Medieval nun Hildegard of Bingen, considered a lesbian saint by some, will be declared a doctor of the church by Pope Benedict XVI next month on Oct. 7. Her feast day is today (Sept. 17).
Hildegard von Bingen was a brilliant 12th-century German mystic, poet, artist, composer, healer and scientist. She founded several monasteries, fought for women in the church and wrote with passion about the Virgin Mary. Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women, especially her personal assistant Richardis von Stade.
The title “Doctor of the Church” is a rare honor, bestowed upon only a few saints whose writings have universal value to the church. Their “eminent learning” and “great sanctity” must be affirmed by the Pope. Currently the Roman Catholic Church has only 33 doctors, including three women.
The friendship -- or love story -- between Hildegard and Richardis is included in a new film from German feminist director Margarethe von Trotta called Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. Von Trotta is one of the world’s most important feminist filmmakers and a leader of independent German cinema. Von Trotta allows Hildegard to speak for herself by using a script based on Hildegard’s own writings and a soundtrack filled with Hildegard’s music. Watch a trailer at the end of this post.
Hildegard also inspired a play by lesbian feminist playwright Carolyn Gage. In the play “Artemisia and Hildegard,” Gage has two of history’s great women artists debate their contrasting survival strategies: Gentileschi battled to achieve in the male-dominated art world while Hildegard created women-only community to support her art by founding a nunnery.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the tenth child of a noble family, was offered to the church as a “tithe” when she was very young. She was raised from the age of 8 in the hermitage that later became her Benedictine abbey. She founded two other convents where women performed her music and developed their artistic, intellectual and spiritual gifts. She spent almost all of her life in the company of women.
She had visions throughout her life, starting at age 3 when she says that she first saw “the Shade of the Living Light.” She hesitated to tell others about her visions, sharing them only with her teacher Jutta.
|St. Hildegard of Bingen|
by Plamen Petrov
St. Martha Church
Morton Grove, IL
Hildegard was nursed in her illness and encouraged in her writing by Richardis von Stade, a younger woman who was her personal assistant and special favorite. Whether or not they were physically intimate, Hildegard’s actions suggest that she was a lesbian in the sense that her primary love interest was in women.
In 1151, Hildegard completed the Scivias and trouble arose between her and her beloved Richardis. An archbishop, the brother of Richardis, arranged for his sister to become abbess of a distant convent. Hildegard urged Richardis to stay, and even asked the Pope to stop the move. But Richardis left anyway, over Hildegard’s objections.
Hildegard wrote intense letters begging Richardis to return: “I loved the nobility of your conduct, your wisdom and your chastity, your soul and the whole of your life, so much that many said: What are you doing?”
Richardis died suddenly in October 1151, when she was only about 28 years old. On her deathbed, she tearfully expressed her longing for Hildegard and her intention to return.
by Hildegard of Bingen
In an era when few women wrote, Hildegard went on to create two more major visionary works, a collection of songs, and several scientific treatises. She was especially interested in women’s health. Her medical writings even include what may be the first description of a female orgasm.
As a church leader, Hildegard had to support its policy against same-sex desire. But she often wrote about the divine feminine and the dignity of women, presenting sexuality in a generally positive way. She wrote, “Creation looks on its Creator like the beloved looks on the lover.” Many readers today delight in her erotic descriptions of marriage as a metaphor for the union of a soul with God. Hildegard writes:
The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions.
With interior yearning, grace and blessing are bestowed.
It is a yearning to take on God's gentle yoke,
It is a yearning to give one's self to God's Way.
In the Symphonia, a collection of liturgical songs to Mary, Hildegard writes with ecstatic passion of her love and devotion to the Virgin Mary. She extols Mary as “greenest twig” and sings the praises of her womb, which “illuminated all creatures.”
Her songs to Mary are available for listening in the following video and on the Sequentia recording, “Hildegard von Bingen: Canticles of Ecstasy.” Her music is still just as beautiful today.
Hildegard died on Sept. 17, 1179 at age 81. Her sisters said they saw two streams of colorful lights cross in the sky above her room. She became a saint by popular acclamation.
The icon of Hildegard and Richardis at the top of this post was painted by Colorado artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). He studied with master iconographer Robert Lentz and has made social justice a theme of his icons. LGBT-affirming creation theologian Matthew Fox has written a book on the life and work of Hildegard titled Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen.
Pope sets date to declare two new church doctors (Catholic News Agency)
Ritual to Honor Hildegard of Bingen by Diann L. Neu (WATER)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.