[Editor's Note: This article was originally published at The Warden Post on November 14, 2018].
Hildegard of Bingen was a twelfth-century seeress from Germany known for her ecstatic visions in which she would hear a voice from heaven that she described as the un-created “Living Light.” Hildegard had a deep impact on Western spirituality and mysticism, not only in her own day, but also in recent years as interest in her has been rekindled in the contemporary era.
In addition to her miraculous visions, she was an avid woman of letters, a composer of liturgical music and her interest in botany has credited her as being the founder of natural history in Germany. Hildegard claimed that she saw the first shades of the “Living Light” at age 3 and by age 5 she first began experiencing the mystical visions that would ensure her place in the pages of history.
Apprehensive at first to tell anyone of her visions, she later confided in a handmaid who in turn told her then tutor, a man by the name of Volmar, who would later become her secretary. The visions in question would often leave her bedridden and would frequently cause her painful migraines. Because these mystical episodes would leave her physically drained, she instructed Volmar to write down all she had said while she was entranced word for word without addition, subtraction, or alteration.
The following are my personal commentaries on several selections taken from her mystical writings including her famous Scivias, the Book of Life’s Merits, and the Book of Divine Works.
The title “Scivias” is an abbreviation of the the Latin phrase “Sci vias Domini” (Know the Ways of the Lord). Written in the year 1141 when Hildegard was 42 and completed in either 1151 or 1152. Scivias deals with the nature of the soul, the Creation of Adam and Eve, the structure of the universe in the form of a Cosmic Egg, the Church as the Bride of Christ, the Trinity as well as other motifs common to Christian mystical experience.
On how the Spirit of God gives life to soul and the body:
“You see, as it were, a woman who has in her womb the complete figure of a human being. This means that after the woman has received human seed a child is formed, perfect in all its parts, in the hidden chamber of the belly. And behold, through the secret plan of the supreme Creator, the same figure displays animated motion. For when, in accordance with the secret and hidden order and will of God, at an appropriate time rightly determined by divine providence, the child in its mother's womb has received the spirit, it shows by the movement in its body that it is alive. In the same way, the earth reveals itself and brings forth its crop of flowers when the dew falls upon it, just as the fiery sphere (having none of the features of the human body) takes possession of that same figure’s heart.”
This is a reiteration of the classic Catholic belief that life beings at conception. God bestows life upon the fetus and endows it with an animated spirit from the moment it begins to form in its mother's womb. Just as plant life is nurtured in the depths of the earth and springs forth at it’s appropriate time and season, God, through his actions, bestows the conditions of life upon every unborn child. Hildegard also makes reference to the “fiery element” which we’ll soon see is linked to the condition of the soul.
“For the soul, blazing in the fire of profound knowledge, discerns various things in orbit of its understanding. And, not having the form of parts (since it is itself neither corporeal nor fallen like the human body), it greatly strengthens our heart because, being the foundation of the body, it rules the whole, just as the firmament of heaven contains the things below and protects the things above. The soul also affects the brain because, in its powers, it understands the things not only of earth but of heaven, when it knows God wisely. And it pours itself through all our parts, since it has bestowed on the whole body the vigour of the marrow and of the veins and of all the limbs, just as the tree gives sap and greenness from the root to all its branches.”
Hildegard links the nature of the soul to the fiery element because the soul, like fire, is formless and yet at the same time animate. The soul, Hildegard says, is not fallen like the body and does not suffer from the ancestral guilt that came from the expulsion from Paradise. The soul, however, is subject to corruption, but it is not by its nature corrupt. She also compares the soul to the vault of the sky because it “contains the things below and protects the things above.” The soul intuitively understands the things of heaven, if only by allegory, and gives life and motion to the body. The soul, it would seem, is both the animating force of the body and the conduit by which we are able to understand divine wisdom, either through mystical experience or solemn contemplation.
“As it emerges from its mother, this same figure of a human being (which has been given life in this way) also changes colour, according to the motions which the sphere itself makes within it. For after we have received the life-giving spirit in our mother’s womb, once we have been born in this way and begun to express ourselves in action, our own worth is apparent in terms of the works which the soul performs with the body. For we clothe ourselves with brightness from good things and with darkness from bad.”
While we are in our mother’s womb we remain in a state of innocence, though still subjected to a fallen nature. However, once we are brought into the world, our salvation lies upon whether we choose to cloth our body and soul with good deeds or ill ones. Our salvation of course is still, in the end, dependent upon God’s grace. But nonetheless we are called to righteousness, not degeneration. A degenerate soul and body will ultimately have to bear the consequences it’s actions in this life.
On the likeness of a soul to a tree:
“The soul is in the body as the sap is in the tree; and the powers of the soul are like the figure of the tree. How is this so? Understanding in the soul is like the green vigour of the branches and the leaves of the tree. Will is like the flowers on the tree; mind like the first fruit bursting forth. But reason is like the fruit in the fullness of maturity; while sense is like the height and spread of the tree. And in the same way, the human body is strengthened and supported by the soul.”
SC 14, 26.
Hildegard continues her analogy of comparing the human body and its soul to that of a tree or plant. Each part of the body, like each part of the tree, contributes to its overall growth. Understanding is like the branches and leaves, Will is like the flowers, the mind its first fruits but reason, says Hildegard, is like the fruit of the tree in all its ripeness. At the crown of the human body sits the senses, which she compares to the “height and spread of the tree.” The senses are the most encompassing of the body/soul’s attributes. From the mind proceed the senses, from the senses, understanding; from which proceed the Will and reason. The soul and the body are inseparable, complementary parts to one another forming a single complete whole that will either be transfigured at the Last Judgment or be found wanting and undergo the second death.
On the Trinity:
“Just as the flame contains three essences in one fire, so too, there is one God in three persons. How is this so? The flame consists of shining brightness, purple vigour and fiery glow. It has shining brightness so that it may give light; purple vigour so that it may flourish; and a fiery glow so that it may burn. In the shining brightness, observe the Father who, in his fatherly devotion, reveals his brightness to the faithful. In the purple vigour contained within it (whereby this same flame manifests its power), understand the Son who, from the Virgin, assumed a body in which the Godhead demonstrated its miracles. And in the fiery glow, perceive the Holy Spirit which pours glowingly into the minds of believers. But where there is neither shining brightness, nor purple vigour, nor fiery glow, there is no flame seen. So too, where neither the Father the Son nor the Holy Spirit is honoured, there God is not worthily revered. And so, just as these three essences are discerned in the one flame, so too, three Persons are to be understood in the unity of Godhead.”
SC II 2, 6.
Trying to explain the nature of the Trinity has always led to some bad analogies, even for some of the most illumined of saints. The Trinity should always be understood as a Mystery that can never truly be understood. Fortunately, we can, through analogy, come to a basic understanding of what the Trinity is and is not. Hildegard, in this instance, likens the Holy Trinity to a flame. The flame is composed of its brightness, purple vigour and glow. All three “essences” (a word that might upset more Orthodox readers) of the flame are inseparable from it. To remove either the flame’s brightness, vigour or glow is to snuff out the flame. It cannot exist otherwise. Consequently, to remove either the Father, Son or Holy Spirit from our understanding of God is to fall into error. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God, much like how the brightness, vigour and glow are all part of the flame. God is not a person but a Trinity of Persons. A flame, likewise, is not merely the sum of its parts, but a unified whole in which the relationship of its three essences allow it to exist at all. Christian denominations that fall into the error of Modalism or any other heresy which separates Father, Son and Holy Spirit from one another do not properly honor God in all his majesty, as Hildegard correctly notes. The Trinity is not to be understood as “Tritheism” but as a single pre-eternal, omniscient God who both precedes and is beyond Being— One in essence and undivided.
“He who has believed and been baptized will be saved; but he who has not believed will be damned. What does this mean? That man who has seen through his understanding (which is the inner eye) what is hidden to external sight, and does not waver in this—he most certainly believes. This is faith. For what we perceive externally, we also know externally; and what we see internally, we also contemplate internally. So it is that when our understanding, looking ardently through the mirror of life, perceives the incomprehensible Godhead which the outer eye is unable to see, then the desires of the flesh are laid low and crushed to the ground.”
The Holy Mystery of baptism is given to those seeking to convert once they have completed their time as a catechumen. This process which precedes initiation into the Christian faith is only given once one has, though prayer and instruction by a spiritual father, been deemed worthy to be admitted into the life-giving Mysteries of the Church. This alone requires an admission of faith on the part of the catechumen, whom, not merely by relying on the experiences of the external world, grows in spirit and in faith through contemplation and meditating on the things of the internal, spiritual world. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ, being questioned by the Pharisees, tells them that the Kingdom of God is already here and within us (Lk: 17:21).
“Therefore, the spirit of that man sighs towards the true height. It feels the regeneration which was brought by the Son of Man. The Son of Man was conceived of the Holy Spirit. His Mother did not receive him in the lust from the flesh of a sweating male, but from the secret part of the Father of all things. Coming in sweetness, he shows in the water the most pure and living mirror, so that through it man lives in regeneration. For just as man is born from flesh, created by the divine power in the form of Adam, so the Holy Spirit restores the life of the soul through the pouring over of water. The water receives into itself the spirit of man as it rouses it to life, just as his spirit was revived previously in the wave of blood, when it was revealed in a vessel of flesh. For just as the form of man is fashioned though love, so that it is called ‘man’, so too, the spirit of man is given life in the water before the eyes of God, so that God acknowledges him in the inheritance of life.”
Baptism cannot be seen then, as it so often is, a mere outward symbol of a person’s newfound commitment to Christ. It is a super-personal event that changes a person on an ontological level. It would not be an exaggeration to say that baptism is quite literally a second birth. Man, as Hildegard says, was fashioned in the form of Adam (whom is now subjected to sin and death) and given life in a wave of his mother’s blood. Baptism, then, is a rebirth. It is to put off the old man and to be clothed with the new. The living waters become a second womb and our new parent the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.
“So it is that he who accepts the fountain of deliverance with the covenant of Justice finds life in salvation because he faithfully believes. But he who does not wish to believe is dead, since he does not have the breath of the Holy Spirit on which to fly to the heights of heaven. Feeling his way with blind eyes, he trembles in the clouded understanding of the flesh, without being alive. For he lacks the life-enabling discipline which God has breathed into mankind to counteract the mounting will of the flesh.
SC II 3, 30.
Again, faith is crucial, not only to one’s conversion but to the receiving of baptism itself. Without faith that to be immersed in the holy life-giving waters, the rite becomes a mere symbolic observance, such as receiving a High School diploma. A Christian can choose to either receive or deny the gift that they have been given having been baptized; to live and act as an imitation of Christ or to live in sin and licentiousness. It is ultimately Christ who will be the judge of all souls. However, when one receives his own baptism with joy, understanding the fullness that one has been given a new life as a new person, not merely an “individual”, then that person is one step closer towards salvation and theosis.
On the Eucharist:
“’Eat, my friends, drink and get drunk, my dearest ones. What does this mean? Eat in faith, you have come to my friendship through holy baptism. For the pouring out of my Son’s blood has wiped from you Adam’s fall. Think upon the true remedy in the body of the Only-begotten, so that the crimes you frequently repeat when you commit injustice in your works may be wiped mercifully from you. Drink in hope from this vine which has led you from eternal punishment. Take up the cup of salvation, so that you may believe firmly and courageously in that grace by which you have been deemed. For you too will be drenched in that blood which was poured out for you. Become drunk with love, you who are most beloved of me. Be overflowing in the rivulets of the Scriptures, so that you tear yourselves away with the highest zeal from the desires of the flesh. Then I may kindle in you the dazzling virtues that are so lovely to me, as I hand over to you the body and blood of my Only-begotten, just as he himself gave the same sacraments to his disciples, as is written in the Gospel.’”
Speaking in trance, Hildegard exults the purpose and majesty of the Eucharist. This beautiful verse needs no further elaboration.
“’I want to declare marvelous things also in the wine which flows from the vine, by the same invocation through the sacrament of his blood. ‘The blood of my Son flowed from his side, just as the grape drips from the vine. But just as the grape is trodden by feet and crushed in the press, with the sweetest and strongest wine flowing out to strengthen the blood in man, so too, in my Only-begotten, in the sweat of his distress, as he was bruised by blows and scourges, crushed by the timber of the cross, the drenching in salvific deliverance the people who believed […] For just as the wine drips from the vine, so too, my Son issued from my heart. My Only-begotten is the true vine—with shoots issuing from him in different directions. For the faithful have been planted in him and through his incarnation they abound in the fruit of good works. And just as that that juice flows from the sweetest and strongest fruit of the vine, so too all justice appears in mercy and truth through the incarnation of my Son. All those who faithfully seek these virtues, discover them in him. How is this so? Those who faithfully cling to him are made green and fruitful by him so that in these virtues they bear excellent fruit. In the same way, being sweet and gentle, he brought forth the most precious buds in holiness and justice and those who believed in him, he cleansed of all the dirt of unfaithfulness.’”
SC II 6, 21.
Presumably under the influence of the Living Light, Hildegard compares God the Son to a grapevine. As grapes in the winepress are trampled underfoot to make wine, Christ underwent tortures and torments and finally was left to hang on the cross. The analogy of Christ as a grapevine and wine being used as a sacrament in the Lord’s Supper have obvious parallels.
A call for renewal:
“Those who willing endure poverty in my name are truly worthy of my love; while those who through their greed would gladly have worldly riches, but are not able to have them, lose the profit of their labour. Yet he who seeks riches to satisfy in them my will and not his greed, will have in my house the reward of glory for his good will. So too, he who seeks the power of glory because of his bragging arrogance and not for the glory of my name—seems to me like a stinking corpse. But he who seeks glory for the sake not of his own arrogance but of my renown, will appear full of glory in my kingdom. For this reason, priests ought to submit themselves to the teaching of their spiritual office’s rule not for themselves but for me, so that they may be able to preside over my people so much more steadfastly and devoutly.”
SC II 6, 92.
This revelation seems to be directed specifically towards priests who took advantage of their office and more generally directed towards greedy people overall. In this passage, the Living Light, through Hildegard, reemphasizes the Christian virtues of righteous poverty and the renunciation of material things.
The Two paths:
“Man has within him two callings—a desire for success and a longing for failure. How is this so? Through the desire for success, he is called to life. Through the longing for failure he is called to death. When, in the longing for success, man desires to do good, saying to himself, ‘Perform good works’, this is a response against evil—to avoid it and produce useful fruit. But when, in the longing for failure, he desires to commit evil urging himself on in this way: ‘Do whatever gives you pleasure’, this a response against good, since he does not wish to resist his own inequity, but delights in achieving failure. He shows contempt for me in this response and reckons me a trickster by not bestowing the honour due to me.”
SC III 5, 6.
The classic choice between sin and righteousness. More generally, it is the choice between what is profitable for our souls and bodies and what is not. The righteous path leads us upwards and the wicked path towards degeneration. A simple explanation would be thus: we cannot allow ourselves to be led solely by our desires—by allowing ourselves to become degenerates not only do our bodies suffer, through the various gluttony and ailments caused by loose living, but the condition of our souls suffer as well.
On Divine Wisdom:
“You see a figure of great beauty standing on the top of this floor. This means that this virtue was in the Father on high ‘before all creation’, arranging in his judgement all the materials of creation established in heaven and on earth. She herself, it is clear, shines in him as a great adornment, being the broadest step amongst the steps of the other virtues in him. She is joined to him in a dance, in the sweetest embrace of blazing love.”
Hildegard reveals to us that Holy Wisdom was with God the Father before the creation of the cosmos, present at the time of creation and timeless aeons before it. It could be implied that Wisdom is co-eternal with the Holy Trinity, but not a person of the Trinity per se.
“Wisdom looks towards the people on the earth. For she always rules and defends with her protection those who try to follow her, loving them greatly because they are steadfast in her. For that same figure signifies the Wisdom of God: since, through her, all things were created and ruled by God. Her head shines like lightening: with such brightness that you cannot have your fill of gazing upon it. For the Godhead is both terrible and enticing to all creation, seeing and contemplating all things, just as the human eye discerns what is placed before it. Yet no mortal can ultimately comprehend the Godhead, in all the profundity of its mystery.”
This revelation either seems to contradict the opening of the Gospel of John (1:1-5) or imply that God’s Wisdom is somehow synonymous with his Word, which was used to bring forth light and order from the darkness of oblivion and chaos. It is interesting to note, however, that some strains of Gnostic thought associated Sophia (Holy Wisdom) as the syzygy or “partner” of Christ. Whether Hildegard was aware of this is doubtful at best.
“Wisdom arranges her hands reverently upon her breast. This signifies the power of Wisdom which she wisely restrains, so that she directs every work of hers in such a way that no one can resist her, either in prudence or power. Her feet on the same floor, are hidden from your sight. For her way concealed in the heart of the Father, lies open to no mortal. Her secrets are naked and manifest to God alone. She has on her head a ring in the form of a crown, shining with great brilliance. This signifies that the majesty of God, being without beginning or end, shines with an incomparable glory, Godhead radiating with such splendor that moral minds are overwhelmed. As for her being clothed in a tunic the colour of gold; this signifies that the work of Wisdom is frequently considered as though it were the purest gold. For this reason, she is adorned with a belt that descends from her breast right down to her feet, decorated with most precious jewels and glittering in a brilliant play of green and white and red and sky-blue.”
Hildegard relays her visions of Wisdom, whom she describes with human attributes. Her posture, clothing and symbols of celestial majesty are interpreted as having a relationship to the Godhead whom she perpetually glorifies.
“For, from the beginning of the world, when Wisdom first displayed her work openly, she already extended as far as the end of the world, like a single path, adorned with holy and just commands, that is to say, with the first planting of the green seed of the patriarchs and of the prophets who, in wretched lamentation for their suffering, entreated with such great desire for the Son of God to be made flesh. Then she was graced with the dazzling virginity of the Virgin Mary; next with the solid and ruddy faith of the martyrs; and finally with the brilliant and light-filled love of contemplation, by which God and neighbor ought to be loved through the heat of the Holy Spirit. She will go on in this way until the end of the world, and her warning will not cease but will flow out always, as long as the world endures.”
SC III 9, 25.
Wisdom is here described, curiously enough, with some of attributes commonly attributed to the Holy Spirit. Yet, at the end of the passage, she is shown to be distinct from the Holy Spirit. Wisdom, says Hildegard, was there when the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets received their inspiration from God as well as her having been honored by the perpetual virginity of Mary. Finally, Wisdom is said to have been present at the creation of the world and will be at its destruction.
On spiritual music:
“Just as the power of God, extending, everywhere, surrounds all things without encountering any resistance, so too, the rationality of man has the great ability to sound through living voices and to rouse listless souls to wakefulness in music. Even David demonstrates this in the music of his prophecy and Jeremiah shows it in the sorrowful voice of his lamentation. So it is that even you—a poor, weak-natured little woman—hear in music, the sound of fiery ardour in the virgin’s blush, in the living lights that shine in the celestial city; the sound of prophecy in deep sermons; the sound of marvelous words from the enlarging of the apostleship; the sound of blood being poured out by those who offer themselves up in faith; the sound of the priestly mysteries being observed; and the sound of the virgin’s step in the heavenly greenness of flowering things. For faithful creation echoes back to the heavenly Creator with its voice of exultation and joy, returning frequent thanks. But you also hear a sound like the voice of a great throng, resounding in harmony in the complaints of those recalled to the same steps. For music not only rejoices in the unanimity of exultation of those who bravely persevere along the path of righteousness. It also exults in the concord of reviving those who have fallen away from the path of justice and are lifted up at last to blessedness. For even the good shepherd joyfully led back to the flock the sheep that had been lost.”
SC III, 13, 13.
In both the Eastern Catholic Mass and the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the worship services are understood to be an earthly imitation of the heavenly chorus of angels constantly glorifying God around the celestial throne. Drawing upon both the Psalms of David and the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Hildegard illustrates that this spiritual music permeates every aspect of Christian worship.
On how musical harmony softens the heart:
“Musical harmony softens hard hearts, including in them the moisture of contrition and summoning the Holy Spirit. So it is that those voices that you hear are like the voice of the multitude when they lift up their voices on high. For the faithful carry their jubilant praises in the singleness of unanimity and revealed love, towards that unity of mind where there is no discord, when they make those on earth sigh with hearts and mouths for their heavenly reward. And the sound of those voices passes through you in such a way that you understand them without being hindered by dullness. For whatever divine grace has been at work, it removes all shadow of obscurity, making those things pure and full of light that had been concealed by the carnal senses in the weakness of the flesh.”
SC III 13, 14.
Whether the sound of a Gregorian chant or piece by Bach or Mozart, music has always had the ability to inflame or soothe the soul. Music can arouse us to agitation or evoke a sense of melancholy over the passing remembrance of a lost loved one. It is sacred music, however, that unites us closer to God, through out of our very own mouths our voices, in unison, imitate the saints and holy angels that perpetually glorify His everlasting majesty.
The Book of Life’s Merits
A much shorter work than Scivias, the Book of Life’s Merits begins with a conversation between Hardness of Heart and Mercy. Hardness of Heart declares that everything is pointless and that there is no use to bother with anything. Mercy rebukes him by saying that all Creation desires to be loved and that the natural world glorifies humanity. The Book of Life’s Merits deals primarily with the individual's tendency to be thankless and forget God in all His goodness.
On thinking you were born to be unhappy:
“As soon as some people find themselves faced with the vicissitudes of everyday life, they start to mistrust God. They decide that they must be fated to be unhappy. ‘God does not want to help us’, they claim, ‘and he can’t do so either. We are stuck with the life of misery we were born into, and there is no escape.’ People who say such things in their hearts should turn and place all their trust in God’s mercy. In their longing for higher things, they should confess their failure so that they can still merit God’s grace. For human beings are by nature good. It is their own fault if they pervert their true natures and give full rein to their arbitrary desires. These words concern penitent people, whose souls can still be purified and saved; and they are true. Let the faithful take care to keep this firmly fixed in the memory of their good conscience.”
LM 2, 93.
The desire for worldly things has been a part of human experience even before the revealing of Christianity. Much of our unhappiness is caused by our longing for the good things of life: wealth, status, luxury, comfort, sex, our yearning for love and acceptance, etc. The Christian response has always been, as it was in the following passage, that our good things must be dependent of God’s mercy and love and that worldly success in no guarantee of our salvation; “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.” This has been the Christian response for centuries, whether it remains a “good” response is a matter of conjecture.
On the vice of forgetting God:
“Forgetting about God leads to harmful thoughts and idle chatter such as: ‘How can we know about God if we have never seen him? And why should we have any regard for him if we have never set eyes on him?’ People who talk like that are no longer mindful of their creator, and their minds are smothered in the darkness of unbelief. For when man fell, darkness fell in the whole of creation. But God had created human beings to be full of light so that they could see the radiance of pure ether and hear the song of angels. He had clothed them in such radiance that they shone with the splendor of it. But all this was lost when man disobeyed God’s commandment and so caused nature to fall with him. Yet the natural elements retained a glittering of their former pristine position, which human sin could not destroy completely. For which reason people should retain a glimmering of their knowledge of God. They should allow God to return to the centre of their lives, recognizing that they owe their very existence to no one else save God alone, who is the Creator of all.”
LM 4, 67.
While a seeress and a visionary, Hildegard was not a theologian. The argument that refutes God’s existence, as used by atheists, because he cannot be seen or heard is an unsatisfactory one. God revealed Himself directly to humankind by taking on flesh as Jesus Christ. It is because of the incarnation and resurrection that we can have a personal relationship with God, that we can see God as a human being, because He, as the second person of the Holy Trinity, came down to earth, took on a human nature and was subject to temptation, pain, hunger, thirst and death. Hildegard is correct, however, to say that in orienting our lives toward contemplation of God that we inch ever closer to regaining what had been lost at the Fall. Though, naked, Adam had been “clothed in splendor.” It was by partaking of the fruit of knowledge of Good and Evil that allowed his eyes to become blind with sin so that he could no longer see his celestial garment and became ashamed of his own nakedness.
On the heavenly joy of the virgins:
“Again in that light, as in a mirror, I saw a layer of air, pure beyond the clarity of the purest water. It shone with light, stronger than the rays of the sun. it had life and it contained the vital force of all the herbs and flowers of the earth and paradise, filled with the scent of green plants and flowers. As though in a mirror, I saw in that layer of air those blessed women, clothed in gowns of purest gold. From the chest to the feet they were adorned with precious jewels, in the manner of a woman’s hanging girdle. They too were as fragrant as sweet-smelling herbs. And their belts were decorated with gold and pearls and dedicated workmanship beyond the limits of human conception.”
In her vision, Hildegard sees a choir of heavenly virgins clothed in the raiment of celestial glory:
“On their heads they wore golden crowns studded with gems and interwoven with roses and lilies. Wherever the voice of the Lamb resounded, a breath of wind sprang up from the depths of the Godhead which stirred the stems of the roses and lilies till they rang out like strings and harps; a wonderful music was heard, in perfect harmony with the voice of the Lamb. Only they who wore the crowns could sing this music, and only they could hear the song, rejoicing in it, as they delight who first set their eyes on the sun’s unimagined splendor.”
From His place in depths of the Godhead, the Lamb of God, taken to be an allegory of Christ, sends of the Word which stirs the roses and lilies on the garments of these heavenly virgins like strings on a harp. The virgins, in turn, begin to sing once the flowers on their girdles begin to chime to the voice of the Lamb. This song seems reserved for the chorus of heavenly virgins. Apparently not even the angels are able to hear this song.
“Their shoes shone with light like living like a spring of living water. At times they seemed to hover, as on golden wheels. Again they took up harps and again that wonderful music rang out. They began to speak a strange unearthly language that no one else could speak or understand. As to the rest of their radiance—that was beyond the power of my eyes to see.”
Only the chorus of virgins can sing or even understand this secret, heavenly language which is apparently not the “tongue of angels” as mentioned by Paul or described by Enoch. Hildegard goes on to describe why only these women are allowed the privilege of knowing this language:
“Because during their bodily existence these women had achieved a real faith in God their Creator, and had performed good works, they found themselves in joy and serenity of that glorious splendor that I have just described. By their purity of purpose, they have overcome their vain, empty, unpredictable desires. Through their passionate love for the true sun, they have ascended to that level beyond the confines of prescribed laws and now they could breathe a new air, an air pure beyond the clarity of the purest water; and they shone with a radiance beyond the radiant glory of the sun. in the green life of their virginity and in the blossoming of body and spirit, these women had revealed the sweetest longings. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, they had been filled with the fragrance and power of many virtues. And now they could feel the breath of a new air, an air that breathes the fresh green force of all the herbs and flowers of earth and paradise; air that is filled with the fragrance of life-giving power, just as summer is filled with the scent of green plants and flowers.’
Like the blessed Virgin Mary, the souls of these women have been rewarded for their perpetual virginity as a being a part of a heavenly choir, given a song that only they can sing, in a language only they can understand and ears that can hear the very Word of God.
“They followed the way of life of God’s incarnate Son and their hearts soared to great heights. They vowed to God to preserve their virginity in awe and sacred worship. So now, rejoicing with them the Lamb of God lifts up his voice. A sweet breath of wind, rising from the depths of God, touches these emblems of their crowned virginity so that they start to join in the song of the lamb, a music unknown to those who do not possess such emblems but who are overjoyed when they finally hear it. And because they trod the path taken by God when he became man by ancient design, their shoes shone with such a light so that it was as if they had been taken from a spring of living water.”
LM 6,43-6, 48.
The theme of plants, living water and the color green are constant themes of Hildegard’s visions. The fact Hildegard was also a well-known botanist perhaps has something to do with these descriptions and allegories appearing frequently in her visions. That she was also an abbess may have as well been a factor of her being granted the honor of witnessing a chorus of heavenly vestals. The vision could also serve as an ideal of sorts, a holy image of what a pious nun could hope to aspire too; being granted the gift of a celestial tongue that not even the angels understand would be a reward that any bride of Christ could strive to achieve.
The Book of Divine of Works
The Book of Divine Works opens with Hildegard’s recounting of her having been commissioned by the Living Light to “Write in this way, just as I tell you.” These visions, like so many others, were recorded by her faithful secretary Volmar as well as witnessed by her handmaiden Richardis. The Book of Divine Works marks Hildegard’s last and most ecstatic of her visionary experiences. The visions contained in this work are comparable to the those found in the Book of Revelation in their sheer cosmic scope and otherworldliness.
On the source of all being:
“I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every living spark and I have breathed out nothing that can die. But I determine how things are— I have regulated the circuit of the heavens by flying around its revolving track with my upper wings—that is to say, with Wisdom. But I am also the fiery life of the divine 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; the waters flow as if they were alive. Even the sun is alive in its own light; and when the moon is on the point of disappearing, it is kindled by the sun, so that it lives, as it were, afresh. I have also set up the pillars that sustain the orb of the earth, as well as those winds which have subordinate wing (that is to say, gentler winds) which, through their mildness, hold the stronger winds in check, so that they do not prove a danger. In the same way, the body covers and encloses the soul so that it does not rush out.”
We have here, at the beginning of this vision, an unnamed fire elemental (possibly related to Wisdom) of the highest heavens speaking through Hildegard and narrating to us the nature of the stars and lights of the firmament as well as how the foundations of the earth were established. The unnamed fiery-being goes on to describe the nature of the soul:
“For just as the breathing of the soul hold the body together by supporting it, so that it does not fail, so too the strong winds animate the subordinate winds so that they function as they should. And so I, the fiery power, lie hidden in these things and they blaze from me, just as a man is continually moved by his breathe, and as the fire contains the nimble flame. All these things live in their own essence and are without death, since I am Life. I am also rationality, having the wind of the resounding Word (through which all creation was made) and I have breathed into all these things, so that there is nothing mortal in their natures, because I am Life itself. For I am the whole of life—life was not torn from stones; it did not bud from branches; nor is it rooted in the generative power of the male. Rather, every living thing is rooted in me. For rationality is the root, but the resounding Word flowers in it.”
The figure above, now revealed to be Life, presents itself as being linked to rationality. What can be drawn from this passage is that Life is affirmed to be rational, that it and the experiences associated with it can ultimately be understood by the human mind and senses. Life also declares that possesses the resounding Word of God that established creation. This would make sense in the context that God the Father speaks forth the Word (i.e., the pre-Incarnate Christ) at the beginning of Time to bring about established order, and with it, life.
“Hence, since God is rational, how could he not be at work, since all his work blossoms in man whom he made in his own image and likeness and in whom he expressed all creation according to fixed measure. For it was always the case throughout eternity that God wanted his work, man, to come into being. And when he finished the task, he gave man all the creatures so that he might work with them, just as God had made man as his own work.”
In this passage God is described as a rational Being and Life, having sprung forth from the will of God, is also said to be rational as well. God finds it well and good to establish creation, to bring recognizable order out of chaos and man, being made in the image of God, is said to have a unique plan and role in this established order.
“But I am also of service since all living things take their radiance from me; and I am the life which remains the same through eternity, having neither beginning not end; and the same life, working and moving itself is God and yet this life is one in three powers. And to Eternity is called the Father, the Word is called the Son and the breath that connects these two is called the Holy Spirit; just as God marked it in man in whom there are body, soul and rationality.”
Life is described here as being co-eternal with the triune Godhead. What is striking about this short passage is that the Trinity is explained in a very simple way to understand—the Father as Eternity, the Son as Word which precedes from Eternity and gives rise to established order, and the Holy Spirit which connects the Father and Son is an embrace of love, transcending time and existing before time.
“But the fact that I flame above the beauty of the fields signifies the earth, which is the stuff from which God made man. And my shining in the waters accords with the soul; because just as the water pours over the whole earth, so the soul pervades the whole body. That I glow in the sun and the moon, signifies rationality; but the stars are countless words of rationality. And the fact that by means of the airy wind I stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all, signifies this: those things which advance in growth are animated and sustained by the air and wind and remain quite unchanged in their essence.”
DW 1, 2.
Finally, we return to the idea that life, and more so the world, is ultimately rational. This vision ends with the world as being made up of the four elements, according to the medieval understanding of nature.
The Wheel of Life:
“The firmament has a revolving orbit in imitation of the power of God which has neither beginning or nor end—just as no one can where the encircling wheel begins or ends. For the throne of God in his eternity in which he alone sits, and all the living sparks are rays of his splendor, just as the rays of the sun proceed from the sun itself. And how could God be known to be life, except through the living things which glorify him, since the things that praise his glory have proceeded from him? For this reason, he placed the living and burning sparks to brighten his face. These sparks see that he has neither beginning nor end (unable to have their fill of gazing at him), they look eagerly upon him without satiety, with a zeal that can never diminish. But how could he, who is alone immortal, be known if the angels did not gaze upon him in this way? If he did not have those sparks, how could his full glory be apparent? And how could he be known to be eternal, if no brightness proceeded from him? For there is nothing in creation that does not have some radiance—either greenness or seeds or flowers, or beauty—otherwise it would not be part of creation. For if God were not able to make all things, where would be his power?”
DW 4, 11.
As previously established, life is said to have originated with God, being co-eternal with Him. All life has its origins in the godhead from which it proceeds. All creation seeks to glorify Him, to praise Him and take part in His divine work. Sitting at the center of the heavenly wheel (which is striking in its similarities to the Buddhist mandala) God’s “face” is illuminated by living sparks of light and fire where the angels perpetually sing the praises of the Most High. The description of the highest heavens as a wheel or mandala is interesting because it seems to have its analogies with the depictions of Christ Pantokrator inside the domes of Eastern Orthodox churches, surrounded by Old Testament prophets who foretold of his coming. Similar depictions exist within Catholicism of Christ in Majesty, which Hildegard was no doubt familiar with.
On the work of the soul in the body:
“The soul assists the flesh and the flesh, the soul. For every single work that is perfected through the soul as well as flesh, so that the soul is revived by doing good and holy works with the flesh. But the flesh is often irked when cooperating with the soul, and so the soul stoops to the level of the flesh and allows it to take delight in some deed, just as a mother causes her weeping child to laugh. And in this way, the flesh performs some good works with the soul, but mixed together with certain sins which the soul tolerates so that the flesh is not oppressed. For just as the flesh lives through the soul, so too, the soul is revived by doing good works with the flesh, because the soul has been stationed inside the work of the Lord’s hands. In the same way that the sun, overcoming night, climbs until the middle of the day, so man, too, rises up, by avoiding corrupt deeds. And just as the sun declines in the afternoon, so too, the soul makes accord with the flesh. And as the moon is rekindled by the sun so that it does not disappear, so the flesh of man is sustained by the powers of the soul, so that it does not go to ruin.”
DW 4 24.
The soul and body are complimentary to one another. Although the soul directs, or rather informs the body, it can be led astray by the passions. Where the body is led astray by the passions the soul is darkened and vice versa.
On how God is life in all its fullness:
“And so God, who made all the things which have been mentioned previously, is the unique life from which all life takes its breath, just as a ray comes from the sun; and he is the fire from which every fire that looks toward blessedness is kindled, just as sparks emerge from fire. And how could it be appropriate if no living thing clung to this life and no fire warmed or illuminated any life? And how could it be fitting if no life or brightness proceeded from the Godhead, which was life before time? And what good would it do if the light kindled from this fire shone on no one, since the fire does not hide its light, nor the sun its ray? For God is that life through which the host of angels was kindled, like sparks leaping from a fire. So it would be inappropriate if this life did not shine forth. And that brightness is unfailing since in it there can be no death. How is this so? God alone exists through and in himself and did not receive his from anyone else. But everything else in creation takes its beginning from him”
DW 5, 14.
God by His nature is without origin, without beginning and without end. His generative power was the source of all the host of angels; he is the life before life in whom, as Hildegard says, “can be no death.” Furthermore, God has found it fitting to bring life and consciousness into the cosmos, although He could certainly exist even if the universe was never brought into existence at all. God chooses to share the gift of life with his creation, in all its beauty and tragedy.
The Fountain of Life:
“I also saw, as if in the middle of the southern region I mentioned, three figures, two of whom were standing in a fountain of great purity, which was surrounded by a round stone, pierced with holes. They seemed to be rooted in it, just as trees sometimes appear to be growing out of water. One was clad in purple, the other in white, but of such a brightness that I could not look directly at them directly. The third, however, was standing out of the fountain, on the stone. She was clad in a white robe, and her face shone with such radiance that my face flinched from it. And the blessed ranks of saints appeared like clouds before them.”
DW 8, 1.
The three figures are explained to be Love, Humility and Peace. Throughout this this vision, each figure explains how they are related to one another as well as the fountain of purity to which they are gathered.
“But now the first figure began to speak: ‘I am Love—the radiance of the living God. Wisdom has performed her work with me, and Humility (who is rooted in the living fountain) is my helper. To her, Peace clings. And through the brightness that I am, the living light of blessed angel’s blazes. For, just as a ray flashes from a lamp, so this brightness shines in the blessed angels—nor could it do otherwise, since a light cannot help but shine. For I designed man, who was rooted in me like a reflected image, just as the semblance of each thing is seen in the water. So too, I am the living fountain because all the things that have been made were like a reflection in me. Man was made with fire and water according to his reflection, just as I am the fire and the living water. For this reason, man has it in his soul to arrange everything according to his will.’”
It was through Love that God created Adam, the primordial man. Love, among the highest of the Christian virtues, made all things according to her will and, because man reflects Love, possesses the ability to do the same.
“Wisdom contemplated her own work, which she had arranged in proper order in the reflection of the living water, when she revealed trough that aforementioned unlearned figure of a woman, certain in natural virtues of various things and certain writings about the life of merits, and certain other deep mysteries which that same woman saw in true vision and which exhausted her.”
In this passage we learn how Holy Wisdom revealed her mysteries to Hildegard as visions. It is presumably Wisdom that is the Living Light that has been sending down her revelation to Hildegard.
“’The leaping fountain is clearly the purity of the living God. His radiance is reflected in it, and in that splendor, God embraces in his great love all things whose reflection appeared in the leaping fountain before he ordered them to come forth in their own shape. And in me, Love, all things are reflected and my splendor reveals the design of things, just as the reflection indicates their form. In Humility, who is my helper, creation came forth at God’s command; and in that same Humility, God inclined himself towards me, to lift up again through that blessedness (through which he can do all that he will) the withered leaves that had fallen. For he fashioned them out of the earth; and from the earth he freed them after the fall.’”
DW 8, 2.
The fountain has now been revealed as the living God in which the Love of God and her helper, Humility, are rooted in. All things are reflected in the Love of God in whose splendor are all things revealed. At the end of the passage we learn that God, inclined towards Love, decided to raise up man, here described as “withered leaves” out of his own bountiful compassion and love towards mankind.
On Love, Humility and Peace:
“Everything that God has effected, he has perfected in Love, Humility and Peace. So that it is, that man, too, should esteem Love, embrace Humility, and grasp Peace, lest he rush into destruction along with the one who has been mocking those virtues from his birth.”
DW 8, 3.
This needs no further explanation. Love, Humility and Peace are here presented by the Living Light through Hildegard as the highest of the virtues that every Christian should strive to attain.
On how Love leads us towards Christ:
“For man is the work of the right hand of God. Through God he was clothed and called to the royal marriage which Humility made when God looked down from his lofty height into the depths of the earth and assembled his Church from the whole people. So it was that man, who had fallen, could climb again through repentance and renew himself in the ways adorned with the greenness of flowers. But Arrogance is always corrupt— for she oppresses, divides and alienates every single thing, while Humility does not steal from anyone and alienates nothing. Rather, she maintains everything in Love. In her, God stoops towards the earth. Through her, he gathers together all the virtues. For the virtues stretch towards the Son of God, just as a virgin, disdaining a husband of flesh, calls Christ her bridegroom. And these virtues are joined to Humility when she leads them to the marriage of the King.”
DW 8, 4.
This passage upholds that by repentance and attainment of the virtues we inch ever closer towards Christ, in whom is found our salvation. The ending of this passage seems to be especially directed towards nuns who feel called to the ascetic life. Salvation is here described as royal bride chamber in whom waits the bridegroom, Christ the King.
The goodness of all created things:
“God’s works are so secured by an all-encompassing plentitude, that no created thing is imperfect. It lacks nothing in its nature, possessing in itself the fullness of all perfection and utility. And so all things which came forth through Wisdom, remain in her like a most pure and elegant adornment, and they shine with the most splendid radiance of their individual essence. And when fulfilling the precepts of God’s commandments, man, too is the sweet and dazzling robe of Wisdom. He serves as her green garment through his good intentions and the green vigour of works adorned with virtues of many kinds. He is an ornament to her ears when heh turns away from hearing evil whispers; a protection for her breast, when heh rejects forbidden desires. His bravery gives glory to her arms, too, when he defends himself against sin. For all these things arise from the purity of faith, adorned with the profound gifts of the Holy Spirit and the most just writings of the Doctors of the Church, when man has perfected them in faith through good works.”
DW 9, 2.
The Book of Divine Works ends with a passage denouncing corrupt priests who despoil the Church (something very relevant to Roman Church today) as well as an epilogue humbly giving praise to the Holy Spirit through whom Hildegard could experience these miraculous visions. Towards the end of the epilogue, Hildegard gives a dire warning to anyone who dares to alter any of the visions as she had recited them in her trance stating:
“Let no one, therefore, be so presumptuous as to add anything to the words of what is written here or take anything away, on pain of being erased from the Book of Life and from all blessedness under the sun, unless this be done as a result of copying letters and words which were brought forth directly through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Whoever presumes to do otherwise, sins against the Holy Spirit and will not be forgiven in this world or the next.”
In the process of writing this series of commentaries on these wonderful books of divine inspiration, I never thought as to be so audacious as to alter anything as Hildegard would have first recited to her dutiful secretary Volmar. If, somehow, I have transgressed in some way, I hope that through her intercessions to the Holy Spirit I might be forgiven.