Hildegard was born in 1098 at Böckelheim in Germany. From her earliest years she had a powerful, visionary life, becoming a nun at the age of eighteen, much influenced by her foster-mother, Jutta, who had set up the community and whom she succeeded as Abbess in 1136. Her visions of light, which she described as “the reflection of the Living Light”, deepened her understanding of God and creation, sin and redemption. They were, however, accompanied by repeated illness and physical weakness. About twenty years later, she moved her sisters to a new Abbey at Bingen. She travelled much in the Rhineland, founding a daughter house and influencing many, including the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. She was a pastor and teacher, seeing herself as a “feather on the breath of God”. She wrote three visionary works, a natural history and a medical compendium. She died in September 1179.
But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
Hildegard’s spirituality was rooted in the everyday, the earthly and the body. She described the Holy Spirit as ‘flowing like sap through our souls’.
God was revealed to Hildegard in vivid ways: in visions that were in images, music, words and the natural world. And she saw evil in the world, the injustice, the corruption of Church and State and the violation of the natural world. The ‘Word of God burnt in her heart and bones’ but for the first half of her life she kept silent, for how could she, a woman, make her voice heard when her superiors told her it was not her place to speak out? Then, during her 43rd year she was taken up in a radiant vision in which she was told to ‘tell and write what you see and hear.’ She describes the words flowing from her in a torrent, a great overflowing of God’s Spirit. Her timidity overcome, Hildegard became the inspirational leader of a small community of women which learned to believe in their own gifts and strengths and found new ways to worship God through their music, poetry and drama. In the strength of the Spirit, Hildegard preached God’s justice, spoke against the corruption that was rife in the Church and State and wrote extensively about social justice and freeing the oppressed.
She always doubted her own capabilities but trusted God to carry her as a feather, which, without strength of its own, is carried on the breath of the wind.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit…
Hildegard had kept silent for half her life and spoken out for half. Perhaps she had found the right balance: taking in, receiving and giving out. In and out – like breathing – like the breath of God.
Imagine a feather….
Feel the strength of the central quill and see how the filaments are attached to it and grow from it. Without that central strength, the feather would bend and break.
Give thanks for your faith and all that nurtures it.
See the individual filaments and how they cling together with interlocking hooks or barbs. Individually they are useless but together they form a versatile and useful body covering.
Give thanks for your individuality and for the communities to which you belong.
Feel the downy fluffiness of the feather, which provides warmth and insulation.
Thank God for your clothes and homes and remember those who have neither. Give thanks that you are carried on the breath of God.
The Rev’d Lis Mullen is a retired minister and member of Kendal URC.