Hildegard explains that from a very young age she had experienced visions. At the age of eight Hildegard was sent to a convent and was raised and educated at Disibodenberg. Some scholars speculate that because of her visions, she was placed in the care of Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim. Hildegard says that she first saw “The Shade of the Living Light” at the age of three and by the age five she began to understand that she was experiencing visions.
In Hildegard’s youth, she referred to her visionary gift as her viso. She explained that she saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar Hildegard's tutor and, later, secretary. During the twenty four years when Jutta and Hildegard were in the convent together, there is no written record of what happened during these times. It is possible that Hildegard could have been a chantress and a worker in the herbarium.
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Hildegard also tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write, but that she was unlearned and therefore incapable of teaching Hildegard Biblical interpretation. Hildegard and Jutta most likely prayed, meditated, read scriptures such as the Psalter, and did some sort of handwork during the hours of the Divine Office. This also might have been a time when Hildegard learned how to play the ten-stringed psaltery. Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard simple psalm notation.
The time she studied music could also have been the beginnings of the compositions she would later create. Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen - Sante Fe: Bear and Company, 1985) Upon Jutta's death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as "magistra" of her sister community by her fellow nuns. Abbot Kuno, the Abbot of Disibodenberg, also asked Hildegard to be Prioress. Hildegard, however, wanted more independence for herself and her nuns and asked Abbot Kuno to allow them to move to Rupertsberg. When the abbot declined Hildegard's proposition, Hildegard went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz.
Abbot Kuno did not relent, however, until Hildegard was stricken by an illness that kept her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed, an event that she attributed to God's unhappiness at her not following his orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg. It was only when the Abbot himself could not move Hildegard that he decided to grant the nuns their own monastery. Hildegard and about twenty nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150, where Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard's confessor and scribe.
In 1165 Hildegard founded a second convent for her nuns at Eibingen. (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen - Sante Fe: Bear and Company, 1985) Hildegard did not manifest the visions until when she was in her early forties. The church did not allow women to sing; however, women were permitted to compose music for convents. Hildegard of Bingen was one such woman who wrote sacred music for choirs in convents. Not only did Hildegard compose music for church choirs, but she also wrote pieces of music that could be performed outside of the church, otherwise known as secular music.
She began to have the symbolic and didactic visions for which she became famous. At first she did not write any of her visions down but then when she fell gravely ill she blamed it on the fact that she was not revealing her visions. After consulting with the Pope and St Bernard of Clairvaux she began to write her visions down, in the Scivas. Archbishop Heinrich convinced Hildegard to share her visions and believed them to be a gift from God. Pope Eugenis III sent a commission to investigate Hildegard’s vision and obtain a copy of her writings.
Pope Eugenis III read Hildegard’s visions in front of the synod that all believed them to be true. The Pope sent Hildegard a letter of approval, authorizing her to continue transcribing her visions. The result of this was to ratify Hildegard’s visionary gift. Hildegard was not just restricted to religious life but she was also an abbess, mystic, poet, musician and scientist. (German Mysticism-Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) She had a very hard and productive life.
She become very well known and wrote many songs and books, many of which are still read today. She made a large contribution to society at her time overcoming whatever problems faced her. Hildegard used a large variety of parables, metaphors, symbols, visionary imagery and non-verbal means to make her work reach out to many who are totally deaf to more standard approaches. She felt that everyone deserved the right to learn about her work, especially the visions she was receiving from God, even though they may have physical or mental disadvantages.
Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to "write down that which you see and hear. " Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard became physically ill. The illustrations recorded in the book of Scivias were visions that Hildegard experienced, causing her great suffering and tribulations. In her first theological text, “Know the Ways”. (The letters of Hildegard of Bingen - Oxford University Press, 1994)
Hildegard describes her struggle within. But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct the nun Richardis von Stade and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing.
While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close though just barely in ten years. (Hildegard von Bingen, Mystical Visions) And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places.
And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out therefore, and write thus Hildegard's vivid description of the physical sensations which accompanied her visions has led neurologist (and popular author) Oliver Sacks to speculate that they were symptoms of migraine, in particular because of her description of light. Sacks argue that the illuminations that appear in Hildegard's manuscripts confirm that Hildegard suffered from negative scotoma. (Hildegard von Bingen- Mystical Visions)
After taking up her role as Superior of the community of nuns, Hildegard became convinced she should no longer remain silent about what she experienced in the Living Light. She heard a voice that addressed her: "0 frail human formed from the dust of the earth, ashes from ashes, cry out and proclaim the beginning of undefiled salvation! Let those who see the inner meaning of Scripture, yet do not wish to proclaim or preach it, take instruction, for they are lukewarm and sluggish....
Therefore pour out a fountain of abundance, over-flow with mysterious learning, so that those who want you to be despicable on account of Eve's transgression may be overwhelmed by the flood of your profusion. ” (Hildegard von Bingen-Mystical Visions) Matthew Fox, the founder of creation spirituality, while he examined her writings and explored some of her teachings through a series of meditations. He described her as being a strong, feminine figure, revered by the New Age, who are attracted by her theology, with its emphasis on the harmony of the created world and its relation to God.
At about the same time musicologists and historians of science and religion began to study her and the past ten years have seen a proliferation of books and academic studies on her life and work. There are films and videos about her, societies, colloquia and conferences in her name. She is also taken seriously as a musician, and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians gives her nearly six pages.
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