Posts Tagged ‘St. Hildegard’

Appreciating Our Teachers: St. Hildegard Von Bingen

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

My definition of ‘teacher’ has changed throughout my life. Instead of only finding my teachers in front of classrooms, I have found a teacher in almost everyone that I know. Sometimes people teach us because they have bold and remarkable skills. Other times it is with their simple and beautiful approaches to life. And still, in other instances, they teach us through both skill and inspiration. They exemplify the limitless bounds of the human experience and, at times, they defy the norm and are celebrated for it rather than feared.

St. Hildegard Von Bingen was, among other things, a Christian abbess in the 12th century Germany. I was raised without religion and throughout my life the people around me have often been critical of organized religion.While my upbringing did not encourage me to look for teachers within the Catholic faith I have recently started to look at faith itself as a teacher. In this respect I can find teachings echoing through every expression of religion that help me shape, broaden and embrace my own practices of faith. I have mostly come to believe that faith is love, yet saying only this risks being vague or abstract. Rather than explain what I think love means, or what faith means, I will try to share why a sainted German Catholic nun has become a source of inspiration to me and how I have come to see St. Hildegard as one of my teachers.

At first blush Hildegard is an inspiration because she had so many talents. She was a composer of devotional chants and musical plays, a writer, an herbalist and a healer, a visionary and a mystic. In recent times the New Age movement has heralded her for her holistic views on healing. She is celebrated for having incorporated faith, spirituality and the healing properties of objects in the natural world in her beliefs about health. She has also been analyzed by academics and feminists for her role as a woman with the status of visionary and mystic and for her work as a writer and philosopher in a time when females where seldom allowed to act as voices of authority on anything much less on religion. She is sometimes criticized by feminists for having referred to herself as ‘of the lower species’, claiming to be an unlearned woman. It is hard for me to fathom that she saw herself as such since a woman of her aptitude and skill would be valued as a highly intelligent individual today.

I suppose a feminist perspective fuels the first layer of my interest in Hildegard. I don’t want to get entangled in an analysis of gender and power within Germanic religious culture in the 12th century. I mostly find it resonant that she was able to exist in the manner that she did with the odds stacked against her as they where. I have always been interested in social justice and equality. At first I assumed she must have been subversive in the manner I am used to seeing, fighting against the status quo with both voice and action. But her perception of herself as a woman appeared to fall in line with the common ideas of the day.

Recently I have found I desire a new model for effectively creating social change than one that is always mired in fighting against something. This is where I have really come to find Hildegard as an inspiration. Her subversion was an act of love. Her self-perception, or at least the one she was said to have expressed, may have allowed her more freedom that someone in my shoes can relate to. In order to express her thoughts and ideas and to not have her visions diminished to hallucinations, she asserted that she was merely a voice, a conduit and a devotee that had been put to the task of sharing the beauty revealed to her by God. It wasn’t a product of her invention or intelligence but one of God’s. Her actions that went against the status quo where not divisive, they were devotional.

Because of my upbringing and education I am typically critical of religion, and in particular Christianity. I am wary of expressions of faith that are wrapped up in abiding by  social hierarchies and conformity. Hildegard retained a true passion for her faith without diminishing her experience of it in order to follow the social rules. In doing so she has left us a beautiful legacy through her writings and compositions.

In the practice of Yoga it is sometimes hard to grasp egoless-ness (anatman). It is also at times hard to understand how to change things while adhering to ahimsa, non-violence. It is challenging to approach our adversaries with compassion (Karuna) or equanimity (Upeksha). How do we create change without judgment? How do we express love to those who don’t know how to love us?  I am finding clearer answers in the examples I have seen of devotion and faith and the people that are now my teachers, like Hildegard, are showing me how, in both unmistakably bold and subtly gentle ways.

This is a recording of one of Hildegard’s compositions, performed by the Academic Choir of Copenhagen

Erin McNally is a Yoga teacher and is currently enrolled in advanced training at Karuna.