Interviewing Dr Hildegard

Hildegard_von_Bingen (2)

 

When, in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named Hildegard of Bingen a “Doctor of the Church”, he elevated her to such illustrious company as St Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and St Catherine of Siena.

Mind you, the bestowal of such an honour had taken a while, considering that Hildegard was born in the Rhineland in 1098. Fortunately her remarkable work – writings on her visionary experiences, natural science, music compositions, and a play – were preserved and find a ready audience to the present day. Her deep interest in the natural world, her visions of all creation as a vast “cosmic egg” and her beautiful and somewhat humble description of herself as “a feather on the breath of God” appeal to our modern sensibilities but not all of her work is quite so palatable and I sometimes wonder what sort of reception she’d get if she presented the same insights personally today, perhaps on TV. I explored this idea in one of my recent poems. (The words are mine but they’re based on Hildegard’s writings and ideas) …..

Interviewing Hildegard

“INTRO rolling … and you’re on Camera #3 in …. 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … on”

“Good evening everyone and welcome to this week’s “Interview”.  Tonight it’s my pleasure to talk with an extraordinary woman.  Visionary, author, playwright, composer, scientist, abbess, and the Catholic Church’s most recently recognised saint, let’s hear it for …  Hildegard of Bingen

(Tepid canned applause)

          “So Hildegard, you were born in the Rhineland in 1098. And, amazingly, you’re still around today.”

A small child, clever, precocious. The tenth of my family, I was tithed to God.

A frosty morning, the light pale through the woodland.

A bird on a low branch, piping piteously in the approaching Winter.

A gust, the bird is shaken, uplifts itself on startled wings, and lets a feather flutter downward.

It hovers in its descent, and I, breathing out a hoary breath, try to send it back,  skyward.

The breath and feather coalesce, and I am that breath, and I am that feather,

A feather on the breath of God.

Still morning, still frosty, I arrive at Jutta’s anchorhold,

And there I’m held gently for my education.

Do you see the young girl? Eager. Enraptured. The best of my class, I am betrothed to God.

And then, a crowded abbey, warm and welcoming, a female family home.

           “What do you recall of your life in the abbey?”

Darkness, holding its breath in expectation of Matins.

The moment comes, the prayer rises,

The darkness exhales in exultation, and is filled with light.

On the morning air, a bird expands its breath,

Spreads its wings

And rises in song, with my song, with our song

In praise of the earth from which it rises

And of the air in which it soars

And of God in whom it lives.

          “And your visions. What of them? You are often called a visionary, a seer.”

I am a seer, seared by God in the fiery furnace of far-seeing Love.

A burning pain, flashing specks of light before my eyes.

They hover in their ascent, and I, breathing out with painéd breath, try to expel them, skyward.

The fire and the pain coalesce

And God is the light,

And I am the phoenix,

God’s own phoenix, forged in fire,

Frightened, enlightened.

Engulfed.

           Hmmm. People enjoy your music today. Why do you think that is?”

There are heavenly harmonies  …

That charm the stars to dance,

That fill the flowers to bud,

That quicken wombs, and that raise men

To heights of wonder.

They stir the sun to redden,

And whip the wind

To quiver the trees, to shake the leaves,

To caress our faces so that we breathe in God.

           “Yes, this talk of trees reminds me that you do seem to have some strong         views on ecology. Can you share them with us?”

The universe, an egg, cosmic and vast,

Bright with fire, dark with shadows,

Fragile, full

Of God, full of creation.

Fire, water, air, ether, earth,

Hungry for the food and breath of Life.

Around us, and below us, all is green

And seething with food, with the Spirit’s life

For those who embrace and do not fear.

          “And you’re big on herbal remedies, too, I believe.”

The beauty of the cosmic-egg macrocosm is reflected in the tiny microcosms of the earth-egg.

An egg-earth garden, medicine for our soul.

A stone, full of celestial fire,

A stream, full of stormy clouds.

A branch, God’s arm; a fish, God’s son.

A woman, God’s mother.

An earthworm, lowly and   _________________________

          “Well, thanks, Hildegard, but that’s all we have time for tonight. If you’ve more to tell us, please leave your website details with the producer and we’ll be sure to direct our audience right there. Let’s give it up for Hildegard of Bingen.”

                (Tepid canned applause)

“And … credits rolling. We’re done.”

Hildegard’s Marvellous Medicine

hildegards-medicine

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!

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.

We, too, will often not know the repercussions of saying “yes” in our lives, of being willing to undertake a difficult task or of making a commitment. We can only have faith that something good will come of it (and hope that it doesn’t take quite as long as Margery Kempe’s “yes” for its effect).