Hildegard's Ecological Vision
Macrocosm and microcosm according to the prophetess of the Rhine
Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine nun (1098-1179) is one of the most compelling figures in medieval history. Indeed she played an important role not only in religious life but also in the politics of her time, through her contact with bishops and popes, with St Bernard of Clairvaux and with Emperor Frederic I Barbarossa, and through her intense involvement in the disputes between the Church and the [Holy Roman] Empire, as well as fight against the Cathar heresy.
Together with a mystical and visionary temperament that earned her the title: “Prophetess of the Rhine”, she was endowed with an encyclopaedic culture that ranged from theology to music, from botany to anatomy and physiology, and even to care of the body and nutrition, so that today her rediscovery by the wider public is often due precisely to this knowledge which today we would define in modem terms as that of a nutritionist. Though it may sound strange, there is a logic to this. Indeed, Hildegard’s attention to the human being — male and female, also in their bodily dimension, including sexuality and reproduction — derived from a profound philosophical and religious reflection that was rooted in ancient culture but in her assumed new and original insight.
The starting point was classic; everything is one, the cosmos is divine. This is a concept that reinforces, so to speak, the biblical-Christian idea that the world is good since it was created by God. Indeed Christianity maintains that God is clearly distinct from the world and has always seen pantheism as a mortal enemy, to the extent of defending with drawn sword that creation which establishes the ontological difference between Creator and creature.
Indeed it is commonly said that Christianity, unlike paganism, has desacralized nature: those woods, those waters, those mountains which the ancient peoples imagined to be the abode of deities, who actually lost their sacredness. Thus religious contemplation came to an end and the ground was prepared for that neutral observation from which the modem science of nature stems. Nature, however, at the same time deprived of all intrinsic religious meaning, became mainly an object for the use of man, considered the centre of creation and thus destined to have dominion over the inanimate world. Hence it is not surprising that contemporary ecological conscience should consider respect for the environment for an essentially utilitarian reason, namely that indiscriminate exploitation may compromise the very life of man on this planet.
To understand the difference between this way of thinking and that of classical culture, one should think of the difference that exists between not contaminating a river in order not to pollute the water we drink, and of not contaminating it because by so doing we would be committing a sin, offending the sacred nature of the cosmos. The very word “environment” which etymologically means “that which surrounds us”, as if man were, indeed, the centre around whom all things rotate and whom all must serve.
Thus, the essential failure of contemporary ecology is not surprising either: since it is an ecology based on economics, an ecology-economy, in the conflict of resources there is always a stronger, more immediate financial gain which takes priority over “respect for the environment”. Hildegard drew her awareness of the unity of all things from her mystical inspiration, from the sources of late antiquity and early medieval times, as well as — most likely — from the pagan heritage of the time, then still very much alive in the Germanic world, particularly in the knowledge de occultis operationibus naturae that lived on in that mainly marginal and feminine environment which would later be the object of witch hunts.
In her Book of Divine Works, for example, Hildegard described the universe as egg-shaped. The cosmos is one as is the egg, which contains within it four elements: the shell is similar to earth, cold and dry; the white is similar to water; the yellow, oily yolk resembles fire; the watery part, breath or air. This image also dates back to the Orphic Pythagorian tradition, passed down to the medieval world through the Hellenistic culture, hermeticism and writings on alchemy, although we cannot presume that the Benedictine nun was acquainted with all this literature.
It suffices to remember the description of the wonderful cosmic vision that Gregory the Great attributes to St Benedict: “When it was time to rest, the venerable Father Benedict appropriated the top of a tower, while at the foot of it Servandus the Deacon lodged.... The man of God, Benedict, being diligent in watching, rose early before the time of matins (his monks being yet at rest) and went to the window of his chamber, where he offered up his prayers to almighty God. Standing there, all of a sudden in the dead of the night, as he looked out, he saw a light, which banished away the darkness of the night, and glittered with such brightness, that the light which did shine in the midst of darkness was far more clear than the light of day. Upon this sight a marvellous strange thing followed, for, as he himself did afterward report, the whole world, gathered as it were together under one beam of the sun, was presented before his eyes”.
In this — which Marta Cristiani rightly defines “the last dazzling synthesis of ancient Platonism and Christianity” — the whole cosmos appears gathered under a single beam: a beam, indeed, lumen de lumine, that radiates from the source of light, distinct but not separate from it. Hence, the cosmos resembles something that has within it the divine light from which it is constituted and which is therefore worthy not only of being respected but also of being deeply loved as a divine theophany.
This is not at all an isolated experience in the history of spirituality. It happens every time that the evangelical detachment from self-love frees us from the prison of the ego. We then feel in profound unity with the cosmos, perceived, precisely, as a whole. This experience also means overcoming that mind-body or spirit-nature dualism which has tormented and still torments Western culture so much: indeed to the detached human being nature appears as the visible spirit and the spirit as invisible nature.
Among the many possible testimonies, let us recall that of another Benedictine monk, our contemporary, Henri Le Saux, who notes in his Diary that the primordial duality to be overcome in that between ourselves and the rest of the cosmos, and not that between us and God. Indeed, as long as there are “others” outside us, God and the world will be confused, even though they can subsequently be distinguished and defined. As long as the world is viewed as extraneous, God will never be able to be perceived within us.
“It is therefore necessary”, Le Saux writes, “first of all to suppress this ‘centre’ that I call ‘myself and around which I trace concentric circles, which are my mind, my body, the world conceived essentially in relation to me and finally God, he too conceived, alas, in relation to me”.
It was in detachment from herself that the nun Hildegard found the meaning of the unity and divinity of the cosmos with which the human being is profoundly and wonderfully united, to the point of constituting itself a cosmos, and a whole. According to an erroneous but significant etymology, homo (human) for people in the Middle Ages was in fact linked to omnis (all) and it is therefore hardly surprising that for Hildegard the dimensions of the human body and their reciprocal proportions constituted the measure of the universe, which is why the measurement of the height and of the extended arms enables one to inscribe the human figure in a circle, in accordance with the representation that was to inspire the Renaissance versions of it and primarily that of Leonardo da Vinci.
The microcosm of man, therefore, is in profound correspondence with the macrocosm; so no one should be amazed to find the roots of what is often presented as new, secular and modern in a nun who lived in the distant Middle Ages.
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10 July 2015, page 16
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