Watching the Olympics leaves me with that same awe I always feel before performances of explosive human power. I am right away caught up in the desire to be like the athletes, and I fantasize that I might still be able to attain a body like that of a Greek god—a feeling that is immediately followed by dejection in front of the raw truth of my aging and weak form.
In such a moment I am consoled by a quick glance at the images on my bedroom wall. These are, on the face of it, studies in frailty: a child reaching for a drink from his mother’s breast, a condemned criminal pinned to a cross. And yet here is manifested a freeing paradox: a love that willingly becomes powerless in order to show its full strength.
The saints are for me perhaps the finest expressions of this paradox, living images of this in-breaking of divine power. And I am grateful that they often turn out to be the very opposite of Greek gods. Among them are many cast-offs, many who have struggled with being down-and-out or marginalized. And yet, pondering their lives, I find myself continually awed. What strikes me and then draws me is how such fragile human vessels can become sudden and hopeful expressions of God’s own power.
Such a saint is Hildegard of Bingen.
A Benedictine abbess of the twelfth-century, Hildegard was a diverse scholar who, beyond her spiritual prowess, excelled at botany, natural science, medicine, poetry, music and linguistics. She had and indeed has an almost breath-takingly broad appeal.
Although Hildegard has been known and venerated for centuries in her German homeland, her first real surge of worldwide popularity came in 1985 when a recording of her chant compositions hit the Billboard charts, selling a quarter of a million albums. Since then, she has garnered new followers through the work of best-selling author Dr. Victoria Sweet, who has been inspired by Hildegard’s medieval medical wisdom in the development of her own “slow medicine.” And Hildegard has been taken as the patron saint of philologists, who revere her for the fact that she created her own language.
From the outside, it might seem that Hildegard was something of a goddess herself, a woman of vast accomplishment.
And yet, this is hardly the whole picture. All you have to do is push into Hildegard’s biography a little bit to see that what draws Christians and mysteriously lures non-Christians is not so much her own intellectual achievement as her capacity to trust in God despite her own human weakness:
Consider the first lines of Hildegard’s first mystical treatise, the Scivias:
Look with me! In the forty-third year of my earthly journey, a vision from heaven filled me with such awe, it made me tremble. As I watched, out of its brightness a divine voice spoke to me:
How fragile you are, Human. Made of dust and grime. Articulate what you see and hear. Write it all down. Because you’re frightened to speak out, and because your style is simple and unschooled, you must write down exactly what God shows and tells you, without relying on human rhetoric or intelligence. Let the will of Him who guides the universe guide you in this work. Get to it. Speak of these visions.
“How fragile you are, Human”! Here is Hildegard telling her story not as the world sees it but as she sees it. God has called her, a woman who is “afraid” and “unschooled,” to be his mouthpiece.
In fact, Hildegard was fragile—she suffered from almost constant illness, and at the end of her life was so frail that she had to be carried from place to place. And she was “unschooled.” Taught to read and pray in Latin by her mentor, the anchoress Jutta, she had little of the classical education accorded men in the monasteries.
And she was afraid. In fact, when God first came to Hildegard and commanded her to write of the visions she had received from childhood, she refused. Wracked by insecurity, concerned that what she was receiving from God was the product of an addled mind, she pretended not to hear the command. Only after she had been felled by an illness—the whole drama between God and her soul having no doubt created a fair amount of bodily stress—did she relent and begin to write.
Even so, Hildegard continued to feel torn between the command of the voice of “God’s brightness” and the sense that as a cloistered nun, an uneducated woman, she had little to offer the world. Six years into the composition of Scivias, a ten-year effort in all, she reached out to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in a letter asking for his help. After calling herself “worthless,” Hildegard nevertheless put her writing forward to Bernard as the work of God.
At around the same time, Hildegard’s confessor Vollmar passed along a copy of Scivias to a bishop who shared it with Pope Eugenius. When the pope read Hildegard’s text to a gathering of bishops and abbots that included Bernard, the abbot from Clairvaux voiced his immediate approval. The entire assembly weighed in with their agreement, and Pope Eugenius sent Hildegard a mandate unusual for any time in history: she, a woman, was to write and preach publicly.
This amazing series of events catapulted Hildegard, who had been in a hermitage from the age of nine to her late thirties, into public life. For the next four decades, she wrote and preached to popular audiences and advised a vast array of public and private figures, including the Church’s own prelates.
Over time, Hildegard truly became God’s “mouthpiece.” When at one point a bishop demanded that the nuns at her convent exhume a man who had been excommunicated, Hildegard refused, pointing out that the man had received the Last Rites and had died in the Church’s grace. When the bishop insisted, Hildegard replied: “Come, Your Grace, my lord archbishop, and dig him up yourself!” The bishop responded by placing the entire convent under an interdict, and Hildegard shot back with a long letter to him on the topic of Church music that concluded with a warning. Not long afterward, the interdict was removed.
This was the way God used Hildegard. She, a weak and unschooled woman, became the witness to his authority. Over time, his power positively radiated through her. And in the process, her fidelity touched and changed those around her. Pope Benedict XVI said of Hildegard that “all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle.” And he was so convinced that her influence needs to be felt today, that he declared her a Doctor of the Church in 2012.
In bringing such attention to Hildegard, Benedict linked her with the long tradition of female saints who manifest God’s greatness despite, or rather through, their struggles and inherent weaknesses. How attractive they are to me!
I cannot help but connect Hildegard with Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose own life showed this mysterious mixture of weakness and strength. We recall how Elizabeth answered the call to be a mother of a religious community all the while still caring for her own daughters. She went into the wilderness as it were with her own babies clinging to her, determined to let God’s work be done in her, whatever the cost. In the end, it did cost her a great deal. She saw two of her daughters die in Emmitsburg, and after her daughter Annina died of tuberculosis, Elizabeth suffered a devastating spiritual crisis which shook her to her core.
Like Hildegard, Elizabeth lived through moments of deep insecurity without ever abandoning her trust in God and emerges from these moments with a deeper and clearer faith.
Truly, the witness of these women awes me more than any athletic feat! After all, I am never going to run a marathon, but every single day I find myself struggling with the weaknesses of my character, overwhelmed by my insecurities. Such stories have started to change everything for me. Watching the Olympics, I am thrilled and inspired—yet in the end I find myself mysteriously flattened.
It is only by the holy witness of such saints as Hildegard and Elizabeth that I am slowly, but surely, lifted up.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
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This reflection was originally published in 2021.