” A Feather on the Breath of God” Hildegaard of Bingen.
Of all the little homilies I have done over the years for saints days I am rather fond of this one about Hildegaard of Bingen. I can’t rememeber the sources that I used but towards the end there is a quote from one of her writings using the imagery of a feather – it is beautiful
Hildegard of Bingen
1 Corinthians 2 v 9-13
Luke 10 v 21-24.
Our saint today Hildegard of Bingen who lived from 1098 to 1179 and was a truly remarkable woman of her day.
She lived at a time when few women wrote anything of any kind : but Hildegard known as the Sybil of the Rhine – in Germany- produced major works of theology and visionary writings. At a time when few women were accorded respect, she was consulted by popes, bishops and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing and wrote treatises on natural history and the use of plants for healing.
She was a famous musical composer and founded a convent where her musical plays were performed. In recent years, her visions and music has been hi-jacked by the New Age Movement whose music bears resemblance to her ethereal airs, but that apart, her story is important to all students of medieval history. Her life tells of an irresistible spirit overcoming social, physical and gender barriers to achieve great things in the service of Christ.
Hildegard was born the tenth child of a noble family in Germany – and being the 10th child was tithed to the church – given as a gift from birth. She had visions from an early age.
When only 8 years old, she went to live with an anchoress called Jutta. You may remember that Julian of Norwich was an anchoress – someone who lived apart from the world in a cell and undertook a life of prayer and spiritual direction. Hildegard and a dozen or so other girls lived nearly to Jutta’s cell and received education from her.
Nearby was a Benedictine monastery from which the young girl developed a love of church music and she began to write her own. When Hildegard was 38 years old, she became head of a convent which sprung up near to the monastery.
Throughout these years of spiritual development Hildegard’s visions continued – some very powerful and when she was 43 years old she had a vision which changed the course of her life. She felt that God was giving her the meaning of many religious texts and that he commanded her to write down everything she observed in her visions.
Hildegard, however, lacked a great deal of confidence and hesitated to write anything at all – until encouraged by St Bernard and the pope of the time- she began to write down her visionary experiences and her fame spread throughout Germany.
When she was 52 years old, she moved her convent to Bingen on the banks of the River Rhine and her remaining years were hugely productive – writing music, texts to her songs and major works describing her visions. She described music as the means of recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise. She wrote in the plainchant tradition of a single vocal melodic line, a tradition common in liturgical singing of her time.
Her theology centred on her belief that man was the peak of God’s creation and everything was put into the world for man to steward wisely. She wrote widely about the curative effects of plants and her writings which gave a positive slant to sexual relations were unique for her time.
What strikes me above all about Hildegard was that she suffered greatly from migraine headaches. Many of the symptoms that she described as accompanying her visions are suggestive of this illness.
It is a tribute to the remarkable spirit and the intellectual powers of this woman that she was able to turn a debilitating illness into the Word of God and produce such creativity in his service.
“Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around Him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”
O God, by whose grace thy servant Hildegard, enkindled with the Fire of thy love, became a burning and shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.
“Like billowing clouds, Like the incessant gurgle of the brook
The longing of the spirit can never be stilled.”
- Hildegard von Bingen