Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Turning woe to weal


I've been sitting on the porch reading Mary Sharratt's novel of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century German mystic/polymath, perhaps the most famous woman in Europe at the time. She is still widely known today. Her writings have been especially embraced by feminists, New Agers, and even environmentalists. Religious naturalists, too, for her pantheistic tendencies.

Perhaps as early as the age of eight. Hildegard was sealed into a cell-like enclosure attached to the abbey church at Disibodenberg, as a companion to the willing anchorite Jutta. A living death as the bride of Christ. For decades, she never moved beyond the confines of that grim tomb, she who as a girl so loved the natural world.

I'll not recount here the story of her escape and long life as a holy woman who spoke truth to authority.

I can, however, relate to her story (quite aside from the fact that her feast day is my birthday). The theology of bodily mortification, fasting, and surrender was still very much alive in the Church of my youth. For a few terrible years I embraced it with a vengeance. And then, like Hildegard, I emerged into the light.

Now I sit here on the porch watching the hummingbird at the feeder. Sip. Swallow. Sip. Swallow. Its wings a whirring canticle of delight. Hildegard would have looked on with fascination too. She was, of course, a theist, as one would expect for someone of her time and place. But her Feminine Divine beat her wings in the hummingbird's tiny frame.
For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightning, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans…But she is with every one and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.
Sip. Swallow. Sip. Swallow. That racing metabolism. That insatiable thirst for sugar, for that miniscule furnace of respiration.
You cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines.