Hildegard of Bingen: On Mystic Visions

When I was an undergrad, I took a couple theology papers. Nothing exotic – just introductory stuff. Early in one course, my lecturer announced that God’s revelation was complete. At the time it didn’t make much sense – doesn’t God continue to speak to us today? In what sense can God’s revelation be considered complete when human beings continue to live out the drama of redemption? Is God not always revealed and revealed again as we move through our lives? Looking back, I think the lecturer was trying to say that the Bible isn’t waiting for a Part Two. We don’t need the Mormons or whatever cobbling bits on. That’s a more reasonable point to be making. Maybe we just need some clearer terms. Maybe we need a way of distinguishing between God’s self-revelation in the birth, life, and death of Christ, and in the words of Holy Scripture – the official canon, as it were – and the deepening relationship that each of us has with Christ in our own private lives. You’ll often hear Christians say things like ‘God revealed His love to me today,’ or ‘God reminded me of His patience.’ It feels appropriate to describe those moments as revelations, as God revealing Himself to us. They obviously aren’t new revelations in terms of the Bible and the life of Christ and stuff – they’re usually just things that we’d forgotten, or that we’re coming to understand in a deeper way. They’re things like ‘God is good’ or ‘God loves me’. They’re mundane theological points – and yet we often experience them as revelatory.

So there are some valid questions about the terms we use for these different types of revelation, and about the relationship between them. One chief question might be about how we should speak about our experience of God, given the pre-existing and authoritative revelations held in Scripture and the life of Christ. This is where Hildegard of Bingen enters the picture. Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century German mystic. She wrote and preached extensively, and her three major works all record her mystic visions. The one that we’re dealing with today, The Book of the Rewards of Life, is the second of those visions, the first and third being contained in Scivias and The Book of the Divine Works of a Simple Person.

  • The text: The Book of the Rewards of Life
  • The author: Hildegard of Bingen
  • Read it yourself: Haven’t found any versions of this book online. I’m using this edition, translated by Bruce Hozeski.

Let’s just run the obvious question here, just to start. Is Hildegard allowed to have visions from God? If God’s revelation is complete, what’s He doing giving these extra revelations to some German lady? What do we make of that? They’re pretty specific visions, too. Hildegard writes that she saw “a person who was so tall that he reached from the summit of the clouds of heaven right down to the abyss.” There’s an Ethiopian, a hunting dog, a bunch of different clouds, and a giant worm with a human head and the ear of a hare that’s so big that it covers the creature’s head. Shit’s wild. And these aren’t necessarily images that appear in the Bible, either. There’s definitely no worm monster – or any of the other crazy creatures that pop up. For example:

“The third image was also like a man, except that it had a hooked nose, hands like bears’ feet, and feet like a griffin’s.”

“The sixth image had a man’s face, except that its mouth was like a scorpion’s and its eyes were so distorted that their whites were larger than the pupils. Its arms were those of a human, but its hands were gnarled and had long fingernails. Its chest, front and back, was like a crab’s. Its shins were like those of locusts and its feet were like a viper’s.”

So what do we do with these new creatures? Are they allowed? Or do we have to get rid of them? Often when Christians are trying to find ways to accommodate things like this, they’ll use the protective label of ‘Biblically faithful imaginings.’ Under this label, you can essentially dream up whatever you like, as long as it can be boiled down to an orthodox point of doctrine. We see Hildegard using this cover in the structure of her work: she’ll describe part of her vision, and then tell you directly what it means and how it corresponds to established dogma. For example, when speaking of the huge guy from before (who symbolizes God), Hildegard writes:

“And from his calves down to the soles of his feet he was in the waters of the abyss, standing upon the abyss. This means that God’s strength and His wondrous life are hidden, as it were in the soles of His feet. They are hidden, of course, in those mysteries which ought not be known by man.”

Personally I’ve always found the idea of Biblically faithful imaginings to be a bit of an emaciated concept. It seems to imply that an imagining is only acceptable if it can be contained within and reduced to a string of doctrinal statements. It’s almost as if doctrine exists as this great Platonic ideal form – and then all imaginative works must be instances of that ideal, such that their legitimacy comes not from within themselves but from their fidelity as copies or instances of the overarching doctrinal claims. And that’s just not a model that I find compelling. Let me try and explain this in terms of Hildegard.

What we find with Hildegard’s visions is a subtle shift in authority, away from the institutional (male-dominated) church hierarchy, and towards the individual and experiential. Hildegard isn’t telling us about doctrine, she’s telling us what she saw. She’s telling us about her mystic experience. Her vision utilises a fluid, unstable, polysemous narrative form that cannot be reduced to a statement of doctrines. That is, while the worm monster (for example) represents slothfulness, it holds more meaning than that concept alone. It’s a fucking giant worm with a human face wearing its own giant rabbit ear as a hat. It twists in its hole “just as an infant squirms in its clothes.” It might represent slothfulness, but it is not reducible to that idea. It is a cup that carries symbolic meaning up to the brim and then slops over with that meaning which cannot be contained. It is transgressive, disrupting the established church structures of power and authority by transforming their claims, by imbuing them with a creative or imaginative energy that spills over the brim of the cup. To return to our initial argument, Hildegard’s visions insist that God’s revelation is not complete. They show that the truths of church doctrine and the way we experience them in our lives are not the same. ‘God is good’ is different from ‘God protected me in a car crash’, just as slothfulness is different from a worm-rabbit-ear monster. We’re not even talking here about mystic visions – it’s just about God as experienced in life rather than as dictated in doctrinal statements. By insisting that God’s revelation is not complete, we insist that doctrine is not equivalent to its expression in our lives. And we privilege what is lived, the unstable and ongoing revelation of Christ in the life of each believer, over the abstracted doctrines of a rigid church hierarchy.

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