This week we are beginning our prayer with some encouragement from Hildegard 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 Three is all about the Virtues and the History of Salvation
Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt
Read Luke 14:25-35
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”
More thoughts for meditation
This vision sets forth a blueprint of the symbolic building that is interpreted in detail through the remainder of the book. The picture provides a diagram. It is built on the mountain of God, grounded in faith and fear of the Lord, the city or edifice of salvation has a double symbolism representing, on the one hand, the course of salvation history, and on the other, the doctrines and virtues every Christian must believe and acquire to live their true life.
The most important wall links the East (represented on top, as is usual in medieval maps) with the North (shown to the left). In the East lies the realm of Christ, in the North that of Satan (see Game of Thrones), and the luminous wall between the two therefore signifies speculativa scientia, or the knowledge of good and evil. This is not “speculative knowledge” in the sense of abstract thought, but “reflective knowledge” in the sense of moral judgement (the adjective is from speculum, a mirror); this faculty is the cognitive aspect of free will. The remaining three walls are of masonry, which has several meanings: the joined stones denote human flesh and its labors, the Law and the works of justice. Thus moral knowledge must be conjoined with right action to build up salvation. Although Hildegard is a cloistered monastic, she is not going to stand for anyone being deluded into thinking their faith can go unexpressed and remain faith.
Hildegard gives two interpretations for the points of the compass. In one reading, East and West signify the dawn of salvation and the sunset of the Law, while North and South represent the fall and restoration of Adam. Alternatively, the diagram may be read counterclockwise beginning at the right. The four cornerstones are successive covenants between God and humanity. At the South stands Adam, at the East Noah (the dawn of justice), at the North Abraham and Moses as representatives of the Law (the beginning of war against Satan), and at the West Christ (the revelation of the Trinity). The proportions of the building also receive numerological meanings.
This vision assigns further theological value to the despised body. Again human beings are contrasted with angels: The latter are purer and more luminous, but humans are more valiant and meritorious soldiers of God because they have to do battle against their own nature. In ascetic struggle “they conquer themselves, chastising their bodies, and so know themselves to be in [God’s] army.” Hildegard’s spirituality is a flowering of medieval asceticism in which people went to great, self-sacrificing lengths to be free of earthly sin and bondage to achieve union with God. The excesses of such a quest for purity are evident, but the desire to be singularly devoted and completely connected is something 21st century Christians could explore with great profit.
Suggestions for action
Today’s Bible reading calls us to a singular devotion to Jesus. We could see it as a demand to be met, and that would be appropriate. Moreso, it is an invitation to freedom from sin and death. What kills us is not always dressed as the devil; most of the time we can see it when we look in the mirror and reflect on our circumstances. Hildegard has spent hours in reflection and prayer until she can write books about what has been revealed to her. She’s a genius we can appreciate for her special gifts, but she is also a woman like you and me. Spend some time reflecting on what God is revealing through this page. What does it all mean? For what is it calling? How would you picture it?