Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: Scivias — Hildegard of Bingen (Page 2 of 2)

June 28, 2017 — Singing with choirs of angels

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

Shouts of joy and victory
    resound in the tents of the righteous:
“The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!
The Lord’s right hand is lifted high;
    the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!”
I will not die but live,
    and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
The Lord has chastened me severely,
    but he has not given me over to death.
Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. — Psalm 118:15-19

More thoughts for meditation

Hildegard had a mysterious vision of choirs of angels. She seems to be leading up to the story of redemption in her second book, since such a choir figures prominently in the birth of Jesus. She visualizes the choirs as “armies arrayed like a crown,” which looks like the mandala-like image of nine concentric circles ranged about a void to signify the ineffable Presence of God.

The nine choirs of angels are conventionally ranked, in ascending order, as angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim and seraphim, which are all labels taken from the Bible.

Hildegard divides the nine ranks into two, five and two so that her nine choirs can provide analogues for human nature. Angels and archangels, the closest to humanity, signify body and soul. The cherubim and seraphim, closest to God, symbolize the knowledge and love of God. The five middle orders represent the five senses whose power must be harnessed in the ascent to God and the five wounds of Jesus by which they are freed to function.

Hildegard seems to have transmitted the idea of a “great chain of being” taken from the later-discredited “Pseudo-Dionysius” that traces a soul’s ascension to higher and higher states. That same pilgrimage through life is mirrored in a heavenly hierarchy of angels who live in ascending proximity to God.

Suggestions for action

We can be fascinated with Hildegard’s charts (like she was). But we would not want to miss what she interprets they mean.  She is deeply interested in connecting with God. Way beyond her heart and head, she is in her soul working out how we connect, spirit to Spirit, with the Creator. Even though she has such a radical goal, she recognizes the limits of her vision. She says, “There are many secrets of the blessed spirits that are not to be shown to humans, for as long as they are mortal they cannot discern perfectly the things that are eternal.”

But we can hear the music. She says, “All these armies, as you hear, are singing with marvelous voices all kinds of music about the wonders that God works in blessed souls, by which God is magnificently glorified.” And she quotes today’s reading to prove it: Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous.”  She concludes,He, however, who strongly does the good he ardently desires shall dance in the true exultation of the joy of salvation, for while in the body, he yet loves the mansion of those who run in the way of truth and turn aside from lying error.”

Beyond just knowing about the Holy Spirit, she is tasting, embracing, and receiving the fruit of God’s presence. Listen to the music.  You could bring out a recording that helps you connect. You could sink back into your silence and see what emerges from that background.

June 27, 2017 — Soul-life is like making cheese

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?


June 26, 2017 — The cosmic egg

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

one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. — Ephesian 4:6

while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, — Titus 2:13

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” — Acts 5:3-4

More thoughts for meditation

Hildegard felt commanded to share her visions as part of her responsibility as a prophet.  She saw into the mystery beyond our usual vision and calls us to stretch ourselves to receive what she was given. The first part of Scivias includes six visions dealing with themes of creation and the fall.

The first picture that accompanies her interpretations is a very feminine depiction of the universe. It introduces us to some sacred geometry and reflects the mandala seen in many spiritual practices. This allegorical picture is full of symbolic features. Depending on how you look at it, they can mean different things. If you stay grounded in Christ, you are moving with Hildegard. Here is a brief tour:

The vision of a “cosmic egg,” depicted in loving detail, represents the universe as a symbolic, layered structure in which God sustains powerfully contesting forces in a delicate balance — just as God’s nature, in itself, is in loving, trinitarian balance.  Moving from the outermost layer inward, Hildegard sees zones of luminous and shadowy fire, representing the purifying and judging reality of God, the consuming fire. Hildegard compared God to an egg that surges flames into the universe, emptying and filling itself like a womb—creative, beneficial, and nurturing to all life within. The piles of hailstones surrounding the the earthly sphere provide the threat God’s creativity includes.

The inner layer is earth, wind, fire and water. For Hildegard the sun/moon disc is the church reflecting Jesus. The stars are more than heavenly bodies, they are disciples shining.  The almond shape of the vision foreshadows the scared geometry that can be seen in many of Hildegard’s drawings. It is the place of unity between separate movements, like overlapping ripples in a still lake.

Going inward, we find ten light-green humps surrounding a violet layer of nested lines, as well as a blue-white layer that may correspond to the moist atmosphere. At the very center of this mandala we see what Hildegard called the “sandy globe of great magnitude,” which is the Earth itself, with a river streaming through the center. Each layer has its corresponding source of air (“whirlwinds”), depicted by a tri-faced forms. The top of the picture is oriented to the East, the bottom to the West, the right to the South, and the left to the North.

The overall shape resembles female genitalia, which may or may not have been the unconscious impulse for this particular vision. Her language often reflects that feminine outlook. Divine Love is the essence of the universe—the highest fiery power that shines in water, burns in the sun, moon, and stars, stirring everything into existence, and causing all life to glisten with this light.

The balance she reveals reflects all the musing about the Trinity that has preceded her. The universe is composed of three structures: space, matter, and time. Of these three, only matter is visible. Space requires length, height, and width to constitute space. Each dimension is separate and distinct in itself, yet the three form space—if you remove height, you no longer have space. Time is also a tri-unity of past, present, and future. Two are invisible (past and future), and one visible (present). Each is separate and distinct, as well as essential for time to exist. Man is also a “tri-unity,” having physical, mental, and spiritual components. Again, two are invisible (mental and spiritual) and one visible (physical). Cells compose the fundamental structural unit of all living organisms. All organic life is made up from cells that consist of three primary parts: the outer wall, the cytoplasm, and the nucleus (like the shell, white, and yoke of an egg). If any one is removed, the cell dies. In each of these examples, the removal of any one component results in the demise of the whole. In like manner,  God contains three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is God (as in today’s Bible readings), yet there is one God. The removal of one person destroys the unity of the whole. Hildegard sees this central reality revealed in everything.

Suggestions for action

Hildegard is a philosopher with the best of them, yet manages to stay very personal and grounded as she reveals her prophecy.  As a woman she did not have great societal power, so she had to rely on the substance of the visions themselves. But she also had to trust them to present them with such boldness.

Consider what you have to give; in the silence, let God reveal it.  Enjoy being part of God’s big picture: a much-loved creature. Appreciate how the universe is so “feminine” and enjoy feeling the generativity of that.

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