Scholar Monks: Hildegard von Bingen

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

While writing about Hildegard of Bingen, I have the rare pleasure of listening to some of the music she composed over 800 years ago. I’ve included some here for you to enjoy while you read (1):


Hildegard was a 12th century Benedictine nun based near Bingen, a town on the Rhein River in modern-day west-central Germany (2). She was sickly from a young age and was given to the church by her family at age 8. Hildegard grew up living at the church of Saint Disibod under the tutelage of of a female religious practitioner until she was ordained and later came to lead a community of women there.


Hildegard in the Saint Rochus Chapel, Bingen. Photo by Bob Sessions (4)

Although Hildegard had been experiencing divine visions since she was a child, she had kept them to herself (3). That is, until she received a vision at age 40 in which she was commanded to write and share her knowledge and experiences. Once she did, a monk sent her work to the Pope for approval and she got the papal stamp of divine authenticity.

From then on, Hildegard’s popularity and influence increased. She founded two abbeys, to the ire of male monks at Saint Disibod, and supervised both. She wrote extensively, including theological treatises, poems, texts on medicine and the body, sermons, and letters. Her letters were sent to many in power – kings, abbots, and bishops – directing them in how to live upright lives. She also traveled throughout the region to counsel and guide religious and political leaders. The nuns practicing under her recorded Hildegard’s visions in writing, art and music and a surprising amount of this work survives to this day. Hildegard may be best known for her musical compositions, which include over 70 chants, a musical play, and her Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations.


A depiction of a vision of Hildegard. Note her in the lower right-hand corner receiving divine inspiration. Photo by Bob Sessions (5)

I think there are several things we can glean as scholar monks from Hildegard’s life. First, she did not choose the ordained life. Her family gave her away, and long before that she was already experiencing divine visions. The life chose her. This is a common story among spiritual leaders and those with vocations (I think of Augustine being kidnapped and made bishop!), but perhaps a less common narrative among scholars.

Second, she bucked tradition. She did not allow the constraints of the time on her gender keep her from influencing many lives, including those of people in power. Hildegard used the authority granted her through her divine inspiration to push the boundaries of her time – socially, politically, and musically. And she did this from a spiritual base, looking to benefit others, not to further her own position.

Finally, Hildegard’s expression of her life work was not limited to any particular medium. Writing, music, art, consultation and guidance – all were manifestations of her divine inspiration. She even invented her own language with its own alphabet, a kind of secret code. The creative expression of Hildegard’s inspiration was unbounded.

I feel I have much to learn from the commitment, creativity and courage of Hildegard von Bingen.



(1) This track is titled “Honey and Milk Beneath Her Tongue – Favus Distillans, Dripping Honeycomb,” from Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations: The Complete Hildegard von Bingen, Volume 1, by Celestial Harmonies, 2011.

(2) Much of my biographical information is from “Hildegard, Von Bingen.” In Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography, edited by Victoria Boynton, and Jo Malin. ABC-CLIO, 2005. Retrieved from content/entry/abcwautob/hildegard_von_bingen/0

(3) Additional biographical information is from the excellent series on Hildegard from the Holy Rover blog by Lori Erickson at To start, see “With Hildegard von Bingen” (January 28, 2014), at

(4) Image is a photograph by Bob Sessions, retrieved from

(5) Image is a photograph by Bob Sessions, retrieved from

Concerning Monks, Part 1

Perhaps my deep interest and draw to monasticism originates from the fact that the two traditions I most identify with – Christianity as my family and cultural religion and Buddhism as my chosen religion – also contain the largest monastic traditions in the world. These are by no means the only monastic traditions (and I will treat some of the insights from other traditions in future posts), but they are a useful place to start.

In the wonderfully rich Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Mathieu Boisvert analyzes the monastic practices of early Christian and Buddhist monks and finds an essential thread in both: the single-minded dedication to a goal (1). For Christian monks, that goal is union with God; for Buddhists, it is realizing nirvana.

Boisvert also notes some similarities between traditions on how this commitment manifests. Both traditions value celibacy as a means to remove relational distractions from one’s life. Similarly, there is an emphasis on seclusion so one can focus on practice and avoid attachments to worldly things – this includes physical seclusion and wandering from place to place, though becoming internally solitary and cultivating a feeling of being a stranger in the world and to oneself is even more important. Contemplation of death and dead bodies was practiced by both traditions as one means to realize these ends. Monks aimed to experience a “harmonious and undivided mind” on the path to realizing the primary goal, which ultimately led to a falling away of cognition and full contemplation of that goal.


St. Simeon the Stylite, who sat atop a pillar for 25 years in practice (2)


Ananda, one of Buddha’s first disciples and personal attendant (3)

Single-minded focus is an important aspect of meditation, and runs contrary to our contemporary value of multi-tasking. But the single-minded commitment that Boisvert points to is greater than a focus of attention. It is a full-bodied, full-minded, and full-emotioned dedication to realizing ultimate truth or ultimate divinity. Full-bodied, meaning it takes work of the body to achieve, working with the body’s mortality, its desires and its limitations, as well as it gifts, such as its capacity to wander. Full-minded, meaning it takes mental dedication to work through cognitive distractions and ultimately through cognition itself. And full-emotioned in that the emotions must be understood and dealt-with in a way that they don’t keep the monk from attaining their goal.

It is important to remember (and remind myself, always) that this commitment is not to anything of the world. Early Christian and Buddhist monks gave up their homes, families, possessions, relationships, and often their names and other parts of their identities, in their aim to realize union or nirvana. The monk is not committed to a career, to financial stability, to recognition.

I am forever practicing this, reminding myself that there is nothing fulfilling in the world, and that I am, indeed, unfulfillable. The Buddhist teachings that there is nothing permanent in the world, including the self, and that life is suffering, elucidate these truths.

As is the tradition in Soto Zen, I will depart with a gassho, in which I bow to you with my hands pressed together. One way it has been described to me is, “buddha bowing to buddha.” Or roughly, the Buddha nature in me bows to the Buddha nature in you, understanding that there is no real me, no real you, and no real separation between us.

Please share any thoughts or comments you may have, or contact me directly if you have ideas for future posts.


(1) Mathieu Boisvert, “Origins: Comparative Perspectives,” in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston and Claire Renkin (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), 2:967.

(2) Image from

(3) Image from