One of the most colorful and remarkable of mystics, of any age, is the irrepressible twelfth century Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Today (September 17) is her feast day.
Hildegard was a Renaissance woman who lived several centuries before the Renaissance: not only was she a mystic and visionary, but she was also an accomplished musician, an artist (or, at least, an art director), a preacher, an herbalist, a prophet, and a respected leader in the church of her day. She lived at a time when women had no channels open to them to influence public opinion or assert their own will, and yet she managed to form the right relationships with the right people in order to ensure not only that her voice would be heard, but that she would not get into trouble for speaking out. As the first major woman mystic in western Christianity, she paved the way for other women who are now regarded as some of the greatest of Christian spiritual teachers: Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Ávila and Maria Faustina Kowalska all stand on the shoulders of this spiritual giant.
By her own admission, Hildegard was a lifelong visionary. She first encountered the Lux Vivens — or “living light” — while only three years old, and went on to write three books about her extraordinary revelations, the last one completed only a few years before she died. At first she made no effort to publicize her mystical experience, but in her forty-second year she received instructions to commit her visions to writing. Surely recognizing that women did not routinely write about their spirituality, she shrewdly appealed to Bernard of Clairvaux for advice, and he in turn appealed to the Pope, who issued a written statement approving of Hildegard’s work.
The visions themselves range from the luminously beautiful to the starkly terrifying. In her writings she combines vivid descriptions of what she saw with detailed reflections on their meaning. Part of what makes Hildegard so remarkable a figure — and appealing to us today — is that she created (or instructed one of her sister nuns to create) illuminations to illustrate many of the visions. While much of the content of her seeing is predictably religious in nature, filled with the glory of God and the depiction of Biblical stories, plenty of meaningful insight characterized her experiences. By providing both literary and visual records of her visions, Hildegard often made subtle contributions to an alternative way of seeing even the dogmas of the Church.
For example, one of her most remarkable visions was of the Holy Trinity: the Christian understanding of God as consisting of three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Many efforts to depict the Trinity rely on abstract symbolism, such as a triangle imposed upon a circle. The circle represents the “unity” of the Oneness of God, while the triangle with its three points symbolizes each of the distinct “persons” of the Trinity.
By contract, Hildegard’s vision of the Trinity is both strikingly original and profoundly organic. At the center of her vision stood Christ, hands held up in a position of prayer or blessing, his entire figure colored a lovely sapphire blue. Surrounding Christ are concentric circles of what appear to be shimmering energy in gold and silver or white. In Hildegard’s own words:
I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire. And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.1
The spheres of light and gold energy surrounding the Christ-figure represent the fire of the Holy Spirit and the light of the Father, embracing and upholding the body of Christ, the son of God incarnate in human form. With its emphasis on energy, the body, and embracing, Hildegard’s vision seems strikingly feminine, in contrast to the usually strictly masculine ways in which God has been depicted in Christianity.Hildegard also describes the Trinity using the concept of the Word (following the classic idea that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh). A spoken word consists of three elements: the meaning of the word, the breath of the person who is speaking, and the physical sound of the word as it is spoken. To Hildegard, the sound represents the Father, the meaning represents the Son, and the breath represents the Holy Spirit.2
Even more striking is Hildegard’s perception of viriditas, an almost untranslatable Latin word that basically means “green power” or “life force.” In traditional Christian terms viriditas could be equated to the Holy Spirit, but it could just as easily be thought of as the energy of nature — the greening that emerges through plants, and by extension all living things. Hildegard issued warnings that God would allow humans to be punished if they misused creation — a prophecy that seems particularly apt today.
Writing in the twelfth century, Hildegard’s theology and values are steeped in the world-view of the medieval mind, which makes her writing somewhat challenging for the casual reader. But many people find their deepest connection to Hildegard through her music. In recent years many of Hildegard’s chants and hymns have been recorded; her compositions are strikingly melodic for medieval music, and make for ethereally beautiful listening.
I remember as a graduate student in the early 1980s, shopping in a large book and music store in Georgetown when suddenly it seemed as if the entire shop were filled with an angel’s song. I went to the desk and discovered that the clerk was playing a record (this was before CDs were widely available) called A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. The soprano, Emma Kirkby, had a voice as pure and beautiful as a fine wine. That album won the Gramophone Award in 1982, and launched an explosion of interest in the music of Hildegard. The German early music ensemble Sequentia recorded all of Hildegard’s compositions, most of which were designed for use during the nuns’ worship, released in a box set of eight CDs. Other artists have taken Hildegard’s compositions and set them to arrangements of electronic or new age music, giving this ancient body of mystical music a new interpretation for our time.
While Hildegard herself did not teach prayer or meditation like many other mystics, her music is perhaps her richest contribution to spiritual seekers of our age: listening to a recording like A Feather on the Breath of God, it is easy to sense just how clearly Hildegard could gaze into what she called “the living light” of heaven.
Although it was a long time in coming, Hildegard of Bingen was finally recognized for the spiritual genius by the Catholic Church; during the pontificate of the German Pope Benedict XVI, she was canonized a saint and declared a doctor (teacher) of the church — in the year 2012, a mere 833 years after her death!
Recommended Reading: Selected Writings by Hildegard of Bingen (London: Penguin Books, 2001)
Recommended Listening: A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen by Gothic Voices with Emma Kirkby (London: Hyperion Records, 1982)
1 Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, (New York: Paulist Pres, 1990), p. 161.
2 ibid., p. 164.