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Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen is a representative selection of all the works written by Hildegard of Bingen. It includes not only extensive excerpts from her philosophical works but also portions of her writings in biography, physics, and medicine. To reflect Hildegard’s artistic accomplishments, the collection contains samples of her liturgical poetry and four of her mandala-like illustrations.

Hildegard wrote during the twelfth century at a time when the Church, while externally engaged in crusades against “infidels,” was badly in need of internal reform. It was a time of transition and turbulence when nation-states were forming, commerce was expanding, European cities were flourishing, and a new era of learning was beginning to challenge the influence of monastic culture. As a Benedictine nun, Hildegard herself was steeped in monastic culture, and its influence can be seen throughout her writing. Saint Benedict’s Rule of Life called for reading and reflecting on Scripture and listening and seeing all things with an open heart so that one could find God’s voice wherever it manifested itself. It was a life of constant discernment and conscious awareness. Hildegard received her prophetic call in 1141 and continued writing until she finished her last visionary work in 1174.


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Secrets of God first presents excerpts from Hildegard’s initial work, popularly known as Scivias (1141-1151; English translation, 1986), an abbreviation for the full Latin title Scito vias Domini, or “know the ways of the Lord.” The work is divided into three separate books, containing six, seven, and thirteen visions respectively. Scivias initiates a structure for the communication of visions. She first describes the vision she has received and then transmits the explanation of the vision that she heard as a voice from heaven. The explanation is usually an allegorical interpretation of the vision, contains points on doctrine or morality that are backed up by Scripture, and ends with an admonition that remains constant throughout each book. Given Hildegard’s theological grounding in the Trinity, it is not surprising that the three books of Scivias focus on three doctrinal areas: Creation, the work of the Father; Redemption, the work of the Son; and Sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit.

The prologue to Scivias, included in Secrets of God, presents the intense vision in which God commanded her to share what she saw and heard. The excerpts from the first book of Scivias reveal Hildegard’s belief that while human beings live in a fallen world because of the sin of Adam and Eve, that was never God’s intention. People, along with all the other elements of creation, are longing for the same rebirth that God desires. The second book of Scivias reveals Hildegard’s belief that the Incarnation of the Son and his act of Redemption are the primal points of Christian doctrine and the embodiment of God’s loving and continued presence in the world. Although Hildegard dwells on all the sacraments of the Catholic Church, only two, baptism and matrimony, appear in Secrets of God; however, these selections are sufficient to make clear Hildegard’s emphasis on the sacraments as a means of greater interconnectedness between people. The third book of Scivias contains visions that describe an allegorical building, the “edifice of salvation,” which God upholds and in which virtues dwell. Through the building imagery, Hildegard gives an account of God’s salvific work through history. Through the personification of various virtues, Hildegard discusses her conception of the moral life. The vision dealing with the virtue of discretion, a virtue key in Hildegard’s philosophy, serves to illustrate Hildegard’s moral concerns. Another vision included is that of the last judgment when history ends in a triumph of virtue and renewed creation.

The Rewards of Life and Divine Works

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Hildegard’s The Book of the Rewards of Life consists of six visions, all of which are variations on an immense figure of a man. Superimposed on the image of the world, he stretches from what Hildegard calls “the heaven” to “the abyss.” From this vantage point, the man observes the interaction between the powers of light and the powers of darkness. In all, thirty-five vices and their oppositional virtues are presented. Collectively, the work demonstrates the opposing forces that shape human ethical behavior. It also demonstrates Hildegard’s keen insight into human behavior, probing into people’s deepest desires and defenses. Secrets of God conveys the almost apocalyptic initiating vision and gives a sense of Hildegard’s ethical terrain, emphasizing especially humanity’s need to become aware of deeply ingrained and socially set patterns of thinking, feeling, and interaction that defend a comfortable but sterile way of life.

Hildegard began Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs in 1163 and completed it in 1173. Consisting of three books, it is considered Hildegard’s most mature work on cosmology, salvation history, and eschatology, or things dealing with the end of the world. It emphasizes humanity’s favored place in creation and argues that humanity, creation, and God are intimately interrelated. Secrets of God conveys Hildegard’s holistic vision. It begins with her vision of rationalitas, a fiery human figure who is the Word who brought forth and sustains all life. As the visions continue, he is revealed as Love, the matrix or womb of all life.

Songs and Biographies

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Hildegard was a musician as well as a philosopher, theologian, herbalist, and abbess of a large and thriving convent. More than seventy of her various liturgical songs, probably composed for use in her convent, were collected into Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations, 1988). To complete its survey of Hildegard’s writings, Secrets of God features two of her biographies, those of Saint Rupert and Saint Disibodi, and some specimens of her vast correspondence.

Hildegard’s Legacy

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The variety of people from all walks of life who corresponded with Hildegard during her lifetime attests the impact she had on her contemporaries. However, her work lay virtually forgotten for more than eight hundred years after her death. In the late twentieth century, Hildegard’s own order of nuns, the Benedictines, eagerly researched, translated, and published Hildegard’s works, making her works available to the German-speaking world. They attracted both scholars and people seeking spiritual guidance. In 1979, on the eight hundredth anniversary of Hildegard’s death, the bishops of Germany petitioned Rome to have her declared a Doctor of the Church. Her influence has been rapidly spreading to other countries, especially to the United States. Secrets of God attempts to open the broad range of Hildegard’s works to an increasing number of readers who are interested in all aspects of Hildegard’s thinking. Feminist scholars are interested in the feminist aspects of God revealed in Hildegard’s visions and perceptions of the divine. Practitioners of homeopathic medicine are intrigued by her natural remedies. Other scholars are at work to make her medieval mind-set and the anagogical structure of her work accessible to the modern consciousness.


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Additional Reading

Craine, Renate. Hildegard: Prophet of the Cosmic Christ. Spiritual Legacy series. New York: Crossroad, 1997. This volume covers the life and works of Hildegard of Bingen, a phenomenal woman born hundreds of years before her time. A visionary, mystic, author, artist, musician and composer, holistic healer, theologian, and Benedictine abbess, Hildegard did not accept her gift until the age of forty-two but still left behind a vast legacy that is discussed in this revealing biography.

Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. A substantial study of the nature of Hildegard’s visionary experiences and their influence on the development of her cosmological thought. Focuses on Hildegard’s autobiographical writings, her letters, and her medical treatises, including excerpts from selected text and letters in the Latin original and in translation.

Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard von Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. A careful and balanced biography of Hildegard. Maddocks is a music critic, well aware of arguments against Hildegard’s authorship of certain works, but her treatment of her subject allows for a full appreciation of the philosopher’s many talents. Draws on previously unavailable materials.

Newman, Barbara. Sister Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. A comprehensive scholarly study that examines Hildegard’s contributions within the context of twelfth century thought and also as part of the sapiential tradition.

Newman, Barbara. Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Compiled in conjunction with the nine hundredth birth anniversary of Hildegard of Bingen, the nine essays in this book offer an intriguing look at the life and work of this remarkable woman. She was the first woman given permission by the pope to write theological books, and she also preached openly to both the clergy and the common people.

Pernoud, Regine. Hildegard of Bingen: Inspired Conscience of the Twelfth Century. Translated by Paul Duggan. New York: Marlowe, 1998. In addition to discussing the writings and visions of this influential twelfth century abbess, Pernoud provides information about Hildegard’s life. He offers insight into the turbulent political times she lived in and the effect she had on princes, the populace, and popes, through her correspondence.