Sunday, 16 September 2012

A man the color of a sapphire

Meister des Hildegardis Codex 003

Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Hildegard of Bingen, a great 12th century German mystic who was a Benedictine Abbess, poet and composer and all round intellectual (having contributed not only to theology but also to medicine and science as well). Even though she has been venerated as a saint for centuries, she has only been formally canonized last May by Pope Benedict XVI, who also spoke about her in several of his sermons. There he emphasized her as a role model for spiritual leadership, since “she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.”

Also with regard to her mystic visions he praised here humility, which at first made her doubt them and only when they received approval first from St. Bernard of Clairvaux and later from Pope Eugene III did she share them with her followers and the public. “The person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority.” As far as she herself was concerned, this is how she described her visions:
“The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries.... I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).
From among her extensive visions that touched on virtually all aspects of Christianity, I would just like to pick out her vision of the Trinity, which struck me as particularly beautiful:
“Then I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire. And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.” (Scivias 2.2, quoted in Anne Hunt’s The Trinity: Insights from the Mystics, pp. 38).
In fact, the image at the top of the post is a representation of this vision from an early illuminated printed version. St. Hildegard explains this vision as follows:
“You see a bright light, which without any flaw of illusion, deficiency or deception designates the Father; and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which without any flaw of obstinacy, envy or iniquity designates the Son, Who was begotten of the Father in Divinity before time began, and then within time was incarnate in the world in Humanity; which is all blazing with a gentle glowing fire, which fire without any flaw of aridity, mortality or darkness designates the Holy Spirit, by Whom the Only-Begotten of God was conceived in the flesh and born of the Virgin within time and poured the true light into the world.” (Scivias, 2.2.2, quoted in ibid).
What I find very attractive about St. Hildegard is the visual and allegorical nature of her mystical experiences (which she is careful to describe as spiritual rather than ocular) and their subtle beauty that is particularly clear in the above example.