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Lecture on Hildegard of Bingen

[The following lecture has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada (now Vancouver Island University), for students in Liberal Studies. This material is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledge. Last revised December 2001.  For comments, corrections, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston]

[References to and quotations from Hildegard's works are taken from Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings, edited and introduced by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, with new translations by Robert Carver, NY: Crossroads, 1992]


This course is called Introduction to Ways of Knowing, and this week we are exploring a very special way of knowing about the world and things beyond, namely a mystical basis for knowledge as that manifests itself in some selections from a very famous medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. As you may know, Hildegard was a very remarkable woman who lived in the Middle Ages, in the eleventh century, and became famous as a mystic, writer, painter, musician, and church official. She also was keenly interested in observations of the natural world and speculations about natural events. In recent years, she has been rediscovered, and is more famous than ever (as a check of the web sites devoted to her life and work reveals).

However, before looking at some specific sections of Hildegard, I'd like to offer a few general comments by way of clarifying what we mean by that phrase "mystical way of knowing," especially in comparison with other ways of knowing about the world, those we have already encountered and others.

Some General Observations on Knowledge of Cosmic Order

I take it that we all agree that human beings have a natural desire to know something about the world around them. This desire arises, in part, because it doesn't take much experience of the world to observe at least two things: first, all materials seem to be changing over time and, second, many things seem to return to a previous state. So, for example, the stars occupy different positions, night after night. But if we observe them long enough, there seems to be a pattern of returning to what we originally saw. So, too, with nature. The cycle of the seasons makes everything change constantly, but we soon sense that it is a cycle, so that there is a pattern of return. There is thus, it seems, some principle of order in the world and in the cosmos, some source of control and meaning.

Such common observations lead naturally enough to questions about the nature of the pattern and, more importantly perhaps, the source and significance of that pattern. If our world and all we perceive is guided according to some overall design or plan or if there is some ultimate source shaping the pattern, we seem to have a natural curiosity about it. We seek knowledge of that plan and design. There seems to be no evidence that human communities can exist very long without developing some understanding of that design.

What we want, I suppose, is access to something which is at present a mystery, at least in the sense that we have no immediate and sure knowledge of it. We can observe things around us and we can appreciate that there seems to be a pattern in a great deal of what we see, but interpreting that apparent pattern is not so straightforward (especially if we want to reach some shared understanding of it).

And yet the desire for such interpretation seems to be deeply rooted in us. And we can see why. Since we ourselves are part of the natural processes, part of the pattern (if there is one), then the purpose of lives is intimately linked with the interpretation of what it all means. If we want to know about ourselves—about how to live our lives to the fullest—of if we want to feel emotionally complete, we need to know something about that mystery, the source and purpose of that natural order.

On the face of it, there are two places people seek some clue about that mysterious source of order. One is in the material world around them, the world of nature and natural phenomena. The notion is that by probing the way the material stuff works, we can derive some sense of how we fit into it all. This approach (which is very old) is most commonly characterized by certain elements of modern science we call Materialism. Materialism seeks to explain everything in terms of the operations of material substances in accordance with certain regular rational laws (especially as expressed in mathematics). For the thorough materialist, the answers to all the most important questions about life are to be found within the mechanical operation of material stuff.

Another approach, of course, is to seek some non-material explanation, some source of order in a divine or spiritual presence or in an idea, something we cannot see but which we can emotionally apprehend. If we can attach ourselves to such a power, if we can understand such a source with our feelings, then our lives are not mired in the material flux of things but are associated with the source of cosmic order and permanence, and we can feel connected to it. This approach we call idealism or spirituality. It is the basis for all systems of order which affirm the presence of some non-material ruling presence.

Understanding the nature of order (in the cosmos and in our own lives) is not just an urgent personal matter. It is also a vital social concern. Since people organize their values and their lives on the basis of their understanding of universal order, it is usually important that a social group share to a large extent a common understanding. Hence, a society will normally take pains to provide some basis for a shared understanding, so that people do not fall into quarrels over competing systems of understanding the ruling powers of life.

For most citizens of a state, the system of understanding such questions is given to them in their education in a particular culture. This provides them with a world picture and with appropriate rituals to confirm that picture. The rituals, as it were, repeatedly reinforce the shared understanding. That, I assume, is the major reason why organized religion relies so heavily on repetitive rituals, shared common behaviour based on a common understanding, a knowledge of how the world works. Most of these rituals often require a certain division of labour and a hierarchy of authority, with priests, shamans, soothsayers, and various publicly recognized officials who job it is to answer to people's desire to know about ultimate matters. The are the guardians of explanations of how the world works and the chief people responsible for keeping that understanding vitally at work in the culture.

Those of us who have doubts or questions about our knowledge of such matters thus usually have a range of "experts" to consult. That expert will link us to an appropriate ritual (a confession, a spiritual cleansing, certain things to read or do) and encourage us to see ourselves within a larger framework of meaning. In most cases, we have to have the guidance of the expert, because we have no direct access to a reliable source of meaning.

Now, what's curious about our society in the west right now is that we have no shared sense of spiritual meaning. If we do have a coordinating belief, it tends to be a materialistic one, a faith in natural science. At least science seems to provide the experts we turn to for advice and guidance on the secrets of life. Apart from that, we seem to tell people that, if they are interested in non-scientific accounts, then it is up to them to find one from a vast array of different possibilities ranging all the way from traditional religions to a variety of spiritual disciplines and fads.

The popularity of these spiritual options indicates that many of us clearly want some contact with areas of knowledge beyond the material world, something that materialistic science does not make possible (and does not try to make possible). Making total sense of the world, bringing our experience into harmony with some emotionally intelligible way of seeing the totality is obviously something we still value. It's not enough for many of us simply to believe that we are born to reproduce, die, and rot, without any further significance. And it is equally difficult in many cases simply to forget about the question of meaning, to deny one's desire to know about ultimate questions and purposes, even when we live amid a chorus of materialists telling us that all belief in such spiritual, non-material power is bogus, simply as yet unformatted physical forces. Hence, we often seek the systematic help of some process which will enable us to have faith in something beyond the immediate material world. That helps to account for the fact that in modern liberal democracies, the most scientifically and technically advanced societies the world has ever seen, religious beliefs are still flourishing, even increasing.

The Mystical Response

What we commonly call the mystical experience is somewhat different from what I have been describing. By the term mystic we usually mean someone who has, or who claims to have, direct access to the mystery of cosmic and human order, some immediate and unmediated apprehension of a total knowledge of what truly is. Such knowledge characteristically comes from an experience of union with the divine or the transcendent, that is, with the higher world beyond the realm of our physical sensations. Mystical experience typically comes through visions and voices, or both (Hildegard attests to both).

Such an encounter comes often as a revelation, an opening up of the mystic to the apprehension of a sudden and complete intuited knowledge of things, an instantaneous insight with no immediately obvious connection to the ordinary life of the person experiencing the vision.

As Hildegard herself explains:

In that same [experience] of vision I understood the writings of the prophets, the Gospels, the works of other holy men, and those of certain philosophers, without any human instruction, and I expounded certain things based on these, though I scarcely had literary understanding, inasmuch as a woman who was not learned had been my teacher. But I also brought forth songs with their melody, in praise of God and the saints, without being taught by anyone, and I sang them too, even though I had never learnt either musical notation or any kind of singing. (64)

The vision is private and apparently inexplicable by normal causation (for Hildegard explains she had had no particular training for the skills she suddenly acquired and displayed). In many cases, like Hildegard's, the mystical knowledge comes unexpectedly and uninvited; it is a divine psychic intervention which can put into a coordinated order the things that one wants to know, and (as Hildegard says) it makes possible things that she had no idea of before.

It's important to note that Hildegard makes clear her visions are not deceptions of her senses (i.e., visual hallucinations): she sees and hears with the inner powers of her spirit:

For everything which I had written since the beginning of my visions (or which I came to understand afterwards) I saw with the inner eyes of my spirit and heard with my inner ears, in heavenly mysteries, fully awake in body and mind--and not in dreams, nor in ecstasy, as I explained in my previous visions. Nor (as truth is my witness) did I produce anything from the faculty of the human sense, but only set down those things which I perceived in heaven mysteries. (91)

The knowledge claim here is clear enough: what she has to say comes from a privileged access to the truth. It is not something she strove to attain or was educated to accept (although certain rituals of spiritual cleansing designed to foster similar mystical experiences are common in many rituals).

Now, it's clear that this sort of experience, some direct intuition of a higher all-encompassing system of meaning, is something human beings value a great deal. And it's not difficult to see why. Such an experience places our fragmented and often incomprehensible and incomplete lives within an integrated totality. Even if we cannot explain that system rationally, we can apprehend it emotionally, so that we no longer feel isolated and alone, cut off from the divine, but uniquely linked to it. To use the most popular term to describe this process, we no longer feel alienated or a stranger to the divine. The world and our place in it make sense.

Mystical experience is common to a great many cultures and comes in many forms. Sometimes people strive for it through contemplative exercises (an important feature of Eastern religious experience). Others seeking the experience push themselves physically into some form of ecstasy (like whirling dervishes, charismatic rituals, or other group experiences, often featuring sex and alcohol). There are many rituals of spiritual cleansing designed to foster the mystical experience (vision quests, fasting, sustained prayer, a denial of physical comforts or even the infliction of pain). In many instances, alcohol or narcotics may be involved. There are numerous ways in which human beings have sought to discipline or prepare themselves for the mystical experience. All of these attest to the strong human desire to establish a direct link with something higher than ourselves.

One of the most interesting forms of spiritual cleansing designed to foster a mystical apprehension of a cosmic totality is that initiated by Socrates, namely, spiritual cleansing through knowledge. We did not read the Socratic dialogues where this is made explicit, but from those it is clear that the highest goal of Socratic enquiry into the world through mathematics is some form of mystical leap into an apprehension of the divine infinite. For Socrates, the highest goal of philosophical enquiry is the intuitive understanding provided by mystical apprehension of the divine infinite. Socratic enquiry, we might say, seeks to replace traditional spiritual rituals with the rational search for knowledge (something Plato seems to have appropriated from Pythagoras)

And what Socrates is talking about is well attested in our own century, where we see that many of the most eminent physicists and astronomers, those most keenly in pursuit of a mathematical understanding of the cosmos, have had a very strong mystical sense of wonder and joy. Some of the century's most important physicists, astronomers, and mathematicians have written treatises on their mystical experiences (e.g., Einstein, Schrödinger, and others) and have clearly linked their scientific enquiries to important mystical insights..

Many people is this room will no doubt be familiar with something they call a mystical experience. I suspect that many such moments have come through an experience of nature, a contemplative time, perhaps totally unexpected, when we suddenly feel totally linked to everything there is (something Freud calls the "oceanic" feeling), a moment that is typically associated with an enormous joy and confidence in the meaning of it all.

So, in that sense, although what we read in Hildegard may seem quite strange, the experience underlying it is, I suspect, common enough, and the desire to have that sense of intimate union with the source of all meaning is probably even stronger. What she is talking about is something we would all like to possess.

The Purpose of a Mystical Vision

What mystics do with their visionary experiences varies also. For many, the vision is a strictly private experience. The person experiencing the vision of the divine feels no compulsion to communicate the insights, which serve solely as a means for ordering that individual life. For others, they mystical insight brings with it an urge, even an imperative, to publicize the vision; and some visionaries, like Joan of Arc, for example, are spurred by mystical insights into decisive political action.

Hildegard's vision, as she explains, bring with them an urgent requirement to make them known. She has possessed by the Holy Spirit using her as a vessel and charging her with a special mission:

O poor little figure of a woman; you, who are the daughter of many troubles, plagued by a grave multitude of bodily infirmities, yet steeped, nonetheless, in the vastness of God's mysteries—commit to permanent record for the benefit of human kind, what you see with your inner eyes and perceive with the inner ears of your soul so that, through these things, people may come to know their Creator and not recoil from worshipping him with the reverence due to him. (90)

What's interesting here is that Hildegard, like a great many mystics, does not see her private visions as something she must keep to herself. She sees them as placing on her the duty of communicating them to others. And that raises a key question: What are we supposed to do with the mystical insights of others? What claim to authority do such private vision have on our attention?

Parenthetically, it might be worth remarking here that what Hildegard is describing is something significantly different from what we encountered last semester in the Book of Exodus and in Socrates' Apology, in both of which there is direct contact with the divine. But Moses's encounters with God are not mystical experiences, special private visions. The way the story presents these encounters, they are anything but private visions. They are real encounters, taking place in the physical world (beside the burning bush or on top of Mt. Sinai).

And Socrates's famous daimon, the voice of the god which he listens to, is not a direct apprehension of the truth of things. As Socrates tells us, that voice is more like a conscience. It instructs him about his own personal conduct and always acts negatively, that is, tells him what he should not do. Neither of these examples matches the intensely private experiences Hildegard is referring to.

Responses to the Mystical Vision

We may (as modern sceptical materialists) wonder about the possible physiological pressures creating such a psychic state (e.g., illness, hunger, schizophrenia). If so, we are presumably reluctant to accept the authority Hildegard and other mystics claim about the knowledge they possess from visions and seek to communicate to us. If we see these visions in painting, poetry, and song as simply manifestations of human abnormality with a purely material cause, then I suppose we have to shrug them off. And sometimes we are driven to lock such visionaries up as too abnormal to exist in modern society (although there's no necessary logical connection between the truth of a vision and the processes that helped to produce it: after all, if someone is deliriously ill with a fever, that condition does not automatically disqualify anything he might say).

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that many people recognize in this form of knowledge something very special, often decisively persuasive. Mystical writings, after all, remind us of the mystery which confronts us all if we choose to think about it. They push us beyond the various illusions we have constructed to provide meaning and insist (usually very urgently) upon the importance of remembering and recognizing the importance of the spiritual in the midst of our very material lives. Mystical writings, in other words, often work to charge us spiritually in ways that many conventional rituals, like a regular church service, do not normally achieve.

How does the mystical vision do this? Characteristically, the communicated vision works through the emotional urgency and persuasiveness of the language or the pictures. That is, the mystic vision works through its poetic power, through its appeal to our imagination and our feelings, rather than by some prolonged act of rational persuasion.

So I would suggest that what we do with a mystical vision communicated by someone else, like Hildegard, depends to a large extent upon the poetic quality of the vision. The vision is essentially a poetical symbol. If it is eloquently presented it may energize us spiritually. If it is incomprehensible or repellent or does not move us, we may reject it. And thus, assessing Hildegard as a mystic means coming to grips with the quality of the images she has to communicate from whatever the source.

Mystical insights into the ultimate meaning of things frequently suffer one of two fates. Often they are dismissed as too bizarre or incomprehensible. A great deal of writings of William Blake, for example, (though certainly not all) probably the most famous English poet with a strong mystical imagination, do not invite a close scrutiny (other than by tenured scholars paid to decipher the cosmic system he is setting down); they are for most people just too impenetrable. Obviously they were of enormous significance to William Blake, but it's difficult for the average reader to penetrate a great many of his visionary writings, and so the emotional urgency gets scattered.

The other fate suffered by some mystical writing is that it is suppressed by the authorities. Obviously, publishing mystical visions can be dangerous, since sincere mystical expression is claiming for itself some ultimate authority, over and above all official versions of the meaning of things. Hence, orthodox Christianity with its highly organized structure and entrenched belief system had good reason to be very suspicious of mystics. After all, their knowledge of the divine was direct, not routed through the Church authorities. At the same time, of course, the Church valued mystical experience as a wonderfully energizing reminder of the spiritual passions of the true faith. But such approved mystical writings needed careful scrutiny.

Hildegard herself talks about how she kept her visions quiet and entertained doubts about their validity until she was forty years of age She seems to have been quite careful in seeking the official assurance of others that she should proceed with recording them and painting them. And if the church authorities had not deemed her visions acceptable, we might never have heard of her. Her caution is a reminder that mystical experiences are not always safe to proclaim in the face of institutionalized authority with a stake in the interpretation of particular doctrines.

One final historical note before I go on to say a few words about Hildegard's writings. It is a significant historical point that in the Middle Ages, visionary mystical experience was one of the very few ways a woman could get some form of wide public hearing. Women had no comprehensive education (we do not get a sense from Hildegard that she had access to a great many books, for example), could not teach or preach under normal circumstance, and had very few opportunities to create a life for themselves. The one place where an intelligent, creative woman, like Hildegard, might gain an audience was through visionary writing. AS Elizabeth Petroff observes:

Visions led women to the acquisition of power in the world while affirming their knowledge of themselves as women. Visions were a socially sanctioned activity that freed a woman from conventional female roles by identifying her as a genuine religious figure. They brought her to the attention of others, giving her a public language she could use to teach and learn. Her visions gave her the strength to grow internally and to change the world, to build convents, found hospitals, preach, attack injustice and greed, even within the Church. Visions also provided her with the content for teaching although education had been denied her. She could be an exemplar for other women, and out of her own experience she could lead them to fuller self-development. Finally, visions allowed the medieval woman to be an artist, composing and refining her most profound experiences into a form that she could create and recreate for herself throughout her entire life. (qu. Bowie and Davies 19).

Hildegard's Visions: A Few General Observations

What I particularly like about Hildegard's visionary writings is how accessible they are. The visions may have been intensely private, but the language Hildegard uses and the message she has to communicate are immediately comprehensible, whether one is a Christian or not. She tends always to address important and central questions concerning our relationship with the divine and does not get side-tracked into complex questions of doctrine or scripture. She is a lot less concerned about how we understand the Bible or church teaching than she is about how we orient ourselves to the world around us and to the most important claims of the spirit.

And what fuels these vision is a wonderful and frequently passionate joy in God's creation of the cosmos, including human beings. Hildegard comes back to a celebration of this creative power of God again and again, especially through images of light, the sun, and greenness. This central insistence gives her visionary urgings a celebratory quality. Her faith is not something which restricts and says "Thou shalt not." It is, by contrast, something which constantly urges us to see the world and ourselves as a celebration of God's magnificent and generous creative power, best symbolized in the metaphor of God as fire and life as the sparks given off by the divine source:

Hence, Hildegard's visionary sense of the divine does not demand a denial of the physical in the name of the spiritual. It seeks rather to integrate our experience of the physical world with the spiritual dimension, seeking them as all part of the same divinely structured order. This union of the physical and the spiritual can give to some of Hildegard's writing a strongly erotic sense, as if the road to the spirit run directly from the blood and feelings of human beings (rather than by-passing them). So she can celebrate sexual passion candidly with the most natural of metaphors:

But the great love that was in Adam when Eve came forth from him, and the sweetness of the sleep with which he then slept, were turned in his transgression into a contrary mode of sweetness. And so, because man still feels this great sweetness in himself, and is like a stage thirsting for the fountain, he races swiftly to the woman and she to him—she like a threshing-floor pounded by his many strokes and brought to heat when the grains are threshed inside her. (109)

Adam's and Eve's sexuality may be a consequence of their disobedience to God, the eating of the forbidden fruit, but for Hildegard this is not reason to expound on the evils of sexuality. She rather celebrates it as a "contrary mode of sweetness," something as normal and natural as threshing the grain. This is not to say that Hildegard advocates sexual experience; she is firmly convinced that chastity is one of the highest Christian virtues. But she is in no way censorious about the erotic forces and pleasures of life, provided that they do not corrupt the spirit.

In the same way, when Hildegard imagines God's desire to create man's salvation in Jesus Christ, her vision produces a strongly erotic image of the divine Word as the result of something beautiful and powerful, sexual desire in God:

Responsory for the Virgin

Sweet branch
From the stock of Jesse,
How magnificent
That God saw the girl's beauty,
Like an eagle,
Fixing its eye on the sun:

When the highest Father saw
The girl's radiance
And desired his Word
To take flesh in her.

For in the hidden mystery of God,
Her mind was filled with light,
And there emerged from the Virgin
A bright flower,

When the highest Father saw
The girl's radiance
And desired his Word
To take flesh in her. (117)

What I really like about this poem is the way the desire of God to bring forth salvation is expressed in terms of erotic desire. And the power and wonder of that moment is delivered to us in one of Hildegard's favourite images: "Like an eagle,/ Fixing its eye on the sun." There is nothing apparently complex about that image; it's one we can all grasp. But it captures precisely the union of power and majesty with spiritual brilliance and purity that lies at the centre of Hildegard's vision of the presence of God's Word in the world, as beautiful and mysterious as "A bright flower," something that is there for all of us, if we will only take the time to notice and appreciate what that flower is and how it came into existence.

Hildegard is treading a fine line here, of course, because her celebration of the natural world comes close at times to suggesting the divinity of nature or a worshipful attitude to nature, something directly contrary to Christian teaching in which nature is God's wonderful creation but not, in itself, anything divine (the realm of the divine is over and above nature). But Hildegard keeps a sure control over her imagery here and thus harnesses the delight we experience in responding to her particular evocations of natural beauty in the service of a spiritual vision, as in her vision of "The Source of All Being":

But I am also the fiery life of the divine essence—I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters; in the sun, the moon and the stars, I burn. And by means of the airy wind, I stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all. For the air lives in its green power and its blossoming. . . . (91)

There's no fuzziness here, no uncertainty about the direction the images take us—the synthesis of sharp physical perceptions and spiritual intensity enables us to reach an emotionally satisfying understanding of the world in relation to God the creator and sustainer of that world—as Hildegard puts it "the soul makes accord with the flesh." Hence, we are not put in the position of having to choose between them—rejoicing in the natural world is a natural way to celebrate the goodness and power of god (this is a doctrine easy enough to say or to preach, but Hildegard enables us to understand the emotional joy in the unity of everything which makes such joy possible, without preaching to us, without, that is, making us feel as if she is trying to push us towards a particular doctrinal position).

Let me expand a moment on this. One of our oldest and most challenging images of ourselves is that of a non-material soul linked to a material body, an image which usually invites us to understand that the purpose of life is to find the appropriate balance between these two. Typically, those who offer advice to us on issue give prominence to one side of the dichotomy or the other and insist that that element of human life must predominate.

So, for example, many religious and moral teachers insist that the soul must have priority and that we must distrust sense experience and imagination as prejudicial to the ruling work of the soul. Others dismiss the concept of the soul and tell us to develop and rely on our sense experience. Both approaches, in a sense, divide us against ourselves.

Hildegard's mysticism offers a synthesis, rather than a separation and a subordination. Her sense perceptions and emotional delight in the natural world are so suffused with spiritual joy and religious confidence that we sense no psychic tension, no conflict between competing demands of the human personality. Hence, there's a wonderful sense of human unity in her writing—an emotional, even an erotic ,sense of arousal at the physical details of the world feeds her spirituality, her devotion to God, and vice versa. Her works strikes the reader as a glorious celebration precisely because there is in it no sense of contradiction between the physical and the spiritual. And this celebration is not based on the authority of anyone's teaching or on philosophical argument or traditional doctrine: it emerges from the clarity of her perceptions and the purity of her heart.

This final point helps us to understand the resurgence of popularity in mystical writing generally and in Hildegard in particular. We live in an age of profound scepticism about orthodox doctrinaire religious preaching and about church authority and yet an age which has not lost a desire for religious understanding, for religious knowledge. Hildegard's unmediated insights, expressed characteristically in terms of the natural world we see around us, are thus extremely evocative—they speak directly to our religious sensibilities, without, for the most part, doctrinaire baggage. In a word, they re-energize the religious experience latent in us.


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