Eight hundred years ago, in the lush Rhineland valley, there lived a woman of extraordinary spirit and courage. In a century that gave birth to what has rightly been called the greatest Christian Renaissance, Hildegard of Bingen, whose lifetime spanned eighty percent of that century (1098 - 1179), stands out. In her lifetime, Chartres Cathedral rose from the grain fields of France with its delicious stained glass and its inimitable sculpture; Eleanor of Aquitaine and Thomas à Becket strode the political stage; Frederick Barbarossa frightened peasant and pope alike - and Hildegard dressed him down; Bernard of Clairvaux both reformed monastic life and launched the Second Crusade; the Cathedral School of Paris was evolving into the University of Paris - and its faculty approved of Hildegard's writings after she travelled there in her mid-seventies with her books under her arm; Heloise and Abelard fell in love and left their tragic story for generations to ponder.
Through all the turmoil and all the creativity of the period, Hildegard carried on her work of preaching and teaching, of organising and reforming, of establishing monasteries and journeying, of composing, writing, healing, studying, cajoling, and prophecying. Hildegard has left us over one hundred of her letters to emperors and popes, bishops, archbishops, nuns, and nobility. In addition, we have seventy-two songs including a morality play set to music that can rightly be called an opera and for which Hildegard has recently been acclaimed for "extending the vocabulary of medieval music radically beyond the norms" and for creating a "highly individual and unorthodox musical style." She left us over seventy poems and nine books. Three of the latter are major theological works, Scivias, which we will discuss below; Liber Vitae Meritorum on ethics; and De Operatione Dei, also to be discussed below. Among her other books is one on physiology, Liber Simplicis Medicinae. This book also called Physica, combines botanical and biological observations along with pharmaceutical advice. In it she treats at length of stones, trees, plants, and herbs. She also wrote a book on health called Liber Compositae Medicinae or Causae et Curae in which.she discusses the symptoms, causes, and cures of physical ailments. She was the author of an interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict, a commentary on the gospels, one on St. Athanasius' Creed, and two biographies of saints.
It is appropriate to remember Hildegard with light imagery since that is how she describes her spiritual awakening (see Vision Two below) . "When I was forty-two years and seven months old, a burning light of tremendous brightness coming from heaven poured into my entire mind. Like a flame that does not burn but enkindles, it inflamed my entire heart and my entire breast, just like the sun that warms an object with its rays" What did this illumination do for Hildegard? "All of a sudden, I was able to taste of the understanding of the narration of books. I saw the Psalter clearly and the evangelists and other catholic books of the Old and New Testaments." Hildegard was overcome by this experience of intuition, connection-making, and insight and went to bed sick. It was when she "placed my hand to writing" that she received new strength, got out of bed, and spent the following ten years writing her first book called Scivias.
Why do we refer to her visions as "illuminations"? For Hildegard, it is the Holy Spirit who illumines. Like the original Pentecost event, which Hildegard draws in her self portrait (see Vision Two below), she was awakened by the parted tongues of fire that make sense of Babel and allow deep communication to happen among the peoples. Frequently Hildegard pictures the Holy Spirit as fire: "O Holy Spirit, Fiery Comforter Spirit, Life of the life of all creatures" she writes. "Who is the Holy Spirit?" "The Holy Spirit is a Burning Spirit. It kindles the hearts of humankind. Like tympanum and lyre it plays them, gathering volumes in the temple of the soul...The Holy Spirit resurrects and awakens everything that is." Surely all these statements about the fiery Holy Spirit apply to Hildegard's own experience with her visions and her call to speak and to inflame humankind with compassion. Hildegard celebrates God as "the living light and the obscured illumination" who has appointed her to speak to the peoples. Her illuminations, then, are meant to rescue divinity from obscurity, to allow the divine to flow from human hearts - beginning with her own - once again. Like the light of the sun, she tells us, her heart was entirely inflamed and she felt the need to enkindle other hearts so that the imagination and creativity, forgiveness and contrition might flow again in the world. In her first vision she describes the spiritual awakening as an invitation to "come to light in the knowledge of mysteries... where with a bright light this serenity will shine forth strongly among those who shine forth." Hildegard calls herself a female prophet ("prophetam istam") and her contemporaries agreed, comparing her to the prophet Deborah and to Jeremiah. She compares herself to Judith who slew Holophernes, the general of the Assyrian army, thus saving Israel. And she compares herself to David who slew Goliath." She is deeply indebted to the apocalyptic prophets such as Daniel and Ezekiel for their vivid imagery as well (Cf. Ez. 1.24-2.3, Dan. 8.15-27). Hildegard herself discouraged those who wanted to define her gifts as a foretelling of the future; instead, she understood her prophetic role as one of criticising the present in such depth that the future might affect a deeper commitment to bringing about the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Hildegard's teaching forced people to "wake up," take responsibility, make choices. Prophets "illuminate the darkness,' she tells us. They are the people who can say "God has illuminated me in both my eyes. By them I behold the splendor of light in the darkness. Through them I can choose the path I am to travel, whether I wish to be sighted or blind by recognising what guide to call upon by day or by night.'' Here we learn the title of her book Scivias, which means "Know the Ways." Hildegard means "know the wise ways as distinct from the foolish ways." People who follow the ways of wisdom "will themselves become a fountain gushing from the waters of life ... For these waters - that is, the believers - are a spring that can never be exhausted or run dry. No one will ever have too much of them . . . the waters through which we have been reborn to life have been sprinkled by the Holy Spirit."
Hildegard's spiritual awakening is not without parallels in other cultures. Mircea Eliade, in examining the phenomena of cosmic illuminations among diverse groups including an Eskimo shaman, an American businessman, a Canadian psychiatrist, and Arjuna from the Bhagavad-Gita, draws some general conclusions. "It is important to stress that whatever the nature and intensity of an experience of the Light, it always evolves into a religious experience. All types of experience of the Light that we have quoted have this factor in common: they bring a man (sic) out of his worldly Universe or historical situation, and project him into a Universe different in quality, an entirely different world, transcendent and holy." The essence of the universe is now spiritual . The following result is fundamental to all these awakenings: "Whatever his previous ideological conditioning, a meeting with the Light produces a break in the subject's existence, revealing to him (sic) - or making clearer than before - the world of the Spirit, of holiness and of freedom; in brief, existence as a divine creation, or the world sanctified by the presence of God."
HILDEGARD'S GIFTS FOR OUR TIMES
Hildegard, mystic and a prophet, wishes to be a practical, helping mystic and prophet. She constantly extols the virtue of "usefulness" and in the final sentence of her major work, De Operatione Dei, she tells us that the reason for her work has been "for the usefulness of believers who are asked to receive her words with a "modest heart." She writes that God "destroys uselessness."
Hildegard gives us a working guide to her work when she insists on usefulness. It is one thing to translate Hildegard or to be with her pictures and music - it is quite another to deeply understand her words and have them affect your psyche, religion, and culture to the extent that they are "useful," as she herself put it. Not everything a twelfth century nun speculated about is of equal value to our journeys and struggles today. But just how should we understand a mystic of eight centuries ago?
Even in her own time there were plenty of complaints from those who heard or read Hildegard but did not understand her message in the usefulness with which it was intended. Abbot Berthold of Zwiefalten wrote her that, "although I am often put in a Joyful mood by the consolation of your words, I am sometimes depressed again because their obscurity closes them to my understanding."
The recovery of the creation-centered spiritual tradition in our time is the greatest help in our understanding Hildegard of Bingen. She, being a Benedictine and a woman true to her experience, is a rich spokesperson of that tradition. Even though she lived in an era when Augustine dominated theology Hildegard de-emphasizes fall/redemption religion in favour of creation-centered theology. Augustine, the great introspective intellectual is silent on the cosmic Christ - but for Hildegard, the cosmic Christ forms the center of her thought. It is remarkable, for example, to compare her sense of cosmic justice and love of nature to her contemporary, Peter Lombard whose works became for centuries the basic textbook of Christian clerics. As long as theology had only a fall/redemption approach to spirituality, it was not possible to understand Hildegard's immense contribution to spirituality. Now that we do, however, the serious student of Hildegard will find all four paths and every one of the twenty-six themes of the creation-centered spiritual tradition in her work. Like a magnet held up to her pages, these themes draw out the most "useful" insights of her theology. These paths and themes include the following: Dabhar, the creative energy or word of God; blessing; earthiness as the meaning of humility; cosmos; trust; pantheism; royal personhood; realised eschatology; cosmic hospitality; emptying; being emptied; nothingness; divinization; art as meditation; trust of images; dialectic; God as Mother; New Creation; trusting the prophet call; anawim; compassion as celebration; compassion as "zealous" justice. Applying these themes to Hildegard's work makes her theology become alive, incarnated, fleshy, and "useful".
We need to understand how the creation-centered tradition offers a different agenda by which to understand some of the greatest souls in our Western heritage. It offers a hermeneutic or interpretation for seizing the essence of our creation-centered ancestors - an interpretation which is missing wherever creation spirituality is untaught. Without this "grid," interpreters of Hildegard miss her poignancy simply because they only know stale categories of fall/redemption theology. I have been profoundly moved by the amount of Eckhart in Hildegard, that is to say the themes that she pays attention to that later appear in Meister Eckhart's work. Indeed Hildegard and Eckhart are sister and brother mystic/prophets. Her scope of intellectual, artistic, scientific, and political interest and involvement is astounding. I believe that someday soon she will follow in the footsteps of Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila in being named a Doctor of the Church.
Hildegard called herself a prophet, as did her contemporaries. It should be pointed out that in many respects prophets do not know what they are saying or what they are doing. By that I mean the prophet as prophet is touching something so deep in the human and cultural psyche that the full implications of what he/she unleashes do not make themselves evident in one's lifetime. Hildegard herself makes this very point, describing how the prophetic work is done "in the shadows" and how only later the human family makes clear the prophet's message and the divine wisdom elicited thereby. Just as the truths in John of the Cross' poetry far exceed his rational commentaries on it, so too the depths of Hildegard's images and symbolism often outrace her commentaries on the illuminations. The limits of Hildegard's conscious knowledge of what she was doing and of her culture's science puts great responsibility on those who choose to pray her illuminations and meditate on them today. She advises her readers to "lay hold of my warnings, embrace them, trace them in the enjoyment of your soul." That is why the reader needs to trust her or his experience with the illuminations, as well as to listen to the text. I invite the reader to enter the process of mysticism or unitive experience.
What accounts for this amazing renaissance in Hildegard's life and spirituality? What is the powerful message that Hildegard stands for today?
Essentially, what Hildegard does is fill most of the gaps in Western religion. Gaps that have left the cosmos and cosmic Christ out of theology; gaps that have ignored humanity's divinity and creativity; gaps that have repressed humanity's relationship to all of creation, gaps that divorce salvation from active, useful, and effective healing of peoples and societies; gaps that ignore women's experiences ; gaps that have obliterated the creation-centered spiritual tradition.
Let us take a closer look at some of the gifts Hildegard offers us in her work. I count at least eight gifts that Hildegard presents us with today that we are desperate to receive.
She is a woman in a patriarchal culture and a male-run church who strove to be heard, who struggled to offer her own wisdom and gifts borne of the experience and suffering of women of the past. In a letter to St. Bernard of Clairvaux she complains of the burden she carries as a woman in a patriarchal culture. "I am wretched and more than wretched in my existence as a woman," she complains. Like any member of the "anawim" or oppressed peoples anywhere, she struggled for years with the "I can't" or "I shouldn't" or "Who am I to..." feelings that she had been taught. She relates how often she was confined to a sickbed because she succumbed to this covering up of her talents and her voice and how her conversion - which was in fact a decision to write her visions for the larger community - brought about a physical energising and got her, literally, out of bed. Mechtild of Magdeburg, a Beguine and lay woman who would follow one hundred years after Hildegard, was also advised that she was uneducated and theologically illiterate and ought to keep quiet about her spiritual insight. She tells us in her journal that, after much prayer and soul-searching, and after getting different advice from a few counsellors, she concluded the following: "I am forced to write these words regarding which I would have gladly kept silent because I fear greatly the power of vainglory. But I have learned to fear more the judgment of God should I, God's small creature, keep silent. I believe Hildegard would concur - that sins of silence and omission are the greatest sins of oppressed persons everywhere.
Hildegard's psycho-physical struggle is archetypal and holds deep implications for the psychology and liberation of the oppressed. Self-expression, art for the people's sake: here lies the most radical kind of liberation. In music and poetry, writings and preaching, organising prophetic resistance lies one's co-creative powers.
Hildegard's extensive gifts of music and cosmic imagery are wonderful to behold precisely because the contribution of women in the arts and in religion has been so conveniently forgotten,
repressed, or ridiculed in the centuries that have intervened since her time. She challenges women to be their full selves, to influence culture as well as home life, to express experience and not hold back. She is in this way a champion of a holistic culture, where women and men alike share their wisdom in mutuality.
Hildegard has been called "the first medieval woman to reflect and write at length on women" and her correspondence reveals a lifestyle of political and social activism that was "unheard of in a woman of her time." Hildegard teaches that men and women are biologically different but equal as partners in God's creative work. She writes: "Man cannot be called man without woman. Neither can woman be called woman without man." Far from being "defective males," as Aristotle taught and Aquinas would repeat, women were intended by nature in the unfolding of creation. Marriage is like a garden of love which God has planted but which man and woman must cultivate to protect from drought. While Hildegard at times espouses the rhetoric of women's subordination to men and rejects the idea that women should be ordained priests, her activities reveal another side to her convictions about male/female relationships. As one scholar has put it: "She castigated a pope for his timidity and an emperor for moral blindness. She taught scholars and preached to clergy and laity as no woman before her had ever done... She claimed that now woman rather than man - obviously Hildegard herself - was to do God's work. It is difficult not to see in her visionary experience and activism, as well as her claim for the mission of woman in a male-dominated age, a gesture of protest, the reaction of an intelligent and energetic woman who chafed under the restraints imposed on women by the culture in which she lived." She taught that now a woman would prophesy for the scandal of men and in her two most severe images of the demonic- patriarchy is itself pictured in league with the devil. Hildegard is a spokesperson for those silent millions. She hints at what has been missed in a one-sided, patriarchal culture, church, or psyche.
Hildegard brings together the holy trinity of art, science, and spirituality. She was so in love with nature, so taken by the
revelation of the divine in creation, that she sought out the finest scientific minds of her day, made encyclopaedias of their knowledge (before there were any encyclopaedias) followed the scientific speculations on the shapes and elements of the universe, and wedded these to her own prayer, her own imagery, her own spirituality and art. Her scientific thought evolved and she says, "All science comes from God."
We too live in a time of great scientific excitement and discovery. Einstein's displacement of Newton's mechanistic universe has unleashed spiritual aspirations and imagery from poet and physicist alike. After centuries of a religionless cosmos and an introverted, cosmic-less religion, we long to experience a cosmos of mystery and spirit coming together again. Science and spirituality are coming together again to create a shared vision. Hildegard would approve. She would be leading the way in this magnificent venture which gives hope to the people and wisdom to our ways. Moreover, she has demonstrated what the missing link between science and spirituality is: art. Only a trust of our creativity and our imagery, expressed in the multiple ways of the creative human spirit, can make science's models or paradigms live in the souls of the people. She teaches that it is art - music, for example - that "wakes us from our sluggishness" and overcomes apathy, that makes cold hearts warm and dry consciences moist again. The proper context for spirituality and faith is the cosmos - not the privatised, individual soul. And the only way to express this cosmic experience is through art and creativity. Humans become the musical instruments of God. The divine Spirit makes music through us. Hildegard does not talk about these matters in abstract terms - she practices them by the scientific/artistic/theological methodology she employs in her work. Her first theological work, Scivias, includes pictures, a play, and music along with analytic reflections. "The works of humankind shall not disappear," she warns. "Those things that tend toward God shall shine forth in the heavens, while those that are demonic shall become notorious through their ill effects."
Einstein warned that "science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." Hildegard would surely concur. But she would add that science and religion without art are ineffective and violent; and art without science and religion is vapid.