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Feast of Hildegard von Bingen

September 17, 2023

Today’s Invitation

Today, we invite you to explore Hildegard von Bingen’s life, experienced with chronic pain, with the help of disability theology; embody Catholic Social Teaching’s focus on dignity, participation, and solidarity in the wake of government abandonment of COVID-19 precautions; and embody the messages of Hildegard’s life with the help of Cole Arthur Riley and the Institute on Theology and Disability.

Commentary by Allison Connelly-Vetter

Feast of Hildegard von Bingen

Reading 1

Song of Songs 8:6-7

Seal me around your hear, love,
like the bracelets around your arm.
Love is stronger than death,
and as unrelenting.
I am jealous of your love;
my heart burns for you
like the fire of God.
No water could ever put out this fire, love;
no flood could wash it away.

Responsorial Psalm

Psalm 45

Response: At your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

At your right hand stands the queen / in gold of Ophir.
R: At your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear
Forget your people and your ancestor’s home.
R: At your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

And the sovereign will desire your beauty.
R: At your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

With joy and gladness they are led along / as they enter the palace of the sovereign.
R: At your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.


Matthew 25: 1-13

Jesus told this parable to the disciples,
“The kindom of God could be likened to ten attendants
who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party.
Five of them were wise, five were foolish.
When the foolish ones took their lamps,
they didn’t take any oil with them,
but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning.
The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep.

“At midnight there was a cry:
‘Here comes the bridal party!
Let us go out to meet them!’
Then all the attendants rose and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise,
‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise replied,
‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us;
run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.’

“While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived;
and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them, and the door was shut.
When the foolish attendants returned, they pleaded to be let in.
The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I do not know you.’

“So stay awake,
for you do not know the day or the hour.”

The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved. 

The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.



A God Who Feels Pain

Today we celebrate the feast of Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth-century mystic, saint, and Doctor of the Church. While Hildegard is honored for her leadership, conviction, and musical genius, here we explore her connection to chronic pain and some theologies that help us make sense of it.

Hildegard’s family dedicated her to the church as an eight-year-old in part because she was frequently sick. Her sickness continued throughout her life, and Hildegard wrote frequently about her pain and sickness. Based on her consistent sickness and her visions, Hildegard has been retroactively diagnosed with chronic migraines by historians and medical professionals. In her first theological text, Scivias, she writes:

“But I, though I saw and heard [visions], refused to write for a long time…not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses…I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close…And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out, therefore, and write thus!’”

In this excerpt, Hildegard is doing her best to make theological sense of her internal physical experience. Like Hildegard, contemporary disability theologian Deborah Creamer (she/her) lives with chronic pain. In her 2013 article “Theology and Chronic Pain: Some Initial Reflections,” Creamer proposes that pain is an important topic for theological reflection because all of us experience pain. However, Creamer is quick to caution against theological frameworks of pain which insist upon redemptive suffering, Divinely inflicted suffering, or suffering which requires gratitude. Through Creamer’s “limits” model of disability, pain can be understood as a normal and predictable human experience, and as a necessary companion in our otherwise dangerous world: living without pain means not knowing when something is wrong, like feeling heat in your hand when touching a hot stove. Pain also communicates when something matters, like the pain of heartache, and reminds us of the “good pain” of childbirth, a deep massage, or growing bones. Creamer also notes that pain can cause us to notice and embody our resistance to injustice, and wonders “if we would have a more just world if those of us with privilege would feel the pain we cause to others.”

Creamer wants – and believes in – a God who feels pain. She reflects, “I suppose that God would feel pain in a way that is chronic, with no end in sight and with a scale that goes beyond easy articulation…If I cannot articulate my pain to you, no wonder God – who must feel even greater pain than I do – is One who cannot be fully articulated or known to me.” Creamer adds that pain is sacred, clarifying that pain does not lead us to the sacred but rather that it enables sacredness by “unmaking” us and changing how we engage the world, those around us, and even ourselves.

Creamer concludes by saying that she wants to be a person who feels pain. She writes:

“I do not know the world except through pain. And I value the world I see this way, and value myself, fully as I am, in the midst of this experience. It makes me pay closer attention to the world around me, even as it also gives me moments where all I can experience is myself. Pain is meaningful, full of meaning, and we lose something significant if we deny ourselves the ability to meet or engage the meaning that we find and make here.”

Today, I imagine Hildegard von Bingen, who also knew the world only through pain and illness, whose own embodied experience allowed her a sacred and mystical lens on the world, resonating with these reflections from Creamer on how chronic pain and spirituality can nurture one another.

Deborah Beth Creamer is Director of Accreditation and Institutional Evaluation at The Association of Theological Schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (2009).

Commentary by Allison Connelly-Vetter

Allison Connelly-Vetter (she/her) holds a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary with an interdisciplinary concentration in disability theology. She is currently working in church communications, faith-based racial justice organizing, and children, youth, & families ministry. She also preaches and teaches on disability theology for religious congregations and institutions around the country. Denominationally, Allison is both Catholic and United Church of Christ. She lives in Minneapolis, MN with her wife, Brooklyn.

Engage Catholic Social Teaching

The COVID pandemic has revealed that chronically ill people are considered “disposable” by people with power. Many people with chronic illness are at an elevated risk of serious illness if they contract COVID, and are taking additional precautions to avoid becoming infected. However, ending the pandemic requires not only individual but also collective responsibility. Wearing masks, getting vaccinated, and reducing contact with those outside our household are all ways that we, collectively, can reduce the impact of the pandemic. 

Unfortunately, many political leaders have endangered vulnerable people by failing to make masks and vaccines accessible or by forcing students or employees to attend school or work in-person. These decisions frequently isolate and endanger people with health complications. Disabled activist and writer Alice Wong says, “Our leaders talk about the risks, the mortality, about people with severe illnesses, as if they’re a write-off.” In fact, in the height of the pandemic, some disabled people who were hospitalized with COVID were denied care and killed through “care rationing” in medical triage settings because their quality of life was not considered high enough to preserve. 

In early 2022 Rochelle Walensky, then-director of the Centers for Disease Control, deemed it “encouraging” that the Omicron variant of COVID was only killing people with previously existing health conditions. She received pushback from disabled advocates across the country, including from Susan Henderson, executive director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, who called the statement “abhorrent” and said that it “perpetuates widely and wrongly held perceptions that disabled people have a worse quality of life than nondisabled people and [that disabled] lives are more expendable.” Black disabled activist Imani Barbarin began the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy in response to Walensky’s comments, saying, “People heard that only disabled and elderly people would die [of COVID], and they said, ‘Oh, psst, well we’ll be fine then, right? We’ll be okay. But when you think about the fact that Indigenous and Black people have the highest rates of disability, it shifts the entire picture behind that instinct.”

Fortunately, Catholic Social Teaching offers us what we need to counter the blatant ableism and eugenics mindset underlying the systemic devaluing of chronically ill people before, during, and after the COVID pandemic. Catholic social teaching reminds us of the universal human right to dignity, participation, solidarity, and access to what we need. Ensuring the dignity of chronically ill people means demanding that their lives are valued as highly as non-disabled lives so that nobody is “encouraged” when they are dying. Furthering the participation of chronically ill people in society requires us to create a society that is safe enough for their participation. In the pandemic, that means we must work to reduce the risk of COVID for everybody; post-pandemic, this could mean continuing flexible work options for people who experience unpredictable pain and making sure that our buildings are accessible for mobility aids. Being in solidarity with chronically ill people and ensuring they can access what they need requires us to create a world in which they can receive affirming, appropriate, and affordable healthcare. This necessitates the elimination of age or ability based care rationing. Catholic social teaching offers us a road map to care for and be in solidarity with chronically ill people; we just have to follow it. 


A Contemplative Exercise

Adapted from “For Those Living with Chronic Illness” by Cole Arthur Riley (@blackliturgies)

Begin by becoming mindful of your body. Assume a posture that allows you to be as present as possible to this prayer, through laying down in bed or on a couch, sitting in a wheelchair or desk chair, standing up in your room or in a hot shower, holding your child or parent’s hand gently, or something else that brings you to prayerfulness. Bring your attention to your breath or, if that is uncomfortable, to a part of your body that feels grounded and at ease. 

When you feel grounded, pray this blessing. I invite you to pray it several times, for yourself or for someone you love, aloud or in your mind, until it begins to feel true. 

“You, who are burning, twitching,
Alive with unseen ache —
You are not a burden.
Your body, sacred and trying.”

Next, take a few moments to meditate. Meditate as you inhale: “I am not a burden.” Meditate as you exhale: “I can rest without apology.” Try to practice this meditation for at least two minutes.

Finally, pray with these or similar words: 

“God of every ache,
Help us to befriend our bodies. Guide us toward those who know when we are not okay, that we wouldn’t feel pressure to pretend, apologize, or explain but can honor what we need. Remind us that we are not a burden but a beacon to those who have forgotten what self-compassion looks like. Hold us in love, as we resist the demands of this world.”

A Witness

Cole Arthur Riley

Cole Arthur Riley (she/her) is a Black writer who lives with chronic illness. She is the author of This Here Flesh and creator of the project Black Liturgies on Instagram. Jeneé Osterheldt of the Boston Globe writes, “Cole Arthur Riley created a literary communion in Black Liturgies…[making] a space to lift her innermost thoughts as well as the holy wisdom of our [Black] writing legends and the Bible.” 

Riley says she created Black Liturgies “out of anger” in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breona Taylor. “I was hungry for a spiritual space where Black grief, Black anger, my Black body was honored in a meaningful way,” Riley says. “I had belonged to white-dominated, Christian spaces for long enough that I was desperate for a community of spiritual liberation.” As a Black woman living with chronic pain, Riley is acutely aware of how ableism and racism are intimately connected. Riley writes about her body, “I refuse to live a disembodied life. Even as I survive the violence of white supremacy, the judgment of white intellectualism, the pain of a body that is chronically ill, the memory of a body that has endured abuse, I refuse to abandon my body. It contains more beauty, more mystery than I am able to articulate. And in befriending and honoring it, I communicate belief in my inherent dignity.”

A Community

The Institute on Theology and Disability

The Institute on Theology and Disability (formerly the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability) works to foster diverse and authentic interfaith conversations at the intersection of theology and disability. This work is done primarily through an accessible and inclusive four-day institute each summer which gathers leading scholars, writers, faith leaders, advocates, and others committed to advancing inclusive ministries and faith supports. 

In addition to the institute each summer, the Institute on Theology and Disability has created a robust online community through a Facebook group with the same name. This group is described as “a shared space to share questions, resources, and meditations on theology and disability,” and is moderated by individuals who hold leadership roles with the Institute. Both the annual conference and the online community are opportunities for disabled and abled folks working on issues related to disability theology to connect, form relationships, and share opportunities and information in the service of mutual support and collaboration. At the summer institute, many of the presenters and attendees are disabled and share from their personal and professional expertise. Through the virtual community, disabled and abled members share their own work, such as podcasts, webinars, or articles, along with opportunities such as conferences, job postings, or calls for proposals.


“St. Hildegard of Bingen,” The Moden Saints by Gracie

From the website: “Ancient icons of saints portray everyone as old, white, expressionless, and hard to tell apart. I believe these pieces of Church imagery can turn modern-thinking people away from the influences of the saints, and even the Church itself.  

My goal was to re-imagine these extraordinary people as modern, everyday humans… because that is exactly what they were, and they remind us of ourselves. They show us that we can all be saints just like them.”


Image description: Against a reddish brown background is an image of St. Hildegard, with pale skin, green eyes, and reddish hair swept back. She wears a forest green sweater with a few sprigs of greenery in the breast pocket, with one hand to her mouth in contemplation, while she holds a pen. An earbud dangles from one ear.