Not a 'Weak Creature'

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, October 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

Not a 'Weak Creature'


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller

A mystic and the modern woman.

Lest one imagine that female achievement and ambition is a new phenomenon, the life of Hildegard von Bingen stands as a stark corrective. Hildegard lived in the 12th century. Born to a noble family, she was raised from childhood in a monastery. In adulthood she became the magistra (similar to an abbess) of a community of Benedictine nuns and made history. She was a mystic--she saw visions of God--and also an author and a composer. She read widely. A naturalist, she healed the sick through her knowledge of herbs and medicine. (Believers say she also performed miracles.) Though celibate, Hildegard was so in love with a young nun named Richardis that when she left the community, the magistra wallowed in public anguish.

At every step, Hildegard argued and pleaded with, disobeyed, and circumvented her male superiors on behalf of her sisters and herself. Through influence and connections, she acquired enough property to found a women's cloister, apart from the men. And though she continually professed to be "a weak creature," she reached out to Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian abbot who remains one of the most important theologians of his age, for support. She appealed to the pope himself when local decisions didn't go her way, and she knew Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman emperor. As depicted in the German director Margarethe von Trotta's new film, Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard was creative, passionate, fierce, dogged, manipulative, holy, learned, loyal--and obedient to her ideal of faith. She supported education and independence for women at a time when most women had neither. "To me, it's a very convincing portrait," says Barbara Newman, a noted Hildegard scholar at Northwestern University.

How infuriating, then, that Hildegard has not been formally canonized, though her feast day is celebrated in Benedictine communities and in Germany, the land of her birth. How doubly infuriating that when Pope Benedict XVI mentioned her in a speech last month, he made her an example of Christian submission. She showed "total obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities," he said. The publication Catholic New York decided two weeks ago not to run an advertisement for the movie. …

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