“I, the Living Light who illumines what is obscure, have placed the human being whom I have willed, and whom I have wonderfully afflicted as it pleased me, in the midsts of wonderful things, beyond the reach of human beings in the past, who did see in Me many hidden things; but I have laid her low on the ground, so that she may not set herself up in any boldness of mind.”
The above is from Von Bingen’s Scivias, her seminal work, a collection of her famous visions, a supreme theological work and a key to Hildegard’s 12th century superstardom. She was a woman of many talents, glorified and catalogued ad nauseam by theologians, literary critics, psychologists, historians, feminists, wellness practitioners, musicians, and even doctors. Yes, she touched upon all those multidisciplinary endeavours throughout her uncommonly long life span of 80 years, secluded comfortably in a monastery in Germany. She spent most of her life there, a fiery shepherdess to fifty odd nuns, apart from the time she spent on tour. Yes, she has speaking tours, impressing upon the clergy and the laity the phenomenal world of her visions. And what visions! Cosmic eggs, gigantic humanoids seated atop mountains, assorted animals writhing in apocalyptic tropes, and much more, hardly fit for this humble blog to list. And music, of course. Hildegard wrote absolutely ethereal music usually performed by a crystal-thin soprano to the accompaniment of other sopranos, an auditory splendour stemming from utterly original composition rules, each musical piece a holistic and self-sustained ecosystem, so different from the stale rigour of Antiphons and Responsories.
She did all these incredible things (even by our hyper-over-achiever standard measure), yet she wasn’t even classically trained in the contemporary trivium or Latin. That hasn’t stopped her from becoming a thought leader du jour and having bishops, emperors, and even the pope take note of her opinions on theology, politics, philosophy, and other critical matters.
Many odes can be sung to Hildegard, but what is truly remarkable in her work is the freshness, simplicity, and harmony in which she contextualizes her beliefs. Everything for her is steeped in greenness, veridity, fertility, growth, and bloom. Everything is natural and of God. There is little room for asceticism, self-denial, and piety. Instead, moderation, balance, and enjoyment are crowned as the very nexus of good life. Life itself is of interest to Hildegard, and not merely as a means to a glorious end surrounded by rosy-cheeked cherubs, but rather as a thing in of itself. She writes with equal joy about the End of Days as she does about the medicinal properties of gemstones or of putting a dead mouse into a bucket of water to heal epilepsy. Nothing is beyond her reach; everything is firmly and securely a sacred part of her world. At times, she sounds definitely New Agey, her life-affirming positivity resonating strongly with the type of philosophy that’s popular today in the West, bubbling in conversations over kombucha after a hot yoga class. This, in part, explains her enduring popularity in academia and beyond.
Modern neurological commentary explains Hildegard’s visions as an effect of her migraines as much of today’s discourse still wastes precious time debating whether her experiences were real or a hoax. Who cares. What’s infinitely more interesting is the love, divine and human, that permeates every sentence of her opus. And even as her metaphor of a cosmic egg foresees great troubles ahead as the end of time mirrors the sharp end of the egg, there is a kind of joyful acceptance of it all. Hildegard urges her audience not to worry themselves as much with what will be (hell, devils, bodies of sinners writhing in giant cauldrons) as with what is (the music of the firmament, the perpetual growing, breathing, pulsating Life).
Here endeth the lesson.