How to turn tragedy into triumph
Lessons from the lives of history’s most interesting and underrated women, Part I: Hildegard of Bingen
In this issue of Civic Renaissance, we’ll explore,
How to turn tragedy into triumph, Part I: Lessons from Hildegard of Bingen
Book cover contest!
Giveaway of THREE year-long subscriptions to Wondrium
How to turn tragedy into triumph, Part I: Lessons from Hildegard of Bingen
Today, September 17th, is the death date of Hildegard of Bingen, the omni-competent patron saint of creativity, musicians, and writers. She lived from 1089 to September 17, 1179, and died in Bingen, Germany—whence she derived her name. (Any Catholics reading may know that today is also her feast day.) She led a long and exceptional life, making discipline-altering contributions to over a dozen human endeavors and earning the esteem and adoration of her male-dominated society. She was presciently ecologically conscious, caring deeply about stewardship of our natural world, and spoke truth to power—with prudence—up until her death in 1179.
September is also the birth month of Catherine di Pisan. Catherine was born in September 1364 in Venice, Italy, and died in 1430. She was a poet and the first professional woman writer in European history. We’ll explore Catherine’s life in the next issue of CR, forthcoming later this month.
Neither of these women are household names today, but they should be. Their achievements are worth studying in their own right, but particularly noteworthy is their ability to overcome adversity, tragedy, and structural barriers to considerable accomplishments. We may learn from their example and turn our own hardships into triumphs, too.
Hildegard of Bingen
For much of history, women were not afforded the same economic or educational opportunities as men to make the intellectual or creative contributions of which they were capable. Even if women did make such contributions, if they were not recorded and written about within a generation, the accomplishments would go unpreserved and lost to history.
Hildegard was born to a wealthy German family. Despite this initial advantage, she was plagued with sickness and disability from an early age and throughout her life. Modern doctors suspect that she suffered from epilepsy, and scholars today also think that, due to her vivid visions and dreams she had throughout her life, which we’ll explore momentarily, she likely suffered from debilitating migraines. They suspect these caused her delirium-induced dreams.
Her family committed her to their local monastery when she was only seven years old. Hildegard was not average in any aspect of her life, and that included her approach to nun-hood. She was not just any nun, but was instead an “anchoress,” the term for an exceptionally devout “uber nun” whose only activity and prime purpose was prayer to God. Such a life involved virtually a complete withdrawal from the world—a destiny that, as we’ll learn, Hildegard approached with an eye to the importance of making the most of life on Earth.
Throughout her life, and despite her disability, she was committed to excellence in all areas of human achievement. She was a polymath, and excelled in numerous spheres, including fiction writing, theology, music composition, ecological conservation, poetry, painting, prose, science writing and inquiry, and much, much more. We can see why she is considered the patron saint of creativity!
She possessed incredible resilience and self-confidence. Being convinced of her own purpose on Earth helped her overcome her early disadvantages of ill-health and disability, and gave her the inner fortitude necessary for her to speak truth to power throughout her life.
Her visions began when she was three. “I saw such a great light that my soul quaked,” she recalled later in her life.
She didn’t understand that her prevalent visions were unique: didn’t everyone regularly see stories unfold in their mind’s eye? She wondered. Thus, it was incredibly dangerous for anyone—especially a woman—to share the fact that she had visions, and to claim they were from God. She was advised not to share her visions with anyone. At best, she would be discredited and dismissed as crazy. At worst, she would be sentenced to death for heresy.
Late start to public life
Aware of the risks, Hildegard kept her visions mostly to herself and within the confines of her nunnery. She lived the first half of her life in relative anonymity.
When she was 42, she had a vision that, at long last, it was time to make her visions known to the world. She was skeptical. She knew the risks of going public with her gift. After initially resisting the command to share her visions with others, she fell deathly ill—something she would later say was punishment for disobeying God.
As a side note for skeptics: In our post-religious, scientific, rational society, we’re skeptical of the mystical, the transcendent, and the spiritual. This reveals the biases of our western and modern world. Before you dismiss the power of visions and dreams out of hand, read Why We Sleep, a book I just finished reading. I learned how rife history is with stories of remarkable achievements made possible by people harnessing and listening to their dreams.
For example, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev discovered the periodic table of the elements in a dream after years of puzzling over how these elements fit together. Thomas Edison would take naps during the day with three metal balls in his hand. As soon as he fell asleep, the balls would drop, and he would abruptly be awoken from dreamland. He would write down everything he was dreaming and thinking about during sleep.
Back to Hildegard. Her illness abated when she resolved to obey the divine command to share her dreams with the world.
Her mysticism was deeply influenced by her Christian faith and the Celtic monastic tradition, which in many ways overlap with the Indian Hindu mystical tradition. Some scholars even think that the Celtic monastic tradition and its emphasis on the mystical emerged from, or, at least, was influenced by, the Indian tradition.
Passion for the inhabited life, and the life well-lived
Hildegard was a Christian humanist and a renaissance woman centuries before anyone had heard of or used either term. She was a mystic, and someone who lived within a religious order, and yet she departed from the prevailing ethos of the day that elevated the next life in heaven over the here and now.
She rejected the dualism of St Augustine (influenced by Plato) and the ascetism of many other Christian thinkers before her. She instead took seriously the truth that Christ’s incarnation validates life here on Earth, and affirmed the abundance and joy to be had in this life.
This is reflected in her rich creative life. She was dedicated to cultivating her talents to the fullest, and her passion for the inhabited life is further manifest in her lifelong commitment to social reform—including ridding the church of corruption. She constantly looked for ways to improve life for her sisters in religious community, and for society more broadly. She told her religious superiors that they lacked Christian virtues in their hearts and lives. Wherever she saw wrongs, she was quick to criticize and to seek to correct them. Hildegard knew that this life would always be imperfect, but it did matter, which is why she pursued justice throughout her life.
In another example, in the convent she led, Hildegard encouraged “dress up days” for her sisters. On these days, the nuns could shed their all-black dress in favor of colors and styles that expressed their personality. They wore gold bracelets. They took off their habits and let down their hair. They could sing and dance and exercise their creativity.
She celebrated and affirmed the way that God created women with beauty and femininity. This was radical in an era where women the beauty of women was often viewed with skepticism for the way that it led men into temptation.
Hildegard understood that God didn’t make mistakes. Women are created the way they are for a reason. That was something to celebrate—as was the diversity of personal expression within womanhood. Allowing personality and joy to be expressed within the otherwise restrained confines of her religious order was radical, unique, and exceptional. It was also deeply life-giving and life-affirming.
Following the example of Christ, she struck a balance between the spiritual aspect of our nature as human beings, and the inescapable physical aspect of our natures as well.
The secret to her achievements: earning the right to be heard
How was Hildegard able to persuade church authorities of her credibility and achieve all that she accomplished?
She was a remarkably shrewd stateswoman. She tactfully won the most powerful men of her day to her cause—bishops, religious and secular authorities, and even the Pope himself—and only then did she speak her mind. In taking this approach, she avoided being prematurely silenced. She was able to advance the human-knowledge project and improve the prevailing social institutions of her day—namely the church—in consequence.
She found a way to strike a remarkable, near-impossible balance of deference to the rules and conventions of her day with a dogged self-confidence to her convictions. Her belief in the authenticity of her visions was unshakable.
To begin with, before she began to speak widely about her dreams, she sought the sanction of powerful clerical men of her day. Highly deferential, she asked them for prayer and discernment about whether her dreams were of God or the devil.
Once she had the approval of these men, she wasted no time in writing down her visions and using them to promote social and religious reform. In addition to writing down what she saw in her mind’s eye, she and her fellow nuns began to visually depict her visions.
Her first work of her visions, called “Know the Ways of the Lord,” received the Pope’s blessing. He asked her to continue her work of sharing her visions of the world.
Her visions began to influence secular and religious leaders throughout the medieval world. She was held in universal esteem in her day by both men and women, and by communities both secular and religious.
She was invited to travel across the continent to preach and teach to different villages and religious communities—an honor that that even the most esteemed men of her day did not enjoy. That a woman enjoyed such an honor stretches credulity.
She followed the rules and prevailing conventions of her day in order to gain her influence.
Once renowned and in a position of authority, she used her influence to improve society. For example, she took on the issue of corruption in the church and the abuses of religious power that were rampant. She was firm in her admonishment against corruption, but she was able to do so without antagonizing or alienating herself from others; her criticisms were out of deep adoration and reverence for the people and institutions she criticized.
She was able to overcome her early adversity in life, and she was able to transform what could have been a curse, even as an extension of her early neurological disability—her persistent visions—into a force for good in the world.
Her early deference to authority and profound humility regarding her visions allowed her to gain for herself her own significant level of authority and autonomy—something unheard of for women of her era.
Had she not gone through the proper channels—had she simply started shouting her visions and her ideas for religious and social reform from the rooftops—she would quickly have been silenced and possibly even condemned and killed for heresy. She wasn’t revolutionary or confrontational in her tone or approach.
Here are a few of her achievements:
She was the only woman of her day allowed to speak freely on matters of religious doctrine.
She was the first woman to receive express permission from a Pope to write on Christian matters. (Then, when the Pope endorsed a book, it sold out everywhere! Today, the Pope needs to condemn a book in order to move units!)
She was the only woman allowed to preach openly to both men and women on religious topics.
She was the author of the first morality play.
She was the only composer of her era known by name, and with a large corpus still in existence.
She was the first woman to write on science, particularly on sexuality and gynecology, from a female perspective.
She was remarkably prescient in her views on environmental sustainability and ecological stewardship. She thought that humans were placed on earth to help the universe grow, affirming a sort of proto-evolutionary view. She looked around her, imbibing the vibrant colors, smells and sounds of the Rhine valley, and was enamored with how lush and alive it was. She knew that we are part of an interconnected and inter-dependent web, and that any species that failed to honor the duties of that inter-dependence would suffer and cease to exist.
She accomplished enormous good for women, the world, and people of her era by reducing corruption within the church and encouraging people to care for the natural world around her.
Speaking truth to power—even to her last days
When Hildegard was eighty-one years old, she was at the bedside of a man who had been excommunicated. Just before his death, he confessed his sins. Due to his misdeeds, Hildegard’s religious superiors were determined that he not have a consecrated grave. Yet Hildegard, with her dogged commitment to Christ’s mercy and grace, testified to his confession, and insisted that he have a proper burial.
So committed was she to this that, in the middle of the night, she took the dead man’s body and buried it in an unmarked grave—lest religious authorities later try to dig him up and move him.
As punishment for her insubordination, her bishop withdrew permission for her convent to enjoy music, or take the communion.
As a frail octogenarian, she travelled to the bishop to speak with him directly about this injustice. Music, and communion, were the soul of spiritual life. He could not take that away from them. She would not abide it. The bishop relented, and she travelled back to her convent victorious.
She died just weeks afterward on this day—Sept 17th—in 1179.
Her legacy continues to be celebrated into our modern era. On May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said that she had equivalent canonization status of a saint. Then, on October 7, 2012, he pronounced her as a doctor of the church for her exceptional contributions to theology and church doctrine. Across its two-millennia history, the church has bestowed this title on just 37 individuals, which you might say puts Hildegard in the 1% of the 1% of church saints!
But I think she’s due for an even greater revival. She teaches us lessons in human creativity and ingenuity, and reminds us of the importance of honoring our nature—and our Creator— by being creative. She reminds us that the spiritual life is important—but so is our physical life.
The inhabited life, the life well-lived is something we can all enjoy. Hildegard also inspires us to speak truth to power—that we sometimes each have a duty to do so, and that we can and must make the world around us better and more just. Her example can continue to instruct and inspire us—if we let it.
What do you think of Hildegard? I’d love to hear from you. Write to me at email@example.com
Book Cover Contest!
If you’ve been part of the Civic Renaissance community for any length of time, you can testify to the fact that we care a lot about the power of beauty to heal our world.
I’d love to harness the power of beauty when it comes to my book cover, too.
I’m currently considering book-cover options for my forthcoming book, THE SOUL OF CIVILITY.
My vision for the cover is to create a sense of freshness and of timelessness—that this book is both of this time but of all times, as the subject of the book itself. This is the ethos of Civic Renaissance, too.
I’d love to hear from you.
What book covers stand out to you as being exceptionally beautiful? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
One that comes to mind for me is my friend Virginia Postrel’s book, THE FABRIC OF CIVILIZATION. Her cover—which is more beautiful in person than a computer screen does justice to—was exquisite and unique—it was just a beautiful book to hold.
Write to me at email@example.com with YOUR favorite book cover of any book, recent or modern.
What images evoke for you a sense of timelessness and freshness?
Send me your ideas to be entered to win one of THREE year-long Wondrium subscriptions that I am giving away, per below!
Giveaway of THREE year-long subscriptions to Wondrium
I enjoyed discovering the remarkable life of Hildegard from an exceptional Great Courses series called “Great Minds of the Medieval World,” by Dorsey Armstrong, PhD Professor, Purdue University.
Wondrium helps me to constantly cover new intellectual territory. So that you can keep growing and learning, too, I’m giving away THREE one-year subscriptions to Wondrium.
To enter, either write to me with the word WONDRIUM in the subject line, and for additional consideration, share with me your FAVORITE, most-beautiful book cover ever.
Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!