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The Way of the Mystics
By John Michael Talbot
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-7572-9
Chapter OneThe Way of Visions Hildegard of Bingen
The visions were intense and often overwhelming, and they began invading the soul of a young girl named Hildegard when she was only three years old. As the tenth child of well-to-do German parents, she was dedicated to God as a tithe, entering a Benedictine monastery at age eight. But she kept her visions to herself, as was appropriate for a woman growing up in the Middle Ages. After all, everyone knew women could be weak and easily confused. They shouldn't be trusted to convey divine truths. That was a man's job.
Everything changed when Hildegard was about forty-five years old. God spoke to her in a vision and commanded her to begin recording her visions and sharing the fruits of her experiences with the world. Hildegard always tried to obey God's promptings, no matter how crazy other people thought she was or how much trouble she caused, so she began writing down everything she saw in her private reveries.
She was still receiving visions as she entered her eighties, and throughout the second half of her life she kept a series of secretaries busy as she dictated accounts of her hundreds of excursions into the extraordinary. In some cases, she was transported to the future. At other times, she was given a front-row seat for witnessing events of the past. She was shown both the glories of heaven and the torments of hell. She was empowered to see deep into the souls of other people, including some of the less-than-saintly leaders of the Catholic Church-an institution she served as a loyal member all the days of her life. She was given insight into the cellular structure of plants, the anatomy of animals, and secret healing remedies. And her spiritual journeys took her deep into the creative worlds of art, music, and language.
Some of her visions inspired her to write words and music she would sing with her fellow sisters. Other visions included divine instructions she was obligated to pass on to others, and she duly relayed these messages, regardless of whether they were full of cheer or condemnation and regardless of whether they were intended for wayward kings or sinful popes.
Some of the visions were beautiful and comforting; others were shocking and frightening. But after her otherworldly encounters, she usually felt strangely alive and deeply connected to God.
"I have never felt secure in my own abilities," she wrote in a letter to a monk named Guibert around the year 1175, four years before her death. "But I stretch out my hands to God, so that like a feather, which lacks all solidity of strength and flies on the wind, I may be sustained by him."
There are many ways to connect with God. Some people say they hear verbal messages. Others find comfort and guidance in sermons, books, intuitive impressions, or advice given by loving friends. But God apparently chose to communicate with Hildegard through visions, some of which came complete with blinding Technicolor(tm) images and thundering 1,000-watt sound.
"I see things," she told Guibert, a trusted friend and secretary during the later years of her life, "and I do not hear them with my bodily ears, nor with the thoughts of my heart, nor do I perceive them through a combination of my five senses, but ever in my soul, with my external eyes open, so that I never suffer debilitating ecstasy."
At times, the visions overpowered Hildegard's senses. "I see and hear and know at one and the same time," she wrote. "And the words which I see and hear in the vision are not like the words that sound from the mouth of man, but like a sparkling flame and a cloud moved by the pure air."
At other times, Hildegard caught a glimpse of something she called "the Living Light." She found it impossible to describe this image of the eternal God, but she sure knew how it made her feel. "While I behold it, all sadness and pain is lifted from my memory, so that I feel like a carefree young girl, and not the old woman that I am."
A Complex, Controversial Saint
Throughout her troubled and stormy life, Hildegard did her best to use her gifts for the glory of God and the service of the world. And even though she called herself a "poor little woman," she wasn't afraid to defy the sexual stereotypes of her age. She served as an abbess at her monastery and later founded two new monasteries of her own near Bingen. Her numerous preaching tours throughout her native German Rhineland area attracted large and passionate crowds, making her a kind of regional religious superstar.
Her growing fame and influence made Hildegard an easy target for her critics, most of them male leaders who didn't like her "haughty" manner or were jealous of her popularity and power. Some called her mad. Others said she was in league with the devil. But friends in high places, including the influential Bernard of Clairvaux, helped her out. Bernard, who exchanged letters with Hildegard after hearing about her visions, appealed to the Pope, who gave his seal of approval to her writings.
At the time of her death, Hildegard was a celebrated seer. But after her death, she seemed to fade from people's memory and the historical record of her time. Perhaps it was because Germany was experiencing a mini-renaissance that witnessed an explosion of bold new thinkers and daring new ideas. Perhaps it was because her writings were so dense and inscrutable that few could figure out what she was saying. Perhaps it was because a charismatic young Italian mystic named Francis of Assisi, who was born two years after Hildegard died, would quickly turn Europe's religious scene on its head.
It would be centuries before Hildegard became famous once again. Interest began picking up again around 1979-the year many small but devoted groups of scholars and nuns around the world celebrated the eight hundredth anniversary of her death. Soon a growing number of people were rediscovering the Rhineland mystic and embracing different portions of her complex legacy.
In the 1980s, a defrocked Dominican priest and apostle of "Creation Spirituality" named Matthew Fox wrote books about Hildegard. Meanwhile, other spiritual seekers and disciples of alternative spirituality applauded Hildegard as a potent seer who transcended the narrow doctrinal confines of the Christian creeds. Feminists embraced her as a pioneer of women's equality. Natural health aficionados pored over her fascinating works on medicinal plants and healing techniques. And musicians dusted off her old musical compositions, combining her ethereal words with world beat rhythms and electronic musical accompaniments.
By the time English author Fiona Maddocks finished her biography of Hildegard in 2001, the Rhineland saint was awash in "a flood of misappropriation and fabulous invention." Maddocks complained about those who transformed Hildegard into the patron saint of their pet causes. "As a quick look at the Internet shows, she has become the darling of crankish cults and New Age zealots, Creationists and Greens, women's movements and alternative doctors."
Always complex and often confusing, Hildegard is as little understood in our day as she was in her own. And I must confess that I find much of the recent Hildegard hoopla a bit off-putting. As a result, I had never read much about her until my coauthor encouraged me to do so. Since learning more about her, I have been inspired by her life and hope you will find her encouraging as well.
Sights and Sounds from Out of This World
"I was only in my third year when I saw a heavenly light which made my soul tremble," says Hildegard in her Vita (or official biography), "but because I was a child I could not speak out."
Visions were such a normal part of her life that it took her a while to realize that others didn't experience the same things she did. "I tried to find out from my nurse if she saw anything at all other than the usual external objects." But when the nurse reported she hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary, Hildegard became even more committed to secrecy. "Then I was seized with a great fear and did not dare to reveal this to anyone."
Some parents pressure their children to be normal, but Hildegard's mother and father saw the big soul in the small child; they placed her in the Disibodenberg monastery where Hildegard would later experience one of the most profound visions of her life.
"I saw an extremely strong, sparkling, fiery light coming from the open heavens," she recalled later. "It pierced my brain, my heart and my breast through and through like a flame which did not burn.... And suddenly I had an insight into the meaning and interpretation of the Psalter, the Gospel and the other catholic writings of the Old and New Testaments."
Hildegard was later named the abbess of Disibodenberg, but physical ailments often left her weak and frail. She was nearly forty- five when a voice from heaven commanded her to go public with her private inner life:
O frail mortal, ashes of ashes and dust of dust, say and write what you see and hear. But since you are fearful of speaking, artless at explaining and untaught in writing, speak and write not according to human words nor following the understanding of human intelligence, nor according to the rules of human composition, but according to what you see and hear in the heavens above and in God's wondrous works.
For the remaining four decades of her life, Hildegard and her loyal secretaries, including Volmar-a devout and devoted monk-wrote down everything she could recall of her life story and her many visions. Making her once-private inner life public was a major transition for Hildegard. And even though she could never figure out whether to call her experiences perceptions, illuminations, or visionary insights, she shared them with the world.
And I heard and wrote them not according to the invention of my own or anyone else's heart, but as I saw, heard and understood them in heavens, through the secret mysteries of God. And again I heard the voice from Heaven saying to me: "Proclaim and write thus."
Relieved of the obligation to remain silent, Hildegard started speaking about her visions. Her words would soon fill the pages of numerous theological and biographical books.
One of Hildegard's most popular works was Scivias, which means "know the ways" or "know God's ways." The book contains more than two dozen visions, including scenes of Satan being booted out of heaven, images of the three persons of the Holy Trinity sharing "the most sweet liquor of holiness," visions of the holy church bathing in the blood of its Redeemer, and premonitions of the Last Days, which Hildegard believed were right around the corner. As she saw it, earthly history was divided into seven distinct periods. "But now," she says, "the world is in the seventh age, approaching its end, just as it were the seventh day."
Another work, The Book of Life's Merits, records strange and fascinating visions that describe dozens of human vices with the help of images that blend features from the natural world with otherworldly scenes. The Book of Divine Works is even more complex and dazzling. It takes a cosmic view of the work of the Creator, who "established the pillars that uphold the entire globe." In one colorful vision, Hildegard sees a volcano. Her description is typical of those found in some of her more colorful works:
And again I saw, as it were, a four-square apparition like a great city, walled alternately with brightness and darkness and furnished with certain mountains and figures. And I saw in the middle of its eastern region something like a great broad mountain of hard white stone, like a volcano in form, at whose summit a mirror of such bright purity shone forth that it seemed to outshine the sun. In it the image of a dove appeared with wings outspread ready to fly. And the same mirror held within many hidden mysteries and gave out a brightness of great breadth and height, in which many mysteries and many forms of diverse figures appeared.
Hildegard also saw visions of a Cosmic Man, a Cosmic Egg, and many other puzzling entities. Some of the nuns who lived in her monastery and worked in its scriptorium attempted to translate some of her fantastic visions into paintings that were published along with Hildegard's texts. A surprising number of these psychedelic illustrations have survived, and they offer deeper insights into the saint's often perplexing visions, even if they fail to answer all the questions we might have about their meaning.
Australian scholar Sabina Flanagan has spent much of her adult life studying Hildegard's amazing and often baffling works. She even translated some of the saint's writings from Latin into English. But she still isn't sure she always grasped what Hildegard was trying to say. "I am not sure that I have always managed to capture her exact meaning," confesses Flanagan in her introduction to her 1996 collection, Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen.
Not all of Hildegard's visions were so otherworldly or so difficult to interpret. One vision that came to her often featured a group of virgins dancing together as they worshipped God. Scivias includes a description of one of these virginal visions:
Among them I saw, as in a mirror, some who were all dressed in whitest garments; some of them had a circlet shining like the dawn on their heads, and their shoes were whiter than snow.
Hildegard's interpretation of this vision was straightforward. She believed God had given her specific guidelines about how she and her nuns should dress and worship. After she turned fifty and founded the first of two monasteries near the town of Rupertsberg near Bingen on the Rhine River, Hildegard and her eighteen sisters sewed clothing that resembled the garments she had seen in her vision and enacted some of the dances she had witnessed the heavenly virgins enjoying.
Her visions were not always so comforting. Hildegard spent much of her life in a state of perpetual anxiety and agitation. This, along with her strict ascetic practices of fasting and self-punishment, resulted in a lifetime of health problems and migraine headaches. It's not surprising, then, that some of the visions she received dealt with healing remedies that could benefit her and others who, when sick, faced two equally unattractive options: suffering in silence or going to a medieval "doctor" whose treatment might cause more harm than good. As God told her in Scivias: "I am the great Physician of all diseases and act like a doctor who sees a sick man who longs to be cured."
Undergirding Hildegard's health-related visions was the deep belief that there was a God-ordained harmony existing throughout all of creation. "God fashioned the human form according to the constitution of the firmament and of all other creatures," she said.
Many of Hildegard's healing visions were collected in two books that are avidly read today by all manner of spiritual healers and are readily available under a number of creative titles that reveal at least some of their contents: Causes and Cures, Book of Simple Medicine, or even Hildegard's Apothecary.
There's scant scientific verification of Hildegard's prescriptions, and many Western doctors dismiss her many potions and cures as the misinformed imaginings of a well-meaning but overly excited Dark Ages nun. But that hasn't stopped many from following her suggestions for using herbs like lavender ("it will soften the pain in the liver") or minerals like sapphire ("the stone of wisdom and intelligence that gives a clear mind by its power"). Today, many alternative healers agree with Hildegard's claim: "These remedies come from God."
Even more controversial was Hildegard's dispensation of detailed advice on sex. Some of her male critics charged that she possessed more knowledge about the subject than was appropriate for a nun sworn to lifelong virginity.
But whenever she was under the gun, she deflected her critics' complaints, claiming she was not the source of her teachings but merely a messenger. "I am a poor earthen vessel," she said, "and say these things not of myself but from the serene Light."
Music of the Spheres
Hildegard's work as an abbess, an author, an adviser, a healer, a preacher, and a seer would be enough to guarantee her a place in the mystics' hall of fame. But one other fascinating aspect of this complex woman inspires curiosity and awe: Hildegard was a musical composer, which because of my interest in music intrigues me even more. Soon after she was elected abbess of Disibodenberg, she began writing songs for her nuns to sing. Nearly eighty of her compositions have survived the centuries intact, and now vocal ensembles around the world are performing her music once again, making Hildegard one of the most popular medieval musicians.
Excerpted from The Way of the Mystics by John Michael Talbot Excerpted by permission.
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