Mind Your Langauge

dictionary

I love all the books (and there’s a lot of them) in my home library but the giant-sized Webster’s Dictionary (Unabridged) is one of my special favourites – all 3562 of its tiny-print pages. Each of its entries gives not only the current meaning of a word but also its origin and change/s in denotation and connotation over the centuries. Some words have flipped their meanings entirely. ‘Silly’, for example, now means ‘unwise, in want of understanding or common sense, foolish’; but the word originally came from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) sælig meaning ‘happy, good, blessed’. We can easily imagine that part of the reason that ‘silly’ took a dive from the positive into the negative was the rise of rationalism and scientific dominance over religion.

On the other hand, ‘pretty’ has experienced a lift in meaning. In the original Anglo-Saxon prættig meant crafty, sly, deceptive. Well, maybe we can fill in the gaps as to how the more familiar meaning of ‘pleasingly attractive, good-looking’ evolved.

But, the big Webster’s is getting old now and, while its 1932 publication date has allowed me to dip into it for invaluable insights about the origins and evolution of much of our English language, the vernacular is a very fluid thing. This is why the modern dictionary compilers are always adding, and sometimes subtracting, and often re-defining, words and their meanings. Just this year, Merriam Webster added such words as ‘truther’ – one who believes that the truth about something important is being hidden from the public and seeks to redress or expose the obstruction; and ‘photo bomb’ – someone moving deliberately into a photo shot as a joke or a prank.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added words like the double superlative ‘worstest’ to match its inclusion of ‘bestest’ in 2014. Other new entries in this year’s OED include ‘mankini’, ‘cyberbullying’, ‘sexting’ and ‘slow food’. There have also been changes and/or expansions in meaning for words like ‘friend’ which now takes in the Facebook variety of buddy. The word ‘follower’ has undergone a similar expansion – from old-style disciples to Twitter associations.

Now, is that pretty? Or is there something a little bit silly about that!

A Wait Problem

L'Horloge de Sapience (the Clock of Wisdom) from about 1450

As a society, we Australians are not very good at waiting. Being at the end of a long queue in the supermarket, or at the petrol station, or the ticket office is enough to send us into an agitated frenzy. Trolley rage, road rage, crowded train rage – you name it, we rage about it. Busyness is considered a virtue and anyone who is not ‘flat out’, head-down, tail-up’, ‘haven’t got a minute’ is obviously not pulling their weight in this country with some of the longest working hours in the world. Recently, a Sydney University study showed that one in five Australian workers puts in at least 50 hours a week while, overall, full-time employees work an average of 44 hours per week, placing us near the top of the hours-worked pile among the OECD countries.

Last year, Australians clocked up over 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime. The situation has reached such a fever pitch of activity that, for the past several years, The Australia Institute has nominated a day in late November as National Go Home on Time Day www.gohomeontimeday.org.au . And guess what? Today is the day – 22nd November, 2017.

Of course, once we get home, there’s little likelihood that we’ll be any less busy than we are at work as we rush to complete household chores, to fulfill social engagements and family commitments. Yes, we know what we should be doing: taking time to smell the roses; being aware; living in the present moment

But just what IS a ‘present moment’. Some of the great mystical writers of the Middle Ages sought to quantify the notion because they were concerned with entering wholeheartedly into a contemplative state. They recognised that merely being IN the world was to be in a state of constant distraction, so many of them chose to separate themselves from the distractions by seeking out isolated places where silence could surround them. Others acknowledged that unavoidable and constant distractions were part and parcel of being alive and so tried to work within the limitations. The fourteenth-century Cloud of Unkowning author* took a more lateral view, advising his readers that the work of contemplation was “the shortest work that can be imagined”. For him, that ‘shortest’ time was “no longer or shorter than one athomus”.  To the medieval understanding an athomus was the smallest quantity of time, indivisible and almost incomprehensible. It was approximately equal to one-sixth of a second and, therefore, the Cloud author is speaking of the attainment of the Divine as being virtually instantaneous. It is our modern-day equivalent of finding and experiencing God/Peace/Love in the absolute present, in every moment. The Cloud author further reminds his audience that “[we] shall be asked how all the time given [to us] has been spent … [for] nothing is more precious than time. In one little moment, heaven may be won and lost … [and] time is made for man, not man for time.” That is, the Cloud author stresses the importance of time, the necessity to use it effectively, and the infinite possibilities that time offers in each and every moment.

So, don’t forget to go home early today and, when you get there, take an athomus or two to appreciate all the possibilities of the moment.

 

*The actual author of the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing is, ironically, unknown; hence he is usually referred to as “the Cloud author”.

 

Mirror, Mirror!

mirror

We all remember the magic mirror belonging to the evil queen in the fairytale, Snow White. Each day the queen would position herself in front of the mirror and ask, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?” And the mirror would reply, “You are, O Queen.” The queen would be reassured for the moment, content in the mirror’s lie and its acquiescence to her vanity.

                Throughout history, the mirror has been one of the most prevalent and potent metaphors for the folly of human vanity. One of the foundational Western myths, for example, is the story of Narcissus who fell helplessly in love with himself when he discovered his reflection in a woodland pond. So taken was he with the beauty of his own image, he could not leave the pond and so died there.

Today we, too, seem to be obsessed with our own images. We wouldn’t think of leaving the house without first checking ourselves in the mirror. Lifts in buildings have mirrored walls so we can pass the time by looking at ourselves as we ascend or descend. There are mirror apps for our phones. And our mobile phones are the new mirrors, providing us with the instant ‘selfies’ that we can enhance (or delete) before sharing them with the world.  We spend countless billions on lotions and potions in attempts to beautify ourselves and to ward off the aging process. Beauty and youth are idealized and idolised in glossy magazines, on the big and small screen, and across social media. And the way to happiness is often touted as being as easy as a few deft swipes of the plastic surgeon’s knife. The idea is that we’re only as worthwhile as our outward appearance. If we don’t look good, we cannot be happy. In this way, the mirror is powerful because we allow it to have power.

And its power over humans started a long time ago. Archaeologists have found evidence of the earliest mirrors being simply polished surfaces of natural materials – rocks like obsidian, for example – which could reflect back an image, albeit a hazy one. With time, the crafting of metals – copper, silver, gold – gave the self-viewer a slightly clearer idea of him/herself but it was still a rudimentary reflection. The glass mirror – the closest ancestor of our contemporary mirrors – is recorded from Roman times but it was really during the Middle Ages that the quality of glass became good enough to return a clear reflection. Around that time, the manufacture of a much smoother glass enabled a relatively blur-free surface to be achieved and its reflective ability was increased by backing the glass with a metal such as gold leaf or a silver-mercury combination.

The medieval mirror par excellence was the work of Venetian glassmakers on the island of Murano. Their backing material of choice was kept secret for many decades but it was known to include mercury in the gilding process which, of course, made the final product ‘problematic’. Still, that didn’t dampen the general enthusiasm for mirrors (though, of course, their cost made them a luxury item for the wealthy only). After that, the reflective quality continued to improve over the centuries as production methods advanced the clarity of glass.

As far as the mirror was concerned, there was no looking back!

Author! Author!

venerableBede - Copy

I must confess that I’ve always had quite a bit of sympathy for the biblical ‘Doubting Thomas’.** It seems such a very human reaction to me to express incredulity at a man rising from the dead and to want to verify the event by reliance on one’s own senses. We doubt many things that we haven’t seen with our own eyes or perceived with our other senses. We are a society that demands proof as a matter of course. Business cannot function without written contracts; academic research builds on earlier (written) research results; the legal system insists on proof before a conviction can be recorded. We wouldn’t dream of taking a financial institution’s word as to our account balance – we must check the statement ourselves. MRIs and other technologically complex tests are necessary to probe and verify our illnesses. We cannot leave the country without a passport; nor can we be considered to even ‘exist’ without a birth certificate; and we’re only officially ‘dead’ when the Death Certificate is entered into the public record.

This wasn’t always the case. The Venerable Bede, for example, completed the writing of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731. Bede was born in Northumbria in about 673 AD. At the age of seven he was given by his parents into the care of the Benedictines at the monastery of Saint Peter in Wearmouth in north-east England. In 682, Bede was transferred to a joint-foundation at Jarrow and there he remained as a monk until his death in 735. In the Preface to his history, Bede assures his readers that they can trust in all that he has written because, he states, “I am not dependent on any one person, but on countless faithful witnesses who either know or remember the facts”. That is, for Bede, the authenticity of his history comes not only from earlier written accounts but also from a variety of trusted oral and traditional sources. It is Bede’s words, and the words of those he trusted, that are presented as the impeccable credentials on which the veracity of his work rests.

In the High Middle Ages, too, the importance of trusting the words (written and spoken) of others found full realisation in the writing practice of NOT being seen to be original and creative but, rather, of being regarded as giving due acknowledgment to those who had gone before, of building on the firm foundations of the insights and achievements of previous generations. Bernard of Chartres’ saying (often incorrectly attributed as having its origin with Isaac Newton – though Mr Newton certainly said those words too), “We are as dwarves on giants’ shoulders …” is emblematic of the time which gave us the word ‘author’ from the Latin ‘auctoritas’ meaning ‘authority’. That is not to suggest, of course, that the great medieval writers were not creative; in fact, authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Marie de France (more of these in later posts) turned narrative conventions upside down to give us stories that are as fresh and relevant today as they were at their time of composition. And nor is it to suggest that the writings of the past centuries were all ‘true’ and utterly ‘honest’ representations of people’s lives and thoughts. The art of Rhetoric has been around since at least the days of the Ancient Greeks and part of the ‘authority’ that was passed on from them to the Western authors of the early and later Middle Ages was the insight that words are slippery, and can exert influence, menace, confusion as well as relay information and inspiration. 

The situation is no different today. So, what to do? The doubt of Thomas, the trust of Bede, the creative slipperiness of Chaucer? As a writer I’m opting for the third option; but in my everyday life I’m taking the middle ground: open mind and open heart with the occasional pinch of scepticism.

 

**Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, “we have seen the Lord”, he answered, “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe” (John 20: 24-29).

Le cantique de Frère #Soleil

In my recent post I’ve written about St Francis of Assisi, his love for all creation, and his beautiful Canticle of Creatures, also known as Canticle of the Sun. This lovely post by Lunesoleil is also about the Canticle, and from a different perspective.

L'actualité de Lunesoleil

saint-francoisSaint François d’Assise 

En ce jour de Dimanche  dédié au Soleil 🌞

Très haut, tout puissant et bon Seigneur,
à toi louange, gloire, honneur,
et toute bénédiction ;
à toi seul ils conviennent, ô Très-Haut,
et nul homme n’est digne de te nommer.
Loué sois-tu, mon Seigneur, avec toutes tes créatures,
spécialement messire frère Soleil.
par qui tu nous donnes le jour, la lumière :
il est beau, rayonnant d’une grande splendeur,
et de toi, le Très-Haut, il nous offre le symbole.
Loué sois-tu, mon Seigneur, pour soeur Lune et les étoiles :
dans le ciel tu les as formées,
claires, précieuses et belles.
Loué sois-tu, mon Seigneur, pour frère Vent,
et pour l’air et pour les nuages,
pour l’azur calme et tous les temps :
grâce à eux tu maintiens en vie toutes les créatures.
Loué sois-tu, mon Seigneur, pour soeur Eau.
qui est très utile et très humble,

View original post 122 more words

All Creatures Great and Small

S.Francesco_speco

It is no coincidence that the feast day of St Francis of Assisi and World Animal Day are both celebrated on 4th October each year because for Francis, all of creation was sacred. From the tiniest insect to the largest mammal, from the wind and rain to the sun and stars, all were the work of the Divine, all were worthy of respect and love.

Francis was born in 1181 to Pietro Bernadone and his wife, Pica in Umbria, in present-day Italy. Francis’s father was a cloth merchant who travelled frequently to France for business and it was Pietro who is said to have named his son ‘Francesco’ (Francis) in honour of his love for France. It was expected that Francis would follow his father into the cloth trade but he had other ideas, enjoying a wild social life and even going off to fight in a civil war. In 1201 Francis was captured by the enemy and spent one year in prison before being released when his wealthy father paid the ransom for him. But the captivity experience did not deter Francis and, in 1204, he set off to enlist for the 4th Crusade. However, he never made it as, en route, he began to experience strange dreams and visions and, unable to continue with his journey, he returned to Assisi and worked with his father for a time.

But Francis remained unsettled and, in 1205, he found himself in the old church of San Damiano, gazing at a crucifix. As he gazed, it seemed that the figure of Christ spoke to him, instructing him to repair the old church. Francis did not hesitate – he took the directive literally and set about repairing, stone by stone, the crumbling little church, paying for the repairs by selling his horse and some of his father’s most expensive cloth.

Today, no doubt, we would regard Francis’s visions as something requiring medical attention but in the Middle Ages, visions were usually understood as messages of divine (or sometimes diabolical) origin. Francis’s father took the latter view and, infuriated by his son’s behaviour, he had Francis brought before the town council. Francis answered the charges by stripping naked in the piazza, giving everything back to his father, including his clothes. From then on, Francis dressed in rags and went about begging for his food, preaching poverty and the love of God and all creation. St Francis_2

Soon others joined him on his quest. In late 1209/early 1210, Francis and 11 brothers travelled to Rome to seek the pope’s permission to establish a new (religious) order. At first the pope was very reluctant to grant such permission but then he had a dream in which he saw Francis propping up a crumbling church – and not just a single edifice but the whole institution. So, on 16 April 1210, Pope Honorius III gave verbal approval for the establishment of the ‘Order of Friars Minor’ (later, the ‘Franciscans’). Basically, the Franciscan Rule called only for the friars to preach the gospel and to live in absolute poverty.  More and more men join Francis and the brothers set about preaching far and wide, even going into Egypt and the Holy Land in 1219. It is said that Francis preached to anyone and anything – his address to the birds, and to a troublesome wolf in Gubbio being particularly familiar stories to us even now.   

 

When Francis’s health and eyesight began to rapidly decline, he retreated from his extensive preaching, spending more time in solitary contemplation. During this period, he composed his famous Canticle of the Sun (sometimes called the Canticle of the Creatures) ***

Francis died on Saturday, 3rd October 1226, at age 45 years and, only two years later (1228) was canonised a saint by Pope Gregory IX. (Of course, some political reasons contributed to this expediency but, even so, in those early years, Francis’s dedication and contributions were undeniable).  Centuries on, Francis was proclaimed a patron saint of Italy in 1939 and, in 1980, he was declared the patron saint of ecology.

How wonderful that one man’s love of all creation has persisted for nearly 800 years to be an example that we can all follow today in caring for our planet, and all creatures great and small.

*** Canticle of Creatures

Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

 Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.

Playing Chicken

Chickens

My neighbours have built a chicken coop (‘a chook shed’ as we Aussies say) in their suburban backyard with high hopes of having fresh eggs for breakfast for many years to come. It’s a good plan and one to which people the world over have subscribed for many, many centuries. Today’s domesticated chickens are, apparently, descended from the Red Jungle Fowl of South Asia. The Romans are thought to have brought chickens to Britain with them and it’s the descendants of that Roman poultry that have become the focus of some intense archaeological studies in the past few years. What particularly drew the archaeologists’ attention was the discovery of substantial increases in the quantity of chicken remains that could be dated between the 9th and 12th centuries. Though chickens had been an easy and popular feature of even the humblest farms prior to, and following those centuries, several studies noted that the 9th – 12th century increase correlated with a surge and expansion of the farming and fasting practices of the Benedictine monks: they abstained from the eating of meat from quadrupeds but, as birds (and their eggs) were not considered to be ‘meat’ – having only two legs –  the raising of chickens on their monastery lands was a good way of feeding the monks and honouring their fasting obligations. The spread and influence of the Benedictines in these centuries very soon saw their fasting practices adopted by large portions of Christian society. A simple case of chicken and egg.

It got me thinking about a chicken and egg experience of my own.

One year, in an effort to give our city-born-and-bred daughters a taste of ‘rural life’, we hired a farmhouse cottage for the July school holidays. The cottage was ‘rustic’ to say the least, with bare, unsealed floors, lumpy beds and no heating except for a wood-burning stove in the little living room. This left the kitchen and bedrooms bitterly cold in the Oberon winter. Still, we reasoned that frosty breath in the morning, and icicles on the windows were part of the adventure. A blanket of snow in the surrounding yard was also a bonus. In the yard, too, much to the delight of three little girls, was a chicken coop with one – and only one – fat, red hen. The farmer, greeting us on our arrival, told the children that the hen’s name was ‘Henrietta’ and, pointing them to a bag of chicken feed, he said that they could feed her each morning and evening. They were beside themselves with joy and, as soon as the farmer took his leave, they were in the coop with Henrietta.

“Be gentle with her,” I instructed.

“We will, Mummy, but we just love her. Do you think she’ll lay some eggs?”

“Well, I certainly hope so,” I replied. “That’s what hens do.” What I, as a city-born-and-bred mother did not know, however, was that chickens don’t lay very reliably when the mercury is sitting below freezing most of the day and night.

Now, whether it was indeed the freezing weather, or the hen’s nervousness at being so greatly loved by three little girls, the first week passed without my daughters discovering a single egg in Henrietta’s coop.

“Mumma, you said she’d lay eggs,” they moaned as they tramped despondently back into the cottage empty-handed again.

Our days at the farm were ticking by and, with only four mornings left, I decided to take the egg production business into my own hands. After the girls were asleep that night, I crept out to the chicken coup with a torch in one hand, and a fine, brown egg from a carton purchased at the local supermarket in the other, and I carefully placed the egg next to a somewhat alarmed chook.

The next morning the girls made their way doggedly to the hen-house, mumbling that it would be another waste of time. I smiled quietly to myself as I heard their excited cries.

“Mummy, Mummy, look. Come quickly,” they shouted.

I ran out, arranging a fake look of surprise on my face as I went, but my pretence turned to real surprise when the girls stood in front of me with an egg each in their hands.

“Mummy, Henrietta’s laid three eggs,” they said, proudly holding up their discoveries for my inspection. There, in front of my eyes, were three brown eggs – and only one of them was store-bought.

Over the remaining days of our farm stay Henrietta managed to produce two eggs each morning, without any prompting from me and, nearly twenty years on, Henrietta lives on in the memories of my daughters – and of me, especially – as a chook who could take a hint. Like most of us, all she needed was a little encouragement.

Let’s Dance

medieval dance

 

Some of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that the subject of my PhD thesis (over 18 years ago now) was, broadly, medieval mystics; and every now and then (well, quite often, actually) I am drawn back to their beautiful writings for inspiration. I am in one of those ‘phases’ currently so there might be a few ‘mystical’ posts making an appearance over the coming weeks. Today, I needed to reflect on one of my ‘favourites’ – the brilliant Mechtild of Magdeburg. Here she is:

Mechtild of Magdeburg was a medieval mystic whose visions and insights ranged, quite literally, from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven. She was born in Saxony in about 1210 and, from evidence within her own writings, seems to have experienced her first visions at the age of twelve. At about the age of twenty she left her home to become a Beguine[1] in the town of Magdeburg. There, under the spiritual guidance of the Dominicans, Mechtild’s visions continued and increased and she was encouraged to write them down. This she did in a text under the title of The Flowing Light of Godhead. However, Mechtild’s claim that God had directed her to record these insights and experiences attracted considerable suspicion and criticism, and this increased when, in turn, Mechtild voiced her own criticism of certain local and high-ranking clergy. As a result, for her own protection, in 1270, Mechtild was moved to the Cistercian convent of Helfta. There, in the company of other great mystics of the time, including Mechtilde of Hackeborn and St. Gertrude the Great, Mechtild passed the final years of her life, in writing and in prayer, until her death sometime between 1282 and 1290.

Mechtild’s writings are representative of the ‘affective’ or via affirmativa approach to mysticism in which the mystical experiences are recorded and conveyed in a language that is steeped in metaphor, analogy and sensual imagery. There is no doubt that Mechtild was a gifted poet and some scholars have, rightly, speculated on how much of her writing is attributable to actual mystical inspiration and how much to pure poetic expression. Her visions of hell and purgatory and heaven, in particular, are graphic enough to have prompted comparisons with Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly as Mechtild’s version features descriptions of deeper and deeper levels of hell and purgatory where souls are tormented according to the severity of their sins. Some have even suggested that Mechtild’s descriptions were Dante’s inspiration and that Mechtild herself is represented in the poem as the character, Matelda. Such comparisons remind us that the ‘affective’ medieval mystics used not only beautiful imagery that elevates and delights the modern reader but also, sometimes, gritty and confronting imagery that challenges our modern sensibilities. Perhaps it is the ‘dance’ of these opposites that is one of the reasons that the mystics retain an appeal for us today. We, too, must live in a world that is often ugly and fraught with despair; but we also have the promise and knowledge of the great beauty of creation, and the undercurrent of something divine, mysterious and constant that somehow sustains and enlivens us. Perhaps ironically, then, the poem that is now most synonymous with Mechtild is about ‘the dance’ but, in this case, a very positive and beautiful dance with Divine Life.

I cannot dance, Lord, unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain, yet want also to circle higher still.        

(Mechtild of Magdeburg)

[1] A beguine was a woman who lived a life dedicated to God but who did not take the vows of religiously professed women. Instead, she lived with other similarly dedicated women who often worked in the community but returned to the “group house” (beguinage) to share in a community life of prayer. Topic for another blog.

Raising Specks to the Spectacular

Meister_der_Manessischen_Liederhandschrift_001

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

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.”