Bernard & Hildegard

Meet Bernard & Hildegard

Between the years 1000 and 1250 several new Christian groups arose in Europe. Men and women, young and old, streamed to settle with others in new communities of faith. Here they lived calmly, prayed intentionally, found joy in simple work, and spent time with God. They had known too much greed, selfishness, injustice, politics, and lifeless worship. They now longed instead to think purely, to experience a sense of harmony and community with others, a chance to relish God’s creation. This is a story of a brother and a sister in Christ who created spaces where these longings became reality. They invited others to come and “be still.”

The Cistercians were one of these new groups, established in 1098 in France. They built their communities in wild rural places of breathtaking beauty and solitude. For the most part, they spoke very little, preferring vows of silence and mutual service to each other. They spent their days outside, cultivating land, observing nature, praising God as they worked.
Their most famous leader was Bernard of Clairvaux (1096-1153), who shared that anyone who had eyes and ears could learn “in the noon-day heat, under the shade tree, [things] that you have never learned in schools.”They built daughter houses all across Europe. They loved the land and stewarded their vast holdings and livestock with skill.

As several years of famine unfolded, the Cistercians saw the dire need to provide farmlands for food. They did not wait to respond, but rolled up their sleeves and waded into the wetland swamps, drained them, reclaimed tillable acres, and planted and harvested crops that fed the masses. Theirs was a practical theology. They believed that God had revealed Himself in creation, and that as we pay attention to the earth and protect its resources, we live more in tune with the God who has promised to redeem both humans and his creation.
While Bernard was working in France, Hildegard of Bingen (1098- 1179) was doing the same kind of work in Germany. She was born into a noble family just as the Crusades were beginning. She entered a monastery at the age of fourteen, but later opened her own community in Rupertsberg, near Bingen, overlooking the Rhine River. She understood that creation was not just something God gave to humans for their well-being, but is always a display of God’s Glory as well. Hildegard wrote on the spiritual life, theology, natural science, and herbal medicine. She penned the first known morality play and composed music and texts for worship. She made four missionary tours to teach the gospel of Christ.

Hildegard and her community explored nature in practical ways, making a careful study of plants and trees and their healing qualities (homeopathic medicine). She valued her work in natural medicine as working with God’s created order. She believed that, at the Fall, nature fell too, and that parts of nature had turned against humanity. In her Physica, or Book of Simple Medicine, she cataloged plants, elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles, and metals, and detailed both the healing and the poisonous properties of what she found.

She said, “In the beginning all creation cascaded down from God’s splendor, so the cosmos moves toward the last days, when God will purge away all darkness.” Friend and advisor of popes and emperors, she was a woman whose life of reflection, solitude, listening to God, and rapt attention to nature, allowed her to know her Creator deeply. We thank Bernard and Hildegard for inviting us to step aside, to come away, and “be still.”
“Attention, all! See the marvels of God. He plants flowers and trees all over the earth . . . Step out of the traffic!Take a long, loving look at me, your High God.”
Psalm 46:8-10
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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