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THE SIBYL OF THE RHINE

14. Three Political Letters

As Hildegard became established at Rupertsberg, she began to gain a reputation for prophecy and political wisdom as well as theological understanding, and it was in this role as adviser and prophetess that she became known as the ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’. Soon her direct advice was being sought, and given, in the current affairs of the German Empire and the Church. The letters here, though difficult to date precisely, illustrate aspects of this activity.

The letter to Pope Eugenius III is markedly different in tone from her earlier one to the same correspondent (6); the language is more apocalyptic, with the sword of divine justice circling in the air, and there is some intriguing animal imagery. It is tempting to relate the image of the bear to the new king of Germany, Frederick Barbarossa, who signed a political agreement with Eugenius at the Treaty of Constance in 1153.

The letter to Henry (Bishop of Liège 1145–64) is similarly urgent, with its imagery of dark clouds ominously threatening the mountain of flowers and gentle breezes. The dark clouds are a less precise kind of metaphor than that of the bear, but the implication is that the Church is somehow threatened. Henry was loyal to Barbarossa and took part in the first Italian expedition of 1154, attending the Emperor’s coronation by Pope Hadrian IV in 1155.

Hadrian IV was an Englishman and vigorous politician who at first honoured the Treaty of Constance by ousting the leader of the Senate, Arnold of Brescia, from Rome and by crowning Barbarossa as Emperor. But his agreement with King William I of Norman Sicily in 1156 brought a radical change of policy. In October 1157 a letter from Hadrian, delivered by his legates to the Diet of Besançon, provoked a bitter row with Barbarossa and his chancellor Rainald Dassel, who interpreted its requirements as a threat to imperial power. Hildegard’s letter to Hadrian presents a series of apocalyptic images and metaphors which, although bafflingly unclear, are of undoubted relevance to the events of Hadrian’s pontificate.

Hildegard to Pope Eugenius III, 1148–53 [Letter 3]

He who is not silent speaks – because of the weakness of those who are too blind to see, too deaf to hear, too dumb to speak – that robbers lie in wait by night1 with death-dealing weapons! And what does he say? The sword circles and turns, killing those who are evil in mind!

You in your person are a shining breastplate,2 the primary root, the presider at Christ’s nuptials with the Church. But you are divided in your attentions. On the one hand your soul is renewed in the mystic flower that is the companion of virginity;3 on the other, you are the branch of the Church.4 Listen to the One who strikes with his name and flows in the torrent; listen to him speaking to you: do not cast the eye from the eye, do not cut off the light from the light; but stand on the even path, lest you be accused for the sake of those souls who have been placed in your bosom. Do not allow them to sink in the lake of perdition through the power of the feasting prelates!

A jewel lies on the path, but a bear5 comes along. Seeing the beautiful jewel, he stretches out a paw to seize it and place it in his bosom. But suddenly an eagle appears, snatches the jewel, wraps it in the cover of his wings and bears it away to the inner courtyard of the palace of the king. That very jewel shines out its radiance in the presence of the king. And for love of the jewel, the king presents the eagle with golden shoes,6 praising him highly for his goodness.

You now, the viceroy of Christ, seated on the throne of the Church, choose for yourself the better part,7 that you may be the eagle overcoming the bear! Adorn the inner courtyard of the Church in the souls entrusted to you, so that in your golden shoes you may come to the heights and remove yourself far from the intruder’s grasp!

Hildegard to Henry, Bishop of Liège,8 1148–53 [Letter 37R]

The living light says: the paths of the scriptures lead directly to the high mountain,9 where the flowers grow and the costly aromatic herbs; where a pleasant wind blows, bringing forth their powerful fragrance; where the roses and lilies reveal their shining faces. But because of the shadows of dark living air, that mountain did not appear until the Son of the most High had enlightened the world. On that day, the sun rose from the dawn, illuminating this world so that all the people could see its aromatic herbs. That day was very beautiful, and sweet tidings came forth.

But O shepherds, now is the time for mourning and weeping, because in our time the mountain has been covered with a very black cloud so that it no longer sends forth its gentle fragrance. You, Henry, must be a good shepherd, noble of character. And just as the eagle gazes at the sun, ponder and consider how you can call back the wanderers and exiles and bring some light to this mountain, so that you will live, and so that you will hear the most loving voice of the Judge on high: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’10 Then your soul will shine with light like a soldier brilliant in the fight, who rejoices with his comrades because he has gained the victory.

Therefore, teacher of the people, fight for the good victory. Correct those in error, and so wash the mud from the beautiful pearls.11 Prepare them for the high king. Let your mind pant with great eagerness to call those pearls back to the mountain where the gift of God had its origin. May God protect you now and free your soul from eternal punishment.

Hildegard to Pope Hadrian IV, 1155 [Letter 9]

The one who gives life to the living says this. O man, you will sustain the fearful rage of lionesses and the great strength of leopards. You will experience shipwreck in the taking of spoils. For you have been given over to all those who seek refuge with you in their state of exhaustion. Nevertheless you have a ready understanding with which to pit yourself against the fierce behaviour of men. In raging at them you hang on firmly to the manes of the galloping horses which run ceaselessly along the tracks of plunder. But you fight against yourself when at times you favour the apparent probity of certain people if you hide the treasure-chests of those killed in conflict on the open roads. Therefore you will suffer a fierce battle. But you will destroy the movable goods of the rest, who will fall into the pit because of their asperity. Yet you have the power of the strong key,12 which does not go willingly in the form of a ruby to the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

In your heart, therefore, seek the salvation of waters so that you do not fall into the whirlwind, and so that you may remain gentle to the distress and pain of those who are afflicted by the torment of many wounds, thus imitating your Saviour, who will redeem you. And God will not leave you,13 but you will see in his light.14

15. Songs for the Dedication of a Church

The first of the following antiphons was perhaps written in 1155 If Hildegard wrote the song for the dedication of a particular church building its identity is unknown, but the ‘church’ twice mentioned in the text must also be seen as the universal Church, facing its enemies the ‘most savage wolf’ and the ‘cunning serpent’ (i.e. the devil). In the second antiphon, the serpent is defeated and the Church can rejoice in harmony that all its children have been reunited. The imagery could be understood on a number of levels, from a survey of salvation history on one level to a prediction of the last things on another. In view of the animal imagery in the letter to Pope Hadrian IV, it may be that the ‘wolf’ ofO virgo ecclesia represents a particular threat to the Church at the time when the song was composed, one possibility being the threat to papal supremacy of the still powerful Roman Commune under Arnold of Brescia.1 The threat was removed by the Pope’s own swift actions after his election to the papal see in December 1154. Shortly before Easter in 1155, when one of the cardinals was attacked and wounded by Arnold’s followers, Hadrian placed an interdict over the whole of the population of Rome, shutting all the churches until Arnold and his party had been banished from Rome. Under pressure from the citizens and clergy, the Senate agreed, and the Pope was able to celebrate Easter in triumph.

O virgo ecclesia. Antiphon2

O virgin church, you must lament

that the most savage wolf

has seized your children from your side.

Woe to the cunning serpent!

But how precious is the blood of the Saviour!

In the banner of the king3

he has pledged the Church to himself

so that she now seeks her children.

Nunc gaudeant. Antiphon4

May the maternal heart of the Church now rejoice

that her sons have been gathered to her lap

in heavenly harmony.

Therefore, shameful serpent, you are confounded,

because those you thought were in your heart

now shine in the blood of God’s son.

Praise to you, King on high, alleluia.

16. Teachings on the Church (from Scivias)

The principles on which Hildegard based her advice and admonitions to the principal churchmen and politicians of her day are set out extensively in the pages of Scivias, from which the following extracts are taken. The book was much in demand: in the early 1150s, for instance, Archbishop Arnold of Cologne expressed a wish to have a copy, for he was ‘unable and unwilling to be without it’.1 In responding to his request, Hildegard sent the following message as a covering letter:

Now, as you wished, shepherd of your people, I (a poor woman) have sent you my writings of the true visions to you. They contain nothing of human ingenuity and nothing of my own will. Instead, these writings contain the things which the Unceasing Light wished and desired to make known through its own composition and in its own words. Even this letter which I am writing to you now was composed not by my own reason but by heavenly disposition.

Within the ‘writings of the true visions’, as Hildegard called them, Archbishop Arnold would have found much of practical use, for her teachings on the Church cover not only theological and doctrinal issues but also social matters and questions relating to ethics. Hildegard has much to say on the sacraments, the role of the monastic orders, and the duties of priests and bishops. She uses characteristic vocabulary, such as ‘perfumes’ for priests, and adapts images and stories from the Bible, such as the theme of the ‘green garden’, employed here to attack the frequent twelfth-century practice of dedicating young children against their will to the monastic life.

The words of Isaiah [Scivias I, 4, 32]

‘The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it has lighted upon Israel.’2 This means that the Word, through whom all things were created, the firstborn of God who before the beginning of time was ever-present through his divinity in the Father’s heart, was sent by the Lord, the heavenly Father, through the mouth of the prophets to the people of Jacob. They proclaimed faithfully that the Son of God would bring salvation into the world so that humanity, prepared and armed, might throw down the devil and cleverly turn aside his cunning deceptions. And so the Word lighted upon Israel when God’s firstborn lighted upon the green vigour of the maiden that no man had known. She preserved her blossom immaculate, in order that the One born of the Maiden should lead back to the true path all people, who in the darkness of deception had lost the light of truth, and grant them lasting salvation.

The words of the prophet Isaiah [I, 5, 3]

‘Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?’3 Who are these who have withdrawn in their hearts from earthly and fleshly desires in order to soar in full devotion towards heavenly things? They strengthen their bodily senses in dovelike simplicity, without bitter gall. In the ardent zeal of virtue they seek refuge in the solid rock that is the Firstborn of God. For they are the ones who for love of heaven trample under their feet the kingdoms of the earth and seek the things of heaven. Thus the Synagogue admired the Church, because she realized that she herself is not protected by such virtues as she sees in the Church. The Church is ringed with guardian angels lest the devil tear her down and throw her to the ground, but God has left the Synagogue lying with her failings.

The parable of the balsam, the onyx and the carbuncle [II, 3, 13]

Balsam drips from a tree. Strong medicines pass from the onyx vessel in which they are kept. The bright radiance of the carbuncle passes out of that gemstone without hindrance.4 In the same way, the Son of God was born of a maiden without the hindrance of corruption. And in the same way also, Christ’s bride the Church gives birth to her children without the hindrance of error, and yet remains a maiden, intact in her faith.

[The unarmed youth on the road] (II, 3, 16–17)

There are two signs of the law handed down and known to men: circumcision in the time of the fathers of the Old Testament and baptism5 in the time of the teachers of the New Testament. With these two, humanity is tied to the yoke like the ox yoked to the plough. Although the ox is driven forward with the goad, it would pull crooked furrows if it were not tied to the yoke. Similarly men and women will not walk my ways6 unless they are tied to the yoke of the signs of the law.

The same is true of the youth who was to travel on the road.7 If his father told him ‘walk straight ahead!’ but did not give him a sword or any other weapon to defend himself with, what would happen? If he was unarmed he would flee. He would neither dare nor be able to defend himself against any danger that befell him and threatened to divert him from his path. He would conceal himself if he did not have any defensive weapons to protect him. In the same way, my people would be unarmed if they were not baptized and thus able to inspire fear in their enemies, who see them signed with the anointing of baptism. So furnished, they bravely withstand those who wish to destroy them, whether it is a crowd of people or the devil’s army.

[The rich landlord and the steward] [II, 3, 36]

[The voice from heaven:] A rich landlord has a steward who allots his goods fairly to those who are eligible and exercises his office loyally. If this steward is found guilty of some other misdeed, his lord will nevertheless not dismiss him ungraciously from his service. He will however say to him, ‘you are wicked for what you have done.’ He will be angry with him in his heart, but he will still graciously accept the administration of his justice. In the same way I, who have many stewards, will not hesitate to accept the office of the sacrament said by a legitimately consecrated priest, even if he is guilty of other misdeeds. Though I consider him an opponent for his unjust deeds, I will not refuse to accept from him what is my due.

[Sun, moon and stars] [from II, 5]

[The voice from heaven:] These are great mysteries. Consider the sun, moon and stars. I created the sun to light the day and the moon and stars to light the night. The sun signifies my Son, who came forth from my heart and shone in the world when, at the end of the ages, he was born of a maiden just as the sun breaks forth, rising at the end of the night, and lighting up the world.

The moon signifies the Church, who is espoused to my Son in a heavenly marriage. And just as the moon, according to its disposition, is continuously waxing and waning, not shining by its own power but kindled instead by the light of the sun, so the Church also goes through stages. She waxes when her children gain increase of virtues, and wanes through deviant behaviour or destructive hostilities against her. It happens frequently that she is attacked in her mysteries by thieving wolves, that is evil people, whether bad Christians, Jews or Pagans. But she is not kindled with the power to resist from within herself but from me. My Son shines on her so that she will persevere with the good.

The stars vary considerably in their power to shine. They signify the members of the various orders in the hierarchy of the Church.

[The adulterous servant] [II, 5,11]

[The voice from heaven:] If a great secular lord had a bride very dear to him and if a servant dishonoured her in adultery, what would the lord do? You can be sure that in his raging anger he would send out his army to destroy the servant, because his action had struck him to the very core. But if the servant came in fear and pleaded for mercy before the whole army, and fell down in tears at the feet of his lord, then the lord in his goodness, and because of the plea, would preserve his life and return him to the community of his fellow servants. But he will not reward him as he does his trusted friends and companions, although he grants him the grace he deserves among his fellow servants of the same rank.

The same goes for the man who seduces and hurts a bride of the eternal King. In righteous anger the King proclaims his judgement and delivers him to destruction, wishing, because of this deed, to remove the deceiver out of his sight. But if the miscreant, anticipating the day of his fall from favour, humbly pleads with God’s elect to intercede for his acquittal, and if he looks in tears to the humanity of his Redeemer in order that through the Lord’s mercy he may be acquitted of his sin, then the King will pay heed to the blood that was shed for the salvation of humanity. He will consider the love of the citizens of heaven, separating the servant from his guilt and from the power of the devil, lest he perish, and numbering him among the chosen souls of the blessed. But the King will not reward him at the royal wedding dance or allow him among the ranks of the other friends of God and the holy virgins consecrated in heavenly marriage with my Son. He will not crown him with a virgin’s crown, since he has lost that modesty, though he will grant him, with the other elect, the incomparable reward of the joys of the heavenly city.

[The good samaritan] [II, 5,14]

‘And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.’8 What does this mean?

On the first day of salvation, when God’s Son wonderfully became man and lived on the earth in the body, he performed many remarkable deeds in his human life up to the time of the resurrection. And so he brought the wounded man to be healed with the remedies of truth. But on the morrow, that is, after his resurrection, when all the mysteries of truth had been deposited in the Church, he offered the two covenants, the Old and the New, as a clear sign and allusion to the life eternal and the nourishment of the faithful.

And through his grace, he gave these writings to the shepherds of the Church, who guard his flock, and spoke these words of gentle admonishment to them, ‘Take care of the Christian people whom I have redeemed with my blood and entrusted to you; and take care lest they lack what pertains to life and wander from the path. I, your guide and Saviour, am leaving the world to ascend to my Father. I give these to your keeping, and if in good will you add to them by doing more than is commanded of you, I will reward you for your work and good will with an increase of fruit. I will come again to judge the transient world and transform it so that it will no longer be weakened by the course of time. And I will say to you, “Well done you good and faithful servant.”9 Whoever adds more to his vows than the law requires will receive a double reward; for I will treat his name with honour because he has loved me so much.’

[The parable of the house builders] [II, 5, 29]

I compare [lukewarm clerics] to the foolish workmen who erect a large tall building but do not imitate the skills of other craftsmen who know very well how to use their tools and are experienced in the many difficulties of building work. They know very well what is needed for the construction work and use all their tools appropriately. These others, however, place all their vain and foolish trust in themselves because they want to excel the others in their skill. They do not build their houses strong enough to withstand the storms; so the winds tear them down, because they are built not on rock but on sand.10

This is how people behave who trust in themselves in their presumption and want to appear cleverer than the old fathers; they do not behave according to the covenant but indiscriminately make new laws as they see fit. They are often driven to sin, therefore, by the temptations of the devil, because they are grounded not in Christ but in the inconstancy of their own behaviour.

[Archangels, angels and human beings] [II, 5, 36]

Preserve love and peace among you, as the souls of the just have love and peace with the angels and the angels with the archangels. For the souls of the just do not envy the angels their office, and the angels do not envy the glory of the archangels. What does this mean? Archangels convey weighty messages in times of need, while angels proclaim the less important, frequently recurring matters, and the faithful people obey in humility.

Each therefore performs its office faithfully. How should this be understood?

The monastic orders are a living fragrance sworn to follow the path of special renewal. Like the archangels they must give irreplaceable support to the Church in times of need. The perfumers – the priestly orders – should perform their frequent duties like the angels, in zealous determination. And the people, who wish to attain to the blessed state, should accept their words in good faith. How should we understand this?

[The monastic orders, priesthood and laity] [II, 5, 37]

The monastic orders sworn to follow the path of special renewal are the corn that provides the people with simple and wholesome food. In this way my people are strengthened and hardened against enjoying the taste of worldly things. The perfumers – the priests – are the fruit, sweet-tasting to those who eat of it; thus the priests in performing their useful office are attractive to people. The ordinary laity may be regarded as the flesh, amongst which there is also clean poultry, for by their fleshly existence in the world they bring forth children, among whom there are also followers of chastity such as widows and ascetics, who soar to their heavenly desires through their demand for good virtues.

[On oblates]11 [II, 5, 46]

[The voice of the Lord:] I had a green flourishing field. Did I give it you, O human being, so that you could produce fruit according to your own wishes? When you have sown the seed, can you yourself transform it into fruit? Not at all. You do not send the dew, nor do you cause the rain to fall; you do not provide the moisture of fresh greenness nor do you bring forth the warmth of the sunlight. All this is needed to produce fruit.

In the same way, you can sow a word in a person’s ear, but as for his heart, which is my field, you can send it neither the dew of contrition nor the rain of fresh tears; you can pour out neither the moisture of devotion nor the warmth of the Holy Spirit. And all these are needed to bring forth the fruit of holiness.

And how could you move the child consecrated in baptism and without his consent deliver him up by the worst of deceptions, forcing him to bear my yoke? And so he could be neither green nor dry, since he had not died to the world and did not live for the world either. Why did you push him so far that he could do neither one nor the other?

The marvellous workings of God, which will strengthen him to persevere in the spiritual vocation, should not be studied too deeply. But I do not want the parents to sin in the giving of their child if they dedicate him to me without his consent.

If a father or mother wishes to dedicate a son to my service, then well before the presentation they should say, ‘I promise God that I will carefully watch and protect my son until the age of understanding. Then I will implore, ask and admonish him to stay loyal to God’s service. If he agrees, I will deliver him speedily into service to God; but if he refuses his consent then I will not be held responsible in the eyes of the Lord.’

If his parents have guided the boy in this way up to the age of understanding, and if he nevertheless turns away and will not agree, then it will suffice that they have shown their willingness as well as they could. But without his consent they should not deliver him and compel him to a servitude which they themselves are not willing to undergo or bring to completion.

17. Letter to Elisabeth of Schönau

Elisabeth of Schönau was a fellow visionary whose prophetic writings were sometimes associated with those of Hildegard. One important manuscript, for instance, which preserves the oldest version of Hildegard’s songs, was written at Rupertsberg and sent by Hildegard to the friendly Cistercian monastery of Villers in Brabant.1 Its main contents are: (1) Hildegard’s Book of Life’s Merits, (2) Elisabeth of Schönau’s Book of the Ways of God, (3) Hildegard’s Symphonia, and (4) a short anonymous dialogue. Though influenced by Hildegard, Elisabeth differed in many ways from her: she was unable to write Latin, and so used the services of her brother, the priest Eckbert, to turn her dictated German into written Latin; her visions were experienced while she was in a trance; they show less evidence of the wide reading that characterizes Hildegard’s work. In addition Elisabeth was far more ascetic than her mentor Hildegard (in this she might be compared to Hildegard’s erstwhile guardian Jutta of Spanheim), and Hildegard warned her against the dangers of exaggerated austerity towards the body. In this particular letter, the warning to take care of the ‘fragile vessel’ is an implied rather than openly critical condemnation of excessive abstinence, within a letter which places its emphasis on the positive aspects of the creation of the world and the history of salvation.

Hildegard to Elisabeth of Schönau, 1152–6 (Letter 201R)

I, a mere female and a fragile vessel, speak these things not from me but from the serene light. A human being is a vessel that God has built for himself and filled with his inspiration so that his works are perfected in it.2 For God’s activity is not like human activity, but in giving his command, all things are brought to perfection. Grasses, woods and trees appeared; the sun also came forth, as did the moon and the stars in their various functions; the waters brought forth fishes and birds; herds and animals also rose up, which serve human beings as God so placed them.

But humanity alone did not acknowledge God. For when God gave great knowledge to the human being, the human being elevated himself in his soul and turned away from God. God so regarded the human being that he would perfect all his works in him. But the old deceiver tricked human beings and infected them with the crime of disobedience, by the delight of an unseasonable wind, so that they sought for more than they should have.

Ach! Weh!3 Then all the elements were folded in the alternation of light and darkness, as also was humanity through the transgression of God’s commands. But God watered certain human beings so that humanity would not become a complete mockery.4 So Abel was good, though Cain was a murderer. And many saw God’s mysteries in the light, though others committed many sins, until that time came when the Word of God shone out, as is said: ‘Thou art fairer than the children of men’.5 Then the sun of justice6 came forth and shone on human beings in their good works, both in faith and action, as the dawn first came forth and as the other hours of the day follow on until it is night. Therefore, daughter Elisabeth, the world is changing. It has grown tired in all the vigour of the virtues and powers, as at dawn, prime, terce and especially the sixth hour of the day.7 But at this time, it is necessary that God should water certain human beings so that his instruments do not become idle.

Listen, O anxious daughter, because these people whom God has so filled with his inspiration sometimes become tired through the arrogant promptings of the ancient serpent. For when the same serpent sees an elegant gemstone, he soon hisses and says: ‘What is this?’ And he tires it out with the many afflictions of a mind longing to soar over the clouds as though they were gods,8 as he once did.

Now listen again. Those who want to perfect the works of God should always attend to the fact that they are fragile vessels, for they are human beings, and they should look at what they are and what they will be. But they should leave heavenly things to the one who is of heaven, for they are exiles and ignorant of heavenly things, singing the secrets of God9 like a trumpet which only gives out a sound but does not work by itself, since it needs someone else to blow into it so that it will make a sound. But let the mild, the gentle, the poor and the needy put on the breastplate of faith,10 as also the Lamb was their trumpet and they are now the sound; and in their characters they are like simple children. For God always scourges those who sing forth in his trumpet, employing his foresight in order that the fragile vessel will not perish, as it so pleases him.

Daughter, may God make you a mirror to life. But as for me, I remain in the meagreness of my own mind. I am very tired, anxious and fearful, at times sounding forth as the small sound of the trumpet from the Living Light. May God help me that I remain in his service.

18. Gertrud of Stahleck

On 26 May 1146, Eberhard, Provost of St Jakob in Bamberg, had been elected Bishop and at the end of that year consecrated by Pope Eugenius III. The new bishop had good relations with the Emperor Barbarossa and took part in his Italian expeditions. Gertrud of Stahleck was sister of King Conrad III and so Barbarossa s aunt. She and her husband Hermann of Stahleck, the Count Palatine, gave rich gifts to the Rupertsberg convent, and after the letters death in 1156 Gertrud became a nun and then abbess in the Cistercian convent of Wechterswinkel in the diocese of Würzburg. The situation was for various reasons unsuitable, and eventually, after Hildegard wrote to intervene on her behalf, Eberhard granted Gertrud the hospital of Bamberg cathedral seminary to use as a basis for a new foundation. Gertrud and the other nuns moved there in 1157 and established the site as the convent of St Theodore and St Mary in Bamberg. The happy outcome of the two letters here thus contrasts strikingly with Hildegard’s unsuccessful attempts to retrieve Richardis of Stade five years before.

Hildegard to Eberhard, Bishop of Bamberg, 1157 [Letter 30]

A certain man rose at the dawning of the day and planted a vineyard. Afterwards, because of many disputes, he turned his attention further afield, and it was here that his hard work was completed. Now, father, look to your wandering daughter Gertrud, who was called from her own land like Abraham, who departed from his own country. She has given away all these things and bought a pearl.1 But now her mind is stifled by great worries, like a grape in a wine-press. Help her therefore, as much as you can – for the love of Him who was before creation and who fulfilled all things with his compassion – so that the vineyard within this daughter may never be destroyed!

Hildegard to the Nun Gertrud,2 after 1161 [Letter 62R]

Daughter of God, in the pure knowledge of faith, hear these words spoken to you: ‘the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land’.3 This is the Son of God, who – against the laws of the flesh – was born from the wholeness of the earth, the flesh of the Virgin Mary. And the flowers of all the virtues came forth and the beauties of all the fragrances. For the garden of these virtues arose in the prodigal son, who, when he came to himself, ran to confess his sins to his father, that is, to the omnipotent Father. And his Father received him with the kiss of his Son’s humanity.

When with our own will we give up the world for the love of God, then the voice of the turtledove is heard, for above all other birds the turtledove remains alone when she loses her mate. Dearest daughter, you also did this when you gave up the pomp of this world. How beautiful your shoes were, daughter of the king, when for the love of God you entered upon the strait and narrow path of the spiritual life! Therefore rejoice, daughter of Zion, for the Holy Spirit dwells in the middle of your heart.4 Consider that your comforter created you ‘as a lily among thorns’,5 although when you chose the spiritual life you still had the pomp and riches of this age, which the Son of God called thorns.6 You also shone red like a rose of Jericho in the passion of your conversion to the spiritual life.

But now I have joy in you, because what I have heard and desired for you is now complete; you should rejoice with me too. And I hope with a true hope that you will become a wall decorated with precious stones and pearls,7 and that you will earn the praises of the heavenly host. Rejoice and be glad in God, for you will live forever.

19. Letter to the Abbess of Bamberg

This letter, to an unknown abbess L. at the Abbey of St Theodore and St Mary at Bamberg, shows another side to Hildegard’s views on education, discipline and the training of young oblates. It should be seen against the background of the Benedictine Rule, which regulated the communal life of the monastery, and on which Hildegard wrote a commentary. Chapter 5 of the Rule, for instance, states that ‘the first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This is the virtue of those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ.’1

Hildegard to the Abbess of Bamberg,2 after 1157 [Letter 61R]

Mother, imagine a field in the fullness of fertility. Now if the man who has the field does not dig it and make it fruitful, then he is neglectful, because he does not work for his reward from the head of the household. Think who made the ox and the ass. God created them to serve human beings. So why does a man not work for his own benefit when we consider that he is wholly the handiwork of God and that God did not make him to be vain and useless?

For God made humanity like the firmament which bears the sun, moon and stars to shine their light on the whole of creation and to show the times and the seasons. But if they were all obscured by black clouds then creation would be afraid that its end was coming.

Daughter of God, know that you yourself are this field because you embrace the people with your benevolence so that they can receive your words and deeds. So don’t avoid working with them and don’t abandon them for lack of leisure time, since useless weeds will often grow wherever there is leisure. You should put before you a vision of the firmament so that you do not hide the light of your reason behind black clouds of evil, as if you were barely alive.

Therefore you should restrain and discipline your daughters in all matters. Just as a young lad is scared of being beaten with a rod, so the one in authority must be feared by everyone. Do not be afraid of punishing them in this way, for in so doing you will increase your reward in the life everlasting, so that the breath of the Spirit may flow within you.

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