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Vickroy: SXU prof heads to Rome to see medieval nun get top honors

Dr. Avis Clendenen professor religious studies St. Xavier University penned 'Experiencing Hildegarde.' Hildegarde Bening is new saint who will be

Dr. Avis Clendenen, a professor of religious studies at St. Xavier University, penned "Experiencing Hildegarde." Hildegarde of Bening is a new saint who will be given the church's highest honor on Oct. 7 in Rome. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun Times Media

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Dr. Avis Clenden will present “Experiencing Hildegard of Bingen — Medieval Nun, Doctor of the Church, Wisdom Figure for Our Time” at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 6 in the Butler Reception Room at St. Xavier University, 3700 W. 103rd St., Chicago; (773) 298-3000. Admission is free.

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Updated: November 8, 2012 6:09AM



During the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen was an author, mystic, healer, musician, prophetess and proponent of holistic living.

She composed more than 77 hymns, which continue to top classical music charts today. She wrote a trilogy of religious texts and had them illustrated. She authored the only two medical books written in the Western world during that time. As if that’s not enough, she also preached about the importance of living in harmony with nature — decades before St. Francis of Assisi was even born.

“She was the most prolific medieval woman,” said Avis Clendenen, professor of religious studies at St. Xavier University in Chicago. “She was, by all accounts, a Renaissance woman centuries before the Renaissance.”

Clendenen, who lives in Crestwood, has studied and celebrated the work of Hildegard for decades. Her book, “Experiencing Hildegard: Jungian Perspectives,” was published in 2009. For good reason, she will update it with two new chapters later this month.

Through the course of her work, Clendenen became so entwined with the story of the medieval abbess that she somehow sensed 2012 would be Hildegard’s year.

She was right. Hildegard became St. Hildegard in May. On Sunday, she becomes only the fourth woman in history to receive the Catholic Church’s highest honor, doctor of the church, a title bestowed upon saints whose writings are deemed to be of universal importance to the church.

And Clendenen is in Rome for the celebration.

Before she left for Vatican City Friday, Clendenen gave a presentation on Hildegard to the Theology South group at St. Xavier Thursday morning.

“This is a momentous time for the church, for all who have believed this should happen to Hildegard and for religious women in this country,” Clendenen said.

A Renaissance woman in her own right, Clendenen was the first woman accepted into the masters of divinity program in the Jesuit School of Theology at Loyola University in 1972. She taught religion at Mother McAuley High School from 1978 to 1982 before moving on to the university level.

She describes Hildegard as a prophetic model of a future church, one that celebrates the contributions of women, as well as a model of a full human being for women.

Hildegard was born in 1098, the 10th child in a wealthy family. She was a sickly youngster who experienced visions that were often accompanied by symphonies of sound. At age 8, she was dedicated to the church and sent to live with an anchoress at the monastery of Disibod. There, she studied German and Latin as well as the Bible and music. As an adult, she became the head of a monastery of women, traveling by horseback to other monasteries to preach.

At age 42, Hildegard began to write. Her works included a book about nature and one on medical treatments. She also authored “Scivias,” a multimedia manuscript of 26 mystical visions with theological commentary on topics such as creation, original sin and the end of time.

Though Hildegard has only recently begun to receive acclaim in the United States, she has been celebrated in Germany for decades. Sept. 17, the anniversary of her death, was declared a church holiday there in the 1940s.

Clendenen said she began to sense that Hildegard’s time had finally come when German Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. She could feel momentum growing for the long overlooked patron saint of mid-life women.

In January, Clendenen mentioned to Monsignor John Canary that she had a feeling Hildegard would become a doctor of the church before the year was out. At the time, Hildegard was not even a saint, a required step to becoming a doctor.

“I asked him if he could ask Cardinal (Francis) George to get me a ticket (to the ceremony in Rome),” Clendenen said. He said he didn’t know of any such ceremony being planned.

In May, Hildegard was named a saint. That same month, Clendenen ran into the monsignor again. This time he asked the questions. “He said, ‘Cardinal George wants to know how did you know?’” she said.

She jokingly said, “Tell him I know the butler.”

Clendenen is representing the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Donatta Yates, program coordinator for Theology South and former principal at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, said the honor is well-deserved.

“Avis has followed the Hildegard journey all her life, so for her to go to Rome as a Chicago representative is as it should be,” Yates said.

Joan Zabelka, group member and local business owner, said, “This is so exciting for Avis. She’s been working on Hildegard for so long and to finally have her recognized as a saint and now a doctor, it’s like a gift.”

Angela Durante, provost at St. Xavier, called Clendenen a brilliant academic and an important voice in the field of religious studies.

“She’s like an academic athlete,” associate provost Rick Venneri said. “She’s the most disciplined writer I know, a careful and solid researcher. People seek her out.”

Not only is she an expert in her field, Clendenen is approachable, genuine and funny. In her research, she connects Hildegard’s spirituality and the psychology of Carl Jung.

“Jung found her a worthy companion in his search to finding the inner soul,” Clendenen said.

Clendenen was introduced to Hildegard in the 1980s when she was searching for a subject for her doctorate. At the time, Hildegard’s work was just starting to be translated in the United States.

Since then, Clendenen said there has been a resurgence of interest in Hildegard’s music, particularly among chanters. And Hildegard’s morality play, “The Play of the Virtues,” still is performed on many college campuses.

In addition, holistic healing and living in harmony with nature were schools of thought embraced by Hildegard that are now growing in popularity.

A medieval woman for modern times, Hildegard at last is being celebrated for her talent, strength, vision and holiness.

“If she could do all this back then, we can strive to be like her; we can be better,” Clendenen said.



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