Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Sibyl of the Rhine

Today is the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a remarkable figure of the twelfth century, of a reach and influence—not to say diversity of talents—difficult to match in that period or any other. Quite rightly she is known as the Sibyl of the Rhine—that title linking her back to visionary women all the way into antiquity. More than that. In this suffocatingly secular era, she is one of the only great saints with an active popular cult. In her own time her spirituality, in subsequent times her fame as a prophetess, in our own her music—and a popular embrace of feminism—keep her name alive for a public that extends far wider beyond the Catholic culture which was her world.

This woman was a phenomenon—from the beginning. Walking with her nurse as a child, she passed a cow. Hildegard was the tenth, youngest child of a noble family; she tended to be sickly. “Look,” she said, pointing at the cow. “Look how beautiful the calf is inside the cow, all white with dark patches on his forehead, feet and back!” Hildegard was five years old! A wide-eyed nurse told Hildegard’s mother about this. The mother decided to follow matters. And, Yes. At the calf’s birth, the future saint turned out to have seen just what she’d described to her nurse. — I have this story from testimonies presented during the process of Hildegard’s canonization. That process petered out; Hildegard was never officially canonized. But such was her fame and following that the Church entered her name into the Roman Martyrology, a book that holds a list of saints recognized by the Catholic Church.

Hildegard had visions very early in life. The first, as she recalled in an autobiography, had come at the age of three. She was 42 before, in midst of yet another crisis of health, she began to write her visions down. She regained her health at once. That work was Scivias (Know the Ways); it records twenty six visions. She also supervised the production of thirty-five illustrations.

Here was a woman who’d never had formal education and acquired her Latin bit by bit, on her own. Yet she wrote nine books in Latin, some quite extensive. Scivias has 150,000 words and, in modern print, would be 600 pages long. Three books of visions. Six other works. Physica is about natural science, Casae et Curae concerns health, herbs; she also wrote a second book on medicine. She published her own letters, a hagiography; she wrote on the rule of monastic orders, on women, children, and childbirth, and other subjects. Some of these works were in German. She also wrote a morality play (Play of the Virtues)—for which she also composed the accompanying music. She was a poet; some 70 of her poems survive. And—such is the nature of a creative soul—she created a special alphabet in which to render a new language that she had created. She called it Lingua Ignota, the unknown language. A phenomenon.

She also acted in the world. She corresponded with the great and mighty. Quite early she won the admiration of a powerful future saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order. She corresponded with the Pope. At the height of her fame she conducted four preaching tours, appearing in major cathedrals. A woman preaching in that era was quite a sensation—but the great men of her era were in support. And not least—and this endeavor was also very much in the world—she founded three monasteries for women, almost always against the inertial but also only initial opposition of local bishops. She is most famed for her music today.

YouTube likes Hildegard. Many, many selections. A short piece, O vis aeternitatis (2 minutes) is here. A longer presentation, but with many illustrations from her prophetic works (9+ minutes) is here. The last is Canticles of Ecstasy. Her work is also available on CDs. Some put her compositions at 70, some at 80; she might have had others that did not survive.

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I encountered Hildegard at Barnes & Noble, actually—looking for a gift for my Mother. Mother loved and also played music. A package fell into my hands. It was a CD and a book, entitled Vision, shrink-wrapped tightly together. A medieval nun who composed music? This was the gift. Only later, after I’d read the book, did I discover that I’d lived some time in Hildegard’s back yard, as it were, in Bad Kreuznach during my army years—just nine miles south of Bingen on the Rhine, where Hildegard, a Benedictine nun, founded the first of eventually three monasteries.

The appearance of such people makes me shake my head. The Sibyl of the Rhine? Hildegard’s prophecies were decidedly about transcendental realities—not future wars, conquests, and such. Yet she was deemed a prophet. And many people in the secular world of that time scoured her writings looking for “hints” that they might turn to some advantage. This grubby interest, however, caused her writings to be copied and thus preserved.

The present interest is of a similar nature. Feminism discovered in her a medieval woman who confronted the dominant male order and prevailed against it. Yes. It’s possible to treat history as a Rorschach blot and read into it whatever pleases. A closer look at Hildegard reveals, instead, a time radically different from our own. Radically different. Except for the same-old, same-old. It’s still there in the twelfth as in the twenty-first. But the air has a different feel.

Let me conclude this long post with a quote from Scivias. The speaker is Love:

Thus I am concealed in things as fiery energy. They are ablaze through me, like the breath that ceaselessly enlivens the human being, or like the wind-tossed flame in a fire. All these things live in their essence, and there is no death in them, for I am life. I also am rationality, who holds the breath of the resonant word by which the whole of creation was created; and I have breathed life into everything, so that nothing by its nature may be mortal, for I am life.

And I am life: not the life struck from stone, or blossoming from branches, or rooted in a man’s fertility, but life in its fullness, for all living things have their roots in me. Reason is the root, through which the resonant word flourishes.

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