Pope Francis has said that we need a more profound theology of women and their mission in the world and in the Church. That is true, but he cannot ignore that there is already a wide theological literature of the highest quality, done by women from the perspective of women, that has enormously enriched our experience of God. I myself have intensely explored the theme, and ended up writing two books: The Maternal Face of God, (1989) and Feminine-Masculine (2010), this latter one in collaboration with feminist Rosemarie Muraro. Among so many in the present, I decided to bring attention to two great women theologians of the past, who were truly innovative: Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Saint Juliana of Norwich (1342-1416).
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), considered perhaps the first feminist within the Church, was an extraordinary and genial woman, not only for her times, but for all times. She was a Benedictine nun and mistress (abbess) of her Rupertsberg of Bingen convent on the river Rhine, a prophet (profetessa germanica), mystic, theologian, passionate preacher, composer, poet, naturalist, informal physician, playwright and German writer.
It is a mystery to her biographers and scholars how this woman could have accomplished all that in the narrow and machista medieval world. In every field she touched she displayed excellence and enormous creativity. Her books are numerous, on mysticism, poetry, the natural sciences, and music. The most important, which is read even today, is Scivias Domini, (Know the Paths of the Lord).
Hildegard was above all a woman endowed with divine visions. In an autobiographical text she says: “When I was forty two and seven moths old, the heavens opened up and a blinding light of exceptional brightness flowed into my brain. And then it seared my heart and chest like a flame which did not burn, but warmed … and suddenly I understood the meaning of what was set forth in the books, that is, in the Psalms, the Gospels, and the other Catholic books of the Old and New Testament ” (see the complete text in Wikipedia, Hildegard of Bingen, with an excellent commentary and bibliography).
It is surprising that she had such knowledge of cosmology, medicinal plants, the physics of the bodies and the history of humanity. Theology speaks of the «infuse science» as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Hildegard was distinguished by such a gift.
She developed a curiously holistic vision, always connecting the human being with nature and the cosmos. In this context she speaks of the Holy Spirit as the energy that gives viriditas to all things. Viriditas comes from “verde”, green. It means the greenness and freshness that characterizes all things penetrated by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes she speaks of the «immeasurable sweetness of the Holy Spirit, who with His grace embraces all creatures» (Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen, 1998, 53). Hildegard developed a humanizing image of God because He rules the universe «with might and mildness» (mit Macht und Milde) accompanying all beings with His caring hand and His loving gaze (cf. Fierro, N., Hildegard of Bingen and her vision of the Feminine, 1994, 187).
Hildegard was especially known for the medicinal methods she developed, which are still followed in Austria and Germany by some physicians. She reveals a surprising knowledge of the human body and of which active principles of the medicinal herbs are appropriate for different illnesses. Her canonization was ratified by Benedict XVI in 2012.
Another notable woman was Juliana of Norwich, in England (1342-1416). Little is known about her life, whether she was a woman religious or a lay widow. The truth is that she lived secluded, in a walled enclosure of the Church of Saint Julian. When she was 30 years old she had a grave illness that almost caused her death. At one point, for five hours she had visions of Jesus Christ. She immediately wrote a summary of her visions. And twenty years later, after having contemplated the meaning of these visions, she wrote a longer and definitive version, Revelations of Divine Love (Revelaciones del Amor Divino, London, 1952). It is the first known text written in English by a woman.
Her revelations are surprising because they are filled with an indomitable optimism, born of the love of God. She speaks of love as happiness and compassion. She does not accept, as was a popular belief at the time, and still is among some groups, that illnesses are punishments from God. For Juliana, illness and pestilence are opportunities to know God.
Juliana sees sin as a kind of learning tool, through which God demands that we know ourselves, and seek his mercy. She says more: beyond of what we call hell lies a greater reality, always victorious, which is the love of God.
Because Jesus is merciful and our beloved mother is compassionate. God Himself is the merciful Father and Mother of infinite goodness (Revelations, 119).
Only a woman could use such language of love and compassion, and call God the Mother of infinite goodness. Thus we see once again how important the feminine voice is for a non-patriarchal, and therefore more complete conception of God and of the Spirit that flows through all life and the universe.
Many other women could be mentioned here, such as Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Simone Weil (1909-1943), Madeleine Delbrel (1904-1964), Mother Teresa, and among us now, Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer, who thought and think of faith from a woman’s perspective. And they continue to enrich us.
Free translation from the Spanish by
Servicios Koinonia, http://www.servicioskoinonia.org.
Done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.