Written by Katie Ekblad Traver, friend of Stella & Tide
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last: for many are called, but few are chosen." —Matthew 20:16
Saint Hildegard was born in 1098 as the youngest of 10 children in a noble family. At a young age, she was placed into the care of a Benedictine nun, Blessed Jutta. Growing up in a cloistered convent, Hildegard learned to read and sing Latin songs. She was said to have had visions of Christ and heaven from the time she was a young child. At the age of 18, Hildegard professed her vows as a Benedictine nun.
Throughout her youth and into her middle-aged years, Hildegard was well known for her vast knowledge of theology, music, science, and history. Over the course of her lifetime, Hildegard composed 77 lyric poems, each with a musical composition written by her. In a time when it was unusual for women to compose, Hildegard was highly regarded by all who listened to her compositions.
When Hildegard turned 48, she brought her visions to her spiritual director. Intrigued by the visions, her spiritual director brought them to the bishop, who eventually brought them to the Pope. The Pope then recognized Hildegard’s visions as true. This only increased Hildegard’s local fame, as people would come to her convent asking for guidance.
Hildegard died on September 17, 1179, at the age of 88. One of Hildegard’s earliest biographers referred to her as a saint, and miracles were reported both during her lifetime and at her tomb. Hildegard was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. She is the patron saint of musicians and writers, and she is a doctor of the church.
As a recent college grad with a degree in music, I first learned of St. Hildegard in my music history course. While listening to all of the compositions that came through her time period, I was especially touched by the uniqueness of St. Hildegard’s chants. Her pieces had a specific feminine touch, which countered the more famous masculine compositions of the time. Additionally, her compositions were known to tell stories, biblical and otherwise.
Music back in St. Hildegard’s day was different than it is today. There was no producer, director, or media manager. A composer did not record an album and then upload it to Spotify for the world to enjoy. Rather, a composer simply composed, and whoever was in earshot would listen. As a simple nun living in a cloister, Hildegard’s music was not heard by millions during her lifetime. While she was well known, it is sensible to assume she was what we would consider today as “locally famous” in her area and nothing more.
But how was St. Hildegard to know she would be world famous as she is today? The answer is simple: she didn’t. St. Hildegard did not know that nearly 1,000 years after her death, her compositions would be studied, respected, and renowned worldwide. She didn’t even know that anyone would continue to use her compositions, much less that she would be held in such high regard all these years later.
St. Hildegard did not think of fame when composing but instead looked to the Lord for inspiration. During her lifetime, she simply used her talents as a way to express her praise. She thought not of what others wanted to hear, what was making others famous throughout the world, or what was most progressive at the time. She merely kept her head down and composed for the heart of Jesus.
In a time where everyone wants to be the next famous singer, actress, author, influencer, artist, or entrepreneur, it’s refreshing to read the story of an incredibly talented saint who created without the thought of fame ever entering her mind. She never could have guessed where her music would go, nor where it would take her name. But the most profound part of her story is that it wasn’t about where her music could take her. St. Hildegard was not aiming to be a star, but rather to point the eyes and ears of all who encountered her music towards the stars—towards the heavens, and towards our Lord.
St. Hildegard perfectly encapsulated Matthew 20:16. May we all be like St. Hildegard. May we use our gifts to be of service to others, and not of ourselves. May we be last; may we answer our call; may we be chosen.