In this little series on the mystics, my goal each week has been to hold up a particular gem of a Christian history to the light for closer examination. In doing so, we see both their exquisite beauty (why we read them) but also their flaws (how they can fall short), and even the awkwardness of how jewelers have set them (the questionable impact the church’s reception of them has been). And so in that spirit, this week I’d like to examine the challenging, and perhaps questionable, ways St. Hildegard of Bingen talks about herself. Where does humility end and pathology begin?
In Scivias (II.1), for example, she criticizes herself for her lack of formal education and calls herself “merely a too-sensitive, frail rib.” Elsewhere in the same writing, she picks up on the theme, with the Spirit calling her a “shame-filled, earth-shod woman, untaught and unlettered.” When commanded by God to speak, she answers “But I feel dirty inside …. I’m the least important person I know. I’m the lowest creature on earth. … I’m not worthy to be called human.” Perhaps most concerning to our ears, echoing the misogynistic dig about being a “frail rib,” Hildegard writes to St. Bernard: “I am wretched, and more than wretched in that I bear the name of woman.”
This self-deprecation, particularly the gendered parts of it, rings very off-key to our ears. The question we need to ask ourselves is to what extent the problem is with Hildegard’s self-image and how much is with our ears? Does her humility sound strange because we live in a narcissistic culture? Or has her language fallen into pathology?
There are five perspectives on this that can help contextualize her words: 1) convention; 2) performativity; 3) culture; 4) Hildegard’s theology; and 5) the mystical experience.
First of all, a humble rejection of God’s prophetic call is a part of most call narratives. Whether we understand this as a literary convention or as a legitimate human reaction to divine summons, or a mix of both, it is simply “how it’s done.” When God calls Moses, Moses declines several times, most memorably because he couldn’t speak clearly (Exodus 4.10). When God calls Isaiah, the prophet declares, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6.5). The prophet refuses the call out of humility, thereby demonstrating their worthiness to carry God’s message. This trope provides some context to St. Hildegard’s self-talk. And yet, her words have a nastier edge to them than most, and a negative attitude towards the self seems to be present throughout her writings and not just at the point of her call.
And so I have to wonder if she is in some way performing humility here. As a woman in her culture, she had “no right” to have a voice in the world of theology. And, as she claims to have received no formal education, she had “no business” standing shoulder to shoulder with the ‘great men’ of the universities. And so I wonder if by addressing these issues head on — by acknowledging that she knew she was hitting above her station — she might have been disarming her opponents, and trying to bring to her cause potential allies who might have been put off by her presumption.
This doesn’t mean that she didn’t believe what she said. The Middle Ages were rife with bad theology surrounding gender, with the whole 52% of humanity that womankind represents permanently bearing “the curse of Eve.” Even as strong and intelligent a woman as St. Hildegard would likely have taken these ideas and gender roles to be normative, even as she bucked against them. We are all, after all, women and men of our times and places. Our thoughts and imaginations are constrained by what we know. Similarly, she lived in an era when the Church was obsessed with human wickedness. And, since medieval Europe was an honour-shame culture, this fixation was often expressed in terms of dishonour, unworthiness and defilement, ways of speaking that sit very uncomfortably in our ears — and with good reason. (While it might be argued that we have gone too far the other way, I still maintain we have a robust idea of sin even if we don’t call it that.) But, again, for St. Hildegard, this was simply the language of human experience. And she was a woman of her times, just as we are women and men of ours. We can’t expect her to be anything else.
When I reflected on this the other week in the post on how to respond when people we respect do or say abhorrent things, I noted that what’s surprising and important is when people from other times, places, and cultures don’t sound like people of their cultures. And St. Hildegard is no exception. Throughout her work, she expresses a high view of humanity, one that is grounded far more in God’s good intentions in creation than in human sinfulness. Similarly, her willingness to use feminine imagery for God demonstrates that she doesn’t believe the female form to be incompatible with divinity. Furthermore, the words with which God responds to her self-deprecation also serve to balance it out: In one vision, God tells her “Remember you’ve been illuminated by My light. It ignites in you an inner sun, burning with divine mysteries and secrets. Don’t be timid” (Sciv II.1). She may not think she is of much worth, but God certainly does. And so we can read St. Hildegard against herself, placing her ‘negative self talk’ in the bigger context of her theology.
A final, and perhaps most important lens that helps to contextualize all this is the mystical experience itself. Mystics of all times and places agree that a direct encounter with God always demonstrates just now small and insignificant we are. Loved and precious certainly, but small and superfluous. Experiencing the infinite will do that. This brings us full circle, back to the first lens that humble self-deprecation is part of the form of prophetic call stories. If we truly meet God, the only genuine response is humility.
And so I think the lesson of St. Hildegard’s problematic language is similar to what this series has been saying from the beginning about the experience of God itself: Just as the experience of God is real — Good, True, and Beautiful — so too is the deep understanding of our smallness that comes from that experience. But just as our words can never accurately convey the Goodness, Truth, and Beauty of God, finite and contextual as our words and ideas are, so too must we take the language with which that sense of smallness — the genuine humility — is expressed with a fair bit of salt.
In the series last year on bearing good fruit, one of the major themes (based on the research of Martin Seligman) was the idea that any positive trait can become bad in its absence, in its opposite, or in its excess. This is true of humility as much as anything else. The language with which St. Hildegard expresses her humility should give us pause: that sort of self-rejection can be itself a form of narcissism just as much as bravado and hubris, since it too demonstrates an unhealthy fixation on the self.
And yet, despite this — even as we are rightly discomforted by her words — St. Hildegard’s humility is healthy inasmuch as it didn’t stop her. She may not have thought much about her abilities, but God did, and she believed God. She may have felt low, but God called her to the heights, and she rose to the occasion. God told her to speak, to shout, to sing what she saw, and she did it, despite her reservations. And that’s all any of us can do.