Today is the feast of Hildegard of Bingen (above), the 12th century abbess from the Rhineland who broke through the limitations placed on women in her time to be a preacher, theologian and visionary mystic. She wrote theology, hymns, philosophy, poetry, apocalyptic and medicine, and even created her own alphabet and language. Hildegard began to receive visions when she was a child, saying later, ‘I saw a heavenly light which made my soul tremble’. She eventually committed her visions to writing, and the Pope authorized her to speak in public. When she died, today in 1179, she left several books of her visions, together with letters and sermons. Hildegard’s reputation was stuck in limbo for several hundred years, but she was rediscovered in the 20th century, and is now celebrated in biographies, novels, films, a musical, and recordings of her musical works.
‘I am also the fiery life of the essence of divinity; I flame above the beauty of the fields, and I shine in the waters, and I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars. With the airy wind I quicken all things with some invisible life that sustains them all.’ Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of Divine Works, translated by Nathaniel M Campbell
Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the rabbi, philosopher and mystic who lived in Moravia and Bohemia in the 16th century, died today in 1609. Popularly known as the Maharal of Prague, his philosophical writings integrated the mysticism of the Kabbalah with rational thought, and have had a lasting impact on Jewish philosophy. His reputation is full of stories of folk miracles, including a legend that he created the Golem of Prague, a robot of clay which could be animated to protect the Jewish community from violent persecution. Curiously, given the Golem connection, it is said that some key figures in the modern field of artificial intelligence are descended from Rabbi Loew.
Today is the feast of St Agathoclia, an early Christian Spanish slave. She was abused by her owners, who had been converted from Christianity to paganism, and who wouldn’t let Agathoclia continue with her faith. She lived and died (around the year 230) in the Zaragoza region of northern Spain.
Robert Bellarmine, a cardinal in his lifetime, a saint since 1930, and the lead apologist for the Catholic side during the Reformation, died in Rome today in 1621. Recognised as a brilliant Jesuit scholar and preacher, Bellarmine wrote a powerfully argued response to Protestantism in the 1570s and 80s, the Disputations on Controversies about the Christian Faith Against the Heretics of this Time. His book made the Catholic case on the major controversies of the Reformation, including justification, good works, the sacraments, and especially the authority of the Pope. Bellarmine was brilliant but also respectful in argument, recognising the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. His work prompted several Protestant universities to appoint professors whose specific job was to counter his arguments.
Heinrich Bullinger, who stepped in to lead the Swiss Reformation when its original leader, Huldrych Zwingli, was killed fighting in battle, himself died today in 1575. He helped write two important creeds of Calvinism – the First and Second Helvetic (that is, Swiss) Confessions. The second of these was taken up by Reformed Churches in Scotland, Hungary, France and Poland, helping believers to understand and follow the specific beliefs of their Churches.