Zen, Hallucinations, and, oh, yes, Hildegard of Bingen

Zen, Hallucinations, and, oh, yes, Hildegard of Bingen September 17, 2018





Out on the interwebs, at least in the corners where I tend to hang out there’s a lot of conversation about psychedelics and Buddhism and especially Zen.

I am not a relentless denier of their possible uses. But, I am more than slightly negatively inclined. I’m especially disdainful of some sense that special experiences are particularly significant. That said, the truth of the matter is how more than one religion finds its source in what outsiders would call hallucinations.

As I said, me, I’m past suspicious of any assertions grounded, if you will, in such things. Too often what is being packaged within the claims of these grand experiences is glaringly self-serving. One spiritual director I worked with suggested a pretty good way to tell whether any insight that presents itself, was if you liked the word, it probably is a lying spirit. While I find that useful, it doesn’t factor in those spirits that tell you to go and kill people, which you may find abhorrent, but, hey, the spirit said to do it. Nor does that take into account those experiences where self and other collapse. All so messy.

Messy, no doubt. Messy.

As a spiritual tradition Zen tends to be very wary of such things. Possibly one of the reasons, secondary though it may be, why Zen remains so important to me. Within the Zen world the technical term for such things is makyo, which roughly translates as “diabolic interference.” Wariness about all of this just plain makes sense to me.

And at the same time I’ve noticed such ecstatic eruptions also do contain truths. Sometimes sublime. Sometimes life changing. And a fundamental insight and a hallucination can look a lot like each other. And, sometimes one is wrapped up with the other. Sometimes it is not possible to untangle it all in any clear way.

And that needs to be acknowledged.

So, how to balance this? I think as a general rule of thumb we should look beyond the alleged source to the truth claims themselves. What in all the tearing at the edges of our shared reality might be helpful on our own quest? What seems to point true, and a lamp helping to light our way on the great path?

Which brings me to today, the 17th of September. Which in many branches of the Western Christian churches is celebrated as a festival for Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard was born in the vicinity of 1098 within our common era to a family of “lower nobility,” within the confines of the Holy Roman Empire in what is today Germany. Sickly and afflicted with visions from well before her adolescence her parents enrolled her as an oblate in the Benedictine order. As it happens this seemed exactly what she needed and at around fourteen Hildegard took her life vows. Between her mentor the anchoress Jutta von Sponheim and the monk Volmar, who examined her closely and both felt her visions did indeed contain truths and so they helped the young nun to live with them and through them.

Upon Jutta’s death, Hildegard was elected leader of the community. Eventually she would also found a second community. She became a powerful figure within the religious world of her day with influence that extended beyond her convents. Something it should be noted that was astonishingly rare for a woman in those days and in that place.

As to the visions, Hildegard reported her experiences started at the age of three. She called it “the shade of the living light,” and described this “light” as something experienced through her conventional senses. Some modern physicians including Olive Sacks reading her detailed accounts of her experiences diagnosed her as suffering from severe migraines. Actually that makes a lot of sense. But, these experiences also, in my opinion, allowed the results of her deeper reflections a means of expression, breaking through societal and religious barriers, and to erupt into consciousness, and, most importantly, given a voice.

These remained private revelations until 1141 when she felt the call to write them down, which she did. She also illustrated them. Critically, the pope Eugenius approved her publication of these visions. And with that approval her teachings began to be shared widely.

Her interests and the subjects of her visions were wide, ranging from medical considerations, to music, to ecology, to natural science, to writing, including among her theological speculations, what some consider the oldest surviving morality play. She continued to break past the conventions of gender and became a popular preacher, taking three major tours to lecture on her teachings. She became counselor to bishops and kings. She even had the pope’s ear.

Hildegard died on this day in 1179. She was quickly venerated as a saint by many. And, finally, in 2012 was declared a “doctor of the church,” a signal honor extended to only thirty-five people, and counting her only the fourth woman to be so honored within the history of the Catholic church.

Me, I place her roughly within the family of pantheists, and therefore part of the family I claim as my blood kin. Certainly she saw the power and beauty of the natural world, and whether she genuinely held the dualism inherent in the Christian tradition or it dissolved at some point in her giving herself over to the ecstatic moments of her visions, there is a sense to her that seems to me to sacralize the natural in a way not so common among her co-religionists.

And, you know, in my experience, and by my observation, we all fail in significant ways to find the balance. Although I would throw in it is actually at those spots of failure the way is revealed. We are to compound the mystery only able to ascertain the whole through or actually as our brokenness.

Such is life. Such is the way…

And, all that said, I’m so glad today is an opportunity to pause and recall one of the significant mystics of the Western world, one who looked deep into the broken and saw the beauty and the mystery of the whole.

A gift, actually, to the whole world.

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