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Day 4: Who IS Hildegard Anyway?

A startling late-January afternoon led me to learn about a shrine to Hildegard of Bingen, in Ohio. In my capacity as editorial-board member for the Journal of Religious Leadership, I was reading a pre-publication essay on several Roman Catholic women ordained in apostolic succession to the priesthood. There are about 350 in the world today--not acknowledged by Rome, of course--but each is serving a worshipping RC congregation or parish in her priestly capacities. It was a fascinating article, not only because I've followed the advocacy struggles for women's ordination in the Roman Catholic Church, but because the angle of writing made ordination a moot point for these women. It had already happened. There was no need to argue for it with a population that rarely listens to women's voices anyway. No, this essay was describing and evaluating these women's ministry for the marks of the church they clearly demonstrate.

All fine and good in the life of.a seminary professor, but all of me went on alert, learning about Rev. Shanon Sterringer who is "priest of the Community of St. Hildegard in Ohio." I nearly fell out of my chair. IN OHIO? I said aloud to myself. Immediately, I Googled her to learn more, drawn into the website for Hildegard Haus in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, east of Cleveland. Flashes of memories, feelings, sensations flooded my system...I felt close to a strong presence of one who has woven herself throughout my life, since my Princeton days.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a "force to be reckoned with" as a young anchorite-companion, then magistra of sisters-religious, abbess in what we now call Germany. She was also a composer, a writer, a seer (with visions, anticipatory intuitions and more), a preacher, a natural-scientist (we'd say today)... For me, she has been an elder-ancestor, teaching me from the ancestral plane from the start of my work as a scholar. Her "Letter to the Prelates at Mainz" was the scholarly 'artifact' I studied in my work on music in theological insight. A good novel of her life is Illuminations, by Mary Sharratt.

Many make Hildegard into who they need her to be--new age herbalist, ecclesial renegade, creation spiritualist, for example--but I've always appreciated her incongruous and contradictory ways of being a woman in a churchman's world. She described herself as a "feather on the breath of God." She knew to listen first to the Living Light, who came to her in visions. She employed every spiritual gift she was given, much to the dismay of the men and monks in her life. She has been a regular companion for me from the late 1990's unto present day. And a sanctuary dedicated to her wisdom in this world is less than a day's drive from me, in Ohio.

Sounds just like her.

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