Vita-Spelt, a Missouri-based organic food distributor, features a Hildegard endorsement on its ad for spelt, which the mystic touted as "the best of grains" that would produce strong bodies, healthy blood and cheerful spirits.
A recording of Hildegard chants set to rock music beats was a global hit a few years ago--making the medieval abbess a rare crossover success on both classical and pop music charts.
"It's such a hoax," Wiethaus said. "She was remarkable, but she was also unpleasant. She was a cranky old woman with a very bad temper who really abused her status as a visionary to get what she wanted: She would say, 'God gave me this vision, and I need this building now.' "
In sanitizing Hildegard's image, Wiethaus argues, commercial product peddlers have also ignored evidence of what the scholar called Hildegard's "same-sex attachment." She wrote passionate letters about a younger nun, Wiethaus said, and composed musical paeans about women loving women. But, Wiethaus said, the current commercial juggernaut excludes lesbian spirituality, as well as Jewish and Muslim medieval female mystics.
A snapshot of Hildegard's life shows that she was born in 1098 to an aristocratic family and was tithed to the church, as was customary for the 10th child in those days. From an early age, she was sickly and prone to odd spiritual and psychic experiences--seeing dazzling lights, faraway lands and even the colors of an unborn calf in a pregnant cow.
After an uneventful life as a Benedictine nun, she had her great spiritual awakening at age 42: A blinding light struck her and commanded her to speak and write all she heard in her visions. With the support of Pope Eugenius and other important male figures, she began to churn out her extraordinary array of creative treasures: more than 60 musical works, including the first musical drama, medical books filled with 2,000 remedies, writings presenting feminine archetypes for the divine. She died peacefully in 1179 at the age of 81.
For modern women, Fierro said, Hildegard offers a different script for being holy--not subservient and quiet, but fully realized according to the guidance of divine light. Having poured out most of her works after age 50, Hildegard gives people a road map for growing older.
She fills a widespread hunger for lives of authenticity and direct spiritual experiences with God, said Douglas Burton-Christie, an associate professor of Christian spirituality at Loyola Marymount.
To a world of violence and environmental degradation, she brings a consoling view of "a regenerative, cooperative universe alive with divine wisdom and love," Fierro wrote in her monograph on Hildegard.
"We've created a Hildegard we need," Fierro said, "and I don't see anything wrong with it."