Hildegard’s Marvellous Medicine

Hildegard’s Illumination:
Cycle of the Seasons

This is a reblog of my post of 17th January, 2017. Regular readers here will know that I often make reference to Hildegard of Bingen, and I’m reblogging this today because I’ll be doing a mini speaking ‘tour’ in Brisbane next week. The first of my talks is ‘Hildegard of Bingen’ for the Abbey Museum in Caboolture on 27th April. The second talk is an ‘author’s talk’ on my novel Grasping at Water at the Cedar & Pine Wine Bar in Wynnum on 29th April. If you’re in either neighbourhood, come along and say ‘Hello’.

Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century Rhineland visionary, includes a remedy for jaundice in her extensive writings on medical topics. She advises the sufferer to wear a stunned bat (yes, of the mammalian kind) around his neck until the bat expires. To our modern sensibilities this recommendation seems useless at best but it was a treatment that was in keeping with the medieval understanding of human physiology and illness. That understanding had originated with Hippocrates (460-377BC) and Aristotle (384-324BC) and had been transmitted to the West via the writings of Galen (129-216AD) whose approach dominated the theory and practice of medicine throughout the Middle Ages.

                Following Galen, Hildegard regarded the human body as a microcosm of the vast macrocosm of the known universe which was believed to be made up of four elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.  All things – animate and inanimate – were composed of various combinations of these elements and of their contraries: cold, hot, moist, and dry. Particular combinations of any two of the contraries produced in each and every person one of four main Complexions or Temperaments and an accompanying predominant bodily fluid (humor).  Illness was understood as a disturbance in these humors and treatment sought to restore humeral balance. An overabundance of blood in the system, for example, was often treated by the application of leeches. Herbs, with their own particular humeral qualities, were a popular treatment as was careful attention to the patient’s diet.

Hildegard seems to have been an expert in the understanding and application of humeral theory. Among her many writings is a book of (medieval) “natural science”, Causae et Curae, in which she gives authoritative advice on treatment for all manner of ailments. For example, she recommends (a form of) the tansy herb to treat catarrh, and a brew of comfrey, marigold, wild sage and yarrow for easing pain associated with bruising following trauma.  Apples were a staple medicine.  When cooked  they were considered to be very beneficial for sick persons in general while a salve made from apple leaves was especially good for the eyes. No doubt this earlier medicinal use of apples is part of the basis for our present-day saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  Mind you, apples are a lot easier to come by than bats. And I can’t help but wonder what I might have to do to “stun” a bat!

Greening

greenery

It’s Spring and everything in the garden is blooming. In Sydney the winters are not harsh but we still appreciate the lengthening light, the warmer days, and the signs of nature renewing itself that come with the change of season.

In medieval times, someone who watched and understood the seasonal cycle of renewal Hildegard_von_Bingenwas the great visionary, Hildegard of Bingen. Born in Germany’s Rhineland in 1098, Hildegard was not only a prominent religious figure of her day but also – as her considerable writings and works demonstrate – an expert on natural science, medicine and herbal treatments, cosmology, poetry and music. Further testament to her influence is that many of her writings (and musical compositions) survive to the present day. Hildegard’s works are not ‘easy reads’ but a lot of her ideas resonate with our current interests, particularly our concerns over climate change and caring for our planet.

Don’t be mistaken: Hildegard was a woman of her time and, it seems, a very strong personality. She had an extraordinary intellect and pulled no punches when it came to asserting a theologically precise view of the medieval Church; but, she also had a deep reverence for, and an amazing insight into, the beauty and order of creation. So powerful are Hildegard’s expressed views on the importance and dignity of all creation that the coining of the term viriditas (greening/greeness) is frequently, and somewhat mistakenly, attributed to her.  In fact, earlier theologians such as St Augustine had made mention of viriditas but it is appropriately and particularly associated with Hildegard because of the new and interesting way that she interpreted and applied the concept. For Hildegard, viriditas was the reflection of God’s goodness and beauty in everything in the natural world. It stood for vitality, fertility, fruitfulness and growth; in essence, all the things that we now associate with the greenness of nature.  For Hildegard, viriditas was also synonymous with physical and spiritual health. Similarly, for us today, ‘greenness’ and the seasonal renewal of the natural world are signs that the Earth is healthy and flourishing.

Hildegard was canonised (becoming St Hildegard) by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2012 and, though it took the Church nearly 900 years to acknowledge her remarkable contributions, the canonisation is strangely timely as it coincides with our efforts to come to terms with the ravages of a changing climate. Hildegard of Bingen has a lot to teach us.

Yes Power

margery

In 1934, in the dark recesses of an old English family library, a rare fifteenth century manuscript came to light. Scholarly investigation revealed it to be what is now known as The Book of Margery Kempe, the life story of an extraordinary medieval woman who answered “yes” without hesitation when she thought God was calling her. Today, some regard her as a mystic; others as a sick, or attention-seeking woman but, whatever the truth, Margery gives us a surprising lesson in devotion and perseverance.

Margery was born in 1373 in the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn where her father, John Brunham, had been the Mayor for five separate terms. At twenty years of age Margery married John Kempe and within a year of the marriage, had given birth to her first child. She went on to have a further thirteen children but the first birth was especially decisive as, immediately following it, Margery experienced what we now would probably describe as a post-partum psychotic episode but which Margery herself describes as being tormented by devils. Margery explains that the relief from this episode came in the form of a personal visit from Jesus and this unexpected encounter set her on her life’s quest of serving God.

Margery did nothing by halves. Believing that Jesus had appeared to her during her illness, she emerged from her sickbed and began to spend a great amount of time praying, arising at two or three in the morning and making her way to church where she would pray until midday and then again in the afternoon. She confessed to a priest twice and, sometimes, three times a day, in particular seeking forgiveness for an early sin which she had avoided confessing for many years. She adopted stringent fasting and the wearing of a hair-shirt made from the coarse cloth on which malt was dried. It was in these early years, too, that Margery reports receiving the ‘gift of tears’.

This gift, in particular, with its associated crying and wailing at even the mention of Jesus’ name, saw Margery shunned by many who witnessed the extreme behaviour. Such was her disruptive influence that some priests refused to allow her in the church when they were to preach. But Margery persisted in her devotions, feeling that her original “yes” to God was a promise on which she could not renege. She also felt compelled to embark on numerous and extensive pilgrimages and travelled, over several years, to the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Norway and Germany, as well as important pilgrimage sites throughout England. This was an amazing undertaking in the 14th century and even more remarkable for a (sole) woman.

Then, as now, Margery’s travels and general behaviour garner divided opinions on the authenticity of her mystical calling. That is, while there is no doubt of her devotion, her motivation for, and expression of it remain a matter of considerable debate. Putting this debate aside, however, there emerges a wonderful and unexpected consequence of her “yes”…

From The Book we know that, though Margery was illiterate, she managed to dictate her story to an unidentified scribe. Six hundred years after she lived and was almost forgotten, the finding of the manuscript of her life story gave the world the great gift of the first autobiography in English.

A Flight into the Dark Night

Night_darkness

 

Many of us have had the experience of preparing for an overseas holiday. As the time for departure grows closer, there’s often a feeling of anxiety mixed with the excitement of anticipation as we try to tidy the house and garden, make sure the newspaper and other deliveries are cancelled, organise accommodation for the pets, pay the bills, purchase travel insurance, renew the passport and so on. On the day of departure, just before we’re leaving for the airport, we run around checking that all the appliances are turned off, all the doors and windows are secured and the perishables are thrown out of the fridge and pantry. Even as we board our flight we may have a sudden thought that we’ve left the iron on; but once that plane accelerates down the runway and then lifts its nose skyward and we feel ourselves leave the ground, we know there’s nothing else we can do about any unfinished tasks at home. We’re lifted into a “between” state of being – not at home, yet not at our destination, detached from a clear sense of place, and completely “ungrounded”. Yet, there is an accompanying feeling of freedom, of leaving the mundane behind and of going towards the exciting unknown.

            In some ways, this physical experience of being “betwixt and between” is comparable to the psychological and spiritual idea of detachment. The great 16th century Spanish poet and mystic, St John of the Cross, opens his beautiful account of the soul’s journey towards union with God with the following lines:

On a dark night,

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh happy chance!

I went forth without being observed,

My house being now at rest.

Here, the “house” is the body with all its senses that bristle and alert us and keep us connected to worldly concerns and emotions. In bringing the house to rest, in detaching from its concerns, John of the Cross regards the soul as liberated to soar into that dark night which he views as being an assent to live in total darkness with regard to all created things. Two centuries earlier, in the medieval period, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing described the detachment experienced during contemplation and meditation in a similar way: an intermediate state between two clouds – “a cloud of forgetting” below and “a cloud of unknowing” above, between the contemplative and God. The Cloud author further posed that darkness was not an absence of light but, rather, an absence of knowing [of God] and as, in his view, God cannot be known but only loved, darkness and detachment are desirable states in which to find oneself. More recently, and similarly, I have heard the Dalai Lama describe the concept of detachment very simply as being in a state of “nothingness: no-thing-ness”.

                        Some recent scholars, too, have described the “dark night” in psychological terms as the detachment of the ego, a letting go of the self and all its props. While letting go of illusions about ourselves can be confronting enough to plunge us into our own version of a “dark night”, perhaps we might usefully consider St John’s reference to the “happy chance”. That is, when those rare opportunities of bringing our “house to rest” present themselves, we should take them – for meditation or a walk in the garden, thus allowing ourselves to be more open to life’s possibilities, more open to an unplanned journey into a dark night.

 

A Wait Problem

L'Horloge de Sapience (the Clock of Wisdom) from about 1450

As a society, we Australians are not very good at waiting. Being at the end of a long queue in the supermarket, or at the petrol station, or the ticket office is enough to send us into an agitated frenzy. Trolley rage, road rage, crowded train rage – you name it, we rage about it. Busyness is considered a virtue and anyone who is not ‘flat out’, head-down, tail-up’, ‘haven’t got a minute’ is obviously not pulling their weight in this country with some of the longest working hours in the world. Recently, a Sydney University study showed that one in five Australian workers puts in at least 50 hours a week while, overall, full-time employees work an average of 44 hours per week, placing us near the top of the hours-worked pile among the OECD countries.

Last year, Australians clocked up over 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime. The situation has reached such a fever pitch of activity that, for the past several years, The Australia Institute has nominated a day in late November as National Go Home on Time Day www.gohomeontimeday.org.au . And guess what? Today is the day – 22nd November, 2017.

Of course, once we get home, there’s little likelihood that we’ll be any less busy than we are at work as we rush to complete household chores, to fulfill social engagements and family commitments. Yes, we know what we should be doing: taking time to smell the roses; being aware; living in the present moment

But just what IS a ‘present moment’. Some of the great mystical writers of the Middle Ages sought to quantify the notion because they were concerned with entering wholeheartedly into a contemplative state. They recognised that merely being IN the world was to be in a state of constant distraction, so many of them chose to separate themselves from the distractions by seeking out isolated places where silence could surround them. Others acknowledged that unavoidable and constant distractions were part and parcel of being alive and so tried to work within the limitations. The fourteenth-century Cloud of Unkowning author* took a more lateral view, advising his readers that the work of contemplation was “the shortest work that can be imagined”. For him, that ‘shortest’ time was “no longer or shorter than one athomus”.  To the medieval understanding an athomus was the smallest quantity of time, indivisible and almost incomprehensible. It was approximately equal to one-sixth of a second and, therefore, the Cloud author is speaking of the attainment of the Divine as being virtually instantaneous. It is our modern-day equivalent of finding and experiencing God/Peace/Love in the absolute present, in every moment. The Cloud author further reminds his audience that “[we] shall be asked how all the time given [to us] has been spent … [for] nothing is more precious than time. In one little moment, heaven may be won and lost … [and] time is made for man, not man for time.” That is, the Cloud author stresses the importance of time, the necessity to use it effectively, and the infinite possibilities that time offers in each and every moment.

So, don’t forget to go home early today and, when you get there, take an athomus or two to appreciate all the possibilities of the moment.

 

*The actual author of the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing is, ironically, unknown; hence he is usually referred to as “the Cloud author”.

 

Let’s Dance

medieval dance

 

Some of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that the subject of my PhD thesis (over 18 years ago now) was, broadly, medieval mystics; and every now and then (well, quite often, actually) I am drawn back to their beautiful writings for inspiration. I am in one of those ‘phases’ currently so there might be a few ‘mystical’ posts making an appearance over the coming weeks. Today, I needed to reflect on one of my ‘favourites’ – the brilliant Mechtild of Magdeburg. Here she is:

Mechtild of Magdeburg was a medieval mystic whose visions and insights ranged, quite literally, from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven. She was born in Saxony in about 1210 and, from evidence within her own writings, seems to have experienced her first visions at the age of twelve. At about the age of twenty she left her home to become a Beguine[1] in the town of Magdeburg. There, under the spiritual guidance of the Dominicans, Mechtild’s visions continued and increased and she was encouraged to write them down. This she did in a text under the title of The Flowing Light of Godhead. However, Mechtild’s claim that God had directed her to record these insights and experiences attracted considerable suspicion and criticism, and this increased when, in turn, Mechtild voiced her own criticism of certain local and high-ranking clergy. As a result, for her own protection, in 1270, Mechtild was moved to the Cistercian convent of Helfta. There, in the company of other great mystics of the time, including Mechtilde of Hackeborn and St. Gertrude the Great, Mechtild passed the final years of her life, in writing and in prayer, until her death sometime between 1282 and 1290.

Mechtild’s writings are representative of the ‘affective’ or via affirmativa approach to mysticism in which the mystical experiences are recorded and conveyed in a language that is steeped in metaphor, analogy and sensual imagery. There is no doubt that Mechtild was a gifted poet and some scholars have, rightly, speculated on how much of her writing is attributable to actual mystical inspiration and how much to pure poetic expression. Her visions of hell and purgatory and heaven, in particular, are graphic enough to have prompted comparisons with Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly as Mechtild’s version features descriptions of deeper and deeper levels of hell and purgatory where souls are tormented according to the severity of their sins. Some have even suggested that Mechtild’s descriptions were Dante’s inspiration and that Mechtild herself is represented in the poem as the character, Matelda. Such comparisons remind us that the ‘affective’ medieval mystics used not only beautiful imagery that elevates and delights the modern reader but also, sometimes, gritty and confronting imagery that challenges our modern sensibilities. Perhaps it is the ‘dance’ of these opposites that is one of the reasons that the mystics retain an appeal for us today. We, too, must live in a world that is often ugly and fraught with despair; but we also have the promise and knowledge of the great beauty of creation, and the undercurrent of something divine, mysterious and constant that somehow sustains and enlivens us. Perhaps ironically, then, the poem that is now most synonymous with Mechtild is about ‘the dance’ but, in this case, a very positive and beautiful dance with Divine Life.

I cannot dance, Lord, unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain, yet want also to circle higher still.        

(Mechtild of Magdeburg)

[1] A beguine was a woman who lived a life dedicated to God but who did not take the vows of religiously professed women. Instead, she lived with other similarly dedicated women who often worked in the community but returned to the “group house” (beguinage) to share in a community life of prayer. Topic for another blog.

Raising Specks to the Spectacular

Meister_der_Manessischen_Liederhandschrift_001

O the dignity of that small speck of human dust
Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence

To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s height
                                        (Gertrude the Great 1256-1302)

Gertrude the Great was a nun and mystic in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as “the scholars of Helfta” because of their extraordinary writings and mystical experiences. Gertrude’s prayer brings together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence – our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and our dignity. Her lovely metaphor for each of us as “that small speck of human dust” is even more relevant today than it was when Gertrude composed her poem in the late 13th century.

Last time I checked, the world’s current population is around 7.5 billion people, and increasing at a rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.

The 14th century English woman, Julian of Norwich (another great mystic), was also given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her (what she termed ) “Revelations of Divine Love”. In her writings on those profound revelations she explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because God loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense to us: love endures.

We cannot hope to truly comprehend the vastness and complexity of our universe but we can understand, from our own everyday human experience, what it is to be loved and to love ourselves and others. Of course, to truly love others we must acknowledge their humanness – the positive and negative attributes of the personality, the annoying habits, the inconsistencies, the humour and kindness, the bad temper, the fears, the thoughtfulness, the failings as well as the successes. In our enduring love for others, we raise them up in our own estimation and, as a consequence, they are also raised in their own view  – from specks to spectacular. So, like Gertrude the Great, Joe Cocker was onto something in his song “Love Lifts us up Where We Belong”.