A word to the wise: in case you haven’t been following the thread of this series on Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval visionary nun, you should check out my first and second posts (first one on her life and times, second one on her Big Idea). It will make the following much easier, well, to follow.
God as Verb
When last I left you, we had examined Hildegard’s use of the term viriditas, a word she is often described as using to denote God’s generative, or “greening” power. However, I’d taken the step of expanding the interpretation of viriditas slightly. I’d related it to other words and images she uses frequently–fiery power, Reason, life, wind-tossed flame. And I’d suggested that Hildegard uses viriditas (among other words and images) not to describe the actions or power of God as a Person (that is, as a noun), but rather, to situate God Him/Herself in that in-between area of matter and energy. In other words, Hildegard experiences God as verb.
Now, once we start talking about God as noun vs. God as verb, we’re treading into fairly deep theological waters. Luckily for us, there are others who have gone before to part the seas, and they’ve made it relatively easy to understand. So hang in there.
In order to explain myself (and Hildegard), I’m going to borrow here for a moment from David A. Cooper, who has written about Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah in his aptly entitle book, aptly God is a Verb:
“The closest we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being. We can think of it as “be-ing,” as verb rather than noun. Perhaps we would understand this concept better if we renamed God. We might call It God-ing…. a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other….Moreover, creation should not be treated as a noun. It too is an interactive verb; it is constantly creation-ing. And, dear reader, you should not treat yourself as a noun–Joan, or Bill, or Barbara, or John. With regard to God as an interactive verb, you are also verbs; you are Joan-ing, Bill-ing, Barbara-ing, or John-ing in relation to God-ing.” (1)
This understanding of God seems, to me, to shed light on Hildegard’s often baffling array of metaphors. In each of her terms (fiery power, viriditas, Reason), she is fundamentally pointing to the living activity inherent in them. And this is where we need to be very careful in understanding her. She is NOT saying that nature (stones, plants, humans, etc.) exists as fundamentally dead or inert matter that is animated by some sort of ubiquitous life energy (á la the Jedi “Force”). That would actually be relatively easy for us to grasp. We’re all very familiar with the idea of matter (inert) and energy (animate).
But that’s a fundamentally dualistic way of looking at things. Hildegard takes us a step further. She is inviting us to step from duality to unity–to see creation itself as “creation-ing” (to steal Cooper’s word) and God as “God-ing.” Let’s look again the first passage I quoted in my last post:
“The viriditas of the earth and plants greatly thrive in the morning, because the air is cold and the sun is warm. And the herbs very strongly suck viriditas, like a lamb who sucks milk, because the heat of the day is barely sufficient to…cook and fortify the day’s viriditas so far as it is made fertile for the producing of fruit.” (2)
You see what she’s doing here? The herbs “suck” viriditas from the air; they “cook” viriditas so it’s available to produce fruit. So, yes, God’s viriditas is filling and animating them, but the plants themselves are also playing an active role in “drawing” the viriditas down. In other words, viriditas seems to somehow encapsulate the exchange between God and creation–a moment-by-moment “God-ing” that brings the universe (herbs, earth, lambs, fruit) into being. Viriditas is not a thing, it’s a movement. (3)
Back to the Word
But it’s important to watch your step, here. We have to constantly guard against our tendency to see the world in dualistic terms, matter and energy. It would be easy to fall back into a pattern of seeing God (noun) and creation (noun) with some sort of action (verb) between them. Hildegard’s insight is to continually invite us to see them as parts of one and the same process–the process of the Word, which she associates with Reason (and sometimes with Wisdom). (4) Taking a moment to look at how she uses the term “Reason,” can give us an extra window into what she’s trying to tell us.
So…Let’s take a second look at part of the longer passage I had quoted in my second post, where Hildegard speaks with the voice of the divine being she saw in a vision:
“I am life. I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made. I breathe life into everything so that nothing is mortal in respect to its species. For I am life. I am life, whole and entire [vita integra]…all life has its roots in me. Reason is the root, the resounding Word blooms out of it.” (5)
For Hildegard, then, Reason is the link between God (here, represented as the Word) and creation. (6) Reason is the root of life–the life that lives in and flows out of God, and the life that lives in and flows through creation. Reason is not opposed to matter (á la Cartesian dualism); rather, it is the basis of it all, a fiery life flow that is constantly “God-ing” and “creation-ing” our whole universe into being.
A Reasonable Question
So, you might wonder, does Hildegard’s divine Reason have anything to do with our own capacity as humans to reason?
So glad you asked.
For Hildegard, human reason is not only the link between humans and God, but actually an aspect of the very lifeblood of divinity itself, flowing in and through us, bringing us into being moment by moment. As such, it is an essential part of our nature:
“This life is God, who is always in motion and constantly in action, and yet this life is manifest in a threefold power. For eternity is called the ‘Father,’ the Word is called the ‘Son,’ and the breath that binds both of them together is called the ‘Holy Spirit.’ And God has likewise marked humanity; in human beings there are body, soul, and reason.” (7)
“Every human soul endowed with reason exists as a soul that emerges from the true God….This same God is that living fire by which souls live and breathe.” (8)
For Hildegard, then, humans possess a threefold nature modeled on the activity of God Him/Herself, with one of those parts made up of the very Reason that is the root of the Godhead itself. The soul’s rational activity is therefore not so much modeled on God’s divine Reason (as we see in later Enlightenment notions of reason); it is divine Reason. Our rational activity is God Him/Herself at work in us. (9)
Making over our Minds: Hildegard and Steiner
Once we’ve looked closely at Hildegard’s understanding of Reason, it’s clear that for her, Reason wasn’t just a tool her intellect deployed. Rather, she felt, lived, and experienced her own thinking as a communion with the spiritual realm. Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising to us–after all, she was a visionary, and we expect such extraordinary experiences from mystics. However, what’s interesting is that she clearly expects her audience, to some degree, to be able to follow her. She expects them to experience, in some real sense, their own Reason as an active, living, “flow” of God. She expects them to actually participate in divine Reason. (10)
This is not, to say the least, how we usually experience our own intellectual activity on a day-to-day basis in the 21st century. As Nietzsche famously announced, God is dead and we killed him. It’s hard for any of us these days to think of our own thinking activity as something that connects us to God, much less as God him/herself at work in us.
As always, the philosopher and founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, had something to say about this matter. (Is there anything the man didn’t weigh in on?) In effect, Steiner took Nietzsche’s observation one step further, pointing out that the way in which our minds now work, the very way we cognate, no longer allows us to participate in this living, spiritual flow unless we take extra steps to overcome the subject/object divide that is built into our current mode of cognition.
That’s a tad dense, so let me unpack it for you a bit. Steiner’s idea was that the way the modern post-enlightenment mind thinks presupposes a divide between observer and observed; this, he held, has not always been the case for all humans in all times and places. I would point out that Hildegard’s work is one of those places where we can see the rift between earlier modes of consciousness and our own. Her expectation that her audience will be able to experience their own cognition as an inflowing of the Divine is fundamentally foreign to our own experience of our thinking activity.
What Steiner offers us, though, is a little glimmer of hope. Rather than throwing up his hands and bewailing the fact that we can no longer experience our own thinking as a Divine inflowing, he, first of all, notes a few places where we DO have access to forms of non-dualistic thinking–poetic and artistic inspiration being paramount among them. He then also offers us the insight that all our thinking is, when you get down to it, non-dualistic. We cannot understand ourselves as a separate subject without thinking; in order to even perceive ourselves as the subject who is thinking about that object (or idea) over there, we already have to be thinking. So thinking, in effect, gives rise to both subject and object. It exists prior to or outside of the dualistic realm. As such, Steiner argues, it can therefore can be understood to be a fundamentally spiritual activity. (11)
And this is where I think Steiner and Hildegard would find themselves in agreement: it is not so much the ideas (nouns) that result from thinking that bring us closer to the Divine; it is the act of thinking (verb) itself that is an experience of the Divine. Whether you are thinking about God or thinking about those delicious donuts sitting on the table in front of you, your act of thinking is what connects you to the spiritual realm, not the content of your thoughts. (12)
The question, to my mind, that both of them raise for us is this: once we see how the very activity of our thinking connects us to the Divine, how do we choose to use or develop our cognition? Should we continue to go around as usual, thinking about ourselves (nouns) and the stuff or people around us (nouns), as though the dualistic mirage is the truth? Or do we choose to develop that side of ourselves that can always remain alert to the fact that what is transpiring at any moment is, in fact, a verb? A you-ing and me-ing and God-ing (and even donut-ing) that is fundamentally beyond subject and object.
Steiner, of course, had an answer. He said that we should engage in those activities–art, poetry, music, meditation, close observation of nature–that are most likely to help us surmount that subject/object divide. With practice, he held, the type of intuitive thinking that characterizes those activities will become more habitual, and in fact, may lead us to higher forms of cognition that we normally plaster over with all our dualistic nonsense. (Well, he didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but that’s what he meant.) And if we look at Hildegard’s own life, we can see that she spent it doing precisely those things Steiner identifies as exemplary of non-dualistic intuitive thinking: composing breathtakingly beautiful music, writing poetry and dramas, illustrating her visions, meditating and praying, examining the herbs and natural remedies around her and writing extensive treatises on them. In fact, you couldn’t really imagine a better poster-child for Steiner’s program–not even Steiner himself.
And that, my Waldorf-inspired friends, is why it behooves each and every one of us to learn about and teach Hildegard every chance we get. ‘Nuff said.
(1) Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. pp.69-70. I should note here that in using Cooper’s work, I’m not suggesting that there’s a direct link between Hildegard and Kabbala (though the thought is interesting, given the time period she’s writing and the possible theological works to which she might have been exposed). Rather, I’m using Cooper because I’ve found his description of God as verb the easiest to understand and most clearly written. I think his discussion of Kabbalist understandings of the Divine helps illuminate both Hildegard’s work and Steiner’s. For more on Hildegard von Bingen, other medieval Christian writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux (with whom we know she corresponded), and Kabbalah, see Peter Shäfer, Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to Early Kabbalah. New York: Princeton University Press, 2004. And of course, I can’t end this note without mentioning that the original statement “God is a verb” seems to have been made by Buckminster Fuller in 1963, in his book No More Secondhand God. I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with Kabbalah and/or other forms of medieval mysticism, though the fact that he was a Unitarian and the grandson of the major transcendentalist figure Margaret Fuller opens up the possibility that he might have been familiar with these or other similar ideas.
2) Hildegard von Bingen, Physica, pdf, pg. 164. You can find it online here.
3) Indeed, you do sometimes see viriditas translated simply as “greening,” though most translators put another word like, “power” or “force” on the end, in order to be consistent with the original Latin form. However, I think that it’s precisely this impulse to make viriditas into a “thing” (i.e. a noun) that makes it so difficult to grapple with what Hildegard trying to say. If we were to translate viriditas as a gerund (that funny grammatical construction that hovers in the realm between verb and noun, as in “I enjoy playing football”), it might be easier to get at what she’s trying to describe.
4) By “The Word,” of course, Hildegard is referring back to the beginning of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”). The history of the complex theological relationship between the Word, Wisdom, and the other parts of the Trinity is way too complicated to go into here, since attempting to relate Wisdom (usually, for linguistic reasons, depicted as feminine) to the Godhead has always been a potentially incendiary topic. One brief example will have to suffice: my former professor (and Syriac scholar) Susan Ashbrook Harvey once told me that the original Syriac feminine ending for “Holy Spirit” had been expunged at a certain point in late antiquity, thereby complicating further efforts to relate this aspect of the Trinity to Wisdom (which is feminine in both the Greek and Latin, as well as the Syriac). Apparently, a wise, female Holy Ghost was just too much for the Syriac fathers to take.
In Hildegard’s case, she seems to move between the Son/Word, the Holy Spirit, and Wisdom rather fluidly, a fact that has made her somewhat of a darling of contemporary feminist theologians. Hildegard plays pretty fast and loose with her terminology, though, sometimes even seeming to equate the Holy Spirit and Wisdom with the Virgin, thereby opening up some interesting theological possibilities for how the Virgin participates in the life of the Trinity. For instance, compare these three brief passages from her songs: Hildegard on Wisdom in O Virtus Sapientiae: “O moving force of Wisdom, encircling the wheel of the cosmos/ Encompassing all that is, all that has life, in one vast circle….” Hildegard on the Holy Spirit in her song O Spiritu Sancto: “Holy Spirit, making life alive, moving in all things, root of all creating being…”. And then, to Mary in De Sancta Maria: “Hail to you, O greenest (viridissima) branch! You budded forth amidst breezes and winds in search of the knowledge of all that is holy…Because of you, the heavens give dew to the grass, the whole Earth rejoices, Abundance of grain comes from Earth’s womb….” I’d argue that Hildegard is not trying to be systematic here in the way modern theologians (feminist or otherwise) might want her to be: rather, she is trying to capture something that inheres in all these different understandings of God–namely, the flow of divinity that is constantly creating and sustaining the universe.
5) Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, Vision 1:2. p. 10. ed. Matthew Fox. trans. Richard Cunningham. Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1987.
6) In formulating her theology, Hildegard probably drew on ideas of Reason popularized by the late Roman Christian philosopher Boethius, whose work On the Consolations of Philosophy was beginning to be circulated more widely in her time. Boethius was very influential among later mystical writers, who used his differentiation of intellect (intellectus) and reason (ratio) in order to better explain their experiences. She may be leading the pack here, though. Other great thinkers who took up Boethius’ ideas about Reason during this time were mostly associated with the (heavily neo-Platonist) cathedral school at Chartres–Gilbert of La Porrée, Thierry of Chartres, and Richard of Saint-Victor. The latter wrote extensively on mystical experience and reason, and he was writing at the same time as Hildegard. This is a rare case where the work of a female writer is much better known and explicated than that of her male contemporaries–probably precisely because her writings were not nearly as (let’s face it, boys) mind-numbingly dull. For more on twelfth century notions of reason, M-D Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Tweltfth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. pp. 75ff. Chenu also has a fascinating account of the Hermetic and Muslim sources of neo-Platonism–raising a whole other set of questions about the various streams that flow together to inform Hildegard’s work.
7) Divine Works, Vision 1:2. Fox, p. 11.
8) Divine Works, Vision 10:2. Fox, p. 224.
9) It’s important, as I hinted above, to differentiate Hildegard’s view of Reason from Enlightenment understandings of reason as a critical intellectual tool. Back in Hildegard’s time, we’re not only pre-Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), but over 100 years prior to Thomas Aquinas and the revival of Aristotelian philosophy. The Deists and other Enlightenment fans of reason are a good 600 years later. Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers tend to deploy reason as a tool that “I” (the subject/noun) can use for determining whether or not God (another noun) exists, Hildegard experiences Reason as a flow of “God-ing.” This shift from an imminent spiritual Presence to the centrality of a separate human “self” is one of the defining moments in the evolution of consciousness.
(10) Anyone familiar with the work of Owen Barfield can see here that I’m plainly and unabashedly stealing his language to describe Hildegard’s experience. Barfield coined the incredibly illuminating and helpful term “participation” to describe the state of consciousness in which “self and non-self are identified in the same moment of existence.” (Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1965. p 32, note 1.) Barfield argues that for modern humans, this form of perception that is “nearer to unity than dichotomy” is fairly rare–he gives the examples of “semi-subjective” realms such as intuition, panic, or irresistible semi-conscious urges (e.g. sexual drive) as the few places in which we still experience ourselves to be under the influence of some power external to ourselves, and yet simultaneously wholly a part of us. On the other hand, he notes that linguistic and cultural evidence reveals that humans in earlier eras experienced this feeling of unity with the exterior world on a regular basis–indeed, for much of history, humanity seems to have experienced the world with precisely this form of monistic consciousness. If you’re interested in delving further into Barfield’s insights, his seminal work Saving the Appearances is probably the best place to start. The Owen Barfield Society also provides helpful links to many resources on Barfield’s work.
11) Steiner’s views on cognition are pretty heavy philosophical stuff. If you’d like to delve deeper into his understanding of thinking as a fundamentally non-dualistic, spiritual experience, his very dense, but extremely enlightening book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path is the best place to start. If you’d prefer something a little less, shall we say, abstruse, Owen Barfield’s book Romanticism Comes of Age picks up many of the same ideas, but is a much easier read.
12) Interestingly, Steiner only mentions Hildegard explicitly once, as far as I can tell–in his fourth lecture on “Man in the Light of Occultism, Philosophy, and Theology,” (given in 1912) where he gives an account of the different types of mystics. He doesn’t really describe the content of any of her work (though it’s obvious he must have read her in order to be able to place her within a continuum of different types of mysticism). What little he says is not terribly flattering: he says she has “good and beautiful impulses but…also a considerable measure of ordinary earthly instinct and desire, and this taints [her] mystical feelings and perceptions.” (Access the online version of the lecture here.) He then goes on to compare Hildegard unfavorably to Mechthild of Magdeburg, a later female mystic, whom Steiner believes “expresses herself always with a certain touch of humor.” The irony of this criticism is that it comes from a man who, though apparently jovial enough in person, left a body of scholarship which is rather heavy and often difficult to read, to put it mildly. Steiner wrote that at least some of his own works were meant to be difficult to penetrate, the idea being that the individual had to wrestle with the ideas in such a way as to spur them beyond usual categories of thought. As I’ve said in previous posts, I wonder if Hildegard’s shifting vocabulary and enormous body of work are attempts to do much the same thing.
I should mention, though, that there is one other place where some people believe Steiner was referencing Hildegard–in a passage from 1924 where he links an unnamed medieval female “visionary…who unfolded truly wonderful insight into the spiritual world.” He notes that this unnamed nun had no outward conflicts with orthodox Christianity, but that later, her brand of “deeply personal Christianity” found no place in received Catholic tradition. He then links this female mystic’s oeuvre with that of Vladimir Solovyov, a late nineteenth-century Russian mystic who experienced profound visions of Sophia (Divine Wisdom). Given the very brief description provided by Steiner in the text, his unnamed nun certainly could be Hildegard; but then again, his words could also apply to any number of other medieval female mystics, not the least of whom is Julian of Norwich. I think it is therefore difficult to say for certain whether he was revising his earlier assessment of Hildegard or whether he had in mind a different medieval visionary entirely. In any case, I think that once you read both Steiner and Hildegard closely, it’s obvious that there is a true affinity between them–not only in the content of their thought, but in the way in which they lived their lives as mystic polymaths whose spiritual experiences in no way excluded them from a full immersion in all the problems and activities of this world.