Hildegard and the Transcendent Power of Music

woman wearing black dress

O, You who are ever giving life to all life, moving all creatures, root of all things, washing them clean, wiping out their mistakes, healing their wounds, You are our true life, luminous, wonderful, awakening the heart from its ancient sleep.

Hildegard von Bingen

Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the world. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.

Here is an article from Amy Panetta which is full of so much wonderful information on this brilliant and hugely influential saint. Amy runs The Celtic Feminine Podcast and has written for us before about St Brigid of Kildare.

We hope you her reflection on Hildegard of Bingen!


As I write this article, snow blankets the ground. This is this time of year where, from my vantage point, people seem to become the most restless in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in the Northeast and in the non-temperate portion of Canada, where I live. Like a seed, deep in the earth, restless and anxious to burst forth with new life, we too are anxiously awaiting a bursting forth of energy, of new life.

But, not so fast. As I write, the Lenten season has barely even begun. It is only around Easter time that flowers start to bloom in certain Northern areas. Soon enough, maple sap will burst forth and run from carefully placed taps on these trees. Lent often feels like a time of wandering through the desert. Lonely wandering; not quite at the beginning of the journey, and not at the end. We are hibernating in a cocoon period. A shadowy time; a dark night of the soul.

I feel as if I am beneath the earth, wandering through cold, earthen cave-like channels and corridors, desperately searching for that energy, the heat of the sun. Searching for life. Searching for transcendence above it all.

What is the nature of this transcendence I seem to be searching for?
In the Miriam-Online Dictionary, transcendence (or transcendent) is defined partially as:

A: Exceeding usual limits : SURPASSING

B: Extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience

C: In Kantian philosophy : being beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge

This yearning towards transcendence seems to me to be a desire for the mystical; the otherworldly.  There is a discussion of transcendence on vocabulary.com:

Transcendence comes from the Latin prefix trans-, meaning “beyond,” and the word scandare, meaning “to climb.” When you achieve transcendence, you have gone beyond ordinary limitations. The word is often used to describe a spiritual or religious state, or a condition of moving beyond physical needs and realities. One way to achieve transcendence spiritually might be to fast for a long time. If you have trouble letting go of material needs, then you will have a difficult time achieving transcendence.

There is a yearning in order to reach a state of heightened awareness, but also a sense that there needs to be a period of an in-gathering of energy before this can happen. Often, when I am amidst such a journey, I look toward the lives and the words of spiritual figures, both living currently and in the past, for inspiration.
Hildegard von Bingen comes to mind when pondering spiritual figures who have such a transcendent and mystical quality to their lives and their work on earth.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Allison Mondel, who is a scholar, vocalist, teacher, transformational vocal coach, medieval ensemble director, and an expert in Hildegard von Bingen for The Celtic Feminine Podcast who helped to provide me even more context to Hildegard’s extraordinary life.

Hildegard, a medieval Renaissance woman, Benedictine sister, and canonized Roman Catholic saint, is known for her sacred chants that have such a transcendent quality, as well as her profoundly mystical visions that she carefully documented in her writings.
Hildegard is known for her many different aspects as: theologian, philosopher, mystic, prophet, visionary, preacher, abbess, nun, writer, playwright, composer, painter, teacher, natural healer, and gardener. Hildegard was also named as a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict on October 7, 2012, which is a title given to a total of 36 individuals by the Roman Catholic Church.

In the summer of 1098 at Bickleheim, in the Rhine Valley of southwestern Germany, Hildegard was born to a noble family. As the 10th child, her parents dedicated her from an early age to the church. She then was placed under the tutelage of Jutta, the abbess at the Benedictine monastery of Mount St. Disibode.

She grew up and spent her formative years in a small stone cell and enclosure with several other women. Even as early as the age of three, Hildegard had quite vivid religious visions, and throughout her young life, she discussed these visions only with the select few. Jutta instructed her as a choir nun, reading Latin, studying the Psalter, and leading her in rather restrictive religious practices.

Although Hildegard was German, she did in fact have a connection with the Celtic church. Disibode, who was born in 619 CE and founded the monastery, was in fact was an Irish monk who was part of an unofficial movement of Hiberno-Scottish missionaries who brought Christianity to Western and Eastern Europe.

In addition, St. Disibode’s monastery was in the Celtic style: a religious community comprised of orders of both men and women, however they were housed under two separate roofs. Growing up, Hildegard’s cell and enclosure were sequestered from the monks.

Both Hildegard and Jutta worked to build the monastery together. When Hildegard was at the age of 38, Jutta passed away, and Hildegard was unanimously voted as the magistra of the monastery of St. Disibode. In the following years, Hildegard was divinely inspired to write down her visions.

This work even received the attention of Pope Eugene III. After a commission was formed in order to determine the validity of these visions, it was found that they were in fact true, and Pope Eugene encouraged Hildegard to continue to write them down in detail.

In 1150, Hildegard founded an all-female convent in Rupertsberg, Bingen, Germany. This convent was named after St. Rupert, who, like St. Disibode, also was a missionary from the Celtic church. By 1158, Hildegard finished Liber scivias domini (Know the Paths of the Lord or Know the Ways) discussing her visions where God called out to her to write.

Through these visions, Hildegard received God’s knowledge of the meaning of the scriptures and the Psalter. She described herself being in the shadow of the living light of God. In her writing, she discussed vivid and detailed visions and the meaning of these visions.

In addition at this time, Hildegard wrote Physica (The Healing Power of Nature) on the natural sciences, as well as Causae et curae (Holistic Healing). She then toured Germany and France until 1163 to teach and complete missionary work. Finally in 1163, Hildegard completed the last of her texts, Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits) and Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works).

Also in the years following Jutta’s death, Hildegard began to compose what ended up becoming a prolific amount of music with the aid of her secretary, Volmar.

The music she composed was specifically for her nuns to sing as part of a Divine Office. Throughout her early life, she grew up with the chants of the Roman mass, and this time, she set her own verses to her own melodies in order to compose antiphons, responses, sequences, and hymns which would all be part of their Benedictine liturgy.

Her music made up what is known as the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum which is a collection of 77 songs forming a liturgical cycle for the church year, and a musical drama, The Ordo Virtutum.

The Ordo Virtutum is a morality play about the struggle to uphold 17 Virtues which are performed by female singing roles and a Devil, a male role, who only has the ability to use his speaking voice. Hildegard seems to suggest in the play that one needed a pure soul in order to sing and music is God speaking to us.
Allison Mondel beautifully described Hildegard’s highly detailed and expressive music in the following way:

There are many striking things that we can hear. There are very drastic leaps and… accelerating phrases…She’ll start on one note and then rocket up to an octave above. It’s almost Gothic in structure [with a] rising up…ascending energy, like a Gothic [vaulted] cathedral ceiling…[T]here is not one thing that I’m saying that will apply to all the pieces; Each song had a very different character. What you often hear are, especially in the longer responsories, very long lyrical phrases where you might have fifty notes on one syllable…very decorated or ornamented or elaborate…

[T]hen you might find something that is an antiphon, a shorter piece, like the psalms, that would be pretty short and sweet, but you would still hear these very idiosyncratic compositional patterns…whether it’s a little turn of a note, or a little pattern…something at the end of a phrase, or something to open a phrase. They are utterly unique to her compositional voice.

The ascending nature and energy of Hildegard’s music, combined with the detail, ornamentation, and unique compositional techniques, create an ethereal, transcendent, and powerful experience for performers and listeners alike. For a music example of Hildegard’s chants, please listen to O rubor sanguinis, an Antiphon for St. Ursula, performed by the Eya Medieval Ensemble under the direction of Allison Mondel.

As a part of a spiritual community, such as the Benedictine community, the basic practice for Hildegard and her nuns was to chant the Psalter several times a day. Allison Mondel describes how enriching musical and liturgical life was at Hildegard’s monastery:

What was also very present in Hildegard’s life…at least in the monastery, was the liturgical component, the divine office, [and] the structure of prayer throughout the day. And if we think of a modern concept of self-care, or restoration or rejuvenating ourselves, this was around the clock. Literally, day in and day out, they were constantly being fed by prayer, by the Eucharist, by joining together to make music at this time. Everything was sung. All of the prayers, all of the readings, all of the psalms were sung. So there was a component there that is very much absent from our contemporary lives. There’s this structure around prayer that I think is a vital component of monastic life at this time that would have provided support.

Music was used for devotion to God, and at the same time, fed and rejuvenated the nuns spiritually and strengthened their spiritual community. In the documentary film about Hildegard entitled, A Very Real Mystic, Matthew Fox, discusses how Hildegard’s music is so powerful that when his students sing her chants, they hyperventilate. One could feel a feeling of being high and lightheaded because the chanting involves a great amount of breath and air to reach the notes.

To Fox, it seemed clever for Hildegard to bring her nuns to a state of levity and transcendence through the physiology of music-making. This spiritual discipline could be similar to a form of meditation, or even a yoga of sound. In addition, Hildegard’s paintings of her mandalas and visions were a meditative, centering process that, as a practice in our times today, has the potential to encourage even more spiritual development and maturity.

While Hildegard’s philosophy and theology have a transcendent, mystical quality, this quality is also carried over and embodied profoundly through her music. Hildegard’s music tends to be well known for expressing the profoundly ineffable. As Allison Mondel and I discussed in our podcast together, there is a real hunger for the mystical and the transcendent in our lives today.

People currently seem to desire what is so moving and powerful, which one can find in her music, as well as the story of her remarkable visionary life. In addition, there is a pull that many of us feel towards being less concerned with material aspects of life, and become more deeply connected to our highest self and spiritual source.

Hildegard’s music, as well as her visionary life, could be one path toward an ongoing spiritual connection and transformation.

One specific aspect of music listening that Allison Mondel brings to my attention, was what Hildegard describes as, “ruminazio” of long, elaborate phrases:

In latin it means ‘to ruminate on,’ or specifically, to ruminate means to chew like a cow who chews its cud…This practice of ruminazio and the music served as a vehicle for that. Again,…modern listeners…aren’t necessarily patient enough to sit through that, but there are benefits to it. As we talked about the transcendent qualities of listening, if we allow ourselves the space of really listening, it can have really amazing benefits, and really elevate and uplift.

Hildegard’s music has such profound benefits. While it has been known for many millennia that transcendence and healing in mind, body, and spirit can be deeply experienced through religious chanting, it was not until the recent decades when researchers, such as Dr. Alan Walker, are finding that chanting is healing and provides so many benefits.

In studies involving chanting and choral singing, researchers have seen how engaging in this music can bring individuals to altered physiological states in the brain, heart, and respiration, which can be deeply therapeutic by calming anxiety within the nervous system and lowering stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure. At the same time, chanting boosts endorphins and immune function. Transcendence, or what Dr. Walker calls, “coherence,” indeed, is a powerful state.

In her 81 years, Hildegard has contributed such a great deal to music, Benedictine liturgy and theology, the women’s role in society and the church, as well as in natural healing. For a medieval-era figure, she was vastly ahead of her time. By hearkening back to the wisdom that Hildegard, as well as other powerful spiritual figures hold, there is so much inspiration that we can glean. So much richness can be experienced to heal and bring wholeness to what seems like such a broken world in our present times. Through that wholeness, we can move out of the darkness and into the light.


If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or sign up for our email list to receive weekly reflections. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.

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