A letter from Hildegard of Bingen (1146-47)
0 venerable father Bernard, I lay my claim before you, for, highly honored by God, you bring fear to the immoral foolishness of this world and, in your intense zeal and burning love for the Son of God, gather men [cf. Luke 5.10] into Christ's army to fight under the banner of the cross against pagan savagery. I beseech you in the name of the Living God to give heed to my queries.
Father, I am greatly disturbed by a vision which has appeared to me through divine revelation, a vision seen not with my fleshly eyes but only in my spirit. Wretched, and indeed more than wretched in my womanly condition, I have from earliest childhood seen great marvels which my tongue has no power to express but which the Spirit of God has taught me that I may believe. Steadfast and gentle father, in your kindness respond to me, your unworthy servant, who has never, from her earliest childhood, lived one hour free from anxiety. In your piety and wisdom look in your spirit, as you have been taught by the Holy Spirit, and from your heart bring comfort to your handmaiden.
Through this vision which touches my heart and soul like a burning flame, teaching me profundities of meaning, I have an inward understanding of the Psalter, the Gospels, and other volumes. Nevertheless, I do not receive this knowledge in German. Indeed, I have no formal training at all, for I know how to read only on the most elementary level, certainly with no deep analysis. But please give me your opinion in this matter, because I am untaught and untrained in exterior material, but am only taught inwardly, in my spirit. Hence my halting, unsure speech.
When I hear from your pious wisdom, I will be comforted. For with the single exception of a certain monk in whose exemplary life I have the utmost confidence, I have not dared to tell these things to anyone, since there are so many heresies abroad in the land, as I have heard. I have, in fact, revealed all my secrets to this man, and he has given me consolation, for these are great and fearsome matters.
Now, father, for the love of God, I seek consolation from you, that I may be assured. More than two years ago, indeed, I saw you in a vision, like a man looking straight into the sun, bold and unafraid. And I wept, because I myself am so timid and fearful. Good and gentle father, I have been placed in your care so that you might reveal to me through our correspondence whether I should speak these things openly or keep my silence, because I have great anxiety about this vision with respect to how much I should speak about what I have seen and heard. In the meantime, because I have kept silent about this vision, I have been laid low, bedridden in my infirmities, and am unable to raise myself up.
Therefore, I weep with sorrow before you. For in my nature, I am unstable because I am caught in the winepress, that tree rooted in Adam by the devil's deceit which brought about his exile into this wayward world. Yet, now, rising up, I run to you. And I say to you: You are not inconstant, but are always lifting up the tree, a victor in your spirit, lifting up not only yourself but also the whole world unto salvation. You are indeed the eagle gazing directly at the sun.
And so I beseech your aid, through the serenity of the Father and through His wondrous Word and through the sweet moisture of compunction, the Spirit of truth [cf. John 14.17; 16.13], and through that holy sound, which all creation echoes, and through that same Word which gave birth to the world, and through the sublimity of the Father, who sent the Word with sweet fruitfulness into the womb of the Virgin, from which He soaked up flesh, just as honey is surrounded by the honeycomb. And may that Sound, the power of the Father, fall upon your heart and lift up your spirit so that you may respond expeditiously to these words of mine, taking care, of course, to seek all these things from God—with regard to the person or the mystery itself—while you are passing through the gateway of your soul, so that you may come to know all these things in God. Farewell, be strong in your spirit, and be a mighty warrior for God. Amen.1
O uenerabilis pater B, qui mirabiliter in magnis honoribus uirtutis Dei ualde metuendus es illicite stultitie huius mundi, uexillo sancte crucis cum excelso studio in ardenti amore Filii Dei capiens homines ad bella pugnanda in Christiana militia contra paganorum seuitiam, rogo te per Deum uiuum, ut audias me interrogantem te.
Pater, ego sum ualde sollicita de hac uisione, que apparuit mihi in spiritu mysterii, quam numquam uidi cum exterioribus oculis carnis. Ego, misera et plus quam misera in nomine femineo, ab infantia mea uidi magna mirabilia, que lingua mea non potest proferre, nisi quod me docuit Spiritus Dei, ut credam.
Certissime et mitissime pater, responde mihi in tua bonitate, indigne famule tue, que numquam uixi ab infantia mea unam horam secura, et de tua pietate et sapientia scrutare in anima tua secundum quod doctus fueris in Spiritu Sancto, et adhibe consolationem ancille tue de tuo corde.
Scio enim in textu interiorem intelligentiam expositionis Psalterii et Euangelii et aliorum uoluminum, que monstrantur mihi de hac uisione, que tangit pectus meum et animam sicut flamma comburens, docens me hec profunda expositionis. Sed tamen non docet me litteras in Teutonica lingua, quas nescio, sed tantum scio in simplicitate legere, non in abscisione textus. Et de hoc responde mihi, quid tibi inde uideatur, quia homo sum indocta de ulla magistratione cum exteriori materia, sed intus in anima mea sum docta. Vnde loquor quasi dubitando.
Sed audiens de tua sapientia et de tua pietate consolabor, quia non ausa sum ulli homini hec dicere pro eo quia multa schismata sunt in hominibus, sicut audio dicere homines, nisi cuidam monacho, quem scrutata sum in conuersatione probatioris uite. Et illi monstraui omnia secreta mea, et consolatus est me certe, quod hec magna et timenda sint.
Volo, pater, propter amorem Dei, ut me consoleris, et certa ero. Ego te uidi supra duos annos in hac uisione sicut hominem aspicere in solem et non timere, sed ualde audacem. Et ploraui, quod ego tam ualde erubesco et tam inaudax sum. Bone pater et mitissime, posita sum in animam tuam, ut mihi reueles per hunc sermonem, si uelis ut hec dicam palam, aut habeam silentium, quia magnos labores habeo in hac uisione, quatenus dicam quod uidi et audiui. Et interdum de hac uisione prosternor in magnis infirmitatibus in lectum, quia taceo, ita ut non possim me erigere.
Ergo plango cum merore coram te, quod ego sum mobilis cum motu in torculari arbore in natura mea, orta de radice surgente in Adam de suggestione diaboli, unde ipse erat exsul in peregrinum mundum. Nunc autem surgens curro ad te. Ego dico tibi: Tu non es mobilis, sed semper erigens arborem, et uictor es in anima tua, non tantum te ipsum solum sed etiam erigens mundum in saluationem. Tu etiam aquila es aspiciens in solem.
Oro te per serenitatem Patris, et per eius Verbum admirabile, et per suauem humorem compunctionis, Spiritum ueritatis, et per sanctum sonitum, per quem sonat omnis creatura, et per ipsum Verbum, de quo ortus est mundus, et per altitudinem Patris, qui in suaui uiriditate misit Verbum in Virginis uterum, unde suxit carnem sicut circumedificatur mel fauo. Et ipse sonitus, uis Patris, cadat in cor tuum et erigat animum tuum, ut non torpeas otiose in uerbis istius hominis, dum omnia requiras a Deo, uel homine, uel secreto ipso, dum transeas per foramen anime tue, ut hec omnia cognoscas in Deo.
Vale, vale in anima tua, et esto robustus in certamine in Deo. Amen.
Sick with anxiety about her revelations which God has told her to publish, Hildegard writes to Bernard asking what to do, and clearly wanting his imprimatur, which he gave somewhat tersely in an answering letter.
1 The translation was done by Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman.
Hildegardis Bingensis, Epistolarium, ed. Lieven Van Acker and Monika Klaes-Hachmoller, CCCM, 91 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), 3-6, ep.1; translation from The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford University, 1994), 27-28, ep.1.