How do we grow in virtue? St. Hildegard provides a seven-step progression in the form of a pillar from earth to heaven that we climb in the spiritual life. The foundation and first step is humility. In our “me” culture today, Hildegard’s progression is contrary to nearly everything we see.

The progression of virtues that Hildegard outlines is at first surprising. For example, she says we need Fear of God before we can develop Faith. Although surprising, Hildegard has great insight into the spiritual life and the progression of virtues. We may be surprised by her insights, but that just highlights her brilliance.

The progression is outlined step by step below. Consider how St. Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, advised that we work on developing virtue.

St. Hildegard of Bingen, a brilliant woman from the twelfth century and Doctor of the Church, wrote extensively on theology, but also on a number of other topics, including medicine and botany.

In her book, Scivias, Hildegard relates a series of visions that she experienced. The visions are extremely detailed, but are of heavenly things, so they are extremely difficult to comprehend and interpret. Fortunately, the majority of the book is devoted to explaining what the visions mean.

In one vision, Hildegard relates the Pillar of the Humanity of the Savior. The pillar is a stairway from earth to heaven. Each step is a virtue that we must develop and practice in order to climb to the pillar. The progression is extremely helpful in understanding the spiritual life. Many saints have written that practicing any virtue will dispose a person to all the virtues. This is absolutely true, but Hildegard also captures how some virtues cannot be practiced until we have the correct disposition. This means developing some virtues may be necessary before we can progress in others.

The pillar is presented below. The dark shaded boxes are quotes from Hildegard from Scivias, and the light shaded boxes seek to provide further insight into Hildegard’s writing.

Description: Hildegard of Bingen. Date: Mediaeval; Source: Lettera43.it
“In the pillar, there was an ascent like a ladder from bottom to top, on which I saw all the virtues of God descending and ascending, laden down with stones and going with keen zeal in their work.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen

A Path to Humility

The focus on the pillar is the pursuit of humility and a total surrender to God. Humility is the foundation of the pillar and the ultimate goal. The pillar approaches humility in two ways. First, humility is the first virtue that must be acquired and entails valuing others equal to or above ourselves. Until we see value in others, no other virtue can be acquired, because everything is done in selfishness (even acts charity). This is why humility is the foundation. Without it, the other virtues are impossible.

The second way humility is addressed in the pillar is by pursuing the supernatural virtue of humility. This is the goal of the pillar. The supernatural virtue of humility is the total conformance of our lives to the will of God, where we no longer consider what we want or desire, but only seek service to God. It is a complete transformation of our very being. An incremental step toward this is the natural virtue of humility where we value others above ourselves, but the perfection of humility is much greater than this small step.

Our goal is to achieve the supernatural virtue of humility and develop total conformance of our will to the will of God.  This requires service, sacrifice and love.  To develop this great humility, we must first learn, master and perfect the natural virtues outlined in the pillar.  A natural virtue is something we can work on and experience in daily life.  A supernatural virtue is a gift from God and requires a total transformation in ourselves in conformance with God. This is only achieved through the perfection of natural virtues. We cannot do this alone. We require God’s grace to perfect any virtue, especially humility. Fortunately, God’s desire is to shower us with grace toward this end, if we will only accept it.

“O Humility, who lifts to the stars the oppressed and the crushed! O Humility, glorious queen of the virtues!  What a strong and victorious protector you are to all who are yours!  No one falls who loves you with a pure heart.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen

The Pillar of the Humanity of the Savior

“But in the pillar, there is an ascent like a ladder from bottom to top.  This is to say that in the incarnate Son of God all the virtues work fully, and that He left in Himself the way of salvation; so that faithful people both small and great can find in Him the right step on which to place their foot in order to ascend to virtue, so that they can reach the best place to exercise all the virtues…  Therefore, you see all the virtues of God descending and ascending, laden down with stones; for in God’s Only-Begotten the lucent virtues descend in His Humanity and ascend in His Divinity.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen
St. Hildegard names the pillar after the humanity of Jesus. The reason for this comes from the adjacent quote. The pillar is a ladder from heaven to us. It is through the incarnation that Jesus descends to us, and through His divinity that He ascends back to heaven. The ladder is only possible through the incarnation, and therefore, through the humanity of Jesus.

The quote goes on to point out that the virtues of the Son of God are fully at work in the incarnation. This indicates that God’s virtue reaches its fulfillment in the incarnation. The pillar starts and ends with humility. God possesses perfectly this “glorious queen of virtues,” but the practice of this virtue reaches its perfection in the incarnation, where God became human with all our weaknesses and frailties. There is no way God, in His infinite eternal nature, could humble Himself more than taking a mortal finite nature. This act gives us the pillar that we can climb by sharing in the virtues of Jesus.

Step 1: Humility

The pillar starts with the natural virtue of humility. This is the virtue of valuing others equal to or superior to ourselves.  At its inception and minimum, it is recognizing the inherent dignity of all people, and that others are not objects to be used. This is a basic, fundamental element of humility, but unfortunately, it is also lacking in many. Without seeing the inherent dignity in others, none of the other virtues can be pursued.  St. Hildegard writes that humility is the foundation of the pillar. It is an essential first step and holds up the other virtues.
“So the first figure designates Humility, who first manifested the Son of God when God, Who holds heaven and earth in His power, did not disdain to send His Son into the world.  Thus she wears a gold crown on her head, with three higher prongs, because she surpasses and sweetly precedes the other virtues, and so is crowned with the gold crown of the precious and resplendent Incarnation of the Savior.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen

Step 2: Charity

“The second figure designates Charity; for, after the Humility with which the Son of God deigned to become incarnate, the true and ardent lamp of Charity was lighted when God so loved humanity that for its love He sent His Only-Begotten to take a human body.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen
Once we develop humility and begin valuing others, we move to Charity, where we seek to help others. Today, we often consider charity as giving money to those in need, and that is a part of charity, but there is so much more. Charity is doing good for others because they are valued and loved.  To do an act of charity, we must first have humility.  If we do not value and respect the person we are helping, our actions cannot be an act of love, and they cannot be charitable. We have to have humility in our hearts to be charitable. Otherwise, our actions will be motivated by selfish interests and are not charitable.

Can a selfish action benefit someone else?  Yes, of course.  If I want great prestige and respect, I can do great acts of service and sacrifice for others in order to get attention and recognition. These acts are beneficial to others, but they do not constitute virtue. I do nothing to please God in these acts because my motivation is selfish. The desire for honor and recognition negates any charity in the action. Selfish acts are not charitable or virtuous.

Step 3: Fear of God/Responsibility

From charity, we progress to the third step in St. Hildegard’s pillar, the fear of God. This fear is a fear of the justice of God. It is a natural consequence of growing in charity.

At the start of our practice of charity, we help others when we desire it. The charity we do involves some sacrifice, but we are not willing to hurt too much. We enjoy the good feelings that come from charity, and we want it to be easy.

Over time, we recognize that others need our help. Their plight is unjust, and we have a responsibility and obligation to help. The fear of God can be thought of as the fear of God punishing us for our injustice when we fail to help others, or it can be our revulsion at our own inaction in the face of injustice (motivated by the Holy Spirit through our conscience).

St. Hildegard uses fear of God to name this virtue, but we might better understand it as responsibility, or more specifically, as personal responsibility to help others.

This virtue is an acceptance of our responsibility to be charitable.  Charity is a willful act based on the value and dignity of the person in need.  In this virtue of responsibility, charity ceases to be an occasional act that we do on our own terms. It is transformed into a command from God to be charitable all the time, whenever we see someone in need.  We are responsible for the care of others because we respect and fear God.

This fear does not mean that we consider God a vengeful God, and our actions are motivated purely by a desire to avoid punishment. This idea is actually contrary to the virtue Hildegard is presenting since it is a selfish motivation. The Fear of God is a virtue of respect, where we are compelled to follow God’s command. Fear may be a component, but the greatest fear in this virtue is likely our fear of disappointing our Father in heaven who loves us infinitely. It is also a fear of the suffering that others endure when we fail to help them. We can no longer choose to ignore the needs of others because we are responsible for them. When we see someone in need, we feel their needs is a result of our inaction. We take responsibility. In this virtue, we recognize that Jesus is personally present in the suffering of others, so our failure to help others is a failure to help Him.

“The third figure signifies Fear of the Lord, who arose in the minds of the faithful after the Charity God showed humanity when He willed His Son to undergo death for its sake. And this Fear arose that people might understand the heavenly commands more fully and perfectly than they previously had when doing them.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen

Step 4: Obedience

“The fourth designates Obedience; for when Fear is shown to Me in reverence, it is next fitting that My commands be obeyed.  Thus she is wearing a snow-white chain around her neck; for when people forsake the strength of the neck of their wills and join with the innocent Lamb, My Son, she makes their minds pure by the subjection of faithful obedience.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen
St. Hildegard, Midevial, Source - Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias.
The fourth step, Obedience, is a conformance of our will to the will of God and the wills of those in authority over us.  When we learn obedience, we no longer focus on our wants and desires.  We focus on where we are needed, and what is asked of us.  In the previous step, Fear of God, we are compelled to act by our acceptance of responsibility. Being responsible begins the process of acting according to God’s will instead of our own, but we still hold back some discretion. We choose what we are responsible for doing.

In obedience, we cease to choose for ourselves. We surrender our will to God and allow Him to leads us. This may involve submitting to the authority of another person to direct us. In this step, we are not concerned about what we enjoy or want to do. We do what we are told out of love for God.

The progression from Charity, to Fear of God, and on to Obedience is a progression of humility.  Charity started with a limited effort on our terms. Fear of God progressed in humility by taking responsibility for helping with less consideration for the sacrifice we need to make. Finally, we embrace acting in ways that are outside our desires in obedience to the Lord purely out of a desire to do His will.

Obedience includes obeying authority figures we encounter in the world.  We should always obey God first, but it is not enough to just obey God.  We must also obey our parents, church authorities, government authorities, our employers and other authorities. Obeying God is a spiritual good, but obeying a worldly authority does not carry this same good. Despite this, obeying worldly authorities is important for developing our ability to obey God. It is a good practice and helps to form us to obey God.

Obedience to worldly authorities may be a form of obeying God. There are authorities in our world that possess authority from God.  The first place we see this in the Church. When Christ gave the keys of heaven to Peter, He delegated His authority to the leaders of the Church. Our obedience to the Church is obedience to God. This is true even if their leadership is flawed. The human leaders in the Church are fully capable of develop a poor strategy or managing the execution of a strategy poorly. We are obligated to obey these directives as a practice in virtue (there is an exception – we should never obey an immoral directive that will cause us to sin). This obedience does not mean we do not think, but instead, we practice choosing to do what others want us to do, especially when we desire something else.

The authority of our government is also a delegated authority from God.  All authority rests with Him, but He grants us the ability to form governments. The governments we form possesses authority from God. This holds for all governments, even the ones that misuse this authority. Again, we can never obey an immoral law or directive, but apart from that, we are obligated to abide by the laws our government.

Obedience also helps grow in our humility. When we choose to put the decisions and commands of others above our own, we grow in humility. We learn to serve. Eventually, if we are subject to a command of an authority figure, we will receive an instruction we do not want to follow. Following the decision despite our desires is an excellent act of humility.

Step 5: Faith

After obedience, we learn Faith.  We must first become humble, charitable, responsible, and obedient, and then we can finally encounter God. This encounter is in our hearts. For those raised in a Christian family, knowledge of God can easily precede Faith since knowledge does not guarantee that we develop a personal relationship with God. For those outside the Church, the first experience of Faith might be the experience and recognition that a high power exists. Knowledge of God is not required to recognize and encounter God. God is love, He is mercy, He is compassion, He is beauty and He is Truth. When we encounter these, we are encountering God. Of course, as our relationship grows, we should learn about God, but to develop a foundation of faith, anyone can experience God. In fact, God desires for everyone to be in a relationship with Him. He loves us all.

To experience God in our hearts, our hearts must be open to God. When we are full of pride and selfish desires, we have no room for God within us. We must develop a foundation of humility, charity, responsibility, and obedience before we can invite God into our hearts. This does not mean that God is not with us when we are selfish and prideful. He is with us and is always calling us to Him. When we fill ourselves with pride, we lock Him out and stop listening to Him.

It may seem backwards that Fear of God is at step three and Faith is at step five.  After all, how can we fear God if we do not have any faith in God?

It is important to understand St. Hildegard lived in a world where everyone was Catholic, and everyone was taught the faith at a young age.  Fear of God would have been instilled from a very early age.  This fear is the acceptance of responsibility and obligation to do what is right, and accepting that there are consequences to not doing what is right. Today, we know many who are not taught the Catholic faith.  Fear of God may not be something these individuals recognize as a virtue, but they can still accept their responsibility to provide for the needs of others. This is why Fear of God has been described as the virtue of assuming personal responsibility for others today. It also explains why this virtue can precede Faith.

In addition to encountering God in this step, the virtue of faith includes faithfulness and steadfastness. As we unite with God, our purpose becomes fixed. We no longer seeking a direction, but instead, we are dedicated and resolved, knowing who we are what we were made for.

“The fifth designates Faith; for when the people have Obedience, and obey My commands upon hearing them, they will become believers in Faith and faithfully fulfill in deeds what they learn by wisdom and admonition.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen

Step 6: Hope

“The sixth represents Hope, who rises to life after Faith and belief in God. Her life is not on earth, but hidden in the heavenly places until the time of the eternal reward, for which Hope longs with her whole desire, as does a servant for this pay or a youth for his inheritance. Thus she is clad in a pale-colored tunic; for her trust is as yet pallid, because she has not yet been rewarded, but wearily awaits the coming of her longed-for desire.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen
After we accept God’s Truth and develop Faith, we learn Hope. Hope is often misunderstood and confused with wishful desire. Hope is not wishing for something. Hope is trust in the Lord. This trust needs to permeate everything in our life, otherwise, we are relying on ourselves and not God.

When we hope, we live in the present and trust the future completely to the Lord. Hope is the complete confidence that God will provide for us. Hope allows us to radically serve others. When we cease to worry about ourselves, we can do extraordinary things for others. We can also grow in love. Hope opens the door to radical, unrestrained and fearless love.

Hope also propels us forward. Hope trusts in God, but also longs for Him in eternity. Hope is never satisfied since this virtue entails total confidence in the beatific vision. We are made for heaven, and hope has trust in this end, but hope also has a tremendous desire for union with God.

Step 7: Chastity/Detachment

Hope leads us to the final step in the pillar, chastity. Each step upward has helped us grow in humility, surrendering more of ourselves to God. On the final step, St. Hildegard calls for a renouncement of the desires of the flesh. She describes this beautifully with the virtue of chastity, but her description is much broader than sexual purity.

Today, the term detachment might better represent St. Hildegard’s meaning. She is calling for us to let go of all our worldly desires. Certainly sexual desire is an extremely powerful desire, but it is far from the only desire that we struggle with.

Detachment involves giving up our desires for wealth, pleasure, power and prestige. We detach ourselves from seeking these worldly elements in any area of lives and instead live in the joy of Jesus. This is not a call to Puritanism, where we reject pleasure. We are not called to avoid wealth, pleasure, power or prestige, but instead to avoid the desire for these. A good resource for understanding detachment is the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5). For example, the first beatitude, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, does not prohibit having wealth. It prohibits desiring wealth. Both the rich and the poor can have a disordered desire for wealth. It is this desire that St. Hildegard is concerned with, and this is the renouncement she is describing. Certainly, wealth, pleasure, power and prestige create temptations, and denying these can help us reduce our attachment to them, but the goal is not their elimination. In this virtue, we seek a detachment from the desire for them.

Detachment is the culmination of the spiritual journey. It requires that we stop pursuing the pleasures of the flesh, and focus purely on God. The result of climbing the pillar is a development of humility and union with God.

“The seventh designates Chastity.  For after people have placed their hope fully in God, the perfect work increases in them, and then by Chastity they start wanting to restrain themselves from the desires of the flesh.  For abstinence in the flower of the flesh feels strongly, as a young girl who does not want to look on a man nonetheless feels the fire of desire.  But Chastity renounces all filth and longs with beautiful desire for her sweet Lover, the sweetest and loveliest odor of all good things, for Whom those who love Him wait in timid beauty of soul.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen

The Summit

“For Grace goes before the just, that they may watch themselves and not fall, but follows sinner, that they may repent and rise again… for to the miserable and weeping hearts of the faithful Grace comes in great abundance and fruitfulness, while in the profligate and hard minds of sinners it often contracts itself to a trickle because of their aridity. And so God’s Grace precedes and follows, touches and warms people, as was said; and those who desire to be the children of God can ardently receive and fulfill its words, despising the fleeting things and embracing the lasting ones.” –Scivias, St. Hildegard of Bingen
At the summit of the pillar is the Grace of God. Our reward is union with God and sharing in His infinite grace.

St. Hildegard explains that this grace is not just the end result. It is also the beginning. It is with us every step of the way, helping us to conform to the will of God, helping us to become humble in all things, and helping us to love.

Images:

Hildegard of Bingen, Date Mediaeval, Source Lettera43.it, Author Unknown, {{PD-1923}}

Hildegard von Bingen empfängt eine göttliche Inspiration und gibt sie an ihren Schreiber weiter. en:Image:Hildegard.jpg, Source Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias. {{PD-1923}}