Excerpt: Matthew Fox's "Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times"
Author Matthew Fox is the popular and controversial theologian and author of more than 25 books that expose the corruption and patriarchal hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and invite us to return to a more mystical experience of Christianity. He is founder and director of the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality in Oakland, CA.
A member of the Dominican Order for 34 years, Fox was silenced by the Vatican in 1989 and formally dismissed in 1993. Now an Episcopal minister, he travels extensively, sharing his radical vision of a Christianity that leans toward mysticism rather than orthodoxy, Divine Feminism rather than patriarchy.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of his book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times.
Who is Hildegard?
Who is this woman who sang that "all of creation is a symphony of joy and jubilation"?
Who is this woman who got herself and her entire abbey interdicted—a kind of group excommunication—by the archbishop for a full year when she was eighty years old?
Who is this woman who saw in a vision that a young and beautiful woman is responsible for all of creation, and her name is Love—and that all creation is based on Love and is therefore an Original Blessing?
Who is this woman who preached of the "web of life" that all creation shares, but who warned that "the earth must not be injured, the earth must not be destroyed"—and that if humans misuse creation, "God will permit creation to punish humanity"?
Who is this woman who calls Christ a "green man" in the century in which the Green Man entered Western culture riding on the coattails of the returning goddess?
Who is this woman who calls us all "co-creators" with God?
Who is this woman whom scholars recognize as "the only known female systematic exegete of the Middle Ages"?
Who is this woman who developed a theology of the Holy Spirit, who reaches all of our lives through creativity and greening power, and "fills all things with interconnectivity and interrelationship," more than eight centuries before postmodern scientists began to say the same?
Who is this woman who developed in depth a theology of the Cosmic Christ eight centuries before Teilhard de Chardin?
Who is this woman who said that "all science is a gift from God" and that "your greatest treasure is your regal intellect," in the face of anti-intellectual fundamentalists of her day and ours?
Who is this woman whose teachings on healing and medicine are so useful even today that a clinic in Germany has employed them for over thirty years with considerable success?
Who is this woman who taught how we should all "search out the house of wisdom" in our hearts before aII else?
Who is this woman who talked about an "original wisdom" that we are all born into, in the midst of a pessimistic theological tradition that had been preaching "original sin" for the previous 800 years-an idea proposed in the fourth century by St. Augustine?
Who is this woman who celebrated the union of creativity and wisdom when she declared that "wisdom is found in all creative works," thereby giving us a model by which to reinvent education itself?
Who is this woman who built her theology on Lady Wisdom, Sophia, the Divine Feminine, and who declared that Mary is "the ground of all being," just like the goddesses of old?
Who is this woman who called the serpent "the wisest of all creatures," when the serpent is the ancient symbol of the goddess, whose story took an abusive direction when patriarchy destroyed the goddess civilizations?
Who is this woman who declared that redemption occurs through the incarnation, not pinning it entirely on the crucifixion?
Who is this woman who painted Adam as a red man?
Who is this woman who paints Christ as coming from below the earth, from under the earth—and from the lower chakras, not the head chakras?
Who is this woman who painted Christ as a blue man, "the man in sapphire blue," who is the healing presence inside all of us and whose primary work is compassion?
Who is this woman who celebrated eros and proposed that Adam's fall was a failure of eros—a failure to take delight in the beauty and grace of creation, and that we can fall in the same way?
Who is this woman who tells us God and creation are related like husband to wife, and like lovers to one another—and that an erotic "kiss" binds them together?
Who is this woman who stated that "holy people draw to themselves all that is earthy"?
Who is this woman whom the 20th century eco-prophet Thomas Berry says offered a "third model" of human relationship with the natural world—one based on a model of the earth "as a region of delight," indeed "a pagan delight," who "sees the creation-maker in the ancient manner of the fertility cults ... Because of this 'erotic' bond the earth becomes I uxuriant in its every aspect?"
Who is this woman who had visions from the time she was five years old, and as an adult painted thirty-six of her visions, many in mandala form, and commented on
Who is this German woman who includes Hopi corn mothers in her paintings?
Who is this woman who invented the first "full-fledged morality play"?
Who is this woman who heard angels singing and put the sounds to music?
Who is this woman who wrote the first opera of the West, 300 years before any other?
Who is this woman who composed music that anticipated Mozart and Haydn by 600 years, since she deployed thematic development and themes that move in and out of her songs?
Who is this woman whose music takes one to ever deeper and loftier realms of divine experience?
Who is this woman who brings alive again the person and teachings of Jesus—and does so with music, poetry, theology, opera, medicine, letters, paintings, and yogalike ecstatic experiences of soul and body that occur while singing her demanding music?
Who is this woman who taught that the only sin is "drying up," and wrote abbots and bishops telling them to abandon their dryness, get out of their buildings, and do whatever it took to get "wet and green and moist and juicy"?
Who is this woman who, ironically, is being declared a "saint" and a "doctor of the church" by a papacy that denounces women's rights and makes war on Catholic sisters—and even girl scouts—in America, and on thinking theologians on five continents?
Who is this woman who called Rome "evil" 400 years before Luther and the Protestant Reformers, and 900 years before the schismatic papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI abandoned the reforms and principles of the Second Vatican Council to persecute the base communities of Latin America and condemn theologians for doing their job, which is to think?
Who is this woman who wrote popes telling them that they "silently tolerated corrupt men," and thus threw "the whole world in confusion" 900 years before the truth came out about Pope John Paul II allowing sexual predators to occupy the priesthood and oversee religious orders while abusing seminarians? And with CardinaI Ratzinger, now Pope, as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, saying such a man—Father Maciel—mustn't be ejected because he had "done so much good for the church"?
Who is this woman who constantly calls the papacy back to doing justice and admonishes the pope, "You, O Rome, are like one in the throes of death. You will be so shaken that the strength of your feet, the feet on which you now stand, will disappear. For you don't love the King's daughter, Justice"?
Who is this woman who wrote the pope that he was surrounded by men "who bark like dogs and make stupid sounds like chickens, which sometimes begin to cackle in the middle of the night," and who "are hypocrites" who "inside their hearts grind their teeth like a dog who ... bites with its sharp teeth," and who "are like hens who make noise during the night and terrify themselves"?
Who is this woman who warns, "People who act like this aren't rooted in goodness"? They weren't then, and they aren't today.
Who is this woman who wrote to abbots telling them they were "grumbling like bears" and "in many ways bungling as well"?
Who is this woman who preached in monasteries and churches throughout Germany and Switzerland, denouncing corruption among the clergy and calling the church to repentance and to wake up?
Who is this woman who puts justice as the deciding ethical norm in ecclesial and cultural life, instead of blind obedience and christofascism?
Who is this woman who even wrote King Konrad Ill and told him to "get hold of himself" and put justice first?
Who is this woman who took on the Emporer Barbarosa, comparing him to an infant and a madman, and threatened that God's sword would smite him?
Who is this woman who painted pictures of church and society covered in human excrement because of patriarchal corruption?
Who is this woman who speaks of Christ and the "Word" as head of the church, not the pope and his curia?
Who is this woman who challenges a church today that has succumbed to advanced patriarchy and papalolatry, and is being run aground by a curia that is nothing more than a boys' club practicing power games and involved in a gross theological schism?
Who is this woman and Trojan horse whose theology of justice and compassion is in complete opposition to the right wing agenda of the last forty-two years of the papacy, which has supported dictators such as Pinochet and fascist movements like Opus Dei, Communion, Liberation, and Legion of Christ, while emasculating justiceoriented movements such as liberation theology and creation spirituality?
Who is this woman who compares her experiences to those of the apostles at Pentecost and paints a picture about it-and who compares her work of speaking the truth to people in power to that ofthe prophets Ezekiel and Daniel?
Who is this woman who dares to call herself a prophet, comparing herself to David who slew Goliath and Judith who slew Holofernes?
Who is this woman who insisted that not only she, but a II Christians need to be "strong warriors" in taking on the demonic powers of one's time?
Who is this woman who speaks to women everywhere-and to all men who are brave enough to explore both the Divine Feminine and the Sacred Masculine in themselves and society?
The facts of Hildegard's life are straightforward enough. She was born in 1098 at Bermersheim near Mainz, Germany, the youngest of ten children. Her parents, Mechthild and Hildeberts, were ranked in the lower free nobility. Around eight years of age, she was entrusted to the care of a holy woman named Jutta, daughter of the Count of Sponheim, who had connections to Hildegard's father. Together Jutta and Hildegard entered the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenburg on November 1, 1112, All Saints Day. Jutta became superior to a small community of women that developed at the monastery. Hildegard remained under Jutta's tutelage for thirty years. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard became the magistra, or teacher and leader at the age of 38.
Hildegard and her sisters left Disibodenberg to found a monastery called Rupertsberg in 1150. Fifteen years later, Hildegard founded another monastery in Eibingen. Hildegard received three visions that urged her to write: one in 1141, the second in 1163, and the third in 1167. To "speak and write" what she heard and saw were the instructions that accompanied the first vision. The result was her first book, Scivias, ("Know the Ways"), which took her ten years to write and which includes many paintings and ends with an opera.
Her second major work, Liber vitae meritorum ("Book of the Rewards of Life"), focuses on morality and psychology, vices, and virtues to overcome them. This book took her five years to write. Her third visionary book, Liber divinorum ope rum ("Book of Divine Works"), was undertaken over a seven-year period and was completed in 1174. In it she presents ten visions devoted to creation and salvation, including an exegesis of John 1 and the Book of Revelation.
Among Hildegard's other expositions were books on medicine such as Causae et cure ("Causes and Cures") and Physica (which draws on elements of nature, including stones, trees, fish, and more, for cures to ailments), the lives of Saints Disibod and Rupert, commentaries on the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Athanasian Creed, and a Commentary on the gospels (Expositiones evangeliorum), along with over 300 letters. She also wrote a book in which she invented her own language.
At the age of eighty, Hildegard was interdicted by the archbishop for a full year, which is akin to excommunication for her and all her sisters—an interdiction that was lifted only six months before she died. The point of contention was that the archbishop wanted her to remove the body of a revolutionary young man who was buried on her property, and she refused. Ultimately she won the argument, and the body is still there to this day.
In this book we will go much deeper than mere facts, to where Hildegard wants to take us: deep places in our own hearts and souls, the "cave of our hearts" as Bede Griffiths put it, the "house of wisdom" that Hildegard teaches dwells in us all. We intend to travel into meditation and contemplation, into places of union and communion that ultimately lead to appreciation.
As Rabbi Hesche I teaches, humanity will be saved not by more information, but by more appreciation. It is gratitude and its sister praise that we seek. Not praise of Hildegard as such—though she deserves a ton of it-but praise at existence itself. Praise for our glorious Planet Earth, our Mother. Praise for our powers of co-creation and creativity that are capable of moving us from the stuck places we find ourselves in as a species—our stuck religions, stuck education, stuck economics, and stuck politics—to a place more worthy of our noble origin in "original wisdom." Praise that joins in with the praise from the whole of nature, "the blowing wind, the mild, moist air, the exquisite greening oftrees and grasses—in their beginning, in their ending, they give God their praise." This is the praise we want to participate in.
Is this possible? With Hildegard as a guide, anything seems possible. I have seen her do her magic on all kinds of people, young and old, male and female, believer and non-believer.
Hildegard tells us things about herself that are anything but thoughts of a scared and passive woman. At the end of her first book Scivias, she hears God say to her and about her, "I will confuse all of these with a I ittle and very tiny one, just as I cast Goliath down with a boy, and as I conquered Holofernes with Judith. Whoever will have rejected the mystical words of this book, I will stretch my bow above that person, and I will pierce that person with the arrows of my quiver. I will cast the crown from his or her head, and I will make that person like those who fell at Horeb (Sinai), when they murmured against me. And whoever will bring forth evil sayings against this prophet, that curse which Isaac brought forth will come upon him or her. Let people be satisfied with the heavenly rose when they embrace it and when they hold it in their heart and when they lead it forth into the level ways (Isaiah 40:4 and Luke 3:5 )."
Notice that Hildegard has here compared herself (a "very tiny one") to David who took on Goliath and defeated him, and to Judith who beheaded Holofernes. She names herself as an author of "mystical words," a "prophet," a heavenly rose. Hildegard continues with warnings from divinity about the importance of receiving many blessings from blessing to blessing, just as Abraham did ... But if any person will conceal these words of the finger of God fearfully and will lessen them through his or her own madness, or will have led them forth into a strange place by reason of some other human sense, let this person be condemned. The finger of God will rub this one away." God says through her: "Receive these sermons and place them in your inner hearts (Luke 9:44 ). Do not refuse to I is ten to this warning. For I am the living and true witness of truth, and the speaking and not-being-silent God."
We too who drink in the words and images, the music and visions of Hildegard eight centuries after she composed and lived them, are invited to ascend by means of "many blessings from blessing to blessing, just as Abraham did." The works of the Spirit are far from finished. The words of God haven't all been spoken. God is a "not-being-silent" divinity. Not in Hildegard's day and not in our own is Spirit finished. The Spirit, by Hildegard's testimony, is alive and well, urging us to live before all else "not lukewarmly," but "with passion and with blood."
An amazing part of Hildegard's story is that we still have so much of her work thanks to her Benedictine sisters who kept all of it for 800 years, including her writings, paintings, correspondence, and music—an amazing treasure trove of brilliance. In the year 1944, when the American bombers were coming over Germany, her sisters packed it all up to preserve it, sending it to Dresden where it was sadly firebombed. But smartly, the sisters copied everything before sending it. So what we have today is a first-generation copy of all her materiaIs.
While Hildegard's is an amazing story, one still has to ask: How many women through the ages didn't have a whole nunnery to preserve their works for 800 years through wars and famines? How much of women's wisdom has been lost to us over the centuries? What is so remarkable about Hildegard is that none of her wisdom has been lost.
Hildegard is a woman who found her voice. Her God is a "not-being-silent God." Women the world over today are learning to find their voice, to be the prophets and truth tellers all adults are called to be. Hildegard leads from a silenced God to a God who speaks through a woman. The Divine Feminine is back!
From Matthew Fox's Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times (Namaste Publishing). Copyright 2012. Reprinted with permission.