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Kathy Bond at the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Rüdesheim, Germany

 

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard receiving a vision (illumination from Scivias)

In celebration of 30 years in mission with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, I embarked last year on a pilgrimage to St. Hildegard’s Abbey near Bingen in Germany. Nestled high above the Rhine, I was blessed to be there near the grape harvest on spectacular, blue, sunny September days.

I had first heard about St. Hildegard (1098-1179) in 2001 when I audited Mary Ford-Grabowsky’s “Sacred Voices” course at the University of Creation Spirituality. Hildegard called herself “God’s trumpet” and is considered by historians such as Janina Ramirez as one of the most important women of the Middle Ages. As a Catholic-educated North American of German descent, I asked myself why I had never heard of her and sought out on a journey to learn more.

Hildegard was a Benedictine nun, but equally a pioneering scientist, a theologian and a philosopher, a musician and a poet, and a physician who was particularly skilled in the methods of natural healing.

Her writings often reflect her relationship with spirituality and nature, as can be seen in these poems:

 

 

Antiphon for the Holy Spirit

The Spirit of God
is a life-giving life,
root of the world-tree,
breezes in its boughs.

This Spirit heals sin,
poring balm
over all the world’s wounds.

She is radiant life,
all-awakening,
all-reviving,
alluring all praise.

 

In Your Midst

I, God, am in your midst.
Whoever knows me
can never fall,

Not in the heights,
nor in the depths,
nor in the breadths,

For I am love,
which the vast expanses of evil
can never still.

 

Antiphon for Divine Wisdom

Sophia!
you of the whirling wings,
circling encompassing
energy of God:

you quicken the world in your clasp.

One wing soars in heaven,
one wing sweeps the earth,
and the third flies all around us.

Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!

 

Hildegard was a mentor to many, including kings, popes, other religious and ordinary folks. Hildegard’s activism unfolded in more than 390 letters that reveal her wisdom in spiritual and political matters alike. But it was her music that enchanted me. For many years I taught yoga and led health circles in a women’s prison in São Paulo. One of my prison ministry colleagues would often play her opera, Ordo Virtutum, as we sped past the dense urban sprawl in route to the prison visits.

Ford-Grabowsky begins her Hildegard section in Sacred Voices, Essential Women’s Wisdom Through the Ages with this sentence: “This great woman, a mystical genius illuminated with wisdom, a prophet inflamed with faith, a huge soul blazing with Living Light, single-handedly unleashed a broad river of Christian women’s spirituality that had been trickling along for over a thousand male-dominated years.”

Hildegard’ s embrace of the sacred feminine has been an inspiration for my work with women in Brazil over the past 30 years.

In 2012, Hildegard was finally canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church by her fellow German, Pope Benedict XVI. Some questioned why it took more than 800 years from the onset of the process, which began shortly after her death in 1179. The main answer is almost too mundane to believe — misplaced paperwork. In 1253 the canonization process documents were lost en route to Rome. There was no backup.

Some authors have speculated how this mishap has been a blessing in disguise because in recent years the push for final canonization has been part of a Hildegard revival. Her voice, especially the emphasis on a more creation-centered spirituality, rings anew in our times.

 

The Cosmic Tree (Liber Divinorum Operum)

Hildegard’s mystical places

Every historical site that I visited along the Rhine had a natural herb garden bursting with medicinal plants, especially rosemary and lavender. One of my favorite places in her honor was the garden of the Museum am Strom in Bingen. The center of the space has a fountain in the form of Rhine river surrounded by medicinal plants. As I sat on a bench there, the trickling of the river fountain anchored my meditation as I soaked in the view of the Rhine with her Abbey on the hill of the opposite bank.

Hildegard coined the term viriditas or “greening power,” as named by Matthew Fox in his book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. “For Hildegard, the Holy Spirit is greening power in motion, making all things grow, expand, celebrate. Indeed, for Hildegard salvation or healing is the return of green power and moistness,” comments Fox.

Of all her images, the Cosmic Tree most inspires me.

Hildegard asks us to pay close attention to the rhythms of nature, grounded in the belief that it holds the key to physical well-being and deep spiritual life. She invites us to become partners with nature: “Humankind is called to co-create, so that we might cultivate the earth, and thereby create the heavenly.”

In the ecology retreats that I facilitate in the northeast of Brazil with my partner and fellow Maryknoll lay missioner, Flávio Jose Rocha, I have found that helping people reconnect with nature is also a path to reconnecting with self, others and the universe. I see these spaces as our small contribution to Hildegard’s garden of viriditas.


This reflection was first published on the blog Terra Literaria. 

 

Kathy Bond
Based in João Pessoa, Brazil, Kathy Bond provides accessible courses, classes and retreats in various holistic health therapies including hatha yoga, shantala and reflexology at AFYA Women’s Holistic Health Center and other locations in João Pessoa and online.