Hildegard von Bingen; What a Medieval Prophetic Visionary Can Teach Us Today
By Maggie Pate Duffey, Edith Allison and Trista Haggerty
How do we begin to make use of the religious texts, ancient traditions, and spiritual practices that have become more accessible in western cultures in the last several decades? How do we incorporate them into the “cultural creative” movement that seeks to address social, political, and artistic issues of our time? The question is not so much how to study these texts and discuss with others, but how do we embody these teachings. How do we bring this wisdom out of the realm of cognitive understanding and into our daily lives? What does that look like?
There are many role models we may turn to, on whose shoulders we rest, and to whom we are deeply grateful. And while many of their teachings have been well preserved and offer us a great deal, we don’t always get a clear image or a glimpse into their daily lives. Thus, their teachings often remain separate from our life experiences of being human and are put on the bookshelf to be pondered only during our study groups or end-of-the-day meditation. However, there is a mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, whose well-preserved wisdom has been recorded in many different forms. We discover her Divine brilliance in texts, and also in the beauty of her art, her music, and in her spiritual and herbal remedies. For this reason, Hildegard becomes more tangible to us, offering a lifestyle that we can begin to infuse into our daily lives. Her wisdom is to live a Divine life, to experience the Divine in all of nature, in our bodies, and to live ecstatically.
Hildegard is known as one of the greatest twelfth century mystics. Born in the verdant Rhine valley of medieval Germany, she was the tenth child of a prominent family. She claims to have had visions from as early as age three. As a young child, she was “tithed” to the Church in exchange for political positioning; she lived her entire life in abbeys where she produced a vast body of work in the areas of music, art, poetry, literature, plant study, health, and healing. All of her work should be viewed in a holistic way because it sprang from one source: her visions.
She described her visions as “the light of God”; they were difficult for her to explain or understand, especially beginning at such a young age, primarily because they were a mixture of sound and vision. Hildegard experienced synesthesia (perception that incorporates the blending of the senses); she saw images, and even heard voices. She believed that she was translating a cosmic symphony, and that the universe was to be connected and could not be categorized. Therefore, her art and music, words and text, healing and visions are all combined together to form a whole.
Although most of us don’t live in an abbey or share in Hildegard’s ability to receive visions, there is much in her ways of knowing that can be incorporated into our lives. Her life was an ongoing experience of the Divine in all things, and that experience was at the foundation of all that she did. Her chant is unlike any heard in that time or since. It very often approaches what can only be described as a state of ecstasy, so joyful and intense the melodic line frequently becomes. Hildegard’s artistic nature favored feminine qualities. She loved richly colored clothing and made her nuns wear jewels and gemstones that she specifically assigned to them, such as topaz and sapphire. She wrote most often about the Divine Feminine; many of her works were associated with the Virgin Mary, viriditas (or greenness), and the female body. Her texts unified the sacredness of all creation rather than the dualistic approach incorporating a fall and redemption. She considered herself a prophet, although not one who foretells the future. She was a prophet who was concerned with current events. Mathew Fox says, “Hildegard’s teaching forced people to wake up, take responsibility, make choices.” And this is why Hildegard is so relevant today. Her way of being is activating, waking people up to stand up for what is true, and to speak out against corruption.
As a healer, Hildegard experienced the Divine in all of nature and experienced nature as offering us all kinds of medicines. She had an extensive knowledge of herbs, which has been well preserved in her writings and is used by many modern-day herbalists. But her knowledge also extended well beyond the use of plants to the healing benefits of stones, crystals, and water. In her view, there was no physical ailment that wasn’t a spiritual ailment as well. She saw the interconnectedness of humanity and the cosmos, in which the universe mirrors back to us our positive or negative energies. When there was illness, Hildegard would look to see where that person was out of balance with nature and with God. This is a point of view that is just now returning to our consciousness.
Today, Hildegard has a following in various areas of social work, holistic healing, and medicinal work with plants, as well as within the arts. Her music has been used in everything from movie scores to New Age mix-ups to samples in rap music. Her feminist art is unexpected; feminist scholars seek her out. Her healing and medicinal plant work was centuries ahead of its time and may have been a foundation for the Bach flower essences and other German homeopathic leaders in the field.
For all that Hildegard has given and is giving to us, she is one of the few mystics who has infused her teachings into many different, accessible forms. Whether we listen to her music, ponder her art, or recreate her herbal medicines, she demonstrates a way for us to discover our own connection with the Divine and bring it into our daily lives; to create our own beautiful and magnificent tapestry of life.
Maggie Pate Duffey is a musician who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is a mother of two and is the music and dance editor for CVNC.org as well as advertising manager for Crossroad Publishing.
Edith Allison is a visual artist who uses watercolor, fabric art, music and Reiki to facilitate experiences of nonverbal expression in meditative sessions and hospice. She lives in Massachusetts.
Trista Haggerty is a founding director at The Earth Mentoring Institute, aka Hawk Circle in Cherry Valley, New York. She is the creator and facilitator of the Inner Alchemy Online Training program and the WildWood Herbal apprentice program. She is a mother of three and lives at Hawk Circle with her family where she creates transformational programs.
Maggie, Edith, and Trista are the creators and facilitators of the Hildegard Retreat, Experiencing Divine Union at Hawk Circle, September 20-26, 2015.