The Sapphire in Hildegard’s Wine

Hildegard von Bingen, Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias
On the frontispiece of Hildegard von Bingen’s Scivias, the nun is propping her feet on a stool—perhaps to elevate her knees high enough to compose the first strokes of her fantastical visions. She is sketching on a wax tablet, dictating to the monk Volmar (her secretary of sixty years), Hildegard scholars tell us, and an image of the tongues of Pentecost are coming down on her head. They look like red octopus tentacles to me. But I am not a visionary or a medievalist. And we are many times removed from the original illuminations of the Scivias manuscript.

Tongues, tentacles or headaches—whatever seized the flesh and bone around Hildegard’s brain, I think she would agree with KtBnik Alex Rose that evidence of migraine-induced hallucinations doesn’t threaten the reverence her visions inspire. The neurological explanation of auras need not steal the thunder of the strobes and circles her mind’s eye saw. Scientific discovery and divine revelation can whirl about in the same cosmos.

Hildegard was not an either-or kind of gal. She was an oracle of as-if images. “It is as if someone,” she describes the mystery of what happens in the communion chalice, “dropped a sapphire into wine.” This blue-jeweled alchemy of sorts is a shimmering image of her sacramental vision. That as-if someone dropping imaginary sapphire into wine is the quickening power that makes it, for Hildegard, the blood of Christ. You don’t believe it? Take, drink, Hildegard might say. Try a sip. Keep approaching the altar, over and over, carrying up all the doubt in your heart.

“Is there God or not?” That is the theological question in the unresolved modes Hildegard composed, musicologist Margot Fassler suggests, the yes-or-no you must hold in your heart, to enter into this saint’s vision of salvation. The form of the question is either-or, but I see Hildegard’s approach to the answer as if. Keep worshiping, keep singing the psalms. Keep asking: Is there God or not? Hildegard wants to hear an everlasting yes. And it’s clear in her call to worship that she’s addressing a Christian audience. But, even for those who wouldn’t set foot in a church, much less drink wine as if it were blood, Hildegard’s call to keep the question close at heart is important. It’s an antidote to the polarized quandary over God that has thwarted the contemporary theological imagination. Talk of God-or-not these days is rarely spoken from the sincere heart. It spews out of the talking heads of ideology. The clamor of yays and nays hardly leaves a breath of silence for contemplation, much less feeling. See, even just talking about this has turned my language polemic-sour. Hildegard wanted all to taste and see the sweetness of the wine. She was “an explorer of the complexity of goodness,” Fassler said in a presentation yesterday at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music. “She believes everybody who breathes is an epic character with choices.” She hopes that we’ll all sing together, to the very end of time; let everything that has breath praise the Lord (Psalm 150).

What if we were to stay on the cusps of serious choices, on the slashes that separate the either/ors of life? What if we were to abide between as and if? Hildegard may want us to see the ecstatic light she saw—the bright fires and the dark membranes, around the question Is there God or not? I don’t know; I wonder. Can deep ambivalence be spiritual practice? Can we behold two-hearted truths to keep us from falling into yes or no? I hope beyond hope to sing yes, and to blood and to sapphire and to wine.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.