The Sensory Saint
The synchronicities of Hildegard von Bingen, and her meaning for creators.
The tree told me their name was Hilde, and they went by they/them. I had never heard this name before, thinking maybe the German association was because they were a tannenbaum. After all, I had just lovingly adorned them in honor of the pagan season with lights and icons, felt and paper effigies of natural elements and my own soul.
Naming trees, plants, and stuffed animals are traditions in our family, and when I shared the tree’s name with my mom, she exclaimed “Like Hildegard von Bingen!” Learning about this extraordinary woman (thoughI wonder how she would identify if she had been given the choice), I became fascinated, and synchronicities later began appearing all around her name.
Image credit: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/f6/21/96b5317994bc34d2cc2ddb38d87b.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0005783.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-29): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/sf9vxfac CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35870796
Hildegard von Bingen was a visionary saint who lived in 12th-century Germany. She was an early intuitive, channeling what many regarded as the word of the divine into an extraordinary body of written, musical, and medical work. Hildegard said she “saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.” Of course this is the spirit my tree brought to me; she was the sensory saint.
In the 12th century, the only real way for women to get an education was through the monasteries, and the religious systems also served as her publication house, preserving her important works for the world. Hilde started hearing and seeing things at age 3; for years, she thought she was going crazy, reluctant to share what she was being told. Perhaps because of these visions, she was committed to a Benedictine monastery nestled in the Palatinate Forest near Disibodenberg, Germany.
At the equally auspicious age of 42, she was told in no uncertain terms to write down what she saw and heard:
“And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out, therefore, and write thus!’”
When she still resisted, she was met with illness after illness. When she at last relented, her spiritual siblings blessed her creations as, indeed, the word of God. Finally affirmed, she began to produce profusely. In the end, Hildegard wrote three volumes of visionary theology, two volumes on natural healing and medicine, and nearly 400 letters to religious leaders and emperors alike; created scores of musical compositions; preached many sermons; she even produced a morality play, but hers was different, the earliest known work that doesn’t pay deference to existing liturgical practices or texts.
None of the existing forms could accurately capture God’s words, so Hildegard invented her own mystical language with her own alphabet and no known grammar, one of the first known constructed languages. Some think she intended it to be a universal tongue. It was one without system or structure, unbound by rules, just like life.
It turns out that a lot of people were fascinated with Hilde, for her intuitions and influence were unbound. In mid-December, I contacted a pop-up brewery that I’d been following in Seattle about buying some of their beers when I was in town. Husband-and-wife team Howard and Rosa make brews that are light and effervescent, herbal and savory, complex and delicious, as well as tinctures, tonics, and Jun, a kombucha-like beverage. They grow many of the botanicals themselves and forage or sustainably source the rest. When I was on my way to meet them, it suddenly stuck me: the brewery’s name is Hildegard Ferments and Botanicals.
Their logo is the saint herself, and we talked about her communion with the natural world. It’s only natural that I learned about her from a tree, because Hildegard was steeped in natural healing, concocting cures from what flowered and was found around the monastery; combining physical treatments with “spiritual healing,” akin to the energetic-medicine practitioners who have so supported me.
The more I learned, the synchronicities continued to abound: Hilde saw the healing power in precious stones, like the crystals I carry in my pockets and bags and place under my pillows, leaving them behind me all over the world like a mineral breadcrumb trail. Her texts on healing place people within a holistic eco-cosmology, reminiscent of what I learned from members of the Shipibo tribe in the Amazon rainforest last spring: one that encompasses not only the natural world, of which every element is a living, breathing entity, but the entire universe. She discusses psychology, because healing includes both body and mind, a phenomenon to which Global Northern medical and mental professionals are only now beginning to awaken and which I have recently read and interviewed experts about. And she weaves it all into the cycles and movements of the moon, just like they practiced on the biodynamic wineries and farms that I poured my own sweat into in Greece.
I added a sticker from the Hildegard brewery to the adhesive mosaic that adorns my laptop. Later, when I was interviewing a friend who owns a taproom and used to be a professional musician, she saw it, and said she learned about Hildegard in music school. Hilde was also one of the greatest early composers, creating over 70 musical works. They heavily feature chanting, the hypnotic drones and guttural tones that vibrate through you to the infinite. Like the unwritten language, these were ethereal sounds only she could hear, the “unheard music” she channeled and transcribed—but isn’t that how all great music, and art, appears? It seems to come from outside of you, as you are simply the receiver; the meat-based lightning rod that captures what the Universe speaks.
Hildegard also fought for independence for herself and her sisters, choosing poverty and freedom in a less established dwelling over the comforts of an established convent. When this move was opposed by an archbishop, she became bedridden with an illness she attributed to God’s unhappiness with the resistance; when the archbishop couldn’t physically move her, she and 20 of her nuns were granted their release; she later founded a second monastery, as well. Today, she is regarded as a saint—her feast is on September 17—and in 2012, she was posthumously named a Doctor of the Church.
It’s a fine line between insanity and inspiration, hearing voices and channeling the divine, and sometimes all it takes is someone to tell you that you’re not crazy in order to bring forth all that is bursting to break free. I often feel as if I’m exploding with stories, books, and theories, building complex webs of interconnection between my own life experiences and those of other people I meet along the way, or interview for articles that often start off seeming totally unrelated; between the academic papers, books, and podcasts that I’m constantly ingesting; even with the spiritual practices and teachings I practice and glean. It gets overwhelming, and like little Hilde, I periodically worry I am losing my mind.
Yet the gift Hildegard gave me this winter is the reminder that you know in your soul when you’re supposed to make things that are bigger than you are; that you just have to get it out, and that requires letting other people see. So I’ve learned to ask for help from human, natural, and otherworldly sources, and little by little, I’m trying to put things out there as I receive them, without being perfect.
Write it, even if you have to invent your own language to do so. Sing it, even if you’re the only one who can hear the music. Some people will think you’re crazy. And some people will find you divinely inspired. Either way, in the act of creation and sharing, you will find where you belong.
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