Hildegard of Bingen's Insights for Spiritual Directors

by Sue Garthwaite

Hildegard of Bingen was a twelfth-century mystic visionary, truth-speaking prophet and preacher, theologian, composer, writer, poet, Benedictine abbess, spiritual advisor, inventor of new words, forthright correspondent, and healer. Hildegard is known to many spiritual directors, especially those who made the 2013 Spiritual Directors International interfaith pilgrimage to the sites in Germany relevant to her life. To say the least, Hildegard is a thought-provoking personage for spiritual directors.

A pilgrimage is a special journey, a search for spiritual significance and renewal. Over the past few years, I have made a pilgrimage through Hildegard’s complicated, dense, written works. She herself suggests that taking on such a faithful task is for some of us “better for you than pilgrimages to foreign lands because God has the same power . . . in all places” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. II, 7). I found great riches, often buried in Hildegard’s lengthy descriptions of exotic visions or in her exegesis of those visions, or in her letters, prayers, or songs. Her spiritual insights have timeless relevance, including for spiritual directors. Hildegard is a saint and doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, and I write from her tradition and perspective here, yet I hope her insights may be universally relevant to other spiritual directors.

“Ears Sharp to Hear”

Hildegard reminds us that “the germ of spiritual life will . . . be coaxed out by the grace of God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 249) and that “God embraces everything with great love” (211). She says, “You can sow a word in human ears, but into the heart, which is the Spirit’s field, you cannot pour the dew . . . or the warmth of the Holy Spirit” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 228). We cannot, as spiritual directors, do what God alone does. Spiritual direction involves attending God. One can “know God by believing in God, by seeing God, and by attending God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 89). We help the spiritual directee become aware of God’s love, grace, word, and warmth. We develop “ears sharp to hear inner meanings” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 469).

We accompany the spiritual directee along a path of deeper knowledge of and relationship with God. We are there when life feels “like a cart shaken apart by an impact” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 235). We help when “God gathers those who are estranged and seeks those who are lost” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 202). Hildegard invites us to “be mild and gentle in your spirit and your heart” (39), to be persons of spiritual depth, and to “watch carefully lest your God-given viridity [greenness of spirit] dry up” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 194). Fortunately, “the fiery Holy Spirit will lend you Her aid in this” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. II, 158).

Often, we are listening as a person struggles to describe the ineffable. “A person does not have the capacity to speak of God in the same way that she would speak of the humanness of a human being, or the defining characteristic of a work made by human hands” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 111).

“Be a faithful friend to your soul,” says Hildegard (91). How do we help spiritual directees befriend their souls? Prayer, discernment, and journaling are common means for spiritual directees to befriend their souls. In mystical experiences, however, spiritual directees often sense God is befriending them, and with “ears sharp to hear” we note this shift.

“A House of Prayer”

Hildegard gifts us with a potent image for considering prayer: “The human being is a house of prayer” (Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen: Homilies, 177–78). She encourages us to pray with “open senses and willing mind and clear intellect . . . sighs and tears” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 432), that is, with great openness and honesty. She says prayer is “fixing one’s heart and mind on God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 48).

The Human Being Is

A house of prayer.

Spiritual directees are accustomed to pray “like the woman who sought her lost drachma” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol.II, 121; Lk 15:8). They seek what they urgently need from God, a truly human starting point. Yet, per Hildegard, God says, “In her ignorance she does not know Me” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 476). Many spiritual directees do not speak of their love for God or God’s love for them or of a relationship with God. Prayer is not viewed as a befriending of self and God such that “people may then appear, as if changed, with another good way of life” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 248). Prayer as an avenue for transformation and relationship can become the spiritual directee’s growing edge with the spiritual director’s help.

Prayer can help us abandon spiritually unpromising attitudes that are an “unfriending” of our souls, a “flight from wisdom that leaves blessedness behind” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 107), not to mention threatens relationship with self, others, and God. For example, a spiritual directee occasionally felt jealous of others. (Examples throughout this article are used with permission. Details have been changed to protect the identity of persons referenced.) He struggled to let go of that attitude. I could see that he was not free, that jealousy affected his happiness and relationships. He revealed he had never prayed about the problem. Mindful of Hildegard’s words, “who will help me but God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias,110), I encouraged him to pray because “God does not stop fulfilling whatever petitions are just” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 247).

The fruits of the spiritual directee’s prayer unfolded over time and included a new willingness to undertake courageous self-work. “Everything which the knowledge of God shows as suitable for the health of one’s soul, leads to one’s liberation” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 28). So much of spiritual directing another in prayer involves noticing “unfreedom,” encouraging trust, openness, and prayer, and eventually celebrating new freedom and deeper relationship with God, self, and others.

Hildegard says, “People may have quiet amidst the turbulent adversities” (Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen: Homilies, 54), and “O illustrious and wise ones, prepare your souls for God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 94). Am I the only one in this ministry whose spiritual directees mainly pray in their cars and cannot find time for quiet, let alone for a retreat? Hildegard says, “A fountain does not flow for people who know of it but do not come to it. They have to approach it if they want to draw its water” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 436). Hildegard has given us a message we can share and reflect on with our spiritual directees. Is there more? Is there a fountain we can approach for a greater abundance in prayer? If we are honest, what is really in the way of approaching that fountain?

Hildegard’s spiritual guidance is that we each should seek to become ever more a house of prayer.

“Defends the Inner Spirit”

Hildegard emphasizes discernment as important for befriending one’s soul. Through discernment, we choose to love (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 170). She says, “When, with pure and holy generosity, the gifts of the Holy Spirit pour upon a person, they give her abundant instruction about . . . spiritual matters” (6). She grounds discernment in what it is to be made in God’s image (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Homilies, 118). Through discernment you choose “where you wish to take your stand” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 58).

To Hildegard, it is the lively activity of the Spirit within that helps one “understand God in one’s soul” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 443) and “act with wisdom and discretion” (384). “You feel God in your reason,” she says (ibid). Discernment is about aligning with the integrity of God. “Divine power has holy integrity which, on every side, defends the inner spirit of a person who joins herself to God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 47).

By definition, discernment involves a degree of difficulty in perceiving, recognizing, or distinguishing the best choice in a situation. How do we help spiritual directees sense God’s defense of their inner spirits and notice when they feel God in their reason? I believe this to be one of the most critical and needed acts of a spiritual director. We can begin with the spiritual directee’s own experiences.

Hildegard says, “Shed some light on the feelings of your heart” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 103). A new spiritual directee said, “I want to tune in to God better and figure out what God wants in my life.” I invited her to recall a time when she “just knew” she was “on the right track.” She readily gave the example of choosing an internship after college graduation. I then asked her to name the feelings she had had. She said, “Peace, relief, confidence, a lot of energy, like God loved me.” Next, I asked her to recall a time when she “just knew” she was “on the wrong track” or in a situation that was not right for her.” She gave the example of realizing her original college major was not right for her. She said she had felt “a lot of doubt, uneasy, confused, uncomfortable, like something’s not right here; it wasn’t peaceful at all.” These opposite sets of feelings of the heart are consolation and desolation, respectively, and the means by which God “defends the inner spirit” of our spiritual directees and by which they can tune in to God.

“Consolation will evacuate desolation,” says Hildegard (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 247). “The grace of God awaits you, and God will gather you to Her bosom like a book” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 152). We make mistakes. We confuse our own strong desires with a true call. We fail to “weigh carefully little by little” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 289). We experience conflicting feelings in complex situations. Yet, “something of that original light remains,” as Hildegard says (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 97). Though one feels that “You [God] withdraw from me, because I have traveled away from You” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Homilies, 171), “You turn a person away from bad hearing and direct her to good” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 51). Sorting all these things out is enhanced by the listening and insights of a spiritual director who knows discernment well.

“No one can have peace without anxiety in this present life” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. II, 70). But by attending to the feelings of one’s heart and God’s defense of one’s inner spirit, spiritual directees discover that “God is that clarity which does not begin or end” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 215). “What flows from God is a sweet and delightful taste to the soul; it goes forward in perseverance and does not look back in indecision” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 220). “We live illumined in God and vivified by the breath of life” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Solutions, 61), the ultimate goals of discernment.

How this might be

is hard for mortal flesh

to understand

“Recount These Marvels”

Another way spiritual directees can befriend their souls is to write, for example, in a journal or to prepare a spiritual autobiography. When invited to be creative with journal contents, and include art, poetry, homemade psalms, or stories-of-God moments, more of my spiritual directees have been willing to give journaling a try. In truth, not all take to keeping a journal as a spiritual practice.

Hildegard encourages: “Take stock of yourself” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 49). Spiritual writing helps this cause. Yes, what is the journey? Over time, spiritual directees notice patterns and connections, the shape their pilgrimage is taking. Life with God does not seem so random to them; instead, they feel the journey is fruitful and going somewhere. Intimacy with God develops. Hildegard invites: “Reflect on how you began and how the course of your life has proceeded” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. II, 199). What is the trajectory of that life? A deep spiritual direction conversation may result.

Do you find your spiritual directees dwell on whatever is top of mind on a given day or on whatever happened that morning? What about the other weeks since they last came to spiritual direction? What about the developing relationship with God? When explicitly invited, spiritual directees are able to speak of the God moments in their lives and what they were like. Writing provides the discipline needed to notice. “Reflective knowledge shines as brightly as daylight” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 329).

A spiritual directee tended to speak of many things without focus, never touching on their spiritual significance or on God’s involvement. Hildegard says, “There is no life that is not God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 230), yet it sounded like there was! The spiritual directee accepted my invitation to prepare a spiritual autobiography. I mentioned Hildegard’s question, “Who is the one who can recount these marvels?” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 201). I pointed out the uniqueness of each spiritual journey and encouraged him to focus on the marvels of God’s involvement in his life.

Like Hildegard, she “labored over this writing” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 189). At first, she found the process challenging and needed help to focus on one small part at a time. For example, I said, “You could write about what your baptism means to you.” “Well,” she said, “That’s everything to me. I have a lot to say about that.” Soon she spoke in spiritual direction of her efforts to live out her baptism and be the person she felt called to be. She brought up moments in which she felt helped by God to do so. In other words, she recounted the marvels in her life.

The shift in our conversations was dramatic and delightful to us both. As Hildegard says, “The grace of God shines like the sun and sends its gifts in various ways: in wisdom, in viridity, in moisture” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. 195). The spiritual directee developed “a taste for the gifts of God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Homilies, 70) and began to know this truth: “God gives you the best of treasures” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, 479).

The blank page can intimidate, but it can also invite and focus. The page can be a wondrous container for noticing marvels and savoring, for enlightenment, knowing the pilgrimage one is on, and preparing for deeper spiritual conversations with one’s spiritual director.

“How This Might Be . . .”

We become directly aware of God in many ways, such as a pang of conscience, an experience of grace, a sense of consolation, a wondrous inspiration, or a sense of being loved. Mysticism is a direct experience of God, too, but we often find the term used for more unusual experiences such as locutions (hearing God) or visions. Hildegard was a mystic who heard and saw with inner spiritual ears and eyes. She, of course, also had the more common experiences of conscience, grace, consolation, inspiration, and feeling loved. As spiritual directors we must be cautious about attributing greater value or even signs of holiness to our spiritual directees’ extraordinary experiences compared to their ordinary experiences, for all are God experiences and potentially transforming.

In describing her mystical gifts, Hildegard says, “How this might be is hard for mortal flesh to understand” (60). God acts on one’s innate capacity for God. Surprise, intensity, powerful love and presence, intimacy, unimaginability, amazement, a sense of undeservedness, deep knowing, and transformation occur.

In thousands of hours serving as a parish-based spiritual director, about 6 percent of my spiritual directees have revealed visions and about 15 percent have described locutions. Perhaps at retreat houses or in contemplative religious settings there are more persons with these experiences. Many such experiences are described in scripture and in the writings of the saints, including Hildegard. For spiritual directors, then, to hear of mystical experiences may be infrequent, but mysticism is not necessarily an unusual phenomenon when spirituality is examined over centuries of human experience. A contemporary author and spiritual director reminds us that mystical experiences can even be one way God raises the oppressed and that these experiences are a normal development for those committed to prayer and faithful living (Ruffing, 291).

Hildegard says, “For the love of God . . . that I may be assured” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 28). This is where spiritual directors often come in for mystics. “Words are uttered by the Mysteries of God” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 24). Persons are “compelled by a spiritual vision” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Solutions, 63). Mystical experiences are potent events in the lives of our spiritual directees. They may reveal them with reluctance and hesitance and depend on their spiritual directors to be persons “with eyes to see and ears to hear” (Mt 13:16). Spiritual directors treat their revealing with respect and perspective and seek not to overreact or exude skepticism but rather to reassure. Hildegard describes the angst the mystic feels: “I am terribly afraid to speak or write . . . about those things which I see in my spirit . . . unaided by my corporeal eyes” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 77). Nothing can be much more harmful to a mystic than an insensitive, skeptical, or uninformed spiritual director.

Hildegard addresses in a simple way why our spiritual directees have mystical experiences: “God gives . . . as God foresees the need” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 200). Her comment is consistent with the occasional oppressed person being raised up via mystical experience (Ruffing 291). The mystics we know of, like Hildegard, work “in accordance with God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 203). Transformation through mystical experiences has typically produced powerful witnesses and highly effective disciples. God, says Hildegard, “prepares many hearts according to God’s own heart” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 125). A mystic often feels a great responsibility to respond to God with all her being, and so the spiritual director must be prepared to aid discernment.

Spiritual directors support their mystic directees with safety and understanding as they articulate and appropriate their rich gifts and as they reflect on the meaning of them. We reassure as they transform and reintegrate and seek to “carry God’s light diligently” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 36).

I once guided a group of parishioners through their reading of Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Story of a Soul” (Thérèse of Lisieux). Thérèse relates her mystical experiences as well as her more famous “Little Way.” A few persons approached me to privately relate mystical experiences they had had. Each said, “I’ve never told anyone about this before.” They sought someone to talk to who would believe them, and affirm, reassure, and encourage them. Hildegard advises, “Imitate the gentlest God in humility, patience, and mercy” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. II, 196). Each also described how their lives had been forever changed. I was struck by how they sensed God befriending them. God’s activity, not their own, was the most notable to them. These experiences happened to humbly receptive persons because “God is certainly the Living Light, by which all lights are bright” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, 150).

"Spiritual"

— Bjorn Bengtsson

“You Will Be Made God’s Dear Friend”

Hildegard believed that befriending one’s soul leads one to “become the friend of God” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. II, 77). Through engaging spiritual practices that “contribute to the health of one’s soul or lift one’s spirit up to God” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 146), intimacy with God develops. This is the pilgrimage we are on. More and more we “look to God Who has touched us” (117). God invites: “Hold Me earnestly . . . as your dearest Friend” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. I, 86).

Over many years, a spiritual directee gradually shifted in how she described her spiritual life. Early on, she spoke mainly of God’s help in her life. Later she spoke explicitly of cultivating her relationship with God. She went through challenging times of great spiritual upheaval and transformation. Now, as Hildegard says, she is “not wanting anything else than what God wants” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 27). Indeed, God has asked much of her. She is joyful in friendship with God. In spiritual direction, she speaks of her love for God and God’s love for her. They are friends.

Hildegard says that God “keeps you as God’s friend, and therefore, the terrible shipwreck of this world will not overwhelm you” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 61). Mainly in spiritual direction with such a friend of God, the conversation is about how things are deep down inside or, at times, “the younger life he can no longer have” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life, 50).

“We Live Illumined”

Hildegard reminds spiritual directors that “the fiery Holy Spirit will lend you Her aid” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. II, 158). We serve because “inwardly people endure many sufferings in their hearts” (Hildegard of Bingen, Hildegard of Bingen: Homilies, 45), and we trust that “a river from the Holy Spirit . . . will water all these things” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. III, 147). Hildegard tells us to “keep in mind that God . . . holds the person who faithfully and dutifully serves God in God’s sweet embrace, and God greatly loves her” (106).

“We live illumined in God” (Hildegard, Hildegard of Bingen: Solutions, 61) as we encourage prayer, discernment, taking stock, and recounting marvels, both ordinary and those “hard for mortal flesh to understand.” May our “God given viridity” never dry up.

Hildegard expresses a lovely prayer for each person with whom we meet: “I hold you with joy in my heart, being confident in God that through God’s grace, you will be made God’s dear friend” (Hildegard, Letters, Vol. II, 107).

References

Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works: The Complete English Translation of Hildegardis Bingensis: Liber Divinorum Operum. Translated by Priscilla Throop. Charlotte, VT: Medieval Ms, 2009.

Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen: Homilies on the Gospels. Translated by Beverly Kienzle. Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 2011.

Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias. Translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen: The Book of the Rewards of Life (Liber Vitae Meritorum). Translated by Bruce Hozeski. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hildegard of Bingen. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Vol. I. Translated by Joseph Baird and Radd Ehrmann. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hildegard of Bingen. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Vol. II. Translated by Joseph Baird and Radd Ehrmann. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hildegard of Bingen. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Vol. III. Translated by Joseph Baird and Radd Ehrmann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen: Solutions to Thirty-Eight Questions. Translated by Beverly Kienzle, with Jenny Bledsoe and Stephen Behnke. Athens, OH: Cistercian Publications, 2014.

Ruffing, Janet K. “A Path to God Today Mediated through Visionary Experience.” Studies in Spirituality 22 (2012): 275–91.

Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint. The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008.

This Article Appears In

AN INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION + COMPANIONSHIP

Vol. 28 | No. 1 | MARCH – 2022

Author

Sue Garthwaite

is a spiritual writer, spiritual director, and retreat facilitator in the Chicago, Illinois, USA, area. She is the author of Saint Hildegard: Ancient Insights for Modern Seekers. She has a PhD in medical physiology, an MA in spirituality, and a certificate in spiritual direction. She is a frequent presenter on Saint Hildegard and other spirituality topics.

Artist

Bjorn Bengtsson

seeks to connect us all through his art by letting the Spirit of all life come alive through paint. All glory is for the Spirit.

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