Feather on the breath of God

Here is my introduction of a sequence of four poems inspired by my personal and idiosyncratic experience of Hildegard of Bingen, her life and her varied works.

I first came into contact with Hildegard when I was at university studying Mediaeval History and Literature. I spent a lot of time in the 12th century, Hildegard’s century. Even at that time I came to her life and works from inside the church box, albeit an Anglican one. For nearly a quarter of a century, however, I have been engaging her works as a pagan, specifically as a Druid, as one of my ancestors of spirit.

This, naturally, colours how I approach what she says and more importantly how she says it. It is the reason I am picking up Latin again, for the third time and now after thirty-four years, because I want to translate and read her words from very far out of the box into which she is confined by the church.

It will take some time to achieve this, but I want to see how she reads with a very different light shone on her. I believe it will be illuminating in more ways than one. From these readings I know will issue further poems than the four I am setting out here.

From how I understand and perceive her, she both more and less than what the current Hildegard ‘craze’ makes her out to be. She was a woman of contradictions and contrasts. She was fierce and formidable as well as faith-filled, potent combinations for a woman at any time, let alone the 12th century.

By way of elaboration – in the second poem of the sequence I use the word: viriditas, a Latin word that means essentially greenness. Hildegard, however, makes it her own by extending its meaning, in various translations rendered as: freshness, vitality, fertility, fecundity, fruitfulness, verdure, or growth. In her understanding, viriditas is a metaphor for spiritual and physical health. It is a word and concept as multi-faceted as the woman who used it so creatively, and it says so much about Hildegard’s approach to life and to belief.

Feather on the Breath of God – for Hildegard of Bingen

One

When you stood 
before the archbishop of Mainz
being questioned,
interrogated,
challenged
regarding your visions – 

You responded:
I am a feather on the breath of God.

Ironically,
or perhaps most fortunately,
the learned churchmen
never really understood,
would have found it
quite impossible 
to understand – 

What a feather, 
not a soft downy one
nor a flashy ornamental one . . .

Oh no . . . 
You were a flight feather,
strong and unyielding,
a feather that took you far,
enabled you 
to fly,
soaring with your musics,
allowing you 
to travel in your visions,
discovering 
the mysteries of life,
revealing
the wonders of nature,
probing the secrets
of the Divine.

Oh yes . . . 
A feather on the breath of God
you may have been,
but ooh what a feather.

We will never really know
what the archbishop thought
at your assertion,
maybe:
ah . . .
a docile abbess,
a humble leader of nuns,
a dutiful daughter of the church.

They were, of course,
both right, and so very wrong,
for you were
a strong willed,
migraine suffering woman,
who did not relent,
nor acquiesce in the face
of the wrongs of the church
as they pertained to you
and your community.


A feather on the breath of God –
indeed!

Two

You were overawed
by the power and necessity,
physically and spiritually,
of what you termed 
viriditas; 
and in these times,
your message 
takes on a different deep hue,
your viriditas means 
so much more now
as we see the fragility
of ecosystems
and engage in environmental
degradation.

Or,
did you see so far ahead,
see things you
knew you could not 
write in full?

People are meant to be green – 

Out of context,
or is it?
Do we know with certainty
the context of your visions
couched in language
and explanations
that preserved them for us?

Three

Doctor of the Church
you were made,
one more and final
attempt to make you safe – 
to sequester your thought
and constrict the understanding 
of your words,
attempting to hold firmly 
in an ecclesiastical grasp
what you said,
what you saw,
what you knew.

Still – 
your feather 
remains a flight feather,
for you can still soar
and your word-wings 
beat above and beyond
how the church chooses
to interpret you.

Your antiphons and responses,
sequences and hymns also ascend
far above the abilities 
of male voices;
you wrote musics
only women can sing,
leading them
to fly with you
above the ranges of men’s
comprehending,
taking them
to the realms
of the Divine.

Four

Your word-wings,
powered by your flight
feathers rising on God’s breath
bring you to our times,
where you have become famous,
because you were,
eight centuries ago,
a woman who dared
to go beyond the limits
that sought to restrict you – 
you wrote chiding letters
to the powerful,
both clerical and secular,
you preached 
abroad in the Rhineland,
you stood your ground
against interdict and proscription,
for neither your conscience,
nor your voice
could easily be confined.
and certainly not silenced.

Oh yes . . . 
You were a feather on the breath of God,
a strong feather,
flight feather,
quill feather
that did not gently fall to earth,
but took you soaring
where now we may,
and indeed must,
follow,
for your words ring out
timely and clear:

People are meant to be green.

The earth must not be destroyed.

Knowing When

Knowing when it’s time to let go doesn’t make doing it any easier.

Whether it’s a relationship with a person or a project to walk away when it no longer works, is no longer appropriate or viable, is a drain on one’s energetic resources, is terribly difficult and will involve some level of pain, disappointment and even guilt.

The idea, the names, the title, the plot all came at once in 2002. I did research for the parts that I needed to. I wrote the four main characters back stories. I had maps. I had notes and ‘scene’ frames.

I moved from the area where the story came to me. When I returned there was not real opportunity to make progress. It was a work of fiction with an historical grounding. Intermittently I took out the maps and notes and worked on bits of it.

Since then I have moved far from the head, heart and soul space that would have made writing the novel possible. I have lots of other projects that are definitely not receding but actively pushing forward.

The challenge is that the characters were quite real to me. They came with me with their story. But I was not able to tell it for them. Part of me feels as though I let them down. Nevertheless, I know I could no longer do it justice, I may not have been able to do it fifteen years ago, but I was closer to it and close to the place in my life when I was able to engage them in their spiritual frame.

Now, as I am getting a bigger study in the house, the room of my own large enough to use for writing and engaging more fully in my spiritual practice, I am ready to work on projects put on hold whilst my life was in chaos. The result of preparing to re-engage is that I have to put some works aside.

So, it’s time to cut the tie that has linked me to A Wintering of Swans and say farewell to the characters. I am sad not to have done this work, but it was not one I could any longer do justice. On the other hand, I am looking forward with great anticipation to re-entering the worlds and lives of stories that I am able and willing to invest my heart, soul and energy.

On this day, Imbolc, a day of turning and change is the right day to do both things: to release and rededicate.

The Father Tree

Yesterday was Autumn at its glorious best.

The sky was bright blue, clear but for a few slowly forming stark white clouds that merged into light overcast as afternoon progressed.

I went out on a walk with my camera. It was the first time in ages. Not only did I not blog all Summer, I stopped taking photographs as well. I got some of a thrush feasting on blackberries.

Thrush 1 Thrush 2

I took rose hips
Rose hips
and turning leaves. I walked with meditative deliberateness, aware of each step and noticing any slight movements or sounds. It was an alive walk. I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for many months. The world was alive, even as it was beginning the process of retreating and dying back for the Winter ahead.

I did my last picking of blackberries of the season. And I assure you there were masses left for the birds — it seems unfair that the biggest and plumpest ones are way out of reach for us — but I smile at that thought and wish the birds well in their feasting. I walked through the local recreation ground on the way to the Harvest Festival and Fete and also on the way back. I stopped to notice that the huge Oak Tree had lots of acorns this year and fewer knopper galls. This made me happy because last year there were no acorns that I could see when I walked by a few times.

I spent more time approaching the Oak on my return. It seemed to be something I needed to do. I felt a deep sense of reverence for this huge wide spreading tree. He is a magnificent specimen.
The Father Tree

I paced out the diameter of his branch extension and it is 260! That would be feet! I walked around the trunk as well and it came to 16. It seems a very slender trunk to hold such huge branches, but it does.

As I circled in towards the trunk, after pacing it all out, I bowed to him, I have always thought of this tree as he, and when I got close enough I reached out my hand. Immediately there sprang between us a link, some connection. By the time I was close enough to touch the bark he began to speak to me. ‘Welcome daughter‘ were his first words.I pulled back a bit and shook my head. This tree had never spoken to me before.

There is a bigger, older Oak on a field boundary out beyond the village in the opposite direction whose name is Reverend Mother. She is very conversant. Last spring when I was walking there she asked me, it felt more like pleading me, to save some of her children. A number of very small Oaks were growing where they would be smashed by the tractor when it came to plowing. A few days later, I went back and working through the hard ground managed to retrieve two healthy seedlings. They are in pots and doing well, growing at the slow Oakish pace.

After a quick regrouping, I moved towards him again. There was a rush of recognition, from where I could not tell you. He told me I must visit more frequently. He assured me my roots were as securely placed in the soil of this land as his. A reassurance I had not expected. He flooded me with strength and energy. I am sure he is capable of being strict when he wants to be, but yesterday he was all gentleness. Maybe so he wouldn’t scare me away.

On the rest of my walk home, I thought about my genealogy in relation to trees, to specific trees and groups of trees I have made connections to and with since moving to Somerset. I wondered how would I plot, quite literally, my family tree. Though I know I am a daughter of the Yew, I see that at being in the sense of Yew, or a particular Yew (whom I’ve also written about) as, in relation to me, a grandmother/generational matriarch. My connection to the Yew is long standing and sacred in a way that other trees aren’t to the same depth, though Willow is very close in this regard. But I am sure now the other relationships will also deep, broaden and strengthen.

So, thinking about the trees who ring me with their energies for protection and in presence, the list might read like this:

Grandmothers: Yew and Willow
Mother: Beech (Whom I have written about as the Queen Tree)
Father: Oak
Siblings: Birch, Apple, Hazel and Rowan
Uncle: Holly
Aunt: Hawthorn

This was an exercise to try and look at very personal way of relating to particular trees in my environment. Since it flowed so effortlessly out my my encounter with the Father Tree, it seemed a valuable way to comprehend my relationships with certain trees. For some the relationship is fairly generic, there isn’t a particular tree I can identify with the assignment that feels right, well, not yet anyway. This is the case for Apple, Holly and Hawthorn, but I’m sure there is one waiting for me to meet it. With these three trees I have a general connection, maybe because Holly and Hawthorns are hedge dwellers and Apples are orchard trees. They live in groups and so to perceive an individual voice is likely to be harder to discern.

I believe I have written before of the Oak tree in whose lap I ran to sit in on the way to the grocery store every week with my mother and brother. Looking back I would say she was more a Nanny Tree. She was a source comfort and familiar presence with whom I felt safe and understood by in a way I never did with my human family.

At the time I could not have said why I felt that way, and it was not anywhere on my young radar that over fifty years later I would feel a so much stronger protective and profound connection to the Tree Folk. If anything that experience enables me, all those years later, to accept the gifts of connection with and claiming by the trees who ‘people’ the land and landscape which I Know is home. These connections will continue to unfold and the understandings expand for me. It seems no accident that all this is following on what happened on the Autumnal Equinox.

This deep, broad and intense Knowing is so sacred that to speak of it is like liturgy and prayer for me.

So, this is a liturgy and prayer I am sharing with you.