(Choirs of Angels, Scivias I.6, https://arthistoryproject.com/artists/hildegard-von-bingen/scivias-i.6-the-choirs-of-angels/)
Among medieval Catholic saints (think Catherine of Siena, Anthony of Padua or Joan of Arc), Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most palatable to modern tastes. She was not prone to shocking self-mortifications; she was not embroiled in muddy political disputes; and she has not been subjected to cloying, “plaster-saint”-type representations in a thousand devotional chapels. She is neither cartoonish, nor tacky, nor even terribly anachronistic. She is an original character that seems to transcend her cultural milieu.
And most satisfying for moderns, perhaps, she manifested the kind of hyper-competent individualism that marks the distinctively modern hero. She embodied (it seems) a sort of brassy, STEM-loving, authority-challenging “girl power.” She founded monasteries in the face of (naturally masculine) adversity. By confronting the Holy Roman Emperor (who encouraged religious schism), she boldly spoke “truth to power.” She invented medicines and compiled natural histories. She diagrammed the cosmos with mystical-artistic brio, and she wrote dozens of hymns – both the tunes and the words. At once an autodidact and a member of the intellectual elite, she can be admired today by both boot-strapping conservatives and smarty-pants urban liberals.
That’s why her cult, so to speak, extends beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church to include feminist activists, new agers, history-loving romantics and cultural connoisseurs. (Her beer recipe is even featured on the decidedly secular website www.beerandbrewing.com). Because of these associations, perhaps, Hildegard can seem a bit unorthodox, like a solitary prophet forging her own creed by her own lights. Certainly, her numerous mystical visions and her comfortable, unmediated traffic with the spiritual world made her exceptional and original.
But Hildegard was, of course, orthodox at her core, and she was admired by the recent, conservative Pope Benedict XVI, who canonized her. Her Scivias, based on her visionary experiences, recounts a faultlessly biblical salvation history. Certainly, the universe as seen through her eyes – vibrating with divine life, glowing with arcane significance – was the universe of the splendidly resurrected Christ, bringer and embodiment of meaning. In one of her most famous visions (recorded by an illuminator), endless choirs of angels surround a pale void resembling a Eucharistic Host. They are like concentric ripples in a pond, with faces of red, white and green, and a million piercing eyes, crying “Glory” with trumpeting voices forever.
Hildegard famously called the universe “egg shaped,” and most of her visions had a circular character. (In a vision dubbed the “Cosmic Tree,” reproduced on dozens of new age websites, the seasons proceed in a circle, repeating themselves forever under the eyes of zodiacal beasts.) For like almost everyone in the premodern world (in Europe and elsewhere), Hildegard evinced a cyclical imagination that extended not only to space, but to time. Everything emanated from a core, and patterns repeated themselves again and again, on scales of climbing grandeur. The angels around God’s throne were encircled by more of the same, like ripples expanding. In the seasons, Creation was re-enacted again and again, in all the kaleidoscopic iterations of era and geography. And in the liturgical year, Christ was being born again – and being slain again – and we (spiritually) with him, over and over until the end of time and the making of all things new.
God, as Christ, emerged from his mother’s womb and matured. After that, he emerged from the waters of baptism and began his ministry. Next, he emerged from the grave and sent the Holy Spirit. This launched multitudes of new deaths and births, as we, his facsimiles, are also born and reborn, in a million small epiphanies, chastisements, and deaths to self, spiralling toward a pure and beatific freedom. We’ll follow through the gate, at last – that narrow gate in the wall of light for which he alone is the Key.
Advent is a bright arc in the liturgical cycle once accepted as part of the rhythm of existence. For Hildegard, it was as natural as the agricultural year – though more symphonically, mystically resonant. It is neither arbitrary nor inappropriate that earthy, pre-Christian processes were folded into its development. Advent – the Coming of light into dark and life into death, is their answer and fulfillment. And Advent, I think, is not just a symbol of Christ’s unique coming, but a real process of rebirth and transformation in which we can all participate. But we can do this only if our spirits are open, like Hildegard’s, to the angels’ perpetual, spiraling song of God’s unfurling deeds.
We are, all of us, both flesh and spirit, and the world of spirit surrounds us like an ocean. The songs of the angels, and their counsel, knead and whisper always, whether we know it or not. If we are willing, we can throw our hearts and arms wide and surrender to their ministrations.
During Lent, the angels sing aching, plaintive songs of mourning. But during Advent, their song builds to burning, ecstatic joy. Let us take advantage of it. This Advent, may I burn like a candle with them, the Spirit atop my head like a crackling flame.