|A woman for the ages —edited from the Foreword: “Hildegard of Bingen: icon and archetype of womanhood” by Joan Chittister, in the book Experiencing Hildegard: Jungian Perspectives by Avis Clendenen
Feast of Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church, is September 17.
There are people who stretch us beyond ourselves in life. They show us the edges of the human universe, the possible in the midst of the impossible. The memory of them lingers within us long after we first come across them in literature or history or art. A few of them, of course, are personal to us. We meet them somewhere or at least see them at a distance and are instantly magnetized by them. We know them, at least unconsciously, to be larger than life.
But most of those who engage our souls at such a high level are not our peers. Many of them, in fact, are figures out of history that history never forgets. These are the ones who plague our souls long after we have heard their stories. These are the ones who speak to the soul about the great questions of life.
One of those figures, a woman who simply stays in consciousness not simply across all the years of our lives but across the centuries of the Western World, as well, is Hildegard of Bingen. Without a publicist. Without a great monument to mark her having been here. Without even a list of new technologies to her name, she remains a presence to be reckoned with, a model for our own times.
This medieval nun who lived in the eleventh century, a time obscure to most people except professional historians, perhaps, transcends the particularities of the ages. She keeps alive not only a history but a possibility for our own times, as well. Few, if any, women of the period were her equal. Multiple women in our own time still see her life as a confirmation of their own. At the same time, she stands in history as a woman too strong for the church either to deny or to affirm for a thousand years. Only the memory of the people who saw the greatness in her kept her work and her life alive for the next ten centuries.
This is a woman who became for men a guide, for the church a faithful critic, and for women a strong, strong model of what it means to be a full human being, a functioning adult, a person with a purpose in life. She was a mystic, an encyclopedist, an artist, a leader, a public figure, a spiritual teacher, a fearless carrier of the best ideals of her time. And, most of all, a prophetic model of a future church.
Indeed, so long and impelling is the shadow she throws across history that Carl Jung, a mountain of a figure in the history of psychology, draws insight for his own development of depth psychology from her and her work. This is not a woman for all seasons; this is a woman for all centuries.
Biographically, Hildegard is an icon of female leadership and vision in any time and place. Spiritually, she is a model of what creation must mean for the full development of women now when the forces of the past, masking under spiritual values, do their best to stunt them. Morally, she is a tower of integrity in a world where sins against women belie the claims of civilization everywhere. All of which factors may be exactly the reason she was neither canonized nor recognized as a Doctor of the Church before this period.