This week we are beginning our prayer with some encouragement from Hildegarde of Bingen. Her most famous work: Scivias (short for the Latin phrase  Scito vias Domini: Know the Ways of the Lord) written between 1141-51, contains her reflections on 26 visions she received. She included pictures of the visions, seven of which will illuminate our daily prayer. Book One is all about the Creator and creation.

Today’s Bible reading

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. …

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. — Hebrews 2:10-18

More thoughts for meditation

The vision must have been a favorite with Hildegard, who illustrated it with three separate paintings.

The topic is body and soul.  Hildegard tells a story about a lonely pilgrim soul wandering in the “tabernacle” of her body and lamenting because she has lost her mother, the heavenly Zion. The soul’s lament recalls the lamentations of Israel in the wilderness, seeking the promised land and the new tabernacle in which God dwells, as well as other biblical reflections on suffering. There is also a strong Platonic/Augustinian coloring, because the soul grieves that it is oppressed by the sinful and burdensome flesh. The myth is illustrated in the right-hand column of today’s painting, reading from bottom to top: the soul is led captive by demons, tortured on the rack, assaulted by savage beasts, hiding in a cave, scaling a mountain and, at last, given wings to soar up to its heavenly tabernacle, where the devil continues to attack it in vain. This is Hildegard’s rendition of a psychomachia (a type of popular tale about the travails of a soul) like her play Ordo Virtutum.

The heavenly voice next explains the vision itself, which represents the infusion of the soul into the embryo in its mother’s womb. Conception and pregnancy are described by means of the ancient folk analogy of milk curdling into cheese; the quality of the milk or semen determines the strong, weak or bitter character of the product. This vision is illustrated in the left side of the miniature, which shows men and women — the ancestors of the unborn child, carrying bowls of cheese, into which a devil insinuates corruption. Hildegard unpacks this vision with a discussion of the natural powers of soul and body: the intellect or moral judgement, the will, the reason and the senses. Soul and body are meant to cooperate harmoniously; the body is not inherently evil, but, through the devil’s temptations it is a continual source of tribulation to the soul.

Suggestions for action

C.S. Lewis writes: “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because he was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means–the only complete realist.”

There is something corrupted in all of us. We have sin at work against our best efforts. Do you believe there is a spiritual contest going on and you are part of it, or have you adopted the materialist view that says our conceptions just need correcting and our personal power increased to fix what we consider problems?

What evil impulses are you fighting? Can you see any temptations that you stopped seeing as temptations some time ago? What would Hildegard do?