Tuesday, April 7, 2009

National Poetry Month, Day 8

Hildegard of Bingen (German: Hildegard von Bingen; Latin: Hildegardis Bingensis; 1098 – 17 September 1179), also known as Blessed Hildegard and Saint Hildegard, was a German abbess, author, counselor, linguist, naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician, herbalist, poet, channeller, visionary and composer. Elected a magistra by her fellow nuns in 1136, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165.

She is a composer with an extant biography from her own time. One of her works, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama.

She wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, poems, and the first surviving morality play, while supervising brilliant miniature Illuminations.

Hildegard was raised in a family of free nobles. She was the 10th child, sickly from birth. In her Vita, Hildegard explains that from a very young age she had experienced visions.

Perhaps due to Hildegard's visions, or as a method of political positioning, Hildegard's parents, Hildebert and Mechthilde, offered her as a tithe to the church. The date of Hildegard's enclosure in the church is contentious. Her vita tells us she was enclosed with another older nun Jutta at the age of eight, though Jutta's enclosure date is known to be in 1112, at which time Hildegard would have been fourteen. Some scholars speculate that Hildegard was placed in the care of Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, at the age of eight, before the two women were enclosed together six years later.[3] In any case, Hildegard and Jutta were enclosed at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest in what is now Germany. Jutta was also a visionary and thus attracted many followers who came to visit her at the enclosure. Hildegard also tells us that Jutta taught her to read and write, but that she was unlearned and therefore incapable of teaching Hildegard Biblical interpretation.

Upon Jutta's death in 1136, Hildegard was unanimously elected as "magistra," or leader, of her sister community by her fellow nuns. Abbot Kuno, the Abbot of Disibodenberg, also asked Hildegard to be Prioress. Hildegard, however, wanted more independence for herself and her nuns and asked Abbot Kuno to allow them to move to Rupertsberg. When the abbot declined Hildegard's proposition, Hildegard went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz. Abbot Kuno did not relent, however, until Hildegard was stricken by an illness that kept her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed, an event that she attributed to God's unhappiness at her not following his orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg. It was only when the Abbot himself could not move Hildegard that he decided to grant the nuns their own monastery.[4] Hildegard and about twenty nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150, where Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard's confessor and scribe. In 1165 Hildegard founded a second convent for her nuns at Eibingen.

Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar, Hildegard's tutor and, later, secretary. Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to "write down that which you see and hear." Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard became physically ill. In her first theological text, Scivias, or "Know the Ways," Hildegard describes her struggle within:

But I, though I saw and heard those things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close - though just barely - in ten years. [...] And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out therefore, and write thus!'

Hildegard's vivid description of the physical sensations which accompanied her visions have been diagnosed by neurologist (and popular author) Oliver Sacks as symptoms of migraine, in particular because of her description of light. Sacks, as well as other scholars, argue that the illuminations that appear in Hildegard's manuscripts confirm that Hildegard suffered from 'scintillating scotoma.'

Hildegard's vita was begun by Godfrey of Disibodenberg under Hildegard's supervision.


Hymn to the Holy Spirit

Praise to you
Spirit of fire!
to you who sound the timbrel
and the lyre.

Your music sets our minds
ablaze! The strength of our souls
awaits your coming
in the tent of meeting.

There the mounting will
gives the soul its savor
and desire is its lantern.

Insight invokes you in a cry
full of sweetness, while reason
builds you temples as she labors
at her golden crafts.

But sword
in hand you stand poised
to prune shoots of the poisoned
apple --
scions of the darkest
murder --

when mist overshadows the will.
Adrift in desires the soul is spinning
everywhere. But the mind
is a bond
to bind will and desire.

When the heart yearns to look
the Evil One in the eye,
to stare down the jaws of
iniquity, swiftly
you burn it in consuming
fire. Such is your wish.

And when reason doing ill
falls from her place, you
restrain and constrain her as you will
in the flow of experience until
she obeys you.

And when the Evil One brandishes
his sword against you,
you break it in his own
heart. For so you did
to the first lost angel,
tumbling the tower of his
arrogance to hell.

And there you built a second
tower -- traitors and sinners
its stones. In repentance
they confessed all their crafts.

So all beings that live by you
praise your outpouring
like a priceless salve upon festering
sores, upon fractured
limbs. You convert them
into priceless gems!

Now gather us all to yourself
and in your mercy guide us
into the paths of justice.


Recommended Books
The Book of the Rewards of Life: Liber Vitae Meritorum, by Hildegard of Bingen / Translated by Bruce W. Hozeski
Creation and Christ: The Wisdom of Hildegard of Bingen, Translated by Columbar Hart / Translated by Jane Bishop
German Mystical Writings: Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, and others, Edited by Karen J. Campbell
Hildegard of Bingen, by Regine Pernoud / Translated by Paul Duggan
Hildegard of Bingen, by Nancy Fierro

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