Thursday, March 8, 2007

Hildegard, woman power

“Hail, O greenest branch…(O viridissima virga…)/ When the time came/ that you blossomed in your branches/ hail, hail was (the word) to you! For the warmth of the sun distilled in you/ a fragrance like balsam./ For in you blossomed the beautiful/ flower that gave fragrance/ to all the spices/ which had been dry/ And they all appeared in all verdure…”

Today is Women’s Day and this month is Women’s Month. Greetings, dear sisters!

It behooves us to learn from great women who lived many centuries removed from our era, women who made a dent in their milieu through their daring and groundbreaking work. Voices crying in the wilderness, prophets in their time, women of uncommon courage and wisdom.

Hildegard of Bingen was one such woman. And those opening lines are hers.

On March 5, St. Scholastica’s College gave out the first Hildegard Awards for Women in Media and Communication. The awardees were QTV Channel 11 for women-centered programming; Feny de los Angeles Bautista, producer of “Batibot”, for her advocacy of child-friendly television; Nora C. Quebral, “mother of development communication in the world”, for communication education; and Genoveva “Lola Bebang” Edroza-Matute, for her pioneering work as a feminist scriptwriter during radio’s golden age.

These trailblazers in the field of communication each received an Inay-aruga trophy sculptured by Inday Cadapan.

And who is Hildegard?

Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a canonized Catholic saint, was a Benedictine abbess, preacher, writer, musician, mystic, scholar, scientist, environmentalist, healer. She was also a communicator of wisdom and knowledge.

Those of us who were educated at the Benedictine-run St. Scho (which just turned 100) knew her only as one of the great Benedictine saints but we didn’t know much about her life and work. (Now we do and hail her.)

We knew St. Hildegard then as the building up front, the most imposing structure in the campus, done in Beaux Art and Romanesque style, with intricate arches, huge columns and a grand social hall. On the front wall of the building are Saints Hildegard and Scholastica’s images in bas-relief. (And because I opened my mouth, the bas-reliefs recently got a new coat of paint.)

With the rise of the women’s movement, Hildegard is back to her future, so to speak. Her life is being celebrated. Her written works and music are being studied.

Hildegard was 42 when she began to have visions that she recorded as “illuminations”. I have the book “Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen” (with commentary by Matthew Fox, author of many books, priest and controversial advocate of creation spirituality). Of Hildegard, Fox had said many times, “If Hildegard had been a man, she would be well known as one of the greatest artists and intellectuals the world has ever seen.”
Fox dedicates the book “to my sister Hildegard, and all her sisters, past, present and to come, in a hope that their wisdom will cease to be repressed, ridiculed, forgotten and otherwise excluded from church, society and culture, so that the earth might be blessed and mutuality might be the law of the land.”

In the book, Hildegard is described as an extraordinary woman who lived in the Rhineland valley during most of the 12th century. She was the abbess of a large and prosperous Benedictine abbey. She was a prominent preacher, doctor, scientist, artist, poet and composer. She had written nine books on theology, medicine, science and physiology. Today she would be considered an eco-feminist.

Wrote Bernard W. Scholz in “The American Benedictine Review”: “She castigated a pope for his timidity and an emperor for moral blindness. She taught scholars and preached to clergy and laity as no woman before her had ever done…She claimed that now woman rather than man—obviously Hildegard herself—was to do God’s work. It is difficult not to see her visionary experience and activism, as well as her claim for the mission of woman in a male-dominated age, a gesture of protest, the reaction of an intelligent and energetic woman who chafed under the restraints imposed on women by the culture in which she lived.”

For almost 800 years Hildegard was virtually unknown but in the 1980s she began to emerge and interest in and awareness of her significance began to grow. Some years ago I was able to find in a local music store a recording of Hildegard’s songs (“Vision”) with a booklet of lyrics and on what her music is about. I once heard one of the songs used as background in a stage production.

Of her own music, Hildegard said: “These watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb and flow of the music that sings in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.”

But it is in “Illuminations” that one gets a glimpse of Hildegard’s “greening power”. (She coined the word viriditas.) She was first to view the universe as a cosmic egg. She offered a scintillating insight into the cosmos and its symphonic beauty. I couldn’t help thinking, Hildegard was eight centuries ahead of Teilhard de Chardin.

Hildegard sings to us even today, and these lines from her could very well be for her 21st-century sisters:
O life-giving greenness of God’s hand,/ with which he has planted an orchard,/ You rise resplendent into the highest heavens,/ like a towering pillar./ You are glorious in God’s work…”

She hears God speaking to her. “I am the breeze that nurtures all things green./ I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits./ I am the rain coming from the dew/ that causes the grasses to laugh/ with the joy of life.”