Here’s a strange question: do you have a favorite nun?
I think Maria von Trapp, played by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music is a good answer, even though she gave up the sisterhood in order to marry Baron von Trapp (and take care of all those children).
And, yes, I adore Sister Helen Prejean, too. She is one of (if not the) leading advocate for abolishing the death penalty and has written two passionate books on the subject: Dead Man Walking (1993) and The Death of Innocents (2006).
Sister Helen is also practical. Back in August, I heard her tell Terry Gross on an episode of NPR’s Fresh Air that one of the reasons she doesn’t wear a traditional nun’s habit (and hasn’t for decades) is because she’s from Louisiana and it’s just too hot. Yes, sister. Yes.
But my favorite nun? Hildegard von Bingen.
And maybe she should be yours, too.
Let me back up for a minute. Although I have friends who are capital C Catholic and have attended services in several beautiful churches in my hometown of Memphis (St. Mary’s, St. Peter’s, and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception), I am not Catholic.
I am Episcopalian, which some call “Catholic Lite” or “Catholic without the guilt.” I call it the inclusive faith I found as a young adult after a lot of questioning and searching. Y’all, circa 2002 my priest was using namaste as a greeting. Women can be priests, priests can marry, and all people can marry PERIOD.
Back to my nun.
In my final undergrad semester at the University of Memphis, I took Women in Music. Having maxed out on credits for my degree, I didn’t want to take an easy 1000-level easy. A combo upper division/grad level one (even though I’m not musically-inclined) was the path I chose instead.
We began by studying medieval music, and that’s where I found Hilde.
Born in Germany in 1098 (can you imagine being a woman born in 1098?), she began experiencing visions at a young age. These visions got her sent to a monastery by her parents as someone who should be dedicated to God’s service.
Stellar move, because nuns were some of the only women who were taught/allowed to read or write. I would’ve done anything to be afforded such a luxury in the 12th century. Call it nun privilege?
Hilde, herself, frequently said she was just an unlearned woman. Feminist scholars (shout out Barbara Newman) note how this worked to her advantage, because it made the church (read: men) believe all her writings and music came from a divine source.
In class, we studied some of her musical compositions—along with their original poetic text. We even went out into a stairwell (for the acoustics) to sing a few bars. Of all medieval composers, her repertoire is among one of the largest to survive.
You can listen to her compositions via many Spotify playlists by searching her name. I especially like a playlist put together by ComposerWeekly to celebrate Hilde during #WomensHistoryMonth.
Aside from composing liturgical songs and arguably the oldest surviving morality play (Ordo Virtutum), she also wrote botanical, medicinal, and theological texts. She wrote letters and poetry. She was a mystic. She was a philosopher.
I don’t know if we can technically call a medieval woman a Renaissance man, but here we are my friends.
Scivias-Codex Plate Four
The universe surrounded by the feminine divinity (yellow flames)
Hilde’s best known work is Scivias, an illustrated work completed circa 1152 that describes 26 of the visions she experienced. According to the preface (written a decade before the text was completed), God ordered her to share her visions. The translated text is readily available in many forms.
While the ideas expressed in Scivias are a bit, well—medieval (pun intended), the illustrations are spectacular. It’s unclear if SHE was entirely responsible for them (as in, she created them) or if she just oversaw them. They are easy to find via a simple Google search and are worth the time.
From a Sister to a Saint
Even though the first steps to officially make Hildegard a saint in the Roman Catholic Church began in 1326, it took more than 650 years until she received the equivalent of canonization.
In 2012, she was named a Doctor in the Church, making her only the fourth woman of 35 saints to have the title. In part of his praise of her, Pope Benedict XVI said she was "an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music."
Coinciding with her death in 1179, today, September 17, is her feast day—which just means the day she is officially celebrated in the church. Not only is she on the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints, but you can find her listed by other denominations, including Episcopalians.
With all of her skills, it’s not surprising Hilde translates well outside the world of Christianity. I imagine her as a guiding spirit, a strong woman who was born (literally) centuries ahead of her time, and who was bold enough to remind those around her:
“Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.”