Sunday, November 11, 2012

Where Does One Even Begin With St. Hildegard?

With the recent declaration of St. Hildegard of Bingen as a Doctor of the Church, there might be some Catholics out there wondering where to start with learning about this saint.  In my experience, she is not an easy writer to approach - her writings are apocalyptic epics of mystical theology, and aren't exactly the kind of books that most people would sit down to a coffee with on their work break. 

St. Hildegard presents the unfamiliar Catholic with the seemingly insurmountable task of even beginning - one look at her writings and her incredible life is enough to make some, I am sure, throw their hands up in the air and say, "Ok, I'll just rest in the fact that she's a saint, a Doctor, and leave it to the experts."

But to do this would be to do a disservice to yourself, I think. 

Now, there are several ways of approaching this great saint.  Typically, I would say that an orthodox book on her life and writings is the obvious place to start.  But be forewarned - if you haven't noticed it already, the New Age movement is all over her writings, scrambling like a flurry of hornets in trying to convert her into one of their own.  I am quite certain that the people who do this have not actually studied her writings at all - she was a faithful daughter of Holy Church, and a Bride of Christ to the end.  Make sure that if you are purchasing a work by her that you avoid any with tacked-on New Age commentaries and the like - I think Matthew Fox especially is an author that tries to warp her into something she is most obviously not. 

There is a film about her life entitled Vision, but I have heard little about it in terms of its accuracy on her life.  To be sure, it will be a director's subjective take on her, but from what I have heard, it is a good film. 

Another route one might take in getting to know St. Hildegard is by way of her music.  Be assured that few songs in existence even come remotely close to the beautiful chant composed by this saint - it is otherwordly.

Consider too, that St. Hildegard also undertook great works on natural medicine that rival those of an earlier contemporary, the Muslim philosopher and physician, Ibn Sina.  Her understanding of thenatural world is profound.

But if you are just dying to jump in to her writings themselves, I would recommend Scivias, which is arguably her most important written work.  Paulist Press' Classics of Western Spirituality edition is wonderful, complete with the illustrations of her visions, and bereft of any New Age co-opting of her thought.  It is a huge work, but I think it should be studied just as much as any of the other works of the Doctors.  The Scivias itself is almost like a mystical Summa Theologica, but it is neither dry nor academic sounding as other theological works - no, it is a sweeping work of prophetic visions, apocalyptic warnings, and deep mysticism.  It`s not an easy read, but it's rewarding. 

If you are like me, and fairly daunted by the massive writings of St. Hildegard, I think that her contemporary, St. Elisabeth of Schonau is also a fantastic and edifying read - in fact, I almost prefer her more direct approach in some ways. 

Regardless, St. Hildegard is an incredible saint and Doctor of the Church to get to know.  If one can remain unintimidated by the vast mountain of her writings, then they will find her most spiritually rewarding. 


  1. I had to go watch the movie you mention, "Vision" and it is a very good movie. It certainly gives a good perspective of that no-doubt difficult time period (turn of the 1st millennium). It does much to dispel many preconceptions I had, and does a good job casting St Hildegard in a favorable, but not overly fawning, light. Worth seeing :)

    I can only hope to achieve that level of loving grace as they depict.