on the stage. It consists of 87 different songs, all of which draw from Gregorian chant, but which depart strikingly from the centonate chant of the Roman Graduals and Tracts. In a break from a long tradition in the West (ancient, medieval, and Renaissance), most of the characters are played by women. And since the first edition of this play appeared in the Scivias, we may even wonder if it is the first instance of theater co-written by the Holy Spirit.
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