Common section

KNOW THE WAYS

1. Letter to Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux was an obvious person for Hildegard to appeal to for support as she pondered a radical change of course in her life and career. A widely known author and by then a venerable figure, Bernard was the abbot of the principal Cistercian monastery and head of the Cistercian order. He was also well placed to intervene on her behalf with a former monk of Clairvaux, Bernardo Pignatelli of Pisa, who had been elected Pope Eugenius III in the previous year. Bernard was an influential figure in the politics of Church and state, particularly in France and Germany, and at the time of her letter to him he had been preoccupied with preaching journeys in which he sought to gather support for the Second Crusade.

Hildegard to Bernard of Clairvaux, 1146 [Letter 1]1

Venerable Father Bernard, you are held wonderfully in high honour by the power of God. You are a terror to the unlawful foolishness of the world; you burn in the love of God’s son; you are eager to win men for the banner of the Holy Cross to fight wars in the Christian army against the fury of the pagans.2 Father, I ask you, by the living God, to attend to my questions.

I am very concerned by this vision which has appeared to me in the spirit of mystery, for I have never seen it with the external eyes of the flesh. I who am miserable and more than miserable in my womanly existence have seen great wonders since I was a child. And my tongue could not express them, if God’s Spirit did not teach me to believe.

Most gentle Father, you are secure; in your goodness please answer me, your unworthy servant, for since I was a child I have never felt secure, not for a single hour! Could you search your soul, in your piety and wisdom, and discover how you are instructed by the Holy Spirit, and pour consolation upon me, your servant, from your heart?

For in the text I know the inner meaning of the exposition of the Psalter and the Gospel and other books shown to me in this vision, which touches my heart and soul like a consuming fire, teaching me these profundities of exposition. But it does not teach me writings in the German tongue – these I do not know – and I only know how to read for the simple meaning, not for any textual analysis.3 Give me an answer as to what you think, for I am a person ignorant of all teaching in external matters; I am taught inwardly, in my soul. Therefore I speak as one in doubt.

Hearing of your wisdom and piety I am comforted. Because there is so much divisiveness in people I have not dared to speak of these things to any other person except for one monk – whom I tested with regard to the integrity of his monastic life. I revealed all my secrets to him and he consoled me and convinced me that these are great secrets and things to be feared.

Father Bernard, I want you to reassure me, and then I will be certain! In a vision two years ago I saw you as a man able to stare at the sun without flinching, a courageous man. And I wept because I blush so much – because I am so timid! Good Father, through your kindness I have found a place in your soul, so that now, if you will, you can reveal to me through your word4 whether you want me to say these things openly or whether I should keep quiet. For I have great trouble with this visionary gift about how much I should say of what I have seen and heard. And sometimes, because I keep quiet, I am laid low by the vision and confined to my sickbed, unable to raise myself up. So I am sad, I lament before you: I am unstable with the movement of the wooden beam of the wine-press in my nature, the beam which grew at the prompting of the devil from the root in Adam (for which he was cast out as a wanderer in this exile world).5 But now I raise myself up, I run to you, I speak to you. You are not unstable, you ease the pressure of the wooden beam, you gain the victory in your soul! And it is not only yourself alone: you raise up the whole world to salvation! You are the eagle staring at the sun!6

And so I entreat you: by the brightness of the Father, by his wonderful Word, by the sweet humour of compunction, by the Spirit of Truth, by the sacred sound through which all creation resounds, by the Word from which all the world was created, by the height of the Father who through the sweet power of green vigour sent the Word to the Virgin’s womb where it took on flesh like the honey in the honeycomb! May the sacred sound, the power of the Father, fall upon your heart and raise up your soul so that you are not passive and indifferent to the words of this correspondent, as long as you seek all things from God, from man or woman, or from the mystery, until you pass through the doorway in your soul and know these things in God.

Farewell. Be well in your soul, and strong in your certainty in God. Amen.7

2. The Action of the Will (from Scivias I, 4)

In a series of images based on her concept of ‘greenness’, this digression in the middle of Scivias 1, 4 presents some of Hildegard’s ideas on anthropology. Perhaps written before the letter to Bernard, it has been compared to writings by Hugh of St Victor and Honorius of Autun and reveals how widely read she must have been, especially as she did not base the passage on one particular identifiable source. Drawing on wide knowledge, Hildegard describes her understanding of such ideas as the relation of soul and body, human understanding and the action of the will.

17. How the soul reveals its capabilities according to the capabilities of the body

The soul reveals her capabilities according to the capabilities of the body, so that in childhood she brings forth simplicity, in youth strength, and in the fullness of age, when all the veins of the human being are full, she brings forth her greatest strength in wisdom. In the same way a tree in its first growth brings forth tender shoots, goes on then to bear fruit and finally ripens that fruit to the fullness of utility. But afterwards in old age when a human being’s bones and veins incline to weakness, then the soul reveals gentler strengths, as though tired of human knowledge. In the same way, at the onset of wintertime, the sap of the tree withdraws from the leaves and branches as the tree begins to incline towards old age.

18. The human being contains three paths

A human being contains three paths: namely, soul, body and senses. On these three paths, human life runs its course. The soul fills the body with life and brings forth the senses; for its part the body attracts the soul to it and opens the senses; in turn the senses touch the body and draw the soul to them. The soul provides the body with life like fire flooding the darkness with light; it has two major powers like two arms: the understanding and the will. Not that the soul has these limbs to move herself about; rather she reveals herself in these two powers like the sun manifesting itself in the splendour of its light. Therefore human being, you are not a bundle of veins; pay attention to the knowledge of the scriptures.1

19. Human understanding

Human understanding is connected to the soul like the arms to the body. For just as the arm is joined to the hand and the hand to the fingers, so also there is no doubt that understanding proceeds from the soul and activates the other powers of the soul, by which it knows and recognizes human actions. For over all the other powers of the soul it is understanding which distinguishes what is good from what is bad in human actions. Understanding is therefore a teacher through whom all things are known, for in this way he shakes out all things just as the wheat is separated from the stalks and husks; he examines what things are useful and what are useless, what things are lovable and what are hateful, what things belong to life and what to death.

Just as food without salt is bland, so also the other powers of the soul are weak and unknowing without it. Understanding is in the soul like the shoulders in the body, acting as the moving force behind the other powers of the soul, giving them strength like the shoulders give strength to the body. It is flexible, like the bend of the arm, discerning both the divine and the human in God. Thus human understanding works with true faith, for like the articulation of the fingers of the hand it can distinguish between many diverse actions. It therefore operates differently from the other forces of the soul. Why is this?

20. The will

The will warms an action, the mind receives it, and thought bodies it forth. The understanding, however, discerns an action by the process of knowing good and evil just as the angels also have an understanding that loves good and hates evil. And just as the body has a heart, so too the soul has understanding, which exercises its power in one part of the soul just as the will does in another.

How does this happen? The will in fact has great power in the soul. How does this come about? The soul stands, so to speak, in the corner of the house, that is, in the firm support of the heart, like a man standing in the corner of a house in order to survey the whole house and supervise its running. He raises his right arm to give a sign and points out things useful to the house as he turns towards the east. The soul does likewise on the roadways of the whole body when she looks towards the rising of the sun. The soul uses the will, as it were like her right arm, as a firm support for the veins and the bones and the movement of the whole body, for the will directs every action, whether for good or ill.

21. The parable of the fire and the bread

The will is like a fire baking every action in an oven.2 Bread is baked in order to feed people and strengthen them so that they can live. The will is the force behind the whole of the action. It grinds the action in a mill, it adds yeast and kneads it firmly and thus carefully prepares the action, like a loaf of bread which the will bakes to perfection in the heat of its zeal. In so doing it provides human beings with a better food than bread for the activities they do. For while food is taken into the human body and used up, the action of the will endures within the human being until the separation of the soul from the body. And although the action will vary greatly in childhood, in youth, in maturity and in the declining years, nevertheless the will directs it stage by stage and brings it to perfection.

3. Redemption (Scivias II, 1)

In a version of the creation, the fall of Adam, and the redemption of humanity, Hildegard presents the story of her vision in a series of mysterious pictures. The work of God, for instance, is seen as a shining fire with a flame the ‘colour of air, and the creation of the cosmos takes place when a dark sphere of air representing the basic matter of the world is brought into contact with the divine fire and illumined with light. Later, the fire merges with the brightness of the dawn on earth, the dawn being the light of the Incarnation, and the power of redemption centres on the appearance of a ‘light-filled man’. In the original illustration to the scene, preserved in the Rupertsberg manuscript (see Introduction I. i), the ‘light-filled man’ is a reddish golden figure surrounded by large golden flames above his head and emerging from a red and golden circle, presumably the dawn, at the bottom of the picture.

Scivias, Part II, Vision 1

And I, a human being, neither ablaze with the strength of strong lions nor learned in their exhalations,1 remaining in the fragility of the weaker rib, but filled with mystical inspiration, saw: a shining fire, unfathomable, inextinguishable, fully alive and existing full of life; with a flame the colour of the air, brightly burning in the gentle breeze, and as inseparable from the shining fire as a human being is inseparable from his inner organs. And I saw the shining flame glow white. And suddenly a dark sphere of air appeared, huge in size, upon which the shining flame struck many blows, and at each blow a spark flew up so that soon the circle of air was brought to completion, and heaven and earth shone forth in the fullness of perfection. The burning flame of heat moved towards a small clump of muddy earth lying on the circle of the ball of air. And it heated the clump of earth, turning it to flesh and blood, and breathing life into it so that it rose up as a living man. Once this was done, the shining fire with its flame burning bright in the gentle breeze offered the man a brilliant white flower that hung in the flame like a drop of dew on a stalk of grass. The man could smell its fragrance with his nose but not taste it with his mouth or touch it with his hands. And he turned away and fell into thick darkness from which he could not raise himself up. But the darkness grew and spread further and further across the air. Then three large stars appeared in the darkness, combining in their brightness, and after them many others, small and large, shining in high splendour. Finally a great star appeared, radiating marvellous clarity and directing its splendour towards the aforesaid flame. But on the earth a brightness like the dawn appeared, merging with the flame in a marvellous manner but nevertheless not becoming separated from the shining fire. And in this way, in the brightness of the dawn, a great will was kindled.

But when I tried to consider more closely the kindling of that will, I was opposed by a secret seal on the vision,2 and I heard a voice speak to me from on high: ‘Of this mystery you may not see any more than is granted you through the miracle of belief.’

And I saw a light-filled man emerge3 from the aforesaid dawn and pour his brightness over the aforementioned darkness; it repulsed him; he turned blood-red and pallid, but struck back against the darkness with such force that the man who was lying in the darkness became visible and resplendent through this contact, and standing up, he came forth out of the darkness. And thus the light-filled man, who had emerged from the dawn, appeared in greater splendour than any human tongue can express, and he proceeded to the utmost heights of immeasurable glory, where he shone out wondrously in the fullness of great fragrance and fruitfulness.

And I heard a voice speaking to me from the living fire I have mentioned: Insignificant earthly creature! Though as a woman you are uneducated4 in any doctrine of fleshly teachers in order to read writings with the understanding of the philosophers, nevertheless you are touched by my light, which touches your inner being with fire like the burning sun. Shout and tell! And write down these my mysteries which you see and hear in the mystical vision! Do not be afraid, but tell the mysteries as you understand them in the spirit, as I speak them through you. May they be ashamed who should be showing righteousness to my people! Through the fickleness5 of their own morals, they refuse to proclaim openly the justice which they know for themselves! They have no will to cease from their evil desires, which stick to them as though they were their teachers, causing them to run away from the face of the Lord, so that they are ashamed to speak the truth. Therefore, paltry soul, instructed as you are in your inner being by mystical inspiration, and although you are trampled by the male form because of Eve’s transgression, speak nevertheless of the fiery work of salvation which this most certain vision reveals to you!

The living God, who created all things through his Word, led the miserable human being who had fallen into darkness back to the salvation of faith through the Word incarnate. What does this mean?

1. The omnipotence of God

The ‘shining fire’ which you see6 represents the omnipotent living God, whose light-filled brightness is never obscured by any evil. He remains ‘unfathomable’, because he cannot be divided by any divisions, and he is without beginning or end, not to be comprehended by any glimmer of creaturely knowledge. And he remains ‘inextinguishable’, for he is that plenitude which never reaches an end, and he is ‘fully alive’, since nothing can be completely hidden that he does not know about, and ‘existing full of life’, for everything that is alive draws its life from him, as Job declares and speaks by my inspiration:

2. The words of Job

‘Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind.’7

What does this mean? No creature can be so stupid by nature that it is ignorant of all the causes and relationships which make up its fruitfulness and fertility.8 And how is this? The sky has light, the light air, the air birds; the earth nourishes the greenness, the greenness the fruit, the fruit the animals; all testify that they were established by a mighty hand – the great power of the Lord of all, who through the force of his strength has worked all things so that none may fail in their usefulness. All creatures live and move in the omnipotence of the Creator, not only those who seek the earth and earthly things as do cattle, which do not have rationality by the inspiration of God, but also those who inhabit human flesh in which they partake of rationality, power of discernment, and wisdom.

How is this? The soul encircles earthly matters, at work through the many changes that fleshly customs demand of it. But the spirit raises itself up in two ways: on the one hand by heaving sighs, groanings and desires for God,9 on the other by seeking as it were through commands to exercise sovereignty, influence and autonomy in various areas, because through reason the spirit has the power of discernment. Therefore, also, the human being contains the likeness of heaven and earth within her.10 How does this come about? The human creature contains a circle in which there appear the qualities of discernment, breath of life and rationality, just as in the heavens there are stars, air and birds. Likewise, the human creature contains a receptacle in which there appear the moisture of the humours, germination and parturition, just as on earth there is greenness, fruitfulness and animals. What does this mean? Human creature! You are a wholeness in every created thing and yet you forget your creator! All things subject to you obey their creator as they were made to. But only you desire to transgress his commandments?

3. Before and after the Incarnation the Word remains indivisibly and eternally with the Father

You see in your vision ‘the fire having a flame the colour of the air, brightly burning in the gentle breeze, and as inseparable from the shining fire as a human being is inseparable from his inner organs’. This is the infinite Word, which is in the Father before time, before the working of creation. In the glow of love, this Word was to become incarnate, in the course of time, miraculously and without stain or weight of sin, through the pure green vigour11 of the Holy Spirit in the dawn of blessed maidenhood. And before his assumption of flesh the Word was indivisible in the Father and remained inseparable in him after his assumption of human nature. For as a human being cannot exist without the breath of air in his inner organs, in the same way, the unique Word cannot be separated in any way from the Father.

4. Why the Son of God is called the Word

And why is he called the Word? For the following reason. Through the speaking of the localized word,12 which is impermanent, in the dust of humanity, wise and prudent people understand the commands of a ruler and the reason for his commands.13 Similarly also, through the utterance of the unlocalized Word, which is permanent in the inextinguishable life that lives through eternity, the strength of the Father is understood by the various creatures of the world who sense and recognize it as the origin of their created state. Likewise, just as the capacity and the glory of the human being are known by the functioning word, so the sanctity and the goodness of the Father shine through the perfectly filled Word.14

5. How the whole of creation was roused by God’s Word and how humanity came back to life through salvation

When you see the ‘shining flame glow white’, it means that God’s Word revealed its power as it were by catching fire: the whole of creation was roused by him and grew incandescent when the Word became incarnate in the dawn and brilliance of maidenhood, so that from the Word all the virtues and powers flowed in the knowledge of God when humanity came back to life in the salvation of souls.

6. How God’s unknowable power fashioned the world and brought forth the various species

‘And suddenly a dark sphere of air appeared, huge in size.’ This is the basic material of creation, still in the darkness of imperfection and not yet illuminated or filled with creatures. This material is a ‘sphere’ because it is within God’s unknowable power, since his divinity is never absent.15 It rises in God’s great power and in the winking of an eye is transported to the heights of heavenly will.

‘The shining flame struck many blows upon it,’ as a blacksmith does, ‘and at each blow a spark flew up so that soon the sphere of air was brought to completion, and heaven and earth shone forth in the fullness of perfection.’ The meaning is this. The Word from on high, surpassing the whole of creation, revealed the force of his strength by creating creatures, who pay him their allegiance. From the basic material he brought forth the diverse species of creatures gleaming in the wonder of their birth and awakening – like a smith skilfully fashioning his artefacts out of bronze – until created things shone resplendent in the beauty of fullness. Each was ranked into higher and lower orders, all having the attractiveness and stability of perfect workmanship and shining on each other from above and from below.

7. After the creation of the other creatures the man was created from the clay of the earth

‘The burning flame of heat moved towards a small clump of muddy earth lying on the bottom of the circle of air.’ After creating the other creatures, in the strong will of the Father and in the love of heavenly sweetness, the Word of God contemplated the soft, crumbly material – the weak frailty of human nature – out of which both good and evil humans would be created. This was detained still in the depths of unconsciousness and heaviness and not yet awakened by the rousing breath of life.

‘And it heated the clump of earth, turning it to flesh and blood.’16 This means that the flame through green vigour pours heat into the clump of earth, because earth is the material out of which human flesh is made, nourishing it with its moisture like a mother suckling a child.17

‘And breathing life into it so that it rose up as a living man.’ This means that the flame awakens him with heavenly power and marvellously brings forth a rational human being made up of body and soul.18

8. How Adam, having received the gentle commandment of clear obedience, did not accept it, on the advice of the devil

‘Once this was done, the shining fire with its flame burning bright in the gentle breeze offered the man a brilliant white flower that hung in the flame like a drop of dew on a stalk of grass.’ When the Father, who is brightest Light, had created Adam, he entrusted him, through the Word in the Holy Spirit, with the gentle commandment of clear obedience, which clings to the Word in the moist green vigour of fruitfulness; for by that same Word a most pleasing sacred moisture streams like dew from the Father in the Holy Spirit, producing great and plentiful fruit, just as pure dew falling on grass brings it most fittingly to germination.

‘The man could smell its fragrance with his nose but not taste it with his mouth or touch it with his hands.’ The meaning is this. With his nose, as it were, he inhaled the precepts of the law with the knowledge of wisdom; with his mouth, however, he was unable to take in fully the power of the law’s intimate embrace; and with the work of his hands he could not perfect the law in the fullness of blessedness.

‘And he turned away and fell into thick darkness from which he could not raise himself up.’ The reason is that following the advice of the devil he turned his back on the divine command and fell into the jaws of death, because he did not seek God either in faith or works. Thus burdened by his sins, he was unable to rise up to true knowledge, until the coming of him who obeyed his Father fully without sin.

‘But the darkness grew and spread further and further across the air.’ The power of death in the world was continually increased by the spread of the vices, and the consciousness of humanity became all the more entwined in the diversity of the many vices, which broke out in the horror of putrid sins.

9. How Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the other prophets broke through the darkness of the world with their prophecies

‘But then three large stars appeared in the darkness, combining in their brightness, and after them many others, small and large, shining in high splendour.’ In these three large stars there is a figure of the heavenly Trinity; they represent namely Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who embrace each other both in their faithful works and also in their family relationship,19 and with their prefigurements they break through the darkness of the world. They are followed by many other prophets, both minor and important, radiating the light of many marvellous miracles.

10. How, shining in wonders, the principal prophet John prefigured the Son

‘Finally a great star appeared, radiating marvellous clarity and directing its splendour towards the aforesaid flame.’ This is the principal prophet John the Baptist, shining in miracles through his most faithful bright works, and thus prefiguring the true Word, that is, the true Son of God, for John did not yield to evil but resolutely and firmly rejected it with his works of justice.

11. With the incarnation of the Word, the great and ancient plan became visible

‘But on the earth a brightness like the dawn appeared, merging with the flame in a marvellous manner but nevertheless not becoming separated from the shining fire.’ This means that God planted a great splendour of red light in that place of growth; he sent his Word into it full of desire, and he did not separate himself from his Word, but gave it as a bounteous fruit and brought forth from it a great fountain, so that every faithful throat that drank from it would no longer be dry with thirst.

‘And in this way, in the brightness of the dawn, a great will was kindled.’ Thus in the brightness of red shining light the green force of the great plan of old was seen, so that all the preceding legions marvelled over this in happiness and light.

12. The human creature should not investigate the secrets of God any more than he wishes to reveal them

You, human creature! In the way of humans, you desire to know more about this exalted plan, but a seal of secrecy will be imposed on you; for you are not permitted to investigate the secrets of God more than the divine majesty wishes to reveal, because of his love for believers.

13. The Son of God, born into the world, defeated the devil by his death and led his chosen people to their inheritance

‘And I saw a light-filled man emerge from the aforesaid dawn and pour his brightness over the aforementioned darkness; it repulsed him; he turned blood-red and pallid, but struck back against the darkness with such force that the man who was lying in the darkness became visible and resplendent through this contact, and standing up, he came forth out of the darkness.’ This signifies God’s Word, incarnate inviolately in the glory of unstained maidenhood, and born without pain, but nevertheless not separated from the Father. How did this happen? When the Son of God was born into the World through the Mother, he appeared in heaven in the Father; therefore the angels immediately trembled and sang sweet praises in their joy. He lived in the world without stain of sin and sent forth into the darkness of unbelief a light-filled blessing of doctrine and salvation; but he was rejected by an unbelieving people and led away to suffer; he shed his beautiful blood and tasted in his body the darkness of death. By this means he overcame the devil, led forth his elect from hell in which they had been thrown down and confined, and brought them back, through his mercy and the touch of his redemption, to the inheritance which they had lost in Adam. And when they arrived in their inheritance, drums and harps sounded and songs of music in countless beautiful variations, for the human being who had been lying in a lost state was now in a blessed state. Freed by heavenly virtue, he had escaped death. As I said through my servant Hosea:

14. The words of Hosea on the same matter

‘The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is hid. The sorrows of a travailing woman shall come upon him: he is an unwise son; for he will not stand in the face of the misery of his children. I will deliver them from the hand of death. I will be your death, O death, I will be your destruction, O underworld.’20

What does this mean? The evil iniquity of the devil is bound in the weight of bondage, for he has not earned release by the zeal of God, since he has never looked upon God in righteous knowledge in the way that others look upon him who fear him in faith. The devil always raises himself up against God saying ‘I am a god’ and deceiving himself about the blessed one of the Lord. Because of him he opposes all who are Christians. Therefore his malice is hidden to such an extent that no medicine is suitable to cover his sin with salvation, the sin which he so cruelly commits in the impurity of his pride. Therefore he will be in the bitterness of pain, like a woman giving birth, desperately worried about whether she will be able to survive the opening of her womb. This unhappiness will remain hanging over him; he will be deserted by beatitude, for the wisdom of children will flee from him, because he does not come to himself, unlike the one who came to himself and moved from iniquity back to his father.21

For these reasons he will never stand faithful and contrite like the children of salvation who through the heavenly Son overcame that death-bringing, hard-hearted iniquity. The same venomous serpent caused this iniquity to come forth when he tempted the first man with a cunning which he did not know about. But because these children despise the venom of that impure temptation and look to their salvation, I will free them from the servitude of idols. Those deceived by idols are in the power of perdition, and through idols the unbelievers forsake the honour of their Creator, entangling themselves in the traps of the devil and carrying out his works according to his will.

And therefore I will redeem from the punishment of hell the souls of those who love me and worship me, that is, the souls of the saints and the souls of the just; for no one can be saved from the bonds of the devil, in which he or she is tied up by bitter death because of their breaking of God’s commandments, except by the redemption of the one who will redeem his chosen people with his own blood. I will utterly destroy you, death, for I will take from you those by whom you think you can live, so that you will be called a useless corpse! You will be thrown down in your greatest strength, just as the body which is vacated by the soul is cast down to complete destruction. For the fountain of the water of life will overwhelm you when the happy souls are mercifully awakened to heavenly blessedness by the new man, who will not be the companion of venomous deception. Therefore, O underworld, I will be the bite of your overturning, when, in my power and great strength, I take from you the spoils which you so fraudulently seized! Thus justly deprived, you will never again appear whole and filled with riches. Hideous, prostrate, covered in wounds, you will bear your disgrace in perpetuity!

15. The body of the Son of God, lying in the tomb for three days, rose again and showed humanity the way of truth from death to life

But you see that ‘the light-filled man, who had emerged from the dawn, appeared in greater splendour than any human tongue can express’. This shows that the Father’s glory touched the most noble body of the Son of God, born of the sweet Virgin, lying in the tomb for three days, in order to confirm that there are three persons in one Godhead. Thus he received back the Spirit and rose again in brightest immortality in such a way that no human imagination or words can explain. And the Father presented him with his open wounds to the heavenly choirs, saying: ‘This is my beloved Son,22 whom I sent to die for the people.’ Then a joy unknowable to the human mind rose up among them, for the sinful oblivion in which God was not known was now overcome, so that human reason,23which had been knocked down by the wiles of the devil, had now risen up to the knowledge of God. And through a great blessing the way of truth was now revealed to humankind, who had been led out of death into life.

16. How the Son of God rose from death and appeared often to his disciples to strengthen them

Just as the children of Israel were freed from Egypt, crossing the desert in forty years and reaching a land of milk and honey, so the Son of God rose from the dead and graciously appeared for forty days to his disciples and the holy women, who mourned for him and desired with great longing to see him. He did this to strengthen them so that they would not doubt by saying: ‘We have not seen him and so we cannot believe that he is our salvation.’ But he showed himself to them on many occasions to strengthen them so that they would not fall.

17. By his ascension to the Father the Son of God showered his bride with diverse adornments

The fact that he then ‘proceeded to the utmost heights of immeasurable glory, where he shone out wondrously in the fullness of great fragrance and fruitfulness’ has the following interpretation. The Son of God ascends to the Father, who alone with the Son and the Holy Spirit is the utmost excellent height of inexpressible joy and bliss. There the Son appears gloriously to the faithful in the abundance of bright sanctity and blessedness, and they believe in the purity and simplicity of their hearts that he is true God and man. Then the new bride of the lamb is showered with diverse adornments; she will be decorated with every kind of virtue for the great battle which will be fought by all the faithful against the venomous serpent.

May whoever sees with watchful eyes or hears with echoing ears offer a kiss and embrace to these my mystical words, which are uttered by me, the Living One.

4. Letter to Odo of Soissons

This letter is a classic example of Hildegard’s willingness and ability, through the ‘living light’ as she put it, to participate in the scholastic controversies of her day. Odo, a theologian and master at Paris, heard of Hildegard at the Synod of Trier (1147–8) and wrote to ask her opinion of Gilbert Porreta’s statements on the Trinity, which were discussed at the Council of Rheims in 1148 (for Odo’s letter, see 32 below). In his thinking, Gilbert had sought to make a real distinction between God and the godhead. He termed the latter the form of God’ i.e. the nature or being of God, in which the Trinity is one. But whatever has being through this form is not one, he thought, but three unities. Gilbert therefore saw a real difference between, on the one hand, the three divine Persons, and, on the other hand, divine being itself. Thus it seemed to him necessary to deny that the Father and paternity had the same identity, a position which placed him (apparently unwillingly) in opposition to Church doctrine. He eventually withdrew these statements after the discussions at Rheims.1

Hildegard to Odo of Soissons, 1148 [Letter 40R]

I, a mere woman, tell you this in the smoke of aromatic spices on the high mountain. The sun shines down its light and illuminates the many unpleasant matters in various places.

You, Master Odo, in your teaching, have made many channels into the Scriptures, which you then direct to others, both great and small, whereas I only tremble at my humble status.

Listen now: a king sat on his throne, high pillars before him splendidly adorned and set on pediments of ivory. They showed the king’s vestments in great honour everywhere. Then the king chose to lift a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly just as the king himself wished. But a feather does not fly of its own accord; it is borne up by the air. So too I am not imbued with human doctrine or strong powers. Nor do I desire good bodily health. Rather, I depend entirely on God’s help.

And I say to you: I heard from a certain man fluent in doctrine who asked me whether or not the paternity of the high Father and the divinity of God were identical with God. And he asked me, a fainthearted woman, to look carefully to the true Light to find out about these things. And I looked and learned, not by my own inquiries but by looking into the true Light, that God is in fact both paternity and divinity, for we human beings are not capable of learning about God in the same way that we learn about the humanity of other human beings or about the quality of their actions.

The Living Light therefore speaks with the secret word of Wisdom: God is full and whole and beyond the beginning of time, and therefore he cannot be divided or analysed by words as a human being can. God is a whole and nothing other than a whole, to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken away. For he-who-is is both paternity and divinity, since it is said ‘I am who I am’.2 And he-who-is is fullness itself. How is this to be understood? By his activity, creativity and perfection.

Whoever says that God is not paternity and divinity is naming a middle point without a circle. And whoever insists on having a middle point without a circle denies the one who is eternal. And whoever denies that God is both paternity and divinity denies God, for he implies that there is a kind of emptiness in God, which is not the case. But God is fullness and whatever is in God is God. God cannot be shaken or passed through a sieve by human thinking, for there isn’t anything in God that is not God. And since creation has a beginning, human reasoning has to find God through names and concepts, for human reasoning itself is by its nature full of names and concepts.

Now, O man, listen again to the poor little form of a woman speaking to you in the Spirit: God wants you to make straight your paths and to be subject to him so that you may be a living rock in the cornerstone. In this way you will not be separated from the tree of life.

5. The Trinity (Scivias II, 2)

The illustration accompanying this vision of the Trinity in the Rupertsberg codex shows a series of three concentric coloured circles with a large figure of a man standing in the middle. The subtlety with which Hildegard uses imagery to explain the mysteries of the Trinity should be compared with her letter to Odo of Soissons (4) on the same subject.

Scivias, Part II, vision 2

Then I saw an extremely bright light and in the light the figure of a man the colour of sapphire, and it was all burning in a delightful red fire. And the bright light flooded through all the red fire, and the red fire through all the bright light, and the bright light and the red fire shone together through the whole figure of the man so that they were one light in one strength and power. And again I heard the living light speaking to me.

1. The sense of God’s mystery

This is the sense of God’s mystery: in order that we might clearly perceive and understand what his fullness is, the origin of which has never been seen and in which there is never any lack of the powerful strength that established all the streams of spiritual force. For if God were ever to be empty of his own greenness and power, what would become of his works? They would of course be in vain. Therefore he who is the maker is seen in the fullness of his works.

2. The three persons

Therefore you see ‘an extremely bright light’, which signifies the Father, who is without the stains of illusion, failure or deceit. And in the light is ‘the figure of a man the colour of sapphire’, which represents the Son, who is without the stains of hard-heartedness,1envy or evil, and who before all time, according to his divinity, was begotten of the Father, but afterwards, in time, according to his humanity, became incarnate in the world. And ‘it was all burning in a delightful red fire’; this is the fire without the stains of aridity, mortality or darkness, which represents the Holy Spirit, by whom the Only Begotten of the Father was conceived in the flesh, born in time of the Virgin and poured out his light, truth and brightness over all the world.

‘And the bright light flooded through all the red fire, and the red fire through all the bright light, and the bright light and the red fire shone together through the whole figure of the man so that they were one light in one strength and power.’ This means that the Father, who is supremely just uniformity,2 is not without the Son or the Holy Spirit; and that the Holy Spirit, who inflames the hearts of the faithful, is not without the Father or the Son; and that the Son, who is the fullness of fruitfulness, is not without the Father or the Spirit; for they are inseparable in the majesty of divinity, because the Father is not without the Son, nor the Son without the Father, nor the Father or the Son without the Holy Spirit, nor the Spirit without them; so these three persons exist as one God in one integral divinity and majesty, and the unity of divinity thrives inseparable in the three persons, because divinity cannot be separated, since it remains always unchanged without any mutability. But the Father is revealed through the Son, the Son through the beginning of created things, and the Holy Spirit through the incarnate Son. How is this? It is the Father who before time engendered the Son; it is the Son through whom all things were created by the Father at the beginning of creation; and it is the Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove at the baptism of the Son of God towards the end of all time.3

3. May the human race never cease to call fervently upon the one God in three persons

Therefore may the human race never cease to call upon me the one God in three persons, for I have revealed this to human beings in order that they might blaze all the more fiercely in love of me, since I sent my Son into the world through my love for them, just as John, my loved one,4 witnesses, saying:

4. John on the love of God

‘The love of God was disclosed to us in this: that he sent his only begotten Son into the world that we may live through him. His love is in this, not as we loved God but that he first loved us and sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins.’5What does this mean? Because God loved us another salvation arose different from the one we had at our first origins, when we were the heirs of innocence and sanctity. For the heavenly Father revealed his love to us in our danger of punishment; for through his heavenly power he sent his Word alone and full of sanctity into the darkness of the world. And there the Word perfected all good things and through his mildness led us back to life. He led us back when we had been rejected for the impurity of our wrongdoing and were unable to return to the sanctity we had lost. What does this mean? It means that God’s loving maternal embrace came to us through the fountain of life; his love nourished us for life; and in times of danger his love is our help, a deep and gentle love leading to penitence. How is this?

God has mercifully remembered his great work and his most precious pearl – the human being6 – whom he fashioned from the soil of the earth and inspired with the breath of life. How did he do this? He drew us to life through penitence, which never fails in its effectiveness, because the cunning serpent deceived us through his proud persuasions; but God cast him down through the penitence which reveals humility, a humility which the devil did not know or practise, for he did not know how to raise himself up to the path of righteousness.

Therefore the salvation of love did not originate in us, for we neither knew nor were able to love God for our salvation; rather, it came from our Creator and Lord, who loved his people so much that he sent his Son for our salvation, as leader and Saviour of the faithful, who washed all our wounds. Thus also he shed that sweet balm from which all the good things of our salvation flow.

Therefore, O human creature, you too should know that God is not affected by any adverse mutability, for the Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit; these three persons exist indivisibly in the unity of the godhead. How does this come about?

5. The three powers of a stone

There are three powers in a stone and three in a flame and three in a word. In a stone there is moist greenness, palpable strength and red-burning fire.7 It has moist greenness so that it will not fall apart and disintegrate, and palpable strength so that it can provide habitation and defence, and red-burning fire so that it can be warmed and strengthened in its durability. Its moist greenness signifies the Father, who will never dry out or reach a limit to his power; its palpable strength signifies the Son, since he was born of the Virgin and could be touched and grasped; its red-burning fire signifies the Spirit, who is the fire and illumination of the hearts of the faithful. What does this all mean?

Imagine someone who comes into contact too often with the moisture and greenness of a stone and so weakens and falls ill;8 in the same way a foolhardy person who tries – in the instability of their thoughts – to look upon God will perish in their faith. Imagine a people taking the palpable strength of stones to build their habitations and protect themselves against their enemies; in the same way the Son of God, who is the true cornerstone, is the habitation of the faithful people, protecting them against evil spirits. And imagine also the red fire, burning bright and lighting up the darkness; in the same way the Holy Spirit puts unbelief to flight, removing all the rust of iniquity.

Just as the three powers are contained within the one stone, so the true Trinity is contained within the true Unity.

6. The three powers of a flame

And just as there are three powers in the glowing heat of a flame, so the one God is in three persons. How is this? The flame consists of splendid brightness, purple vigour and fiery glow. It has a splendid brightness so that it can shine its light, a purple vigour so that it can maintain its existence, and a fiery glow so that it can burn. Consider the Father in the splendid brightness, for he sends out his brightness to the faithful through the goodness of his fatherhood; and in the purple vigour held within the flame and containing its strength, consider the Son, who assumed a body from the Virgin in which the godhead declared its marvels; and in the fiery glow perceive the Holy Spirit, who pours his fire over the minds of believers. But the flame will not be seen if there is no splendid brightness, or purple vigour, or fiery glow; in the same way, God is not worthily honoured in any place where neither the Father, Son, nor Holy Spirit is venerated.

Therefore just as three powers are discerned in the one flame, so three persons are to be understood in the unity of the godhead.

7. The three components of the human word

Three components may be noted in the human word, just as the Trinity may be considered in the unity of the Godhead. How is this to be done? A word is composed of sound, force and breath.9 A word has sound in order to be heard, force in order to be understood, and breath in order to be completed. In the sound of the word consider the Father, who expresses all things by his ineffable power; in the force of the word consider the Son, marvellously engendered of the Father; in the breath of the word consider the Holy Spirit, who burns gently within them. But if the sound is not heard, then the force does not operate and the breath is not raised; hence the word is not understood; because the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not to be divided, for they function as one unanimous activity.

Therefore just as there are the three components of the word so also the heavenly Trinity is in one heavenly unity. And just as no moist greenness can exist or function in the stone without the palpable strength or the red-burning flame, and no palpable strength without the moist greenness or burning flame, and no burning flame without moist greenness or palpable strength; and just as no splendid brightness can exist or function in the flame without the purple vigour or the fiery glow, and no purple vigour without the splendid brightness or the fiery glow, and no fiery glow without the splendid brightness or purple vigour; and just as no sound can exist or function in the word without force or breath, and no force without the sound or the breath, and no breath without the sound or the force, for they act indivisibly in unison; so also the three persons of the Trinity exist inseparably in the majesty of the Godhead and cannot be divided from each other.

Human creature, understand that the one God is in three persons! But you imagine in the foolishness of your mind that God is so powerless that it is impossible for him truly to exist in three persons, but only barely to exist in one! What are you thinking? God is truly God in three persons, the first and the last.10

8. The unity of being

But the Father is not without the Son, nor the Son without the Father, nor the Father without the Son and the Holy Spirit; nor is the Holy Spirit without them, because the three persons are inseparable in the unity of divinity. How is this possible? The word sounds from the mouth of a human being, but the mouth does not make a sound without the word, and the word itself does not sound without life. And where is the word located? In the human being. And where does the word come from? Again, from the human being. And how does this happen? Through a living human being. Thus the Son is in the Father, and he is sent by the Father to this dark earth for the salvation of humankind and conceived by the Virgin through the Holy Spirit. He is the only begotten Son in the deity and the only begotten Son in the virginity; and he is both the only Son of the Father and the only Son of the Mother; for just as the Father engendered him alone outside time, so the Mother engendered him alone inside time, and she remained a virgin after the birth.

Therefore, O human creature, understand that there is one God in three persons, who created you in the strength of his divinity and who redeemed you from your lost state. Do not forget your Creator, as Solomon urges you, and as it is written:

9. The words of Solomon

‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the time of affliction comes and before the years approach of which you will say: I do not like them.’11

What does this signify? Through your sense of reason, remember the one who created you when as it were in the days of your false confidence you consider it possible for you to proceed according to your desires: to raise yourself to the heights or plunge into the depths, to stand in prosperity or to fall in tribulation. For the sense of life12 which is within you is striving continuously towards perfection until that time when it will be fulfilled. How is this to be understood? The child advances from her first beginnings up to full adult stature and then remains in a state of perfection, abandoning that boisterousness which is mere foolish behaviour; but only with great trouble does she now provide carefully for those things in her life which need considering but which she used to neglect in the foolishness of her childhood. May the faithful person behave like this! May she abandon the behaviour of childhood and ascend to the fullness of the virtues! May she persevere in their strength, rejecting the arrogant desire which simmers in the foolishness of the vices! In her trials and tribulations may she meditate on what is beneficial to her, just as earlier she had inclined childishly to the behaviour of childhood!13

Therefore, O human creature, embrace your God thus in the light of your vigour, before the hour arrives for the purgation of your deeds, when all things will be revealed and nothing will remain unconsidered. Then also all the times will flow past and will lack nothing of their fullness. In your sense of humanity you will grumble, saying: ‘I do not like these changeable things; I do not understand whether they will lead to prosperity or disaster’; for the human mind is always in doubt, because when it does good things it worries about whether they are pleasing to God; and when it does evil things it fears for the salvation of redemption.

May whoever sees with watchful eyes or hears with echoing ears offer a kiss and embrace to these my mystical words, which are uttered by me, the Living One.

6. Letter to Pope Eugenius III

In the first of several letters to Pope Eugenius III, written shortly after the Synod of Trier (1147–8) and before the completion of Scivias (1151), Hildegard alludes to the pope’s visit to Trier and expresses her concern that he will continue to lend his support for the book despite the opposition of many wise men of earthly inclination’.

Hildegard to Pope Eugenius III, 1148 [Letter 2]

Gentle Father, though a small and insignificant figure, I write to you now, in a true vision by mystical inspiration, on all that God wishes me to teach.

Resplendent Father, you came to our land in your official capacity, as God willed it, and you saw something of the true visions which the Living Light has taught me, and you heard them in the embrace of your heart. Now that a part of this writing is finished, still the same Light has not left me but burns in my soul as I have had it since childhood. Therefore I send you now this letter in the true admonition of God. And my soul desires that the Light from the Light will shine within you and pour over your eyes and awaken your spirit to these writings so that your soul may be crowned by them, as God so wishes. But many wise men of earthly inclination have rejected these things, in the inconstancy of their hearts, because they come from this poor female figure who was formed in the rib and not taught by the philosophers.

Father of pilgrims, hear the voice of Him who is. A strong king sat in his hall, high pillars before him covered in gold bands and adorned with pearls and precious stones. And the king chose to touch a tiny feather, so that it soared up marvellously, and a strong wind bore it up so that it did not fall. Again he speaks to you – he who is the Living Light shining in the heavens and in the abyss, not hidden or concealed by listening hearts. And he says: ‘Prepare this writing1 to be received by those who hear me; make it green with the juice of sweetness; make it a branching root and a soaring leaf against the devil. Then you will live in eternity. Do not reject these secrets of God, for they are part of that need which is hidden and which has not yet appeared openly.’

May the sweetest fragrance be in you. May you never tire on the path of justice.

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