A feather on the breath of God

Most of the saints commemorated throughout the year are men, historically more active in the Christian life. However, there are exceptions and yesterday the name of Hildegard of Bingen appeared in the lectionary on her feast day. Born right at the end of the 11th century in Germany she was educated from the age of eight by a recluse called Jutta and became a Benedictine nun when she was fifteen years old.

For eleven years she led a quiet studious life, but then her visions and revelations began. In 1136 she succeeded Jutta as Abbess and was told to write down her visions. Her writings became well known and were approved not only by the Archbishop of Mainz but in a more reserved way by the Pope. The popularity of her writings attracted other women desirous of joining her community, which became so large that the convent proved too small and Hildegard moved them to larger premises near Bingen. From there she reformed several other convents and made a second foundation in a nearby town.

Like several other visionaries she felt called upon to reprove rulers, including Henry ll of England, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and even the Pope. Her interests were wide ranging: she wrote poems, hymns and a morality play, beside works of medicine and natural history. Other works included commentaries on the Gospels, on the Athanasian Creed and on the Rule of St Benedict as well as some Lives of Saints. She was also a musician and artist.

Some of her writings have been reproduced in modern times and have been compared with the work of William Blake. I can remember when I was training for ministry being tasked with presenting her and her translations at one of our sessions.

Such a remarkable, outstanding woman might be considered a rather daunting figure, but the phrase which stands out for me is the one at the head of the page. She was a pastor and a teacher and saw herself as a ‘feather on the breath of God’. That suggests a sensitivity and awareness of the impermanence of her influence that makes her seem much more approachable.

We give thanks for Hildegard of Bingen and all those saints who have gone before. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.

[Thelma Shacklady]