The last letter in my series of St. Hildegard’s personal correspondence is Hildegard’s reply to Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen regarding Richardis’ passing. – Jeannine
“If there were ever a time when an “I-told-you-so” response might have been appropriate, this was it. Yet Hildegard is magnanimous and considerate in her answer to Hartwig, totally respectful of his grief, and hers. And although she mentions the grief he had caused her, she does so only to inform him that she has cast it completely out of her heart. Nothing in the correspondence displays the magnificence of this gracious lady better than this brief letter.” – Joseph L. Baird, The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen.
Letter 18, to Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen.
“Oh how great a miracle there is in the salvation of those souls so looked upon by God that His glory has no hint of shadow in them. But He works in them like a mighty warrior who takes care not to be defeated by anyone, so that his victory may be sure.
Just so, dear man, was it with my daughter Richardis, whom I call both daughter and mother, because I cherished her with divine love, as indeed the Living Light had instructed me to do in a very vivid vision.
God favored her so greatly that worldly desire had no power to embrace her. For she always fought against it, even though she was like a flower in her beauty and loveliness in the symphony of this world. While she was still living in the body, in fact, I heard the following words concerning her in a true vision: “O virginity, you are standing in the royal bridal chamber.” Now, in the tender shoot of virginity, she has been made part of that most holy order, and the daughters of Zion rejoice (Zach 2.10, 9.9). But the ancient serpent had attempted to deprive her of that blessed honor by assaulting her through her human nobility. Yet the mighty Judge drew this my daughter to Himself, cutting her off from all human glory. Therefore, although the world loved her physical beauty and her worldly wisdom while she was still alive, my soul has the greatest confidence in her salvation. For God loved her more. Therefore, He was unwilling to give His beloved to a heartless lover, that is, to the world.
Now you, dear Hartwig, you who sit as Christ’s representative, fulfill the desire of your sister’s soul, as obedience demands. And just as she always had your interests at heart, so you now take thought for her soul, and do good works as she wished. Now, as for me, I cast out of my heart the grief that you caused me in the matter of this my daughter. May God grant you, through the prayers of the saints, the dew of His grace and reward in the world to come.” – St. Hildegard of Bingen.
This concludes the series. Although it was only a sample of her letters, the series shows one of many ways in which St. Hildegard manifested Viriditas during her lifetime. What is Viriditas? It is freshness, vitality, fertility, fecundity and fruitfulness. Are you bearing fruit in your life? I would love to hear about some the ways that you are!
The fifth letter in the series is a letter to Hildegard from Richardis’ brother Hartwig. – Jeannine
“Suddenly, unexpectedly (for she was only 28 or so), Richardis has died, and this letter from her brother Hartwig was sent to Hildegard to inform her of the sad event. The main purpose of the letter is, of course, to fulfill the Christian duty of informing Hildegard that Richardis made a good Christian end, confessing the Trinity and Unity of God, etc., but he does, at least in an oblique way, accept some little blame in the preceding affair with his “if I have any right to ask” and with his reference to the fault “which indeed was mine, not hers.” He also seeks to lighten the blow to Hildegard by informing her of Richardis’s longing for her former cloister and her intention to return for a visit if death had not intervened.” – Joseph L. Baird, The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen.
Letter 17: From Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen.
“Hartwig, archbishop of Bremen, brother of the abbess Richardis, sends that which is in the place of a sister and more than a sister, obedience, to Hildegard, mistress of the sisters of St. Rupert.
I write to inform you that our sister – my sister in body, but yours in spirit – has gone the way of all flesh, little esteeming that honor I bestowed upon her. And (while I was on my way to see the earth king) she was obedient to her lord, the heavenly King. I am happy to report that she made her last confession in a saintly and pious way and that after her confession she was anointed with consecrated oil. Moreover, filled with her usual Christian spirit, she tearfully expressed the longing for your cloister with her whole heart. She then committed herself to the Lord through His mother and St. John. And sealed three times with the sign of the cross, she confessed the Trinity and Unity of God, and died on October 29 in perfect faith, hope and charity (cf.I Cor 13.13), as we know for certain. Thus I ask as earnestly as I can, if I have any right to ask, that you love her as much as she loved you, and if she appeared to have any fault – which indeed was mine, not hers – at least have regard for the tears that she shed for your cloister, which many witnessed. And if death had not prevented, she would have come to you as soon as she was able to get permission. But since death did intervene, be assured that, God willing, I will come in her place. May God, who repays all good deeds, recompense you fully in this world and in the future for all the good things you did for her, you alone, more even than relatives or friends; may He repay that benevolence of yours which she rejoiced in before God and me. Please convey my thanks to your sisters for all their kindness.” – Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen.
Next week I will conclude the series with St. Hildegard’s reply to Hartwig.
As the fourth letter in the series of St. Hildgard’s personal correspondence I have chosen to share one that reveals Hildegard’s “most human” side and where we can feel the depth of her grief. The following is an excerpt from The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen by Joseph L. Baird.
“In 1151, soon after (or immediately before) the completion of the Scivius, Hildegard experienced the greatest personal loss of her life. It was a terrible blow, coming, as it did, suddenly and, apparently, unexpectedly from a totally unanticipated source. Richardis von Stade, Hildegard’s close companion and assistant in producing her first major work, her beloved friend and the person she loved, as she says in a later letter, “in every aspect of your life,” had been elected abbess to another monastery in a distant diocese and was soon to leave to take up her duties there. It may have been that Richardis had grown weary of her position as subordinate nun and had herself actively sought this elevation in the hierarchy of the Church, or it may have been, as Hildegard seems to think, that Richardis was the passive object of her mother’s or her brother’s ambition for her. Whatever the truth of the matter, Hildegard felt betrayed and deserted by this sudden reversal of fortune, and Hildegard was not one to sit supinely by when she felt a course of action was inherently wrong and out of accordance with God’s eternal plan. Therefore, she swung into action immediately, firing off missive after missive, alternately pleading, wheedling, threatening, stubbornly refusing to the end to give in to the inevitable. Letters poured out from Mount St. Rupert – to the mother, to the brother, to the archbishop who had ordered her to comply, and, ultimately to the pope himself. Clearly, Hildegard was not disposed to give up without a fight, and it seems clear that she thought (in vain, as it turned out) that she could win. Fortunately, we can follow this tumultuous controversy pretty much in its entirety, for the correspondence (with the unhappy exception of Hildegard’s letter to the pope) has been preserved. On reading the following letter, it should be borne well in mind that this event took place very early on in Hildegard’s career, long before she became the established prophet and seer of her later years, revered, as it were, by all of Christendom.” – Joseph L. Baird
Letter 16 to Richardis.
“Daughter, listen to me, your mother, speaking to you in the spirit: my grief flies up to heaven. My sorrow is destroying the great confidence and consolation that I once had in mankind. From now on I will say: “It is good to trust in the Lord, rather than to trust in princes” (Ps 117.9). The point of this Scripture is that a person ought to look to the living height, with vision unobstructed by earthly love and feeble faith, which the airy humor of earth renders transient and short-lived. Thus a person looking at God directs his sight to the sun like an eagle. And for this reason one should not depend on a person of high birth, for such a one inevitably withers like a flower. This was the very transgression I myself committed because of my love for a certain noble individual.
Now I say to you: As often as I sinned in this way, God revealed that sin to me, either through some sort of difficulty or some kind of grief, just as He has now done regarding you, as you well know.
Now, again I say: Woe is me, mother, woe is me, daughter, “Why have you forsaken me” (Ps 21.2; Matt 27.46; Mark 15.34) like an orphan? I so loved the nobility of your character, your wisdom, your chastity, your spirit, and indeed every aspect of your life that many people have said to me: What are you doing?
Now, let all who have grief like mine mourn with me, all who, in the love of God, have had such great love in their hearts and minds for a person- as I had for you- but who was snatched away from them in an instant, as you were from me. But, all the same, may the angel of God go before you, may the Son of God protect you, and may his mother watch over you. Be mindful of your poor desolate mother, Hildegard, so that your happiness may not fade.” – St. Hildegard
After leaving St. Rupert, Richardis suddenly dies at her new monastery at the early age of twenty eight or so. Next week I shall share a second letter…one from Richardis’ brother to St. Hildegard informing her of Richardis’ passing.
In her visions St. Hildegard “saw” the future. With her powerful powers of expression, she shared these prophesies with the world. Indeed, she spoke out to the most powerful leaders of her day. In a letter she wrote to Pope Anastasius, St. Hildegard uses the allegory of the church as bride of Christ and daughter of the King. But notice how the daughter of the King is also Justicia or Justice. For St. Hildegard, Justicia refers to the ideal of the church’s liberty or freedom to exercise power over all spiritual matters. In this letter Hildegard prophesizes the ruin of Rome, complaining that the papacy is abusing Justicia:
“O man, you who sit on the papal throne, you despise God when you don’t hurl from yourself the evil but, even worse, embrace it and kiss it by silently tolerating corrupt men…You, O Rome, are like one in the throes of death. You will be so shaken that the strength of your feet, the feet on which you now stand, will disappear. For you don’t love the King’s daughter, justice, with glowing love but as in a delirium of sleep so that you push her away from you. And that is why she will also flee from you unless you call her back…Nevertheless, the high mountains will still offer the strength of their help to you; they will raise you up and support you with the strong branches of their high trees, so that you don’t completely collapse in your dignity, namely in the dignity of your marriage to Christ.”
– Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs by Matthew Fox.
In this letter we hear St. Hildegard trumpeting the mystery of God with great force. We also see that part of this mystery is a message of hope. There is always hope at the end of St. Hildegard’s prophesies.
The following is an except from The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen by Joseph L. Baird.
“In 1178, when she was eighty years old, with only one more year to live, Hildegard was caught up in an exceedingly bitter and acrimonious struggle, and, as a result, was forced to endure the greatest privation of her life. In that year she had allowed the body of a certain nobleman (whose name has not come down to us) to be buried in the consecrated grounds of Mount St. Rupert. At some point in his life, however, the man had been ex-communicated, and, on this basis, the prelates of the archbishopric of Mainz demanded that Hildegard exhume the body and cast it out of the holy ground. The Mainz prelates spoke for their archbishop, who was away in Rome at the time on official ecclesiastical business, and they went further, taking the extreme and excessive measure, in his name, of placing Mount St. Rupert under interdict until Hildegard complied with their order. Hildegard acknowledged that the man had indeed been excommunicated, but she argued (correctly and successfully, as it turned out) that he had been fully reconciled to the Church before his death. She went further than mere argument, however: she apparently went out and made sure that the grave was hidden so that she would not be taken unawares with the body being disinterred without her knowledge. The later, unsuccessful protocol for her canonization reports that she lifted her staff over the grave and, making the sign of the cross, caused it to disappear. Hildegard eventually won out in this contest of wills, by making contact with the archbishop and by producing witnesses in proof of the man’s absolution. But, in the meantime, she – and her community – suffered under the grievous restrictions of the interdict: the nuns were forbidden to hear mass, receive the Eucharist, or even sing the divine office. And anyone who knows the artistic spirit of this woman – poet and musician in her own right, composer of divine songs and hymns and creator of music – knows what a terrible affliction this latter deprivation was.
The following letter is a forceful and compelling argument for the lifting of the interdict, incorporating within its framework her wondrous excursus on the mystical power of music to recapture the joyousness and beauty of paradise before the Fall. It was a signal and lovely performance – and it was totally ignored by the prelates of Mainz.
The interdict was lifted, at last, a few months before Hildegard’s death.” – Joseph L. Baird
I am including St. Hildegard’s entire letter below. I know it is long but it is well worth the read. I consider it to be one of St. Hildegard’s most powerful letters. – Jeannine
Letter 72- to the Prelates at Mainz.
“By a vision, which was implanted in my soul by God the Great Artisan before I was born, I have been compelled to write these things because of the interdict by which our superiors have bound us, on account of the certain dead man buried at our monastery, a man buried without any objection, with his own priest officiating. Yet only a few days after his burial, these men ordered us to remove him from our cemetery. Seized by no small terror, as a result, I looked as usual to the True Light, and, with wakeful eyes, I saw in my spirit that if this man were disinterred in accordance with their commands, a terrible and lamentable danger would come upon us like a dark cloud before a threatening thunderstorm.
Therefore, we have not presumed to remove the body of the deceased inasmuch as he had confessed his sins, had received extreme unction and communion, and had been buried without objection. Furthermore, we have not yielded to those who advised or even commanded this course of action. Not certainly, that we take the counsel of upright men or the orders of our superiors lightly, but we would not have it appear that, out of feminine harshness we did injustice to the sacraments of Christ, with which this man had been fortified while he was still alive. But so that we may not be totally disobedient we have, in accordance with their injunction, ceased from singing the divine praises and from participation in Mass, as had been our regular monthly custom.
As a result, my sisters and I have been greatly distressed and saddened. Weighed down by this burden, therefore, I heard these words in a vision: “It is improper for you to obey human words ordering you to abandon the sacraments of the Garment of the Word of God, Who, born virginally of the Virgin Mary, is your salvation. Still, it is incumbent upon you to seek permission to participate in the sacraments from those prelates who laid the obligation of obedience upon you. For ever since Adam was driven from the bright region of paradise into the exile of this world on account of his disobedience, the conception of all people is justly tainted by that first transgression. Therefore, in accordance with God’s inscrutable plan, it was necessary for a man free from all pollution to be born in human flesh, through whom all who are predestined to life might be cleansed from corruption and might be sanctified by the communion of his body so that he might remain in them and they in him for their fortification. That person, however, who is disobedient to the commands of God, as Adam was, and is completely forgetful of Him must be completely cut off from participation in His body, just as he himself has turned away from Him in disobedience. And he must remain so until, purged through penitence, he is permitted by the authorities to receive the communion of the Lord’s body again. In contrast, however, a person who is aware that he has incurred such a restriction not as a result of anything he has done, either consciously or deliberately, may be present at the service of the life-giving sacrament, to be cleansed by the Lamb without sin, Who, in obedience to the Father, allowed Himself to be sacrificed on the altar of the cross that he might restore salvation to all.”
In the same vision I also heard that I had erred in not going humbly and devoutly to my superiors for permission to participate in the communion, especially since we were not at fault in receiving that dead man into our cemetery. For, after all, he had been fortified by his own priest with proper Christian procedure, and, without objection to anyone, was buried in our cemetery, with all Bingen joining in the funeral procession. And so God has commanded me to report these things to you, our lords and prelates. Further, I saw in my vision also that by obeying you we have been celebrating the divine office incorrectly, for from the time of your restriction up to the present, we have ceased to sing the divine office, merely reading it instead. And I heard a voice coming from the Living Light concerning the various kinds of praises, about which David speaks in the psalm: “Praise Him with sound of trumpet: praise Him with psaltery and harp,” and so forth up to this point: “Let every spirit praise the Lord.” (Ps 150.3-5) These words use outward, visible things to teach us about inward things. Thus the material composition and the quality of these instruments instruct us how we ought to give form to the praise of the Creator and turn all the convictions of our inner being to the same. When we consider these things carefully, we recall that man needed the voice of the living Spirit, but Adam lost this divine voice through disobedience. For while he was still innocent, before his transgression, his voice blended fully with the voices of the angels in their praise of God. Angels are called spirits from that Spirit which is God, and thus they have such voices by virtue of their spiritual nature. But Adam lost that angelic voice which he had in paradise, for he fell asleep to that knowledge which he possessed before his sin, just as a person on waking up only dimly remembers what he had seen in his dreams. And so when he was deceived by the trick of the devil and rejected the will of his Creator, he became wrapped up in the darkness of inward ignorance as the just result of his iniquity. God, however, restores the souls of the elect to that pristine blessedness by infusing them with the light of truth. And in accordance with His eternal plan, He so devised it that whenever He renews the hearts of many with the pouring out of the prophetic spirit, they might, by means of His interior illumination, regain some of the knowledge which Adam had before he was punished for his sin.
And so the holy prophets, inspired by the Spirit which they had received, were called for this purpose: not only to compose psalms and canticles (by which the hearts of listeners would be inflamed) but also to construct various kinds of musical instruments to enhance these songs of praise with melodic strains. Thereby, both through the form and the quality of the instruments, as well as through the meaning of the words which accompany them, those who hear might be taught, as we said above, about inward things, since they have been admonished and aroused by outward things. In such a way, these holy prophets get beyond the music of this exile and recall to mind that divine melody of praise which Adam, in company with the angels, enjoyed in God before his fall.
Men of zeal and wisdom have imitated the holy prophets and have themselves, with human skill, invented several kinds of musical instruments, so that they might be able to sing for the delight of their souls, and they accompanied their singing with instruments played with the flexing of fingers, recalling, in this way, Adam, who was formed by God’s finger, which is the Holy Spirit. For, before he sinned, his voice had the sweetness of all musical harmony. Indeed, if he had remained in his original state, the weakness of mortal man would not have been able to endure the power and resonance of his voice.
But when the devil, man’s great deceiver, learned that man had begun to sing through God’s inspiration and, therefore, was being transformed to bring back the sweetness of the songs of heaven, mankind’s homeland, he was so terrified at seeing his clever machinations go to ruin that he was greatly tormented. Therefore, he devotes himself continually to thinking up and working out all kinds of wicked contrivances. Thus he never ceases from confounding confession and the sweet beauty of both divine praise and spiritual hymns, eradicating them through wicked suggestions, impure thoughts, or various distractions from the heart of man and even from the mouth of the Church itself, wherever he can, through dissension, scandal, or unjust oppression.
Therefore, you and all prelates must exercise the greatest vigilance to clear the air by full and thorough discussion of the justification for such actions before your verdict closes the mouth of any church singing praises to God or suspends it from handling or receiving the divine sacraments. And you must be especially certain that you are drawn to this action out of zeal for God’s justice, rather than out of indignation, unjust emotions, or a desire for revenge, and you must always be on your guard not to be circumvented in your decisions by Satan, who drove man from celestial harmony and the delights of paradise.
Consider too that just as the body of Jesus Christ was born of the purity of the Virgin Mary through the operation of the Holy Spirit so too the canticle of praise, reflecting celestial harmony, is rooted in the Church through the Holy Spirit. The body is the vestment of the spirit, which has a living voice, and so it is proper for the body, in harmony with the soul, to use its voice to sing praises to God. Whence, in metaphor, the prophetic spirit commands us to praise God with clashing cymbals and cymbals of jubilation (cf.Ps 150.5), as well as other musical instruments which men of wisdom and zeal have invented, because all arts pertaining to things useful and necessary for mankind have been created by the breath that God sent into man’s body. For this reason it is proper that God be praised in all things.
And because sometimes a person sighs and groans at the sound of singing, remembering, as it were, the nature of celestial harmony, the prophet, aware that the soul is symphonic and thoughtfully reflecting on the profound nature of the spirit, urges us in the psalm (cf.Ps 32.3) to confess to the Lord with the harp and to sing a psalm to Him with the ten-stringed psaltery. His meaning is that the harp, which is plucked from below, relates to the disciplines of the body; the psaltery, which is plucked from above, pertains to the exertion of the spirit; the ten chords, to the fulfillment of the law.
Therefore, those who, without just cause, impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth unjustly despoiled God of His honor and glory will lose their place among the chorus of angels, unless they have amended their lives through true penitence and humble restitution. Moreover, let those who hold the keys of heaven beware not to open those things which are meant to be kept closed nor to close those things which are to be kept open, for harsh judgment will fall upon those who rule, unless, as the apostle says (cf. Rom 12.8), they rule with good judgment.
And I heard a voice saying thus: Who created heaven? God. Who opens heaven to the faithful? God. Who is like Him? No one. And so, O men of faith, let none of you resist Him or oppose Him, lest he fall on you in His might and you have no helper to protect you from His judgment. This time is a womanish time, because the dispensation of God’s justice is weak. But the strength of God’s justice is exerting itself, a female warrior battling against injustice so that it might fall defeated.” – St. Hildegard
The first letter we are going to highlight in our series on the personal correspondence of St. Hildegard of Bingen talks about the mother of all virtues: moderation. As an abbess St. Hildegard felt herself charged with the care of souls. She saw the purpose of her visionary gifts as charismatas of service. We see this most beautifully in St. Hildegard’s correspondence, as in the following excerpt from a letter St. Hildegard wrote to Elisabeth of Schöngau. St. Hildegard’s correspondence with the young Benedictine nun Elisabeth has a special character because Elisabeth was a visionary too. We have three letters of Elisabeth to St. Hildegard and two from St. Hildegard to Elisabeth. Elisabeth was severely ill, partly through her own excessive asceticism, when St. Hildegard wrote her last letter.
“In a true vision I saw and heard the following words:‘O daughter of God, out of your love for God you call a poor creature like myself, “Mother.” Listen then to your mother and learn moderation! For moderation is the mother of all virtues for everything heavenly and earthly. For it is through moderation that the body is nourished with the proper discipline. Any human being who thinks about her sins with sighs of regret – all those sins which she has committed in thought, word and deed through the Devil’s inspiration – must embrace this mother, discretion, and with the counsel of her religious superiors repent of her sins in true humility and sincere obedience. When there are unseasonable downpours, the fruit and vegetables growing on Earth are damaged; when a field has not been plowed, you do not find good grain springing up, instead there are only useless weeds. It’s the same with a person who lays on herself more strain than she can endure. This is a sign that the effects of holy discretion are weak in such a person. And all of this immoderate straining and abstinence bring nothing useful to the soul.’” – Hildgard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works With Letters and Songs by Matthew Fox.
Is the mother of all virtues active in your life? Do you lay on yourself more strain than you can endure at times? Do you have adequate amounts of rest and do you let yourself enjoy the pleasures of being human? I am learning so much about rest these days. For me rest is sleeping deeply, meditating, doing nothing….it is not worrying, it is not going for a leisurely walk, it is not reading a thrilling novel…. Regarding enjoying the pleasures of being human, this morning I enjoyed a delicious bowl of creamy oatmeal with bananas and nuts and an exquisite cup of espresso…. What pleasures of being human have you recently enjoyed?
This is the beginning of a seven part series on the letters of Saint Hildegard referenced from The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen by Joseph L. Baird. Last year on October 7, Pope Benedict XVI named Saint Hildegard a Doctor of the Church. Doctor of the Church is a title given by a variety of Christian churches to individuals whom they recognize as having been of particular importance, particularly regarding their contribution to theology or doctrine. As of 2012, the Catholic Church has named 35 Doctors of the Church. Among these 35 only 4 are women: Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Hildegard of Bingen.
Why is Saint Hildegard important? In the introduction of the Scivius Barbara Newman writes: In our own day the voice that Hildegard had called “a small sound of the trumpet from the living Light” is resounding once more. In Germany she still enjoys a wide popular following, and the abbey at Eibingen has become a center of scholarship and pilgrimage. Herbalists have rediscovered some of her prescriptions and begun to experiment with their use in modern homeopathic practice. Musicians have performed her liturgical songs and her drama, the Ordo virtutum, to great acclaim. To students of spirituality Hildegard remains of compelling interest, not only as a rare feminine voice soaring above the patriarchal choirs, but also as a perfect embodiment of the integrated, holistic approach to God and humanity for which our fragmented era longs.
Hildegard corresponded with many of the most important people of her time: with Elanor of Aquitaine, with Henry II of England, with Frederick Barbarossa, with four different popes, with the Empress Irene of Greece, with archbishops and dukes and monks and, in some ways most significant of all, with people of no particular importance whatsoever. In the weeks ahead I will be sharing excerpts from her most personal letters. It is my intention to give you a glimpse of the great heart, incredible courage and unwavering faith of the most remarkable person of the Middle Ages.
This image is a painting I created for the set of Feathers On The Breath Of God. It is a reworking of St. Hildegard’s Autobiographical Illumination. In it we see St. Hildegard with her secretary and life-long friend, the monk Volmar. I do believe that St. Hildegard would not have manifested her divine work without the support of Volmar. He never stopped encouraging her, and they were together for about sixty years. What a blessing for them and for us. Who are the people that have encouraged you in your life?