Hildegard was one of the first women contemplatives to write extensively. Her visionary writings lead her to speculate on philosophical and theological matters, domains that were strictly speaking reserved for men. Women could speak privately about matters of faith, but only men could give public instruction.
She saw light phenomena as early as age 3. She did not make these known, however, because she realized that no one else shared her visions. She was the tenth and last child, and as such was brought by her parents to God as a "tithe". In other words, she was destined for the life of the orders.
Her early education was in a Benedictine abbey. She was taken under the care of Jutta of Spanheim, an anchoress. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected leader of the community. Her abbey was dependent on an adjoining monastery for all their supplies, and Hildegard came to increasingly resent this. Eventually, she and her nuns separated -- and got away with it. This was a testament to her power and influence.
Her confessor and close friend was a monk named Volmar. It was to him that she turned when she received divine command to make public her visions. Until then, she regarded her visions as more of a disability than anything. Volmar enthusiastically helped her to compile these visions. They became public, and her reputation grew. As well, she found her mental capacities being illuminated by a divine light. She happened to have the Pope on her side, so her visions received his imprimatur.
[from Weeks, German Mysticism] Hildegard wrote several works. Her most famous is her first, called the Scivias (Know the Ways). In this, the visionary is a forlorn figure, at the mercy of the natural sphere. In this hostile world, there is an oasis of salvation -- the female personification of the church. She traces the path of the soul from its prenatal period to eventual eternal life. Even before birth, God knows the path of the soul through the world. So, there is a kind of predestination here. However, despite this predestination, the soul does have the power to overcome its handicaps and, if it is not fatally flawed, serve God's purpose.
So, it is important to recognize that for Hildegard there is a tension or interplay between the natural and the divine world.
Before Hildegard, there was a period of about 200 years when women were hardly seen at all. There were very few female saints recognized at this time, for instance. With Hildegard, however, there is a resurgence of women in public religious life. One could argue that, in part, visionary activity was a reaction to being barred from other forms of expression. But in Hildegard's case, she was encouraged to be public about her visions, and take a leadership role based on them. So, why was Hildegard not only allowed, but even encouraged to pursue her visionary experiences in a public manner?
One reason is that there were attacks on Christianity at the time, both from inside and outside. From inside, people like Peter Abelard was questioning the reliance on authority as the prime basis of religious knowledge (Sic et Non). From outside, the Muslims were making advances. It was looking less & less that Christianity was going to be able to secure its most important sites.
As well, there was an increasing threat from heresies. There were all sorts of lay preachers who were calling for a simple lifestyle on the part of the elite. This was happening at a time when there was monastic reform anyway (Dominicans and Franciscans started shortly before this time, using a new rule, that is, not the rule of St. Benedict). Not only that, but there were splinter groups that were spreading -- the Cathars, for instance, who taught a kind of strong dualism which led them to advocate antinomianism (since it doesn't matter what the body does, anyway).
Now, part of the problem was that women were being implicated as the worst of the heretics. So, it is significant that Hildegard arises and criticizes the "womanish age (tempus muliebre)", preaches against the Cathars, and takes on Abelard (it could be that the Scivias are in response to Abelard's Sci te ipsum). Hildegard, then, is a defender of the established order, at a time when it needed defending.
Now, this all makes Hildegard look very conservative. In some ways, she was. She argued that we should not look too closely into the things of God, at least the things we were not meant to understand. So, there is a kind of anti-rationalism here, against Abelard. Instead, the visions are directed at mystery. And, it means that she relies on image rather than argument. So, to understand her, we have to deal with her construction of images.
The Scivias is one of the most important works of mediaeval mysticism. It gives this very strong corrective against asking question of God or the Church. It displays no tolerance for error. This kind of surety led her to overlook violence committed in the name of keeping the faith pure.
She wrote other works after this. Later, there was the Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of Life's Merits). This was a somewhat less visionary work, although she does focus on a colossal figure of God that is superimposed on the world. There is a balanced harmony between the divine world and the created world.
The book from which our excerpt comes is called the Book of Divine Works. It was composed in 1163-1173. Here, she goes back to the earlier Scivias image of the world as an egg. The cosmos is harmonically proportioned in concentric circles. She incorporates the two major ideas of Christianity that are most amenable to mysticism: the human image of God, and the creation through the Word. God is reason. The world is tranquil and regular in structure. The soul is a reasonable spirit, and its rhythm matches the rhythm of the natural world. All this anticipates Renaissance nature mysticism.
Central to this is Hildegard's vision of the eternal Word. It is the musicality of all creation. It is no accident that she also wrote music. Nature is a collection of sacramental symbols for her. There is microcosm and macrocosm. This also gives a sense of her focal point in her later mysticism: health. Health is balance. This anticipates (whether it influences or not is another question) Renaissance medical alchemy of people like Paracelsus.