This is the latest installment of the series, “The genius of my sister.” Read other articles in the series to learn more about Catholic women throughout history and how they can inspire us today.
“The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 31).
About 1,000 years ago, an 8-year-old girl found herself living amid a religious community of Benedictine sisters. Eventually this girl would grow to be a true renaissance woman. All realms of life fascinated her, and rather than focusing on one particular area, she embraced all of them. In addition to frequently experiencing visions from God, she was also a chemist, botanist, mystic, naturalist, poet, author, theologian, musician and, most importantly, a devout disciple.
Hildegard of Bingen embodied all that is the feminine genius. She comprehended the importance of viewing the world holistically, rather than in a compartmentalized manner; the notion that science could possibly contradict theology was foreign to her. But the aspect of Hildegard’s life that I am most inspired by is her conviction to glorify God through her voice — first by finding it and then by having the courage to allow it to be heard. Hildegard drew others to the heart of Christ, to truth. In fact, her voice influenced the Church so profoundly that she would go on to be one of the four women Doctors of the Church.
At the age of 38, Hildegard was appointed as abbess. Shortly after, at the age of 42, having been prompted by the Holy Spirit, she shared for the first time her visions to her spiritual guide, who encouraged her to put them down in writing. Hildegard began to work on her first book, “Scivias.” Despite existing at a point in history when a stoic silence was often expected of women, Hildegard was convinced God wanted her to share her voice with others.
In 1147, she wrote two letters, one to St. Bernard of Clairvaux and one to Pope Eugenius III, requesting permission to share with others. She wrote: “Good and gentle father, I have been placed in your care so that you might reveal to me through our correspondence whether I should speak these things openly or keep my silence, because I have great anxiety about this vision with respect to how much I should speak about what I have seen and heard.”
St. Bernard replied, affirming her to use her God-given gifts: “We rejoice in the grace of God which is in you. And, further, we most earnestly urge and beseech you to recognize this gift as grace and to respond eagerly to it with all humility and devotion, with the knowledge that ‘God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble’ [James 4:6].”
These letters proved to be a catalyst for St. Hildegard’s public ministry. Defying social conventions once more, Hildegard began traveling to various communities giving public sermons, per the permission of Pope Eugenius III. Additionally, she often corresponded with others through letters, drawing them further into the faith. At other points, undaunted by confrontation, Hildegard challenged authority figures if she believed they were abusing power or teaching something untrue.
As women in the 21st century, I believe it is of paramount importance to, like Hildegard, find one’s voice and allow it to be heard. But our voice should not just be any voice — it should not be one that contributes to the vitriol, cacophony, relativism, radical individualism and hopelessness that runs rampant in our modern society. Rather, we ought to also find within ourselves the courage to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, to challenge societal norms, to bring the light of Christ to everyone we encounter. We should be a voice that proclaims truth — always with love — but when necessary, we should be bold, have the courage of our convictions and be willing to question ideas.
Nor does our voice need to be heard in the forum of public sermons. Examine your gifts — your God-given passions, desires and strengths. Perhaps your voice will be heard through music, writing, teaching, law, medicine, the nurturing of your children’s mind and souls. We do not need to have a podcast, thousands of followers on Instagram, or to even be a “renaissance woman” in order to declare the joy of the Gospel, the goodness of the Church. No, we must only “dare to declare who [we] are. It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. [We] must not only walk there, [we] must be prepared to leap.” And who are we? We are daughters of the King.