I am life. I am Mystic.
Jesus, Hildegard of Bingen & Me
Hildegard of Bingen (1089 to 1179) was a notable figure in medieval Scholastic thought both because she was a creative and independent thinker & an influential woman in a time and culture we think of as dominated by the male-oriented Latin church. She devoted considerable thought to understanding the natural world and was reputed to be a gifted healer. Of special note is the impact of her visions on her own cosmology as well as on later thinkers. Even today, there are popular mystical groups associated with Hildegard, and one can buy current recordings of music she composed.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
1. The Source of All Being
“I am that supreme and fiery force that sends forth all the sparks of life. Death hath no part in me, yet do I allot it, wherefore I am girt about with wisdom as with wings. I am that living and fiery essence of the divine substance that glows in the beauty of the fields. I shine in the water, I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars. Mine is that mysterious force of the invisible wind. I sustain the breath of all living. I breathe in the verdure and in the flowers, and when the waters flow like living things, it is I. I formed those columns that support the whole earth … I am the force that lies hid in the winds, from me they take their source, and as a man may move because he breathes, so doth a fire burn but by my blast. All these live because I am in them and am of their life. I am wisdom. Mine is the blast of the thundered word by which all things were made. I permeate all things that they may not die. I am life.”
This is a profoundly mystical statement by Hildegard of Bingen. Mysticism is defined below to get around the common use that the forms of the word ‘mystic’ suffer in our culture.
- Mysticism emphasizes a direct, unmediated connection with a loving God and the spiritual equalityand/or unity of all peoples. This is a radical idea for its time: no priest, shaman or other person is necessary to a direct relationship with the divine, for life is ever present in all.
- Each of the major religions brought forth a mystical wing or subgroup in the postclassical period (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, etc.) For instance, Islam has its Sufis, Hinduism has scores of sects, many of them mystical, Vedanta for one comes to mind as having been much written about in English.
- Because of its emphasis on non-hierarchical spiritual equality, mysticism offers an avenue to influence and authority to people otherwise excluded from political and religious structures. This was true in Hildegard of Bingen’s time and it seems to be a consistent attribute of mystical religions through the centuries.
This final point makes mysticism, in its many different forms, attractive to Americans who seek a spiritual way of life, but find traditional religious practice and churches confining and patriarchal. We’ve all been there. Some of us became agnostic or atheist in the face of the power mongering and pettiness we have experienced in various traditional American churches. Some of it has been downright mean and shameful in ways that good people just can’t stomach.
3. The Challenge of Discussing Faith with the Unchurched
So the problem I always run into when discussing a life of faith with those who live without participation in spiritual community is that they don’t have a clue that there are those of us who don’t think we need anyone else to think for us about religion or to lead us. It never occurs as a possibility to most people because the only religious people they hear about are the fundamentalist or evangelical Christians or the folks in other religions that can be equally fundamentalist in their point of view. That is not who I am and I know a lot of people who have come to a similar spiritual path.
So what does a minister who doesn’t believe their role is to come between the individual and a direct experience of the divine essence of life do professionally? We teach. We leave practice to the individual. We do have our experience to share and the benefit of a lifetime of scholarship, but we aren’t telling anyone how to live their lives. We just don’t. That doesn’t work anyway. Look around. Do you see that kind of leadership as ever having worked for humanity at large?
4. We think differently about Jesus
Another thing that many mystics believe, and I do believe this too, that whatever powers it is said that Jesus may have had, that those same powers reside in each and every one of us. That’s one of the reasons that we can actually help one another. Hildegard of Bingen thought so too. It opens the whole wide world for exploration and adoration to us, just as it was opened to Jesus. What might we do with our lives that matters, what choices might we make, if all that exists is the body of God? What indeed.
When we see that God is all there is, there is nothing but what Love we can share with the Divine in the many parts that it plays.