She referred to herself as a feather on the breath of God, and ‘wretched, indeed more than wretched I my womanly condition’, but this belied her tremendous strength of will and purpose, her creative stamina, her charisma. Hildegard von Bingen is one of the few women whose names have survived history, and if she is not as well known now as she was in her peak years at the end of the twelfth century, it is only the fault of religion’s decline. She was a mystic and a prophet, a composer and a dramatist, a writer, a public speaker and a spiritual leader.
What appeals to me about her is the uniqueness of her vision. One of her favourite concepts was that of ‘greenness’, or viriditas, developed from the rich symbolic language of medieval times. Greenness meant the visible new life of plants, but it also meant the fierce power of life, vigour, energy, that lay beneath, the deeper greenness of the life force itself. Hildegard speaks of nature as the persistence of spirit, of ‘greenness’ being found in the moral life of human beings as they mature and grow, and in their emotional and physical strengthening. Greenness in her religious vision was what the word was steeped in, when it entered peoples lives and took root.
I recalled Hildegard and her idea of greenness walking to the bookshop yesterday, and having to step carefully around an eruption in the pavement, where the roots of a nearby tree had sought blindly for growth. Nature is so powerful, it surprises me how time and again we try to deflect and restrain it. Why do we think we will win? I often have trouble understanding the word ‘spirituality’, or making sense of it in my life. And it occurred to me, thinking of this greenness, that nature is the image of the spirit inside us. No matter what we do, the natural self persists. And just as spring must always follow winter, even if it is delayed or disappointing, so our spirits will always rise again, regardless of the damage they undergo. Our spirit returns because it cannot do otherwise, although we can choose to cultivate it, or let it run wild. Reading my student’s work to check her English, my favourite error/insight of the day: ‘I need to be blossomed in my work.’ Indeed, so do we all.
Hildegard actively sought her own blossoming. She was the tenth and final child born to a noble family in Germany, and was
given to the church at the age of eight. She became handmaid to Jutta of Sponheim, an anchoress who lived in a cell next to the monastery of the joyfully named St Disibod, who taught her Latin whilst attracting more noble women about her, eventually forming a Benedictine community. When Jutta died, Hildegard became abbess. Since childhood, Hildegard had had visions, and suddenly, aged forty-two and seven months, after a particularly prophetic vision, she wrote to Bernard of Clarivaux, one of the best connected of all the mystics and something of an evangelical touring performer. She had seen Bernard in her vision, she wrote ‘a man looking straight into the sun, bold and unafraid’ (such brilliant diplomatic flattery!) and she needed his advice, uneducated and lowly woman as she was, ‘about how much I should say of what I have seen and heard.’
For Hildeburg had embarked on one of her greatest theological achievements, a three-volume set of mystical writings, the Scivias, which Bernard took on her behalf to a gathering of bishops in the winter of 1147-8. There he read parts of the unfinished manuscript (it would take Hildegard until 1173 to complete the whole three books) and gained permission from the Pope for its publication. This made of Hildegard the only medieval woman permitted by the Pope to write books on theology. Hildegard’s fame grew and she became an advisor to popes and to royalty. Like all good authors, she went on a lecture tour. What we know of her life comes from biographers employed by her friends to put together a case for her canonisation. (The first biographer died while still engaged in writing her up, which must have been a bummer.) Her life stands as a warning and a reassurance to all those who seek recognition. Hildegard died in 1179, the canonical proceedings only began in 1227, and she was finally approved by the Vatican in 1940. What’s a mere 750 years to a woman of Hildegard’s tenacity? Now she is the subject of any number of scholarly books.
One of Hildegard’s modern day commentators is Oliver Sacks. Hildegard described her visions as being accompanied by a continuous display of bright lights, a kind of cinematic screen on which her visions unfurled. She insisted she was not dreaming, but experiencing ‘the shadow of the Living Light’ with her ‘eyes wide open’, not lost to a state of ecstasy. Charles Singer, an early 20th century historian of medicine was the first to suggest that Hildegard was suffering from migraines, a diagnosis with which Oliver Sacks agreed. This, for me, represents like nothing else the passage of time, and the essential differences between medieval and modern ages. What to Hildegard and her compatriots was a source of divine revelation, the origin of creativity and a supreme gift is reduced in our dull pragmatic age to a medical condition. Much as I am no medical person, I find it hard to agree with this viewpoint; if nothing else, Hildegard got a hell of a lot done for someone with a permanent bad headache.
The easiest way to get in touch with the essence of Hildegard von Bingen is to listen to some of her choral music. This is how I first heard about her, as I really like this kind of chilly expansive composition; early music of this kind feels like meditation that you can listen to, it puts you in a different place. Hildegard wrote music because she believed it was the most reliable route to spiritual experience, and that it put us in touch with a more ancient part of ourselves. I think it’s the music of mountaintops, made up of voices as cold and pure as ice. A world of whiteness, against which it is perhaps easier to spot the creeping greenness of our spirits.