A letter from Hildegard of Bingen ()
I, a poor little form and earthen vessel, speak these things not from myself but from the serene light: Man is a vessel which God fashioned for himself, which he imbued with his spirit, so that he might accomplish his works in him; for God does not work as man does but by the order of his command all things are carried out. Grasses, brush, and trees appeared; the sun, the moon, and the stars also came about by his care, and the waters produced fish and birds, and flocks and beasts arose as well, which minister all things to men, as God commanded.
Man alone did not recognize Him. For when God prepared great knowledge for man, man lifted himself up in his spirit and turned himself away from God. For God looked on man to perfect all his works in him, but the ancient deceiver beguiled him and infected him with the crime of disobedience, the love of the unstable wind, when he sought more than he should have.
Ach, o ve!(!1) Then all the elements enfolded themselves in the alternation of light and shadows as man did in transgressing God’s commands. God, however, strengthened/irrigated certain men, lest man be completely despised. Abel was good, but Cain a suicide. And many saw the mysteries of God in the light, but others committed many sins, until that time came in which the word of God was manifest as it is said: Beautiful in form beyond the sons of men. Then the sun of justice appeared and illuminated men with good works in faith and in act, just as the dawn comes first, and the other hours of the day follow, until night arrives. Thus, o daughter Elisabeth, is the world changed. For the world is already weary in all the greenness of virtues, that is at dawn, prime, ters, and in the strongest hour of the day, at sext. But in this time it is necessary for God to strengthen/irrigate some men, lest his instruments be idle.
Hear, o anxious daughter, that the ambitious suggestions of the ancient serpent are worrying somewhat those men whom the inspiration of God has so imbued. For when that same serpent sees an elegant gem, he roars, saying: “What is this?” And he worries it with many miseries of the burning mind, desirous of flying over the clouds, as if they were Gods, just as he did.
Now hear again: Who desire to accomplish the works of God, let them always consider that they are earthen vessels, since they are men, and let them always reflect on what they are and what they will be, and leave heavenly things to [him] who is of heaven, since they are exiles, not knowing heavenly things, but only reciting the mysteries of God, just as a trumpet only makes sounds, but does not cause them; someone blows in it in order to make the sound. But the mild put on the cuirass of faith, being gentle, poor, and unfortunate, having the simple habits of children, just as he whose trumpet sounds they are was a Lamb, since God always scourges those who sing in his trumpet, taking care lest their earthen vessel perish, except as it pleases Him.
O daughter, let God make you a mirror of life. But I too lie in the pusillanimity of my mind, fatigued much by fear, sounding a little, at times, like the small sound of a trumpet from the living light. Whence God help me, that I may remain in his ministry.
Ego paupercula et fictile vas, haec non a me, sed de serena luce dico: Homo vas est, quod Deus sibimetipsi aedificavit, et quod sua inspiratione imbuit, ut opera sua in illo perficeret; quia Deus non operatur ut homo, sed in jussione praecepti ejus omnia perfecta sunt. Herbae, ligna et arbores apparuerunt; sol quoque, luna et stellae in sua ministratione processerunt, et aquae pisces, et volatilia produxerunt; precor etiam, et bestiae surrexerunt quae omnia ministrant homini, sicut Deus ea posuit (Gen. I). Solus autem homo illum non cognovit. Nam cum Deus magnam scientiam homini paret, homo in animo suo se erexit, et se a Deo avertit. Deus omnium, illum sic inspexerat, quod cuncta opera sua in illo perficeret. Sed antiquus deceptor illum fefellit, et crimine inobedientiae illum infecit cum delectatione incongrui venti, dum plus quaereret quam deberet. Ah! o vae! Tunc omnia elementa implicuerunt se in vicissitudinem luminis et tenebrarum, sicut et homo fecit in transgressione praeceptorum Dei. Deus autem quosdam homines irrigavit, ne homo ex toto derideretur. Abel bonus erat, Cain autem homicida (Gen. IV). Et multi mystica Dei in luce viderunt, sed alii plurima peccata fecerunt, usque dum venit tempus illud, in quo verbum Dei claruit, ut dictum est: Speciosus forma prae filiis hominum (Psal. XLIV). Tunc Sol justitiae processit et homines cum bonis operibus illuminavit in fide et in opere, sicut aurora primum procedit, et caeterae horae diei subsequuntur, usque dum nox accedat; sic, o filia Elisabeth, mundus mutatur. Jam enim mundus lassus est in omni viredine virtutum, scilicet in aurora, in prima, in tertia, et fortissime in sexta hora diei. Et ideo in hoc tempore necesse est, quod Deus aliquos homines irriget, ne instrumenta ipsius otiosa sint. Audi, o sollicita filia, quia homines istos quos inspiratio Dei ita imbuit, aliquantulum fatigat ambitiosa suggestio antiqui serpentis. Cum enim idem serpens elegantem gemmam viderit, mox rugit, dicens: Quid est hoc? Et fatigat illam multis miseriis flagrantis mentis, supra nubes volare cupientis, quasi dii sint, sicut et ipse facit. Nunc iterum audi: Qui opera Dei perficere desiderant, semper attendant, quod fictilia vasa sunt (II Cor. IV.), quoniam homines existunt, et semper aspiciant quid sint, et quid futuri sint et coelestia relinquant illi qui coelestis est, quoniam ipsi exsules sunt, coelestia nescientes, sed tantum mystica Dei canentes; sicut tuba, quae solummodo sonos dat, nec operatur; sed in quam alius spirat, ut sonum reddat. Sed et loricam fidei induant mites, mansueti, pauperes et miseri existentes, sicut etiam agnus ille fuit, cujus sonus tubae ipsi sunt, mores etiam simplices infantis habentes, quia Deus illos semper flagellat, qui in tuba ipsius canunt, praevidens ne fictile vas illorum pereat, sed ut sibi placeat. O filia, Deus faciat te speculum vitae. Sed et ego quae jaceo in pusillanimitate timoris, interdum sonans aliquantulum velut parvus sonus tubae a vivente lumine; unde Deus juvet me, ut permaneam in suo ministerio.
Hildegard responds to Elisabeth’s first letter with reassurance from her own experience of fear and suffering.
(1)Hildegard’s lament here is in German.
Hildegard of Bingen, Epistolarium, ed. L. Van Acker, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol.91A (Turnholt: Brepols, 1993), 456-57, ep.201r; also in PL 197, c.216-18.