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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Caritas, Humilitas, and Pax: Theophany of the Fountain in St. Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Divinorum Operum III.3

Liber Divinorum Operum III.3:
Theophany of Caritas, Humilitas,
& Pax in the fountain.
(From the Lucca MS)

As we celebrate this weekend St. Hildegard of Bingen’s declaration as a Doctor of the Church, we should reflect on how Hildegard understood her theological vocation to be rooted in the self-revelatory relationship between God and Creation.  I have chosen to translate below one of the visions from Hildegard’s last and greatest work, the Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), in which she offers just such a meditation.  In this work, Hildegard returns to the history of salvation that formed the structure of her first work, Scivias—but this time, prompted by an extraordinary experience of the divine in the early 1160’s, she envisions and explores it through the dynamic relationship between human and divine.

Like the third part of Scivias, the third part of the Liber Divinorum Operum (LDO) is built upon a vision of a great edifice; in the LDO, the building expresses the dynamic of salvation history through the eternal predestination of the Word.[1]  An often minority tradition within western Christianity, this doctrine views the Incarnation not just a reparation for sin (as St. Anselm famously formulated it in Cur Deus Homo), but more as a fundamental and “eternal counsel” (Ps. 32(33):11) of the divine will: God would have become a human even if humans had not sinned.

In the following vision, Caritas (Divine Love) is one manifestation of the eternal counsel.  As she speaks from her place rooted in the fountain, she reveals in a cascade of images and symbols “that creation is itself theophany: in the utterance of the Word, divine Love gives life to the forms that have always glimmered in her unseen mirror.”[2]  This creative theophany of Love can be understood as the very substance of divine grace, divinizing humanity in the overshadowing of its self-gift.  The images of water and fire, shadow and light, of the life-giving tree of love, and of spoken and written language, coalesce not as a coherent picture but as “successive flashes of perception” whose “sheer abundance…attempts to convey the plenitude of being that creatures possess in God.”[3]

Liber Divinorum Operum, Part III, Vision 3[4]

I. And I saw as it were three images in the middle of the southern stretch [of the edifice]. Two were standing in the clearest fountain, whose rim was topped all around with a perforated stone wall; and they appeared rooted in it, as when trees sometimes seem to grow in the water’s midst.  The one was dressed in purple, the other in white, and they gleamed so brightly that I could not completely look upon them.  The third was standing outside the fountain upon the stone rim and wore a garment of white.  Her face shone with such stark radiance that it caused my face to turn away.  And before these images appeared the blessed ranks of the saints like a cloud, upon whom they gazed lovingly.

II. And the first image spoke: “I am Divine Love [Caritas], the radiance of the living God. Wisdom [Sapientia] has done her work with me, and Humility, who is rooted in the living fountain, is my helper, and Peace accompanies her.  And through that radiance that I am, the living light of the blessed angels blazes.  For just as a ray of light shines from its source, so this brilliance enlightens the blessed angels; and it cannot but shine, since no light can exist without radiance.  For I have written humanity, who was rooted in me like a shadow, just as an object’s reflection is seen in water.  Thus it is that I am the living fountain, because all creation existed in me like a shadow.  In accordance with this reflected shadow, humankind was created with fire and water, just as I, too, am fire and living water.  For this reason also, humans have the ability in their souls to set each thing in order as they will.

“Indeed, every creature possesses this reflected shadow, and that which gives each creature life is like a shadow, moving this way and that.  In rational animals, these are thoughts, but not in beasts, for their life is guided only by their senses, by which they know what to avoid and what to seek.  But only the soul, breathed by God, is rational.

“My glorious radiance overshadowed the prophets, who foretold things to come by holy inspiration, just as all things that God wished to make were first foreshadowed in him.  But Reason [rationalitas] speaks with sound, and sound is like thought, and word like work.  Thus, from the shadow came forth the writing of Scivias, through the form of a woman who was but a shadow of strength and health, since such powers did no work in her.

“And so the living fountain is the Spirit of God, which he distributes unto all of his works.  They live because of him and have vitality through him, just as the reflection of all things appears in water.  And there is nothing that can clearly see this source of its life, for it can only sense that which causes it to move.  Just as water makes that which is in it to flow, so also the soul is the living breath that always pours forth in a human being and makes him to know, to think, to speak, and to work by streaming forth.

“Wisdom also distributes in this reflected shadow all things in equal measure, so that one thing should not exceed another in weight, nor should one thing be able to move another contrary to its nature.  For she overcomes and restrains every wicked plot of the devil, because she existed before all evils began and after their ending she shall remain, strong in her own power, and nothing can stand against her.  She has never called upon any for help, nor has she lacked for anything, for she is the first and the last.  She answers to none, for she is the first and fashioned the direction of all things.  In and through herself she established all things with gentle kindness, and these no enemy can destroy, for she oversees with excellence the beginning and the end of her works.  She composed them completely so that all things might also reign in her.

“She also looked upon her work, which she had set in order and right proportion in the shadow of the living water, when through the aforementioned unlearned womanly form [i.e. Hildegard], she revealed certain natural powers of various things [an allusion to Hildegard’s scientific and medicinal writings], the writing of the [Book] of the Rewards of Life, and many other profound mysteries, which [Hildegard] saw in true vision [in vera visione], even as she became weak and debilitated.

“But before all of these things, Wisdom drew from the living fountain the words of the prophets and the words of other wise people and of the Gospels, and she entrusted them to the disciples of the Son of God.  This she did so that the rivers of living water might flow out through them into the entire world, that they might return humanity like fish caught in a net to salvation.

“Indeed, the leaping fountain is the purity of the living God, and in it shines his radiant glory.  In that splendor God embraces all things with great love [cum magno amore], for their shadow appeared, reflected in the leaping fountain before God bade them to come forth in their forms.

“And in me, Divine Love, all things shine resplendently, and my splendor reveals the form of creation just as a shadow indicates the form [of its object], and in Humility, my helper, creation goes forth at God’s bidding.  Likewise in humility, God bowed down to me, so that he might refresh those dried-out, fallen leaves in that blessedness by which he can do all things that he wishes.  For he had formed them from the earth, and thus he has also freed them after their fall.

“For humankind is fully the creation of God, for humans look upon the heavens and tread upon the earth that they command, and rule over all the creatures, because they gaze upon the height of heaven in their souls.  This is why humans are heavenly beings in their souls, but earthly in their visible bodies.  Thus God draws up humanity as it lies in the depths of humility against him who was cast out of heaven in confusion.  For when the ancient serpent wished through pride to tear apart the harmony of the angels, God preserved that harmony with the strength of his power, so that it would not be torn to shreds by that one’s madness.  For because Satan held a place of great glory on high, he reckoned to himself that he could do anything he wished, and that by doing so he could have everything he wanted without diminishing the glory of the stars.  But in coveting all things, he lost everything that he had.”

III. And again I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, “All that God has done, he has perfected in Divine Love, in Humility, and in Peace, so that humans, too, should lovingly desire Divine Love and embrace Humility and hold also onto Peace, and should not go to ruin with him who mocked these virtues in his first origins.

For you see as it were three images in the middle of the southern stretch [of the edifice]. Two are standing in the clearest fountain, whose rim is topped all around with a perforated stone wall; and they appear rooted in it, as when trees sometimes seem to grow in the water’s midst.  These three virtues in the strength of ardent justice are in the name of the Holy Trinity: first Divine Love, second Humility, third Peace.  Indeed, Divine Love and Humility exist in the purest divinity, from which the streams of blessedness flow, for these two virtues reveal that the only Son of God is known far and wide throughout the whole world, in order to free and set aright humanity, which lay oppressed in the depths of sin.  For his body, which was perforated upon the cross and buried, he raised up by the wondrous power of the divinity and revealed himself to be the jewel of strength and honor—indeed, all of the miracles which the Son of God did in the world he returned to the glory of his Father.  These same virtues cannot be separated from the divinity, as a root cannot be cut away from its tree.  For God is Love (Deus caritas existens) in all of his works, and holds to humility in all of his judgments.  Divine Love and Humility came down to earth with the Son of God and led him back as he returned to heaven.

The one is dressed in purple, the other in white, and they gleam so brightly that you are not able completely to look upon them. This shows that Divine Love burns in heavenly love like purple, but that Humility casts off from herself earthly filth in exchange for gleaming white rectitude.  Although it may be difficult for mortal humans to imitate this in all things while they live in the flesh, they should not neglect to love God above all things and to remain humble in all things, because of the reward of eternity.

The third stands outside the fountain upon the stone rim.  This is because Peace, who remains in heaven, also defends earthly undertakings, which are outside the heavenly realm.  For the Son of God, who is the true corner stone (cf. Ephesians 2:20), brought her [with him] when he enlightened the whole world with his birth, and when the angels recognized him as God and Man in their song of praise (cf. Luke 2:9-14).

Her face shines with such stark radiance that it causes your face to turn away. For Peace, who arose through the Son of God, cannot yet be grasped on earth as she is in heaven, for though heavenly things exist forever in the stability of one mind, earthly things are constantly changing, cast here and there as they stagger about.  Yet humans, who are the Work of God, shall praise him, for the human soul was made to praise like an angel.  While humans live in the world, they till the earth as they wish and desire, and in this way they reveal God, for he has assigned them to this task.

And before these images appear the blessed ranks of the saints like in a cloud, upon whom they gaze lovingly. For the glory of the highest heaven is achieved through Divine Love and Humility when the minds of the faithful fly like clouds from virtue unto virtue.   Then Divine Love and Humility, looking upon them with loving consideration and guidance, set them alight both vigorously and gently to desire the things of heaven.  For Divine Love adorns the works of God, just as a ring is adorned with a precious gem; and Humility has revealed herself openly in the humanity of the Son of God, who arose from the undefiled Star of the Sea.

He did not fear the fall of the first humans, nor did their expulsion frighten him, for no sin touched him, because he was completely rooted in the divinity.  But some who saw him and went with him dried up and fell like parched leaves.  Yet he made others to spring up in their place, for he followed no human plan to overcome his enemies, who had fallen from him by their own will.  But he also was not idle, in contrast to the first human, who fell away, unoccupied by good works, for he came to renew humanity for a life better than what they had at first.  He did not relax in the seat of pride as did the devil, who deceived humankind with the disease of disobedience; nor did he fear his reception by humans, because he foreknew that his head must be crushed by their mighty strength.  Thus he adorned and endowed the Church with these [three] virtues as he lead her into the King’s bedchamber, as is written:

IV. “The queen stood at your right hand, in clothes of gold surrounded by variety.” (Ps. 44(45):10(9)) The meaning of this passage is to be taken in this way: O Son of the Father, in the betrothal of the catholic faith the Church stood in the prosperity of heavenly desire, endowed with your humanity, which was bathed by the redness of your blood.  She also is girded with the many virtues that were brought from the house of your Father when she came into the embrace of your love.  Indeed, this betrothal came forth by the will of Almighty God, who perfected it with a resplendent work when he brought together humankind from the height even unto the depth.  He adorned her with the cloak of justice, when the Son of God willed to suffer in the flesh for the redemption of humanity.

For humanity is the work of the right hand of God, by which it is clothed and called to the royal wedding feast that humility prepared when God the Highest looked out into the depths of the earth and gathered the Church together out of the common people.  Humanity is adorned with a variety of virtues as with the viridity of flowers, so that those who had fallen might rise again through repentance and be renewed in a holy way of life.  Pride, however, always corrupts, because it squeezes, divides, and tears apart everything.  But Humility neither seizes nor tears apart anything, but holds all things together in Divine Love.  In her God bends himself towards the earth and through her he gathers together every virtue.  For the virtues reach out towards the Son of God, just as a virgin, by rejecting the suits of men, declares Christ her Bridegroom; and they are joined to Humility when she leads them to the royal wedding feast.

The faithful should receive these words with devout affection of the heart, for they have been revealed for the usefulness of believers by the One who is the first and the last.

[1] See Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987 / 1997), 55-64. 
[2] Ibid., 52. 
[3] Ibid., 54-5. 
[4] Translated from the critical edition of Hildegard’s Liber Divinorum Operum, ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis 92 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996).  Barbara Newman analyzes this vision in Sister of Wisdom, 52-5. 

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