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.