Monday, September 15, 2014

Mysticism Unveiled: The Gentle Heart of Hildegard of Bingen

By Megan Hoyt

Our guest poster today is Megan Hoyt, a longtime Ambleside Online user and the author of Hildegard's Gift (see details below).  Hildegard of Bingen is the AO composer for this term.

When I first began reading about the early life of Hildegard of Bingen, twelfth century composer, artist, herbalist, visionary, and lover of God, I really began to identify with this mysterious, solitary child. Like other good Catholics of the Middle Ages, her parents sent her away to live as an anchoress in total isolation at an early age. As their tenth child, they considered her a “tithe to the church,” which seems like a beautiful and godly idea unless you are the frightened little girl being sent away.

I was a frightened little girl, too – I was almost scared of my own shadow for most of my childhood and constantly worried about the social norms of school life, which seemed so elusive to me. I was mystical, too, in the sense that I genuinely “felt” connected to God when I worshipped at church. Unlike my peers, I cried while singing anthems in children’s choir. Christmas and Easter services? I sobbed through them. My parents called me sensitive. My Aunt Gretchen said I was one of God’s special ones. Looking back, I now wonder if I had a form of clinical depression.

Perhaps that’s why I so strongly identified with young Hildegard’s first teetering steps into the cell where she would spend years of her life, praying alone. I could definitely see myself being happy in isolation like Hildegard. And that is the duty of an anchoress, in case you didn’t know – they must live a secluded life as cloistered nuns. I wonder. Did Hildegard WANT to join the convent at Disibodenberg? She was only eight years old, after all. Did she agree with her parents’ decision? She certainly embraced her new life. And the world is better for it. But where does our genuine responsibility for accepting the advice of our parents end? Where does it begin? I really don’t have any idea. It’s a new thought for me – do we have choices when we’re very young? Do we get to decide to love God or are we simply expected to? See, I told you I was mystical. I could sit and ponder these things all day and never accomplish anything else.

Hildegard was already experiencing brilliant visions by the time she was sequestered with only one fellow nun, Jutta, nearby. She was unable to write her visions down without the assistance of a scribe, but it was clear early that she was a gifted young woman with big ideas that she insisted came directly from God. Here are a few things God was saying to her:

The fire has its flame and praises God.
The wind blows the flame and praises God.
In the voice we hear the word which praises God.
And the word, when heard, praises God.
So all of creation is a song of praise to God.

God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.

Good People,
most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun,
you shine with radiant light.

I have read two or three of Hildegard’s books now and even written one of my own about her, Hildegard’s Gift, available through Paraclete Press. The more I read, the more I love this little girl with a giant heart. She seems so intimately acquainted with God and so firm in her convictions about how we should live. Reading even a few excerpted quotes from her chant music refreshes my soul and gives me fresh hope for the future. Taking time to contemplate, to brood, to rest in the presence of our Lord is so important and also richly rewarding in this fragmented, hurry along culture of ours.

The child Hildegard grew up, of course, as we all must. Her adult years were spent as an Abbess, leading others, writing letters of conviction and encouragement to popes, bishops, and princes. She was a strong woman with the courage to confront those living in sin. She also wrote plays, operettas, and listened for God’s whispered design for herbal remedies. Here are a few of her thoughts. They may seem a little silly now, but when she wrote them, there was no medical care, no medicine at all really.

The head of a catfish should never be eaten—it lacks viriditas (greening power) and will cause headaches and fevers.

Spelt rectifies the flesh, produces proper blood, and creates a happy mind and a joyful human disposition.

The wood and leaves of the nutmeg tree are harmful, but nutmeg itself gives a person a positive disposition and calms bitterness of the heart and mind. (Physica, p. 21)

Hildegard was a remarkable and complex woman with many talents, but she considered herself merely “a feather on the breath of God.” May we all trust God so much that we float on the wind of the Spirit, on the very breath of our sustaining God.

Megan Hoyt is a veteran writer with credits in television and print. Her children’s book, Hildegard’s Gift, illustrated by David Hill, was released by Paraclete Press in 2014. Recipes, a secret alphabet, and coloring sheets are all available at her website. For the Orthodox and Catholic among us, Hildegard’s Feast Day is September 17.