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A 12th Century Spiritual Star

RELIGION

Hildegard of Bingen--medieval abbess, poet, composer, artist--is a hot property these days, the subject of CDs, seminars and Web sites. But some say those trying to make her a New Age feminist icon ignore her darker side.

October 09, 1999|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

She wrote spiritual paeans to God, music of haunting beauty that has sold more than 1 million recordings, establishing her as the most successful female composer in history.

She ran monasteries, advised popes and emperors, grew healing herbs and sketched luminous works of art. She wrote 70 poems and nine books revealing her dazzling visions from God. Her interest in ecology, art, the feminine divine and holistic health have won fans around the world--evident by more than 1,000 Web sites about her.

Japanese nurses study her healing methods. U.S. mathematicians analyze her music. South African plants bear her name; so does German marmalade.

Hildegard of Bingen is hot. So what if she lived 900 years ago?

A recent seminar on her in Encino provided clues to why the 12th century German abbess--along with other female medieval mystics--is being retrieved as an inspiring spiritual model for our times. The participants, mostly women, spent five hours learning of such things as Hildegard's struggle with self-doubt and her decision, propelled by a sense of godly mission, to break the gender taboos of medieval Europe to become a powerful preacher, prophet, author, healer, artist and composer.

"Here is a woman who had to fight a male world and was not recognized until the present time, yet has given so much to our religious experience of knowing and feeling God," said Angela Taufer, one of several members of a Woodland Hills Bible study group who attended the seminar at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center. "It makes you realize you have to persevere in whatever God is calling you to do."

Sister Nancy Fierro, a concert pianist and member of the St. Joseph of Carondelet order who offered the seminar, visualizes Hildegard's work as a "very large mansion with many rooms." In her 20 years of studying Hildegard, Fierro has found an eclectic group of seekers from across professions and faith traditions drawn to her seminars--some entering through an interest in the mystical, others in the music, still others in medicine.

Distortions of History Alleged

But the popular interest in Hildegard and other Christian mystics has also drawn fire as fueling distortions of the historical record and downright myth-making. A product of her times, Hildegard would not be considered politically correct today: She believed that women were inferior, that church authority was infallible, that Jews were Christ-killers, that lower-class women were "mules" unfit for her monasteries of "thoroughbreds," those from families of wealth like her.

These facets of Hildegard are often glossed over by those wishing to idealize her as some New Age feminist icon, critics say.

"Some people think that the Hildegard [that] people are worshiping today never existed, and what we are dealing with is a cult of an imaginary Hildegard," said Sister Mary Beth Ingham of the Congregation of St. Joseph. The Loyola Marymount University philosophy professor taught a seminar on Hildegard last year.

The interpretations of Hildegard by Bay Area theologian Matthew Fox, for instance, are often challenged. In his writings, he portrays Hildegard as a kind of earth mother goddess who embodied "creation spirituality" focusing on the blessings of creativity rather than the fall and redemption of original sin.

Barbara Newman, a Northwestern University professor of English and religion and one of the nation's foremost experts on Hildegard, argues that such a dichotomy is false. Hildegard wrote about the oneness of the cosmos and about Satan, evil and original sin, she said.

A contemporary recasting of historical figures "is what the culture of saints in Christianity is all about," Newman added. But, she said, there is less excuse to do it with Hildegard because of the plethora of historical information about her.

In addition to Hildegard, contemporary attention is being showered on Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English mystic, and, to a lesser extent, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and the Flemish women mystics known as Beguines. The renaissance of interest, experts say, is in part linked to the emergence of female religion scholars who are leading the move to bring new attention to the lives and experiences of heretofore largely neglected women of faith.

Ulrike Wiethaus, an associate professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, has researched the boom in medieval women calendars, address books, self-help books, meditation guides, music, T-shirts and other products (most, she said, shrewdly priced at $10 to $20 to fit the budgets of women, who are driving the spiritual book and products boom.)

Last year, Wiethaus visited her native Germany during the mystic's 900th birthday celebrations and said she found a hysteria of Hildegard products: cookbooks, marmalade, spa weekends featuring Hildegard herbal remedies and diet regimens, and romance and astrology books offering Hildegard potions for finding the right mate.

'Cranky Old Woman With a . . . Bad Temper'

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