For the last few weeks, I’ve been taking a class on medieval female mystics at a local retreat center. While none of these saints lived near the time that I study, the earliest one, St. Hildegard of Bigen (1098-1179) had a very nature-centered theology that struck me as being in tune with the theology of the Celts.
I wanted to explore that a little here, knowing that it may just be me reading things in where they don’t belong, based on my area of study. Then again, there well could be some echoes of an older belief system present in Hildegard’s visions (remember that the Celts at one time lived in Austria and parts of Germany and France before being driven to the British Isles). Food for thought if nothing else.
A Little Background on Hildegard
Hildegard was born in Germany and began having visions at the age of five. She was given to the church the tender age of eight as an anchoress, an extreme type of cloistered nun who lived walled up in two rooms for the rest of her life. Anchoresses had only two windows, a small one to the outside, which usually didn’t afford much of a view, and another that faced into the church to which their cells were attached (sometimes this was the only window), through which they could view Mass, receive their food and speak with pilgrims who often came for their blessing.
Hildegard lived with another anchoress, Jutta, for 30 years, eventually being joined by two other young girls. When Jutta died, she received permission to allow them to live as regular cloistered nuns. She eventually founded her own convent, which became known for it’s beautiful singing, which was done at Hildegard’s direction. She was herself an accomplished singer and songwriter, penning an opera on the virtues, as well as more than 70 songs, plus books on science, cosmology, healing herbs and two theology books. Her writings weren’t translated into English until 1982. She was named a Doctor of the Church (only the fourth woman to receive that title) in 2012.
If you want a great historical fiction book on Hildegard, read Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations. It’s an excellent book, and from what I learned in this class, highly accurate.
Hildegard’s Visions and Spirituality
Hildegard did not draw the illustrations of her visions. She dictated them and it is believed that one of her fellow sisters, or maybe a monk from the abbey, drew them based on her descriptions. The four elements were very common in all of her visions, as was a sense of balance between light and dark, night and day, winter and summer, which is consistent with a Celtic worldview.
In one of her visions, called the Cosmic Tree, she saw nature, the seasons and the interdependence of man and nature reflected in a circular pattern. The outermost ring of fire represents God. The water and air of the next layer represent healing. Then we have earth, represented by the trees. Interestingly, both the trees and the division of the inner circle reflect the seasons, much like Celtic drawings of the Tree of Life.
Hildegard is quoted as having written, “humans are dependent on creation and creation is dependent on humans.” Also, “The high and the low, all of creation God gives to humankind to use. But if the privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.”
Another famous vision of hers is The Cosmic Egg. Personally, I see a strong image of the universe here. The orange star at the top is supposed to represent Christ. The outer ring of fire is God holding the cosmos together. The blue is said to be the zeal of God. (I see the night sky in it.) The moon and sun are in this sky. In the innermost circle is a wave (we weren’t told what that represents). She is quoted as saying, “The universe is created, nurtured and held in the womb of God,” which is what I see in this image. While this doesn’t have a direct Celtic connection, I see a bit of the Druid concern with the stars and the planets, the moon and the sun in their religion reflected here.
In another vision, she saw Christ as a blue man surrounded by two rings of light, the outer circle being the Father and the orange ring of fire being the Spirit. I see a strong resemblance to Celtic mandalas in this image, the repeating concentric circles giving it a labyrinth-like feel. The blue man also reminded me of the Hindu god Vishnu. (Some people say that the Druidic religion has many echoes of Indian beliefs, as well as their system of justice. That’s a complex topic that I may or may not tackle someday. Read The Druids, by Peter Berresford Ellis if you want to know more.) But blue is also generally accepted as a divine color in many religions, including Catholicism and Hindu.
Hildegard also referred to God in terms of the Divine feminine and was known for her skill with herbs, two things the Celts would have regarded her highly for.
Our instructor noted that many native religions around the world held nature in high regard and had symbolism similar to that found in Hildegard’s visions. One of the things that made Hildegard so special is that what she taught from her visions was in direct opposition to the Catholic teachings of her time. In fact, her messages are still applicable to us today, a thousand years later.
What do you think? Could there have been some lingering Celtic connection or do I just have Celts on the brain? What do you see in these images? Have you heard of Hildegard? What do you think of her?