I wrote the following essay for Next Avenue, a website affiliated with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS):
From Meryl Streep to Sting to Dame Judi Dench, we have plenty of contemporary role models for aging well. But when I think of how I’d like my next decades to unfold, I look a little further back in time for my mentor — nine centuries, to be precise. Hildegard of Bingen, one of history’s most remarkable women, is my inspiration. Writer, healer, mystic, composer, philosopher, poet and naturalist, Hildegard was a Renaissance woman before there even was a Renaissance.
I’ve been fascinated by Hildegard since I accidentally stumbled across her music in my 30s. The more I learned about her wealth of talents, the more intrigued I became. And I was not alone in my enthusiasm: Hildegard has as diverse a fan club as any celebrity. Musicians love her ethereal chants; health enthusiasts take inspiration from her writings on diet and healing; environmentalists appreciate her passion for the natural world; feminists hail her as a foremother; and in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church, an honor bestowed on only a handful of female saints.
Walking in St. Hildegard’s Shoes
This past November I had the chance to follow “the Hildegard trail” in Bingen, Germany, an adventure sparked by my son’s decision to spend a semester studying in Leuven, Belgium. (Luckily my son didn’t take offense when I told him I’d be visiting Hildegard first.)
Clearly much has changed in 900 years, but as I journeyed down the Rhine River, I suspected Hildegard had probably been as awed by this lush, dramatic landscape as I was.
The 65-km stretch of river between Koblenz and Bingen — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is bordered by high bluffs and steeply terraced vineyards, with hilltops punctuated with medieval castles. As we cruised down-river, I intuitively understood how Hildegard’s deep appreciation of the natural world and her transcendental music were influenced by this landscape.
In Bingen, a tidy German town of 25,000, I was relieved to learn I wouldn’t have to rely on my rusty high school German. The Hildegard tour is well marked and translated. The town isn’t as inundated with pilgrims as Lourdes or Rome, yet it hosts a steady stream of international Hildegard fans.
My first stop was the Museum am Strom, whose exhibits detail Hildegard’s entry into religious life at the age of 14 (at a monastery in Disibodenberg), her election as an abbess at 38, and her decision to found a new abbey in Bingen 14 years later, which she did despite strong opposition from the monks who wished to keep her and her nuns at Disibodenberg. A year later she published Scivias, a theological treatise on her prophetic visions.
I felt her spirit even more strongly in St. Hildegard Abbey, located on a high hill across the river from Bingen and home to a community of 55 Benedictine nuns. The imposing stone church was built long after Hildegard’s time, but it’s full of murals depicting scenes from her life.
As I wandered, I was struck with a realization that had previously escaped me: In an era when most people didn’t make it to 50, Hildegard actually become more productive with each passing decade. In spite of being a woman in a male-dominated period, lacking a formal education and suffering from chronic health problems (including exhaustion, fever and pain), Hildegard had a multitasking career that would make a modern CEO envious. She composed music for her nuns to sing, wrote texts on theology and medicinal herbs, advised political leaders, went on preaching tours and, at 67, founded an abbey across the river when her own community had grown to capacity. At age 80 she was still crossing the Rhine twice a week to oversee it.
My favorite moment of the trip came late one afternoon as I stood on the bank of the Rhine and imagined how the scene might have looked in Hildegard’s day. I could picture her striding purposefully down to the water, hitching up her robes before climbing into a boat, probably dictating orders to her assistant. I watched as her dinghy moved across the water, her figure gradually growing smaller in the distance. And just before she reached the shore—I know this sounds strange, but Hildegard of all people believed in the power of visions—I swear she looked back at me and smiled.
Hildegard’s Lessons for Aging Well
During my visit, I thought about how she was a role model for positive aging, and came up with a list of five lessons we could learn from following in Hildegard’s footsteps:
- Ripening is important — for fruit and people. Though she’d had mystical visions since childhood, Hildegard didn’t share her revelations with the world until she was 42. It then took her 10 years to write her first book about them. The takeaway: When you’ve got something truly important to share, there’s value in waiting for the perfect moment, when you have the wisdom and maturity to present it well.
- Your greatest weakness can become your greatest strength. Hildegard suffered poor health her entire life, but it didn’t deter her from passionately pursuing her goals. In fact, her own frailties arguably sparked her interest in healing. She also knew how to use her illness for leverage, as when she took to her bed until her superiors granted her request to found her own abbey.
- Inner harmony provides the wellspring for outer strength. Hildegard was deeply spiritual and intensely practical, a rare combination in any era. Nourished by prayer and ritual, she found expression in a steady outpouring of creative works.
- Speak the truth as you know it. While she had a deep respect for authority and the traditions of her church, she wasn’t afraid to bend the rules when necessary or speak up for what she thought was right. In fact, reading the sharply worded letters she sent to princes and bishops can almost make one feel sorry for the recipients.
- Joy should be the foundation of your life. A key concept in Hildegard’s writings is viriditas, the word she used to describe the mysterious divine vitality that fills the world. She nurtured it wherever she found it, giving what I think is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard: “Be not lax in celebrating.” I can picture those choruses of angels in her visions echoing the commandment, circling round and round in an endless dance of bliss.