The Greening Power of Hildegard of Bingen

(Preface to Collected essays on Hildegarde of Bingen Le Vie di ildegarde: Saperi, Contemplazione, CuraEd, Giambovoli 2020)

by Laurence Freeman OSB

For any student of English literature, it is hard to look at Hildegarde’s paintings and read of her visionary experiences without comparing her with the 18th century English mystical poet and artist William Blake. At the age of three, Hildegarde had her first vision of a light that ‘quaked my soul’. Blake had his first vision of angels in a public park in London at the age of eight and reported regular encounters with spiritual beings throughout his life. Both were deeply religious people and, for all the great contrast between the 12th century Catholic nun and the 18th century Nonconformist, they belong in their respective traditions to the mystical dimension of religion – according to Friedrich von Hügel’s typology of the three elements of religion: the historical/institutional, the intellectual/speculative, and the mystical/experiential. As mystics and artists, they were both deeply engaged with their times and social issues. Vastly different, they nevertheless equally disprove the assumption that the mystical element of religion is sealed off from the intellectual and institutional dimensions.

Blake was often regarded with suspicion and ridicule in his lifetime but after his death found his place in the academic literary canon. Hildegarde by contrast won papal approval when she began to publish her revelations and visions. During her lifetime, she was widely accepted as a genuine prophet, even as a self-confident woman, of orthodoxy and wisdom despite the vital diversity of all her gifts.

The present volume of papers from the 2019 Conference at the Christian Meditation Centre in Florence testifies to the resurgence of interest in Hildegarde that grew through the last century and culminated in her being declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI. Her contribution to the Christian mystical tradition was embedded in the 12th century renaissance which was an age of intellectual, spiritual and scientific flowering. Increasingly studied from these perspectives, she is now widely embraced as a wisdom figure in our time – in a culture that suffers from the loss of its spiritual coherence and social order amidst a disintegration of values in all fields of personal and institutional life.

Blake was a rebel – he typically conversed with fallen angels. He raged against the mechanisation and materialism of the early Industrial Age, mourning the loss of the capacity for wonder and delight in his culture. Hildegarde however lived in a world that saw veriditas, the ‘greening’ power of nature, as a divine presence. She was a woman of burning faith and solid belief who pursued her interests in all fields of knowledge without the fragmentation and over-specialisation that has disconnected us from the holistic vision of medicine , art and mystical wisdom.

Perhaps we are drawn towards Hildegarde because she was at home within in a mythic world and a nourishing field of symbols that could still assume the unity of all knowledge that even by Blake’s time was disintegrating into romanticism; and which in our time has left us in a wasteland and an anarchy of disconnected, competing values. Blake saw the remedy in cleansing the ‘doors of perception’ that would then enable us to see all things as they truly are: ‘infinite’. Hildegarde also saw the same light by looking ‘directly into the sun’ which she knew as the divine being that is ‘concealed in all things as fiery energy’ and ‘that blazed above the beauty of the fields’.

What are the elements in Hildegarde’s legacy that attract us and can refresh our hope today? The different papers of this volume answer this by testifying to her extraordinary mystical intelligence and creative imagination. But they also throw light on the hunger for wisdom that is both the pain and the promise of our time.

To understand if and how we benefit from encountering past wisdom traditions, Hildegarde is a friendly teacher, provided we ask ourselves honest questions. Are we re-inventing Hildegarde in our own image, merely to match our own need for spiritual coherence? Or does she truly represent unifying values and attitudes that chime with what we feel we have lost and seek to recover? For example, it seems at times she speaks with a remarkable post-modern subjectivity:

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.

Yet her (at least public) views on gender and women’s inferiority strike us as embarrassingly of her time. Like, but better than, her 14th century English counterpart and visionary, Julian of Norwich, she nevertheless managed to flourish as a woman, an intellectual and a spiritual authority within a patriarchal system of exceptional rigidity.

Medicine is one field of Hildegarde’s passion where we can see this question addressed. In our age – that has been called the ‘golden age of medicine’ – we have become entrapped by the materialism of the scientific method and the greed of exploitation. Our understanding of health has been accordingly reduced to survival, medicalised life without spiritual quality. Consequently, the meaning of suffering and death in medicine has been excluded. Hildegarde offers us another idea of health that does not deny mortality but relates the individual’s well-being to the inter-related natural healing forces in which we live and that she saw s God’s compassionate gift to the world.

Speaking to a friend recently, a herbalist trained in a centuries long family tradition, I realised how grounded even those of Hildegarde’s remedies that initially seem laughable to modern medical science – placing a precious stone in the mouth to relieve chronic headache, for example – have a logic that can be expressed in terms we are familiar with. What is more laughable and dangerous is the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and its influence on our unhealthy dependence on medication rather than medicine. Hildegarde’s wise medicine recognises the need for the patient to be treated uniquely and to take responsibility for his or her own well-being. A mix of healthy asceticism, wonder and personal responsibility for our own health is at the heart of this contemplative medicine. It resonates with the wisdom of the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney:

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

The ‘self-revealing’ refers to the inborn surge of self-knowledge that accompanies healing. The ‘double-take of feeling’ suggests the experience of re-cognition, seeing something again for the first time. Hildegarde studied and practiced the arts of healing within a wisdom tradition that harmonised (in the concepts and factual knowledge available to it) the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. She saw healing as a realignment of the microcosm, that we are, with the cosmos, the great order, balance and harmony to which we belong.

Moderation and belief in the power of balance – fortified by her Benedictine values and the integration of the physical and psychological – are basic elements of Hildegarde’s theory of medicine and her use of tinctures, plants and healing stones. Everything can be turned to good and combined with each other to heal: plants, elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles and metals. Using these gifts of nature in the healing arts expresses the fertility of nature in relation to the specifically human condition. ‘Greening power’ fills all living things and manifests every plant, stone or animal as ‘sparks of God’s radiance’. Yet, strange as some of Hildegarde’s remedies may seem to us – it was a different science just as her cosmology was pre-Galileo – it was also evidence based and able to observe that bacteria-polluted water that causes sickness can be purified by boiling. Medicine is food and food is medicine, as Hippocrates stated. This wisdom is the foundation of Hildegarde’s traditional medicine but also takes us into her theology.

Hildegarde’s idea of veriditas and her perception of the harmony between humanity and the natural world, engages with the modern anxiety about our ecological predicament. The link between the innate green health of the natural world – and its transcendent beauty – is indissolubly linked to the integral health of humanity. As we would say today, when our inner ecology is polluted, we pollute the outer environment. If we no longer experience our own nature as beautiful, we will be blind to the beauty of the natural world. What we truly perceive as beautiful we cannot abuse.

The wisdom tradition which nourished Hildegarde and became her field of flourishing creativity did not separate beauty from theology, liturgy, science or medicine. Her music and painting entrance and delight us today not least because we feel in them the consistency between all aspects of her personality and her ever-curious exploration of the inexhaustible wonders of the world. Like her near contemporary, Rumi and mystics of all traditions she felt the ‘sober intoxication’ of the discovery of God in the self and of the self in creation. For this reason, she is indeed a Doctor of the Church, a unique example of the Christian mystical tradition. But no less, does she belong to a universal wisdom tradition that recognises this sober intoxication as love.  Like Rumi, Hildegarde saw this love flowing through all things including the human body and our deepest friendships. Rumi’s open anguish at the loss of Shams, like Hildegarde’s when separated from her Richardis illustrate another and all-important integration within their wisdom tradition: the oneness of divine and human love.

I asked a question above, which the 2019 Seminar and this book of its proceedings help to answer, ‘what is the meaning of our attraction to Hildegarde today and can she help us connect to an older expression of wisdom and help us in the present global crisis?’ Our attraction to her is more than nostalgia for a past where the world was seen to be held in one great chain of being. To see Hildegarde just nostalgically would lead to absurdity, ignoring her outdated information about the world and so failing to see the essence of her particular wisdom which connects her, for our benefit, with universal wisdom. Through telescopes and microscopes, we know things she didn’t. But, because of our self-blinding materialism, we have forgotten things that she clearly saw and understood. Connecting with her and other sources of past wisdom helps us see the essentially spiritual nature of our crisis.

What connects us to the wisdom she drank from is our own contemplative practice. Unless we are on our own quest for self-knowledge as the basis for the knowledge of God, our interest with the wisdom figures of the past must remain superficial or merely academic. Meditation, as a universal wisdom, offers us a way to heal the serial disconnections we have with our tradition, ourselves, each other and with God. It gives us a literacy in the language of wisdom which is silence. So, to me it seems significant that the content of this book was first composed in exchanges that took place at a living Christian meditation centre in one of the great cultural centres of the world.

Hildegarde’s meaning for us today is not merely her explanation of things but how she saw the world in its wonderful and blessed wholeness, how she understood the beauty of the human and of nature, how she experienced wisdom both transcendentally and immanently, how she could see God in everything and Christ in the power of veriditas.  She helps us understand that we can indeed benefit from the wisdom of past teachers and learning how we, in very different circumstances, can apply what they teach us. As an ageing culture in transition, so often tired, confused and broken, we may be reborn, rejuvenated with her help. Then we will understand her when said at the end of her vibrantly green life ‘I feel like a young girl, not an old lady.’


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