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. Through all the turmoil and all the creativity of the period, Hildegard carried on her work of preaching and teaching, of organizing and reforming, of establishing monasteries and journeying, of composing, writing, healing, studying, cajoling, and prophesying. 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.
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 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 encyclopedias of their knowledge (before there were any encyclopedias) 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 privatized, 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.”
She awakens Christianity to some of the wisdom of the ancient women’s religions and thereby offers healing to the male/female split in religion. She awakens the psyche to the cosmos and thereby offers healing to both. She awakens to the holiness of the earth and thereby heals the awful split between matter and spirit in the West. She awakens art to science and science to music and religion to science. And thereby heals the dangerous rift between science and religion that has dominated culture the past 300 years in the West. She heals the isolation of the artist from the deepest intellectual and spiritual currents of the past. She illumines. “In illuminating darkness, she speaks out.” She illumines us today more than she illumined or dreamed of illuminating anyone in her own time. She gifts us with her illuminations. Has there ever been a time in human history or the history of the planet when illumination, light, wisdom, was needed more than now?
“Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen”, author: Hildegard of Bingen. Commentary from Matthew Fox, O.P. Publisher: Bear & Company, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA