On September 17, the Catholic Church remembers Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a Benedictine abbess who was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. But Saint Hildegard was more than a holy and brilliant woman: she’s the epitome of a Catholic nun.
Today’s culture prefers to make jokes—some more nasty than others—about nuns. But 234 nuns and 83 abbesses have lived their vocations in such a virtuous way that the Church has declared them to be saints or blesseds.
First, it is important to explain some terms. It is common practice today to refer to all women religious as nuns. But the Church has developed the distinct titles of nun and religious sister over the centuries. In general, nuns focus more on the contemplative life, sometimes to the exclusion of any outside apostolate. Religious sisters, on the other hand, typically balance both contemplative life and active service.
Two holy Dominican women can demonstrate the difference. Saint Margaret of Hungary was a thirteenth century princess who chose to become a Dominican nun. She spent her life praying for souls, particularly for heretics, but she also prayed also for the safety of Dominican priests who placed their lives in danger by trying to bring those heretics back to the Church. Centuries later, Blessed Marie Poussepin (1653-1744) founded an order of religious sisters who followed the spirituality of the Dominican order and educated poor girls.1 The distinction between nuns and religious sisters in specific orders is not always so clear-cut, but when in doubt, just ask one.
These terms have evolved over the centuries. In the early days of the Church, women who renounced marriage and devoted their lives to Christ were known as virgins. Saint Macrina the Younger (c. 327-379), for example, was the older sister of Saint Basil the Great. She was particularly known for her love of Sacred Scripture—and for cutting young Basil down to size when he came home from college a bit too puffed up with his newly acquired knowledge.
An abbess serves as a superior over a community of nuns. Perhaps the most famous abbess is Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), the first woman to enter the Franciscan order; her spiritual daughters are called Poor Clares after her.
Some women left behind the prospect of a comfortable married life to become nuns. Saint Anthusa of Constantinople was the daughter of an eighth century Byzantine emperor before she entered a convent. Other women, like Saint Rita of Cascia (1386-1457), came from humbler circumstances and only became nuns after their husbands had died.
Since cloistered nuns devote so much time to prayer, it’s not surprising that many of them became famous mystics. Both Catholic clergy and laity were inspired by the writings of Saint Mechtilde of Helfta in thirteenth-century Germany. In seventeenth-century Italy, Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi wrote multiple books describing her mystical visions.
But the holiness of three particular nuns transformed Catholic devotions all over the world. Would we be celebrating Corpus Christi every year if Saint Juliana of Mont Cornillon (1192-1258) hadn’t been inspired by a vision and nagged the pope to establish it as a feast day? How many people have been drawn to the Catholic faith by images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, images that resulted from the famous visions of Saint Gertrude the Great (c. 1256-c. 1302) and Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690)?
Then there are the A-list nuns of the spiritual life: Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Saint Thérèse Martin of Lisieux (1873-1897).2 The fact that they were named Doctors of the Church is more surprising than many people realize. After all, some priests in Saint Teresa’s day were underwhelmed by her writings and complained that she didn’t even know how to speak Latin properly. Saint Thérèse’s only literary works are her autobiography, some poetry, and a few volumes of personal letters, hardly a large theological output, compared to, say, Saint Thomas Aquinas. But millions of Catholics have found these two women’s writings to be accessible, deep, and downright charming.
Although only one saintly abbess has died as a martyr, 102 nuns have died for their faith and have been beatified or canonized.
That number includes Saint Theodosia of Constantinople, an eighth century nun who was martyred after she publicly opposed the destruction of icons during the Iconoclast persecution. And music lovers may recognize the story of Blessed Teresa of Saint Augustine. She and fifteen other Carmelite nuns were condemned to death during the French Revolution in 1791. The women calmly and prayerfully walked to their deaths, as was later dramatized in an opera: Dialogues of the Carmelites.
But what makes Saint Hildegard of Bingen such a perfect example of a nun?
Saint Hildegard was born into a noble family in Germany. Her parents sent her to be educated by a holy woman named Jutta. Some of Jutta’s students were so moved by her example that they decided to become Benedictine nuns under Jutta’s direction. Hildegard was one of them. She was only fifteen years old.
Hildegard had experienced visions from a young age, and in ordinary conversations, she would often make predictions that would later come true. But she kept quiet about what she was experiencing, certain that others would only ridicule her.
By the time she was thirty-eight years old, she had succeeded Jutta as abbess, and her visions had become more vivid, powerful, and numerous. After she finally told her confessor about them, she wrote them down, as he requested. Her archbishop examined and approved Hildegard’s visions, acknowledging them as being from God. Hildegard later recorded dozens of other visions, which she said led to all her other activities.
Hildegard had only received a modest education, all that was thought to be necessary for a girl, but she was a gifted woman. During her lifetime, her poetic, symbolic descriptions of her visions were read by Catholics all over Germany. She also studied and wrote books about the natural world, medicine, psychology, and human anatomy. She composed hymns (both words and music) for the women in her growing religious community. She traveled all over Germany to establish other Benedictine monasteries, and she preached as well. She created her own written language, in her free time, just for fun. And she wrote to princes, popes, and holy men and women, telling them exactly what she thought the Holy Spirit thought they needed to know.
Being an abbess is never easy, and Hildegard had to deal with gossipy novices, nearby monks who caused a fuss when she relocated her growing community, and even an interdict against her and her nuns.3
But Saint Hildegard’s greatness is not found in her contributions to apocalyptic literature, her role in national politics, or her diplomatic skills. Rather, her greatness is shown in her littleness—in her humble willingness to become the sort of wise virgin Jesus praised in his famous parable4 about wise and foolish virgins.
For Saint Hildegard and all these holy nuns, the love of Christ was the oil that filled their lamps and gave joy to their lives of sacrifice. They left everything behind for Him. They put their personal gifts at His disposal. They prayed and taught others how to pray to Him. They accepted ridicule and persecution for His sake. They strove to always be ready to meet their Bridegroom. And so should we.
1 Note that some nuns also run schools. For example, Saint Marie of the Incarnation Guyart Martin was a teacher and an Ursuline nun in seventeenth century Canada, and Saint Teresa Eustochio Verzeri was a Benedictine nun and teacher in nineteenth century Italy.
2 It’s hard to talk about Saints Teresa and Thérèse without speaking of Saint Catherine of Siena. By modern standards, Saint Catherine would not be considered a nun since she was a Dominican tertiary. But Catherine exceeds the typical categories of any age.
3 Hildegard allowed a man who had once been excommunicated to be buried in her cemetery. For this reason, her monastery was placed under an interdict, and she and her nuns were prohibited from receiving the sacraments. She was ultimately vindicated in her decision when it was proven that the man had reconciled with the Church before his death.
4 Matt 25:1-12
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