Raising Specks to the Spectacular

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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”.

 

Interviewing Dr Hildegard

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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.”