“Love” today is often primarily understood to signify a passionate, sensual, or even creative feeling; when we think upon it further, we may discover deeper levels of connotation, but they still fall distinctly into the emotional, affective range—what we might call a “right-brained” conception of love rooted in the heart. This is the love that we often see at the center of human interaction, that indescribable and powerful connection that binds one human being to another—the love of neighbor enjoined in the Gospel. As Christians, we see the pinnacle of this Love expressed in the passion and death of Jesus on the Cross—an outpouring of Love in the most anguished moments of human pain and suffering, the humanity of Jesus in its sharpest and most brutal detail. On the other hand, we have the “first and great commandment” to love God with every fiber of our being—agape in Greek, caritas in Latin, from whence derives the English word “charity”. This is that Love that John identifies with God (1 John 4:16), whose pinnacle we also find in Jesus the Son of God, His Logos or Word. This is rational, intellectual Love—what we might call “left-brained” love rooted in the mind—and is often expressed by us in our love of learning, our “philosophy” or “Love of Wisdom.”
These two aspects of Love—the passionate, creative “right-brained” love and the logical, intellective “left-brained” love—rarely find themselves examined, understood, or even imagined together in our modern discourse; indeed, one might even say that they are seen not as two aspects of one Love but as two distinct types of love. When a man has fallen head-over-heels for his soul-mate, we rarely picture him exercising his rational and intellectual faculties in expressing his love for her; and when we imagine the philosopher sitting in his ivory tower contemplating the mysteries of the universe, it would seem almost absurd to think of him seething with fiery passion and uncontrollable sensuality. Because we see both of these aspects of Love embodied and fulfilled in Jesus, our supreme and perfect role model, it follows that we should be able not only to hold the two concepts together, but also to practice them utterly intertwined. But we don’t, even when contemplating Jesus as the paradigm of this Love: the Jesus we see in the prologue to John’s Gospel—the Word in the beginning with God—is, to our frail minds, at a great conceptual distance from the man we see scourged at the pillar and hung upon the Cross, His very flesh pierced by iron nails. What we lack is a vision of Love that can hold these two very different aspects together, uniting passion to reason, the mind to the heart.
The attempt to sketch such a vision has held the attention of thinkers in the West since at least the time of Plato, who sought to examine the concept of Love in his dialogue, the Symposium; to cite only one recent and notable attempt, I would point you to Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Today, I would like to examine one of the most remarkable visions of Love that I have come across in the two-and-a-half millennia stretching from Plato to Benedict, offered by the 12th-century visionary abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Shortly before her death in 1179 at the age of 81, Hildegard described to her secretary, Guibert of Gembloux, the process by which she had experienced visions since her childhood. She did not suffer from ecstasy, she said, but saw all before her in her waking moments: yet it was not with the eyes of her body, but with the eyes of her soul that she experienced the umbra viventis lucis, the shadow or reflection of the Living Light. After publishing the Scivias, the first volume of her massive visionary trilogy, in 1151, Hildegard became an instant celebrity. Her visionary and prophetic powers, certified by Pope Eugenius III, made her a figure of wide renown and, most incredibly for a woman of that time, authority. She corresponded with other abbots and abbesses, and with popes, kings, and even the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa himself. At the age of 60 she embarked on the first of four preaching journeys. In addition to her great visionary writings, she composed numerous pieces of chant music and wrote several works on natural medicine and cures.
This may, in fact, not be the first time you have heard of her, for in our own time, Hildegard has again become quite the celebrity. Homeopathic medicine has embraced her for her knowledge of natural remedies, while New Age spirituality finds expression in the soaring melodies of her chant, and feminist movements have vaunted her for her “theology of the feminine” and as a great monument to the power of the feminine in an age of misogyny. Unfortunately, each of these appropriations of Hildegard by the modern world has tried to tear her from her own context and place her in its own, often distorting her thought to fit some modern agenda. Yet, we should not be deterred from letting the monumental power of Hildegard’s visionary genius speak to us, for I think there is much in her unique mode of seeing that could benefit us in our search for an integrated vision of Love.
The figure of Caritas or Divine Love is the central character in the vision that begins Hildegard’s last great work, the Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), and she returns again and again throughout the other nine visions of the book, intertwined with the visions and allegories and figures that populate this grand, unified presentation of the history of salvation and the place of the human being within it. In an autobiographical passage, Hildegard tells us that the first indications of what was to become this massive edifice came to her in a vision meditating on the prologue of John’s Gospel:
At last in the time that followed I saw a mystic and wondrous vision (…). And from God’s inspiration as it were drops of gentle rain splashed into the knowledge of my soul, even as the Holy Spirit imbued John the Evangelist, when he sucked the deepest revelation from Jesus’ breast. At this his sense-perception was so touched by holy divinity that he laid open hidden mysteries and works, saying “In the beginning was the Word” and all that follows. For the Word which was without beginning, before creatures, and shall be after them without end, commanded all creatures to come forth, and produced its handiwork in the likeness of that command—as a craftsman makes his handiwork gleam—because what is in its predestination before the world now appeared. So man, with every creature, is the handiwork of God. But man is also the worker of divinity and the shadowing of the mysteries of divine being; and in all things he whom God made in accordance with His image and likeness must reveal the holy Trinity.(1)
As we can see from this description, even before Hildegard received the vision of Caritas that I will soon relate, she already perceived in the description of the Word by John the unity of rationality and creativity essential to the creation of the world; and furthermore, the special place of man within that creation as the microcosm of all creation, the mirror of the divine by virtue of being the image and likeness of God.
But to come to the vision of Love itself, which I have in the title of this essay called a “theophany”, that is, an appearance and revelation of the divine; as you will see, Hildegard takes the words from the First Letter of John—which we can see still fascinate, as indicated by Pope Benedict’s use of the them to title his own encyclical—quite literally and to their fullest extension: God and Love appear as identical. This is an illustration of the vision, from the Lucca manuscript of the Liber Divinorum Operum, which, though produced several decades after Hildegard’s death, probably preserves illustrations made under her guidance. She describes the vision thus:
And I saw as it were in the southern sky an image, beautiful and wonderful in the mystery of God, like the form of a human, whose face was of such beauty and clarity that I would easier look at the sun than at it; and a great circlet of golden colour surrounded its head. Above that head, moreover, in the same circlet, another face appeared like an old man, whose chin and beard touched the crown of the [lower] head. And from each side of its neck a single wing appeared, which rising up joined together above the aforementioned circlet. At the far point in the arc of the right wing I saw as it were the head of an eagle, which had eyes of fire, in which appeared the brilliance of the angels as in a mirror. But in the far point of the arc of the left wing there was as it were a human face, which shined like the radiance of the stars. And these faces were turned to the east. But also from each shoulder of this image a wing stretched forth down to its knees. It was clothed in a tunic like to the brilliance of the sun; and in its hands it held a lamb, shining like the light of day. The image was, moreover, treading with her feet a monster of horrible form, venomous and black in colour, and a certain serpent, which had fixed its mouth upon the right ear of the monster and, curving the rest of its body around the monster’s head, had stretched out his tail down the right side of the monster to its feet. (LDO I.I.1)
As you can see, this is a vision of cosmic proportions, enigmatic and even frightening in its details; we can pick out pieces here and there that recall biblical images: the face of the old man as the Ancient of Days, the lamb the image holds in its hands, the wings of the figure like the wings of the seraph, and perhaps the most prominent, the image treading upon the snake and clad with clothing “like to the brilliance of the sun”—calling to mind immediately the apocalyptic “woman clothed with the sun”, like this one from a manuscript produced almost contemporaneously with Hildegard’s vision under the direction of Herrad, abbess of Hohenbourg, an Augustinian community near Strasbourg (fol. 261v). Yet, for all of these reminiscences, the meaning of the vision remains just outside our grasp as it darts from point to point, alighting for a moment in one place before flitting off to another. But then, Hildegard hears the image speak:
I am the supreme and fiery force, who sets all living sparks alight and breaths forth no mortal things, but judges them as they are. Flying around the circling circle with my upper wings, that is, with wisdom, I have ordered all things rightly. But I am also the fiery life of the essence of divinity; I flame above the beauty of the fields and I shine in the waters and I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars. And with the airy wind I rouse all things living with some invisible life, which sustains all things. For the air lives in fresh greenness and in the flowers, the waters flow as if they are alive, and the sun lives in its own light; and when the moon comes to its setting, it is kindled by the light of the sun so that it might as it were live anew; and the stars become bright and clear by living as it were in their own light. I have also established the pillars that contain the whole wide world, that is, the winds (…)
Therefore I, the fiery force, lie hidden in these things, and they blaze because of me, just as breath continually moves a human being and as a flickering flame exists within the fire. All of these things live in their essence and are not found in death, because I am life. I am also rationality, possessing the wind of the sounding Word, through which every created thing was made; and in all these things I blow, so that none of them might be in its nature mortal, because I am life. For I am life, pure and whole, which was not hewn from stone, neither blossomed from branches nor took root from man’s sexual power; but every living thing has taken root in me. For rationality is the root, and the sounding Word flourishes in it. (…)
But I also fulfil my office, since all living things are set ablaze from me; and I am uniform life in eternity, for neither have I arisen nor shall I come to an end. God is this life, working and moving itself, and yet this life is one in three forces. Therefore Eternity is called the Father, the Word is called the Son, and the breath connecting these two is called the Holy Spirit, just as God is also signified in man, in whom are body, soul, and rationality. Moreover, that I flame above the beauty of the fields, this is the earth, which is that material from which God made man; and that I shine in the waters, this is according to the soul, since just as water floods the whole earth, so the soul permeates the whole body. But that I burn in the sun and in the moon, this is rationality, and the countless stars are the words of rationality. And that with the airy wind I rouse all things living with some invisible life, which sustains all things, this because those vegetative things that grow incrementally subsist by the wind and the air, removed from nothing in that which they are. (LDO I.I.2)
As you can see, the words of the image become even more enigmatic than the description of the vision. She moves effortlessly from metaphor to metaphor, from one image to the next, never stopping in any one place long, yet often circling back around from a new direction. From this strange image of a woman shining with intense light, winged, crowned with the visage of an old man, and treading upon a monster and a serpent, Hildegard—or the voice of the Living Light speaking to her in her vision—constructs a vast and wide-ranging narrative, often more circular than linear, of the great drama of salvation history. And at center-stage of this drama is this figure of Caritas—Divine Love. She speaks to us in a jumble of different images, and identifies herself in a panoply of metaphors, some drawn from Scripture, some seemingly innovative, but all repeating again and again the formula of Exodus 3:14—“I AM…”
And who is this figure of Divine Love? She is the supreme and fiery force, the fiery life of the essence of divinity; she is life, pure and complete, and she is rationality, possessing the wind of the sounding Word and living as the root of all life. She is reflected in the fields and in the waters, and burns in the sun and moon and stars, and upholds the mighty winds. Yet, in a microcosm of this vast creation, she is reflected and fires the body, soul, and mind of man. In this flood of her words we see her at one time as the passionate, creative, fiery force driving the living forces of all creation; and at another we see her as the rationality of the Word of God, the Logos, that enforms and enlivens the human mind, the thought of God exercised in the thought of man.
Whereas in the beginning of this essay we were faced with the division between these modes of Love—fiery passion versus cerebral reason—we are now faced with a volatile whirlwind that seems to juggle so many different, contrasting, and even paradoxical images, keeping all of them in the air at once and letting none fall to the floor. On the one hand, it seems disordered, chaotic, even nonsensical—how are we to navigate such stormy waters as this jumble and juxtaposition of visionary moments? Yet, within the chaos we begin to discern order—but not order as we would have it in our everyday lives; no, in her inimitable and fascinating visionary style, Hildegard has succeeded in offering a glimpse, rarely in focus and always on the verge of slipping away, teetering on the edge of falling into the abyss, of an order that transcends any notion of order that our feeble minds can grasp. She achieves what Goethe called “true symbolism”—“the living momentary revelation of what is unanalysable.”(2) This, then, is the type of vision of Divine Love that I think might benefit us as we struggle in this modern world—a vision that leaves the confines of the strictly animalistic, the strictly rational, the strictly human, in order to fly away upward, striving to reach the heights of heaven where True Love dwells, from which seat can be glimpsed again what is truly creative, truly rational, truly human.Notes
(1) Cited by Peter Dronke, “Introduction”, in CCCM 92 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996), ix.
(2) Cited by Peter Dronke in “Arbor Caritatis,” in Medieval Studies for J.A.W. Bennet, ed. P.L. Heyworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), p. 209.
[N.B. This is modified from a presentation I gave at the 2009 Edith Stein Conference.]