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) …..
“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,
“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,
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.”