Hildegard of Bingen – a homily

Today the Church remembers Hildegard of Bingen, a nun, a theologian, a composer, a playwright, a healer, and one of the preeminent mystics in Christian history.  Conveniently for me, we will also be discussing Hildegard at Draughting Theology this evening, so I only have to study one saint this week, and I’m glad for that because Hildegard’s life would take a lifetime comprehend.  Faithful to her homework, Barbara G. asked me on Monday night about this term, mystic.  She said she had tried to look up its meaning, but was left more confused than when she started.  She’s not alone.  Evelyn Underhill, arguably the greatest scholar of mysticism ever, wrote in her book Practical Mysticism that when she is asked “What is mysticism?” she’ll often point people to “the writings of the mystics themselves, and to other works in which this question appears to be answered and they reply that such books are wholly incomprehensible to them.”[1]  She also notes that there are plenty of “self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer this question in many strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to increase rather than resolve the obscurity… The asker will learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease; that it means having vision, performing conjuring tricks, leading idle, dreamy, and selfish life, neglecting one’s business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions, and being ‘in tune with the infinite.’  He will discover that it emancipates him from all dogmas –sometimes from all morality – and at the same time that it is very superstitious.”[2]  Finally, she does her best to define mysticism as “the art of union with Reality [capital R].”[3]  I was pretty unsatisfied with that definition until I went back to the lessons appointed for the Feast of Hildegard and realized that perhaps John 3:16 and 17 makes it all make sense.

At first blush, “union with Reality [capital R]” is about as ethereal a definition there is, but it is, in some way like the fascination with John 3:16.  “For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  Microsoft Word tells me that that’s not even a sentence.  This fragment starts with a conjunction and ends with eternal life, and spends all of its time up in the clouds.  We love the idea of God sending his Son.  We think eternal life is pretty great.   But we honestly have no idea what it means.  Kind of like seeking “union with Reality [capital R].”

And yet, as we learn more about the life of Hildegard of Bingen, we realize that while she was prone to visions and spent almost all of her 81 years living in a Monastery, she was, in reality [lowercase r] not a head in the clouds sort of person.  Hildegard was very much interested in the nitty gritty of everyday life.  She wrote two books on the pharmacology of plants.  She studied natural science.  She wrote music and plays and helped women deal with women’s health issues.  She was as interested in the dirt of the earth as she was with the clouds of heaven.  For all the whispyness of John 3:16, true mysticism always couples it with verse 17.  After all, Reality (capital R) is about those things that are really real.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Mysticism isn’t about removal from the earth, but about Reality [capital R] that is the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Some of you may be mystics.  I know that I am not, but I’m thankful for the witness of Hildegard of Bingen who reminds me that faith in Jesus Christ isn’t just about the great beyond, but it calls us to live abundant lives here in the nitty gritty of the everyday.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] P. 5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


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