The contemplative life according to St. Hildegard of Bingen – Part One

It should be remembered that until now the Church has always encouraged contemplative life for religious men and women. The separation from the world to religious life constitutes a state of perfect life and is necessary for the Mystici corporis Christi  (The Mystical Body of Christ) as a manifestation of one’s holiness and as a permanent source of grace.

The sanctuary of the cloisters of female contemplative life has been violated by the latest stipulations issued by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere on womens contemplative life [June 29, 2016], and Cor Orans [April 1, 2018] the “Implementing Instruction of the Apostolic Constitution for “Vultum Dei” on Women’s Contemplative Life, as was explained in an Italian article by Veronica Rasponi “La distruzione dei Monasteri femminili”[The Destruction of Women’s Monasteries – our translation can be read here], published in «Corrispondenza Romana» on October 10th last, states that the sole purpose of the Apostolic Constitution was to cause harm to the founding principles of cloistered monasteries, and to the juridical autonomy (sui iuris) of each monastery.  Corrispondenza Romana call’s it the ‘Sovietisation’ of the monasteries.

It should be remembered that until now the Church has always encouraged contemplative life for religious men and women. The separation from the world to religious life constitutes a state of perfect life and is necessary for the Mystici corporis Christi  (The Mystical Body of Christ) as a manifestation of one’s holiness and as a permanent source of grace.

However, the enclosure regime means a separation from the world, and not from the society that the nuns support with their prayer and penance. Pius XII in the encyclical Sacra Virginitas of March 25, 1954, explains that the renunciation of the world by nuns, protected by enclosure, is not the equivalent of social desertion, but rather allows a wider service to be given to the Church and society.

Pio XII
Pio PP. XII

The same Pius XII, in his Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi of 21 November 1950, foresaw a birth of the federations of monasteries, as an instrument to help revitalise  the life of some monastic communities which, following the war, had found themselves isolated and in difficulties. The experience did not turn out to be a happy one and should have imposed an abandonment of these forms of structures, by contrast under the pontificate of Pope Bergoglio it has increase exponentially, delivering a mortal blow to the institutions of female monasteries.

The word “monastery” enters into the Italian language during the first half of the XIII century, from the late Latin monastērĭum, from the Greek word μοναστήριον, of μοναστήριοςmonasterios from μονάζεινmonazein “to live alone” from the root μόνοςmonos “alone” (all Christian monks were originally hermits); the suffix “-terion” indicates a “place for doing something”. The earliest extant use of the term monastērion is by the Alexandrian philosopher Judaeus Philo On The Contemplative Life, ch. III.

The monastery, therefore, by its very nature, must be a place of solitude (separation from the profane world), of silence (care of the intimacy of the soul with the divine realities), of prayer (communication of the soul with the Most Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary), these persona’s, have always been the pillars upon which the very fabric of the claustral life was founded on.

But it is evident that the emergence of the “Federation of monasteries”, “Association of monasteries” and the “Confederation of monasteries” is a calculated obtrusion inflicted by the Vatican, which inevitably, undermine with the addition of an irregular hybridisation of external influences that are now present in every single cloisters – it is being perceived by many religious as a sort of “globalisation” connecting different monastic charisms (in this manner they become less and less monastic and are steadily absorbed by the diktats that are foreign to the abbey’s), furthermore the disperse and confusing “refresher courses” – eventuate the suffocation and repression of the sacred independence that the Church, in its wisdom, had until now defended the custody and protection of every single consecrated soul.

The life of the cloister is a self-giving to the Bridegroom Jesus, which implies transcending the world to set out on a privileged path of greater communion with God and, precisely by virtue of this communion, the nun, bride of Christ, intercedes for the people who live in society and for the redemption of souls. A mission, that is irreplaceable.

The Cor Orans document concerns all monasteries and its application was immediate from the moment of its publication (April 1, 2018). “The provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei quaerere for all the monasteries concerning their obligation to enter a Federation of monasteries also apply to other structures of communion such as the Association of monasteries or the Conference of monasteries;” “This obligation also applies to monasteries associated with a male institute or gathered as an autonomous monastic congregation;” “Individual monasteries must comply with this within one year of the publication of these Instructions, unless they have been legitimately dispensed;” «Once this period has elapsed, this Dicastery will assign monasteries to one of the Federations or to other existing structures of communion».

In the course of the history of the Church, when the places of contemplation have dwindled, the saints have reacted with force and determination to restore the reality that in the world represents a more perfect connection between heaven and earth, respecting the chronological order, of the teachings of three saints who made the contemplative life the sole reason for their existence, acting and reforming what did not work and thus becoming an exemplar prototype and teacher for the Church: Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Clare of Assisi, Saint Teresa of Avila.

Doctor of the Church Hildegard von Bingen O.S.B. (1098- † 17 Sept., 1179), a Benedictine nun and abbess, was unyielding in bringing back prelates onto the right path, monks and nuns who transgressed the dictates of Tradition. A spokesperson of God, who admonished and taught by divine command. With regard to Hermann I von Arbon, O.S.B. († 20 Nov. 1165), Bishop of Konstanz [Constance], his cry of solicitous conversion is

Herman I von Arbon Bishop of Constance
Hermann von Arbon

manifest in order to be saved and to guide others to salvation: “Many workers [in the building of the Church] come to you and seek the narrow and narrow path. But you – according to the disposition of your heart – speak with magniloquent presumption and arouse indignation in their hearts. Turn from the darkness to the right way and enlighten the spirit of your heart so that the Father of everything does not turn to you saying: «You, mad, why do you go up on a support that you have not built?». For the day will throw in the darkness that man whose work does not follow the right path” (Gronau, E., 1991. Hildegard von Bingen, Stein am Rhein: Christiana Verl. p. 398).

Hildegard’s peregrination from one monastery to another, giving life and realism to the tired, dejected and demotivated in the face of arrogance of those with civil or ecclesiastical authority, who kept them in check using power and money. But in spite of the distortions and sins of men in the beloved Church, Hildegard did not lose her hope or her conviction. She not only took care of the great sinners in the Church, she also gave life to those who, for example, the abbess Sofia of the Benedictine monastery of Kitzingen, who felt tired and had wanted to abdicate her office.

This prophetess of the Church, therefore, helped individual children to rediscover, their own responsibility be they little or great, the vigour’s of the Faith and the beauty of working for the Kingdom of God. The echo’s of this teacher, who brought a new and healthy ferment, salt and flavour to the different ecclesiastical realities, which then spread throughout Europe.  

She urged the strengthening of the soul and bear the burden’s of work and of one’s duties; she called them to combat, inviting them to go against the will of the ecclesiastical and/or the civil authorities who argued against contemplative life according to the will of God. Se wrote to the abbess Sophia: “Accept these words by virtue of the true vision of the divine mysteries! O daughter, born of the man’s rib when God created man! Why do you incessantly suffer pain, so that your spirit is like the variable clouds carried by the storm, now it is clear how the light then suddenly darkens? This is your spirit because of the scandalous customs of those who do not shine before God. But you say: ‘I want a little peace, I want to make myself a place where the heart can find refuge, where the soul is at peace’. O daughter, it is not a merit before God to throw away the burden and abandon the flock, for your heart does not shine in that weakness which causes you so much pain because of the innocence of earthly life. You, on the other hand, must live because God’s grace wants it. So watch yourself from getting away from it and letting your spirit wander. May God help you, so that you may be alert in pure knowledge!”(Gronau, E., 1991. Hildegard von Bingen, Stein am Rhein: Christiana Verl., p.p. 383-384).

She sustained the weak and the wavering, at the same time she responded to the heretics, particularly the Cathars, and solved detailed and difficult theological questions that bishops, abbots and monks had placed on them. She submitted to the Lord the questions that were asked of her and the Light, which had from her childhood always accompanied her, presented her with the visions in which she received the answers. From Paris they wrote to have explanations, as did the Magister Odo of Cheriton († c. 1246), who at the Synod of Trier had heard Pope Eugene III read aloud the pages of the work of Edward Scivias, and for this reason wanted to get in touch with the author, at the end of solving the theological diatribe of those who denied that God is fatherhood and divinity together.

St. Hildegard’s relations with the Bishops of Trier were excellent, both with Bishop Hillin de Falemagne († October 23, 1169) and with Arnaut I de Vaucourt († May 25, 1183). There was a special bond that linked them to the Benedictine monastery of St. Eucharius [St. Matthias Abbey in Trier], the oldest in Germany. The life of the bishop-princes were extremely complex, their power divided between the temporal and the spiritual; the prince-bishop being both a bishop and civil ruler of a secular principality and suzerainty.

Their divided consciences were petitioned by the prophetic voice of the “Holy Mother” as it was called, to which Archbishop Hillin of Falmagne († October 23, 1169) pleading, as a “sinner”, to have some droplets of her words as spiritual comfort for his soul.  Hillin had engaged in correspondence with Hildegard, having approached her for advice and under his auspices had visited Trier, to preached a stern sermon to the clergy and people thereof.

Mother Hildegard did not allow herself to procrastinate: «So wisdom resounds and says: this is the lukewarm weather of the donnicciole […]. [ed. donnicciola: a fishwife, or woman of humble condition, or mean, ignorant: gossip; a sissy or a man with weak fearful disposition]. But now listen, o shepherd: divine justice holds you firmly because the grace of God has not penetrated you in vain. However, when you undertake a good work, you tire quickly. Even when, summoned to the festive Mass, leading in prayer, you soon tire [ed. that is, during the Mass his mind wandered and his temporal thoughts intruded.]. […]. The tower is assigned to you [ed. the diocese]. Protect the tower and cause the whole city not to be ruined and destroyed. So watch out, keep the discipline with an iron sceptre and educate yourself. Grease the wounds of those who have entrusted themselves to you». Hildegard spoke of the negligence, corruption and misuse of power by the clergymen; her words regarding the hierarchy of the Church were anything but reassuring: she unrelentingly denounced the evils present in the church and her words reverberate like thunder within it.

Corrupt Clergy
Corrupt Bishops and Clergy…

So corrupt was the situation, both from a doctrinal and moral point of view, of the dioceses and monasteries in Germany, that the Lord allowed her to leave the cloister to reproach those who did not do their duty. On her first long journey, which she achieved when she was almost sixty years old, she had crossed the entire region of the Main River to Bamberg and Steigerwald (1158-1159). In 1160, during an illness that lasted three years, he reached the mountainous region of Hunsrück towards Trier, descending the Moselle to Metz, in the Lotaringia towards Krauftal, near Saverne.

Journey Made by Hildegard von Bingen Between 1158-1171 A.D.,
Journey Made by Hildegard von Bingen Between 1158-1171 A.D.

The third journey (1161-1163) led her to travel the Rhine in the direction of Cologne; then she reached Werden on the Rurh and, probably, Liege. Later she was seized by another disease that lasted three years, forcing her to bed and between 1170 and 1171 undertook the last journey of her life, in Swabia, above Maulbronn, Hirsau, Kircheim, up to Zwiefalten. It took a lot of physical and mental effort to scold monks and nuns, abbots and abbesses in an attempt to re-establish monastic discipline and order. Alas, it was not enough, she publicly preached conversion and penance, she did it on the road she travelled, in the marketplaces of the cities she visited, or in the great churches, in front of the clergy and the faithful.

This is what the Lord requires and this she willingly gives, remaining a cloistered nun, despite serving an itinerant apostolate, aimed at healing, with rigour, those who have been gravely and dramatically led astray. And her labours produced the prodigious fruits of a return to the spiritual and ecclesiastical order for the good of the Church and of civilisation, according to what is due to our Creator.

The destruction of female Monasteries

A literal or metaphrase (word-for-word) translation by a Hermit of Saint Bruno of the article “La distruzione dei Monasteri femminili” by Veronica Rasponi of Corrispondenza Romana.


monache di clausura
The Clarisse of Terni behind their enclosure.

(by Veronica Rasponi) The destruction of the female Monasteries is under way. Ever since the constitution on the contemplative life Vultum Dei quaerere appeared on 29 June 2016, The Corrispondenza Romana has denounced the program of the “sovietisation” of the Monasteries.

Now a further step have been taken by the Cor Orans instruction on the contemplative life of women, on April 1, 2018, which constitutes an application of the previous document. Few, with the exception of Vatican expert Aldo Maria Valli, who has dedicated three articles to this topic on his blog, have been aware of the gravity of the danger.

It should be remembered that the Church has always encouraged the contemplative life of religious men and women. The separation from the world of religious life constitutes a state of perfect life and is necessary for the Mystical Body of Christ as a manifestation of one’s holiness and as a permanent source of grace.

One of the main characteristics of the monastic communities was their legal configuration. According to the Church’s tradition, female monasteries are sui juris, i.e., autonomous and independent houses in relation to their internal regime.

The only form of dependency that they have is that from the bishop or, in some cases, from the superior of the male branch of the same order. This configuration reflects the proprium of each monastery, which is the separation from profane society. Monaco (monk) means “only”: solitude, and prayer are the pillars on which every monastery lives.

However, the enclosure regime means a separation from the world, not from the society that the nuns support with their prayer and penance. Thus Pius XII in the encyclical Sacra Virginitas of March 25, 1954, explains that the renunciation of the world of nuns, protected by enclosure, is not equivalent to social desertion, but rather allows a wider service given to the Church and society.

The same Pius XII, with the Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi of 21 November 1950, foresaw the birth of federations of monasteries, as an instrument to help the life of some monastic communities which, following the war, had found themselves isolated and in material difficulties. The experience did not turn out to be happy and would have suggested the abandonment of these structures, which instead under the pontificate of Pope Francis have multiplied, affecting a mortal blow to the female monasteries.

The new discipline envisaged by Cor Orans wants to suppress any form of legal autonomy, to create macro-communities presented as “structures of communion”. A series of bureaucratic and cumbersome organizations are born, which the Pontifical Instruction punctiliously lists.

We have the Federation of monasteries, because “in the sharing of the same charism the federated monasteries overcome isolation and promote regular observance and contemplative life” (n.7); the Association of monasteries, because “in sharing the same charism, the associated monasteries collaborate with each other” (No. 8); the Conference of monasteries, “in order to promote contemplative life and to foster collaboration among monasteries in particular geographical or linguistic contexts” (No. 9): the Confederation, as a “connecting structure between federations of monasteries for the study of topics related to the contemplative life in relation to the same charism, to give a unitary direction and a certain coordination to the activity of the single Federations »(n.10); the International Commission, as a “centralized body of service and study for the benefit of the nuns of the same Institute, for the study of themes relating to the contemplative life in relation to the same charism” (No. 11). Finally, we have the monastic Congregation, which is a “structure of government among several autonomous monasteries of the same Institute, under the authority of a President who is Superior Superior and of a general chapter which is the highest authority in the monastic Congregation” (No. 12). Missing only the Federal Assembly. Recites n. 133: “The communion that exists between the monasteries becomes visible in the Federal Assembly, a sign of unity in charity that has the primary task of protecting the charismatic patrimony of the Institute among the federated monasteries and promoting an adequate renewal that harmonizes with it. except that no Federation of monasteries of nuns or Confederation of federations represents the entire Institute “.

Membership of these bureaucratic bodies is mandatory. In the final provisions of Cor Orans it is specified that “what is laid down in the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei quaerere for all the monasteries about the obligation to enter a Federation of monasteries also applies to another structure of communion such as the Association of monasteries or the Conference of monasteries”.

With the obligation of having to belong to these structures the monasteries lose, de facto even if not de iure, their autonomy to flow into an anonymous mass of macro-communities within which they organise training courses, debates, refresher meetings, moments of comparison that will see the nuns enter and leave the monasteries to live in a situation of perennial psychological and material instability.

Each community is called to develop a systematic and integral permanent formation program that embraces the whole person’s existence. The sisters need this “ongoing formation” to cultivate “the spiritual, doctrinal and professional capacity, the updating and maturation of the contemplative, so that it can carry out its service to the monastery, to the Church and to the world in an increasingly adequate manner.” (No. 236).

Every nun “is encouraged to take responsibility for her own human, Christian and charismatic growth, through the project of personal life, dialogue with the sisters of the monastic community and in particular with her major Superior” (No. 237).

The responsibility of formation belongs to the Major Superior, “who promotes the ongoing formation of the community through the Conventual Chapter, the days of retreat, the annual spiritual exercises, the sharing of the word of God, periodic revisions of life, recreations in common, days of study, personal dialogue with the sisters, fraternal meetings” (No. 238).

In order to guarantee this formation, the same papal enclosure is in fact abolished, because it also gives permission to enter the monastery to those whose skills are necessary for formation (No. 203), or to create chaos within the community.

The key words are “overcoming isolation” (n.7), “dynamic fidelity to one’s own charism” (n.70), the “undeniable value of communion” (n.86). Where these elements are missing, the monasteries can be suppressed. In those who survive, the atmosphere of peace, recollection and order that has reigned there has to be destroyed. Those who live in monasteries and those who aspire to enter it you have been warned.

At one time the nuns longed for diocesan canonical recognition and then for the pontifical recognition as the supreme guarantee of the stability of their life in common. Today, those who aspire to contemplative life and do not want to lose their vocation will be better oriented towards the establishment of de facto religious associations, independent of ecclesiastical authority, taking care not to ask for that canonical recognition that would mark the end of their spiritual life. (Veronica Rasponi)


Historically the Vatican has already caused its own version of the protestant led dissolution of monasteries.  The Sisters of Auerbach in Germany, the contemplative sisters of Saint John a French Catholic community founded by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe at Fribourg in Switzerland, and the 15 dissolved cloisters of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate in Italy. With a Rescriptum ex Audientia: prior consultation with the Holy See for the erection of diocesan institutes, 20.05.2016, which was made public only last May 11th, Pope Francis has revoked the previously sui iuris in church history of the right of a diocesan bishops to recognise a new religious community. The approval of the Holy See was given on June 1. With this Rescript, Francis noted that the establishment of an order by a diocesan bishop without the prior consent of Rome will be considered as null and void. [Editor]