Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1492
First published: De operatione Dei, 1163-1173 (English translation, 1987)
Edition(s) used: Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works, with Letters and Songs, edited and introduced by Matthew Fox. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Bear, 1987
Subgenre(s): Meditation and contemplation; mysticism; theology
Core issue(s): Catholics and Catholicism; clerical life; Creation; justice; mysticism; nature
In “The World of Humanity,” part 1 of Book of Divine Works, Hildegard von Bingen affirms that her visions are from God, who has instructed her to write them for the benefit of others. This section includes four visions. Part 2, “The Kingdom of the Hereafter,” contains the fifth vision, and part 3, “The History of Salvation,” concludes with five visions.
In the first vision, Hildegard describes a complex image of a winged human being. Her descriptions are very clear, and the illustrations help explicate the descriptions. She records the accompanying voice, which identifies the figure as love, co-eternal with the Trinity. This vision emphasizes the importance of the Catholic faith and of love for God and for one’s neighbor. She briefly describes God’s unfolding plan of salvation for humans through Adam’s fall and Abraham’s obedience. Also, Hildegard contrasts Eve’s disobedience with the Virgin Mary’s obedience, which will result in the salvation of body and soul.
The second vision begins with a medieval focus on the cosmos and the four elements that make up all things: fire, air, water, and earth. Hildegard explains that God, in Creation, has caused these alien elements to cooperate with one another to make humans and all the other creatures. An important image here is that of balance; humans must aim for constancy by experiencing repentance, trust, and faith to accomplish God’s will. In addition, Hildegard identifies six periods in world history in which love guides the elements and humans to live in balance and justice.
In the third vision Hildegard discusses the ways in which the natural world affects human beings, and following the medieval model, she describes the circulation of humors through the body and the effects these have on well-being—both physical and spiritual. She discusses the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which guide one toward holiness. Christians must learn to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in good deeds and prayer so that God will bless them. By strongly renouncing the sins of the flesh, Christians can move past depression and other ills of the body to find joy and hope.
The human being as microcosm in harmony with the macrocosm of Creation is delineated in the fourth vision. The four elements, as well as the planets, are related to the physical components of the body. In addition, Hildegard describes the soul as having three powers—“understanding,” “insight,” and “execution”—by which it can accomplish good works. Being composed of both body and soul, humans live in disharmony because of sin; to gain salvation, the soul must, through spiritual obedience, call the body to discipline and repentance. In this vision, Hildegard also includes an exegesis of John 1:1-14.
In the fifth vision, Hildegard recognizes that the five senses are influenced by the knowledge of both good and evil. She describes a globe divided according to the senses and discusses each in turn. Also included is exegesis of Revelation 6:2-8 and 12:13-14, as well as a brief history of the fall of Satan and the fall of humanity.
The sixth vision describes the heavenly city and the angelic choirs, as well as the fall of the devil and his angels. The human race was created to replace the fallen angels—to make up the perfect number of God’s creation.
(This entire section contains 1492 words.)
seventh vision details the history of three eras on earth: before the Flood, after the Flood when humans were under God’s Law, and after the coming of Christ, when the new covenant is instituted—a covenant of grace. Hildegard recognizes three “signs” before Christ’s advent: animal sacrifice, circumcision, and the Mosaic law. These all prepared the way for redemption.
In the eighth vision, Hildegard identifies humans as rational beings, created and brought to truth by wisdom through love. The prophets and evangelists were inspired by wisdom so that humans could be brought by love to redemption, and humans should live in peace and harmony.
In the ninth vision, one complex character indicates God himself; Hildegard references his creative work, his love expressed in the Old and New Testaments, and his coming judgment of rebellious humans. All elements of the cosmos work together to accomplish God’s work.
The tenth vision depicts Old Testament symbols of the Roman Catholic Church: the obedience of Noah and Abraham, as well as the law given to Moses. However, in Christ the law and obedience are combined, resulting in justice and peace. The Church is served by believers in many different circumstances—both religious and lay, both celibate and married. In this vision, Hildegard relates the history of several of the apostles, showing how their lives were examples of the work of the Holy Spirit in people of different temperaments. She exhorts religious and lay persons to work in harmony because they both work for Christ to bring those outside the Church, regardless of ethnic group, to salvation. Hildegard warns that divisions among Christians will precede the coming of the Antichrist and the final judgment, but those who remain faithful will be blessed by God.
Also included in this edition are forty-one letters documenting Hildegard’s interaction with and advice to several secular and religious leaders as well as individual religious persons. Finally, Fox has included twelve songs with notation and original Latin lyrics as well as modern English translations.
Hildegard envisions the unfolding of God’s plan throughout history. She describes the divine work of Creation, in which God brings the four elements into harmony and obedience to create the cosmos. Humans are a special creation, made in the image of God, separated from the rest of creation by reason. However, human beings have fallen and now must choose between obedience to God or punishment with the devil. Right faith, in the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, leads to freedom, harmony, and joy.
While Hildegard often speaks of the soul being weighed down or led astray by the body, she does not completely follow a neo-Platonic philosophy; she is emphatic that both body and soul will experience salvation and a glorious eternal life if humans, through virtue and holiness, are obedient to God.
She teaches that right faith leads to right living, which honors and creates harmony in the physical earth. All creation is important and affected by human behavior; we are responsible to know, love, and care for the earth and its creatures. If our sinful acts and attitudes cause disharmony in the earth, we will suffer as a result.
Humans must learn to live in moderation, which Hildegard recommends as the way to live healthy, productive lives in harmony with God, the earth, and other people. While she values a disciplined life, she asks Christians not to lead lives of too rigorous asceticism, which can lead to deteriorated health and inability to do God’s work.
Hildegard recognizes that God’s grace allows humans to desire and to do good, and she encourages good works as grateful expressions of love and obedience to God. She is especially concerned with justice, recommending attitudes and actions that lead to justice in the state and Church, as well as in individual matters. Her emphasis on justice works in conjunction with her concept of cosmic harmony. Even small instances of injustice can lead to disharmony. In her understanding of the connectedness of all creation, any lack of harmony affects the whole and distracts from our understanding of and praise to God.
To understand Hildegard’s vision is to recognize the solidarity Christians must feel with each other, the earth, and the cosmos as a whole as they mature in their faith and love for their Creator Redeemer and his divine works.
Sources for Further Study
- Baird, Joseph L., and Radd K. Ehrman, trans. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. 3 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994-2004. Letters ranging from advice and encouragement to rebuke, to and from Hildegard to church leaders, including popes, as well as monks and nuns.
- Fox, Matthew. Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. 1985. Reprint. Rochester, Vt.: Bear, 2002. Provides insight into Hildegard’s spiritual message. Includes color plates of twenty-one visions from Hildegard’s Scivias (1141-1151; English translation, 1986) and three from Book of Divine Works.
- King-Lenzmeier, Anne H. Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2001. Explores Hildegard’s mysticism, spirituality, and theology. Includes excerpts from her writings and discusses her music and the morality play, Ordu Virtutum.
- Pernoud, Regine. Hildegard of Bingen: Inspired Conscience of the Twelfth Century. Translated by Paul Duggan. New York: Marlowe, 1998. A thorough biography that examines Hildegard in the political and religious context of her age.