What have you seen today?
I have no doubt that all of us who are blessed with the gift of sight could construct a lengthy list of people, places and objects that we have seen over the course of this day. But we would all have to admit that there are times when we engage in the act of seeing but fail to notice or perceive, when we hear sounds but fail to listen to what is being expressed, when we take in food but fail to taste what we are eating. To really see, to really hear, to really touch or taste or smell, requires a degree of attentiveness which is often difficult to attain.
Sometimes we fail to see because we are busy or preoccupied. We rush from one task to another until our whole world becomes a meaningless blur. Sometimes we are selective seers or listeners, noticing only those things we want to notice, ignoring that which irritates us or makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes we are so self-centered, so caught up in the drama of our own thoughts and emotions, that we fail to notice what is really taking place in and around us.
It’s hard enough to take in the data presented to us through our senses. It’s even more difficult to pay attention to the unseen world, the divine presence, the spiritual part of ourselves and of all that surrounds us. That also requires a special attentiveness. It needs stillness and a spirit of receptivity. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalm says. Stillness, attentiveness, receptivity, sensitivity – these are the things that help us to truly see and to know.
Today we remember and honor one of the great mystics of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen. Mystics are those who have been gifted with an extraordinary ability to see. They often see and perceive things others do not or cannot see. They see with a depth of perception that goes beyond physical senses. They are often highly sensitive to the unseen and spiritual world and have direct, first-hand experience of God beyond what most of us experience.
Hildegard’s mystical visions began when she was still a small child. Relating one of her mystical experiences to her nurse, she was surprised to learn that others did not have these same experiences, and from that time on kept her visions to herself. When she was eight, in the tradition of many noble families of the time, her parents gave Hildegard to the Church as a tithe, as she was their tenth and last child, but possibly also because she was frail and sickly or because they sensed she was special. She was sent to live with an anchoress named Jutta, who resided in a small cottage attached to a nearby Benedictine abbey. Jutta raised the child and educated her until the age of 18, when Hildegard took the habit of a Benedictine nun. Only to Jutta did Hildegard confide the secret of her visions. Later she wrote, “These visions which I saw I beheld neither in sleep nor dreaming nor in madness nor with my bodily eyes or ears, nor in hidden places; but I saw them in full view and according to God’s will, when I was wakeful and alert, with the eyes of the spirit and the inward ears.”
These visions were not her only source of spiritual insight and consolation. Day by day she chanted the Divine Office, drawing insight and wisdom from the psalms. She studied and drew nourishment from the pages of Scripture, and from the Rule of Benedict, a rule which calls for listening, balance and ongoing conversion. She was supported by her community, becoming its Prioress following the death of Jutta and later the Abbess of a new community.
Many years later she wrote described a powerful vision that had shaped her sense of vocation or call:
“It happened in the year 1141 at the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, when I was forty-two years and seven months of age. A fiery light flashed from the open vault of heaven. It permeated my brain and enflamed my heart and the entire breast not like a burning, but like a warming flame as the sun warms everything its rays touch. And suddenly I was given insight into the meaning of Scripture…
Three times in the course of this vision she heard God speak to her, saying:
“O fragile one, ash of ash and corruption of corruption, say and write what you see and hear.”
In obedience to this command she began to reveal her visions to her teacher and friend, a monk named Volmar, who told her to begin writing them down. News of the visions traveled to the Archbishop of Mainz and finally to the pope, and a commission was sent to find out more about Hildegard and her writings. This was not an age when much credence was given to the thoughts and words of women, but both the commission and the pope were satisfied that these visions were authentic and approved their publication.
What did Hildegard see in her visions?
She saw all human beings and the whole of the cosmos in relation to the God who had created them and sustained them. They were emanations from God’s love, “living sparks” or “rays of his splendor, just as the rays of the sun proceed from the sun itself.”
In one of her most famous visions she describes her relationship to God:
“Listen,” she wrote, “there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus I am…a feather on the breath of God.”
She relates how in her visions she saw tongues of flames descend from the heavens and settle upon her:
“And the image I saw spoke, ‘I, the highest blazing power, enkindle all sparks of life. I breathe forth nothing deadly. With my wings I fly around the circle of the earth. I blaze above the beauty of the field, shine in the waters, and burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars. I, the fiery power, remain hidden in all these things; they burn in me. For I am life.”
She saw God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Every person and everything contained and reflected God’s presence and glory. She recognized that the effects of sin had ruptured creation, and saw that the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ had and would restore the cosmos to its intended state, purified of its infirmities and reconciled with the divine energy of its origins.
She saw that the whole created order was to be cherished and honored. She wrote,
“[Those who trust God] will also honor the existing world, the course of sun and moon, the winds and air, the earth and water, everything that God created for the glory of human beings and for their protection. Human beings have no other ground to stand on. If they abandon this world, it will result in destruction by demons and dismissal from the protection of the angels.”
Human beings, she believed, had a responsibility to structure the world in a humane way:
“You have a garden of people in which you seek to plant many wholesome desires and good works. God pours his dynamic good will upon those desires and those works and causes the garden to grow green through the dew and the rain from the living fountain.”
The time we have does not allow us to recount all her works. She was a theologian and an author of several books. She was a scientist who studied the healing potential of plants and herbs. She was a musician who, though untrained, composed 77 songs and a religious musical play. Her songs intend to mimic the sounds of heaven, which she claimed to have heard in her visions, and which gave her a deep sense of consolation. When she sang them, she knew herself to be loved and held by God; all fear fell away. She was engaged in the politics of the Church and of the nations, and freely gave both advice and criticism to those in power. She was a preacher who traveled widely throughout Europe in an age when women had neither the freedom nor luxury to travel or to speak. She spoke boldly and with authority, not afraid to criticize the powerful and the greedy, or to challenge the Church, which had become wedded to the values of the world. She was an outspoken critic of the Crusades, full of righteous condemnation that she claimed was derived straight from God.
I wonder what we would have made of her had she lived in our time. I suspect that many would have dismissed her as foolish or mentally unbalanced. I suspect that many would have dismissed her visions of God and been skeptical of her fervent devotion, choosing to trust in things more easily measured or tested. I suspect that we would have tried to figure her out, analyzing her words and behavior, trying to make “reasonable sense” out of what we were seeing and hearing. And I suspect that some of us might have caught her vision, and begun to see the world as she did – created and held by God, being reconciled healed by Jesus, filled with the light and life of God’s spirit and presence, full of wonder and possibility.
Perhaps, inspired by her example, we can slow ourselves down, take time to notice, practice the kind of attentiveness that looks beyond the tangible and concrete realities of our lives to glimpse another reality, a hidden spiritual reality. Perhaps, like Hildegard, we can “be still and know” that God is God.
The quotations were drawn from two resources:
Ellsburg, Robert; Blessed Among All Women; (New York: Crossroad Publ. Co., 2005);p.208-210.
Ihle, Elizabeth L.; “Hildegard of Bingen: A Medieval Mystic for the Modern Age,” (unpublished essay, March 28, 2004).
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