Friday, July 1, 2022

An Introduction to Hildegard’s Life of St. Disibod

by Nathaniel M. Campbell

“The Ruins of the Disibodenberg Monastery".
Lithograph, 1833. From Gemeinfrei IGL-Bildarchiv.
The Disibodenberg was the monastery where Hildegard began her religious life in 1112; became the leader of the women’s community in 1136; and composed her first work, Scivias (1141-1151). It had been founded by St. Disibod, a seventh-century Irish bishop who traveled to Germany and eventually founded the monastery on the hill overlooking the confluence of the Glan and Nahe rivers. It later fell into disrepair and had only been revivified from a house of canons to one of reform-minded monks just a few years before Hildegard took up residence there. Around 1170, Hildegard composed The Life of St. Disibod, Bishop (Vita sancti Dysibodi episcopi) at the request of Helengar, the abbot of Hildegard’s one-time abbey, the Disibodenberg, Drawing on her “mystic visions”—but likely also the material contained in the Disibodenberg’s Chronicle—Hildegard wrote eloquently about the exiled bishop turned monastic father and hermit. The themes she develops mirror her own views and experiences of the religious life and illuminate the pieces of liturgical music she had composed for St. Disibod in the 1150’s.

Born of wealthy stock in Ireland in the early seventh century, Disibod—as was common for such saints—lived an exemplary childhood before entering holy orders and receiving ordination as a priest at the age of thirty. Other sources indicate that Disibod lived 619-700, but Hildegard chose never to include specific dates in her hagiography of the bishop, perhaps to achieve the same ambiguous sense of atemporality that pervades her liturgical compositions for the saint. Upon his ordination, Hildegard writes:
He then did as would a good pigmentarius [spice, dye, or ointment maker], who plants pigment-bearing and aromatic plants in his garden, taking care always that his garden was green and not parched. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 5)
Though still just a priest at this point in his life, Hildegard’s description alludes to his future as a bishop, as pigmentarius was her peculiar visionary term for bishops in their roles as chrism-makers and anointers in the sacrament of confirmation (cf. Scivias 2.4). Moreover, we see already how central the metaphor of the spiritual life as a garden, green and verdant, will be in her version of his story.

Disibod seemed content to live a quiet, humble life in the pursuit of divine wisdom, but God had different plans for the budding saint. Despite the objections of those “whose life was blameworthy,” the local people elected him after their bishop died, and despite his own reluctance to leave the seclusion of his quiet, spiritual garden, he accepted the commission as “a teacher and bishop” (magister et antistes; c. 8). He labored “manfully and strongly” at this commission, and his holy teaching and proclamation of “the justice of God” inspired many in the local church, including a group of close-knit companions who gathered around the bishop to support him. Unfortunately, that support was not sufficient against the growing enmity of a laundry-list of enemies and heretics, especially those who found Disibod’s spiritual discipline too harsh for their taste.
Finally, aided by a multitude of unbelievers, they expelled the suffering man from his see with many insults. He preferred to serve God in quiet rather than waste any more time with no useful result. So he gathered a few religious men around him and for the sake of Christ’s name left behind the see of his honorable office, which he had ruled for ten years vigorously and devoutly, his country, and all that he had. (…) And so, with a happy mind and for the sake of eternal life, he undertook the pilgrimage that he had long desired. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 12)
His exile took him to Germany, where he found the way of life that would fulfill his humble yearnings:
But while he tarried in that province, deliberating about where he could turn next, he heard of the good and sweet reputation of St. Benedict’s form of religious life. Benedict had recently passed on to the Lord, and had left behind many people who loved his way of religious life. And so, Disibod recognized through the prompting of the Holy Spirit that he had not yet fulfilled a desire of his. For a long time he had wanted, in place of the people formerly committed to him, to join to himself some men of true and perfect form of religious life. For this is why he had gone again and again from place to place, and still neither in the places nor in the lifestyles of the inhabitants did he find what pleased his soul. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 13)
Hildegard here offers a subtle reminder of why she referred to Disibod in her liturgical compositions as still an exile—“the lifestyles of the inhabitants” of his own monastery were failing to “please his soul.” In the next excerpt, she then implicitly compares her own visionary charism—which included the divine revelation of the place of the Rupertsberg—to Disibod’s; as Hugh Feiss notes, “It is probably true that the vita of Disibod tells us more about Hildegard than about St. Disibod. (…) Hildegard uses the vita to admonish the monks of St. Disibod to return to their pristine fervor, and it reveals something of her understanding of what monastic life should be.” (Two Hagiographies, p. 32)
Because of the viridity of Disibod’s good desire, at this point God accepted his prayers. He sent into Disibod’s mind the sweet consolation of repose, just as dew falls upon the grass. In a night vision God also showed him by a certain manifestation that sometime he would find a place which matched what he prayed for. For to this blessed man, as to others of his beloved who desired God with all their longing on account of their great and good intention by which they strove for him faithfully with all their heart, God appeared as present in vision, speech, and hearing.
After crossing [the River Glan, near the Rhine], he saw a high, wooded peak. After ten years of pilgrimage he went up it. Exhausted, he sat down there and rested. Touched by the Holy Spirit, he said to his companions (…): “Here will be my rest.”

When he had traveled all around the mount and diligently examined all its slopes, its beauty satisfied his soul more and more as a place where he should dwell. Its height offered difficult access to those who came there, while the streams that flowed on both sides offered bodily refreshment to those staying there. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, cc. 14, 16-7)
St. Disibod and Companions.
Engraving by Raphael Sadeler, 1594.
From Wikimedia Commons.
Disibod began to live the hermit’s life of fasting, vigils, and prayer upon the mountain’s slopes, while his three companions built shelters some distance away. As the reputation of his holiness spread, more and more people were attracted to the holy mountain—some to take up residence in the growing monastic community; others to seek healing, guidance, and miracles; while wealthy nobles began to endow the holy house with the lands surrounding the mountain. As the community grew to over fifty monks in twelve years, Disibod served as a committed and masterful teacher of the brothers under his care, fortifying them with the virtues of holiness and spiritual discipline in their fight against the Devil:
In this way this holy man began to unite and strengthen his sons. (…) The Holy Spirit, who had planted this community, also watered it, so that dew fell upon the fertile field, and those who lived in it under discipline ascended from virtue unto virtue. They met with no impediments from the ancient tempter, because wherever the Holy Spirit is with his miracles, there the ancient enemy will be terrified. He will not even dare to enter there. But if he stealthily sows something there, the Holy Spirit will again tread it down in consternation. Signs and miracles of God followed the merits and holiness of blessed Disibod, and these were often renewed without being wearying, because God always makes things new. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 25)
Though Disibod remained for the rest of his long life the Abbot Father of the community, he never joined the brothers in the oratory and other buildings that he built upon the summit. Rather, he remained throughout in a small oratory upon the eastern slope, living as the hermit whose life, like St. Anthony’s, is the root and summit of the monastic discipline described in the Rule of St. Benedict—thus informing another set of paradoxes that Hildegard invokes in her liturgical compositions, of spiritual loftiness rooted in earthly lowliness.
This servant of God lived among his own as a hermit, which way of life is the root of the life of monks, because men of this way of life withdraw from the world in all ways and live in solitude amid the praise of the angels. Their life is so laborious that many, because of their bodily or mental weakness, could not bear it, should they rashly and hastily undertake it. Living in this confining way of life, by teaching and example [doctrina et exemplo] the blessed father strengthened his subjects for every good work, like a man who makes a fire burn very hot. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 29)
St. Disibod
Oil on canvas, 17th c.
(From Colonial Art)
This portrait of Disibod’s fathership of his community reveals how deeply Hildegard was imbued with St. Benedict’s careful balance of holy strictness and caring, tender concern; and perhaps that Disibod had learned a bit from his rough experience as a bishop in Ireland:
He never received the habit of the monastic form of religious life, which his community used, because he allowed his subjects a way of life according to the Rule of blessed Benedict that was milder than his own. He did this for fear that if he were in a habit like theirs and did not want to lay aside the harsh rigor of his vigils, fasts, and other bodily renunciations, he would distract from their religious observance and detract from their common life. (…) From the time when he was driven from his see until the end of his life, he celebrated the divine rites of the altar not in the manner of bishops but according to the custom of poor priests. From this he had no mental unrest but happiness of heart, because he was imitating the suffering of Christ. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 30)
After more than thirty years of faithful service to this community, Disibod’s health began to fail. He appointed his successor as abbot, and gave instructions that he be buried, not in the monastery upon the hilltop, “but in the shaded arbor of his oratory [in humili umbraculo oratorii sui], in which he had served God as a solitary” (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 34). Having faithfully kept the spiritual garden of his life like the pigmentarius (spice or dye maker) to which Hildegard compared him at the beginning, those spice trees and fragrant flowers came at last into full bloom:
After many labors and many troubles in the eighty-first year of his life, on the eight day of the Ides of July, he accepted the end of the present life. (…) His passing was immediately followed by a very sweet odor, like that of balsam, myrrh, and frankincense, and all other scents. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 35)
The remainder of the vita tells of the ups and downs of the Disibodenberg’s community in the centuries that followed—foreign invasions that led to abandonment; reestablishments later disendowed by greedy nobles; and several episodes of worldly monks whose vainglory got in the way. Hildegard connects the foundation’s history into that of the German church when she claims that St. Boniface, “Apostle of the Germans” and bishop of nearby Mainz, himself presided over the translation of Disibod’s relics in 754 from his humble oratory upon the mountain’s slope into the main oratory at its summit (c. 45). Though Hildegard kindly omits any mention of her own disputes with the “vainglory” of the current community—which, however, she did censure in the sermon she delivered to the community with the finished vita—the parallels with previous failures are clear enough. She chooses instead to close the saint’s life with an exhortation of hope, grounded in the eschatological perspective that she takes in the liturgical compositions:
So now let there be praise to God, who always fights against the ancient serpent in such a way that he removes every wrinkle of sin until the consummation of the world [cf. Eph. 5:27], when every disposition of his faithful will fully appear as he originally arranged it. Then the ancient serpent will be completely overthrown, since he will not be able to do anything for himself or to others, nor will he be able to give glory to anyone. (Vita S. Dysibodi episcopi, c. 54)

  • Summarized and adapted, with Latin text from Hildegard of Bingen, Two Hagiographies: Vita sancti Ruppert confessoris; Vita sancti Dysibodi episcope, ed. Christopher P. Evans, trans. Hugh Feiss (Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations, 11; Paris, Leuven, Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2010), pp. 86-157.
  • The older edition of the Latin text can be found in Patrologia Latina 197, cols. 1095-1116.

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