I have been reading the works of Saint Hildegard (1098–1179), the visionary mystic, naturalist, scriptural exegete, artist, and musical composer. In one of his weekly audiences, Pope Benedict XVI recommended her to us for her remarkable meditations upon the Word made flesh, which made manifest what she called the “greenness” of the Father’s power, and the goodness of the created order. Hildegard was, Benedict said, a beautiful exemplar of what his predecessor, John Paul II, had called “the feminine genius.” This prompted the editors at The Huffington Post to note that it was a rare instance in which the purportedly conservative pope was in accord with feminism.
“He that is giddy thinks the world turns round,” says Shakespeare. People who see things only in terms of politics will suppose that everyone else is color blind, too. It wasn’t just the Post. I found otherwise sensible commentators on Hildegard’s work saying, without stopping to question their premises, that it was surprising to see the influence she exerted on matters of both Church and state in a time when “patriarchal” hierarchies were the order of the day. That she was a woman to reckon with, there is no doubt. Hildegard was called “the Sibyl on the Rhine,” after the ancient Roman prophetess. Popes and bishops and princes sought her counsel; a great number of her letters were gathered and published after her death.
They did not do so because she was a woman. They did so because they perceived that she spoke for God: she was a holy woman. When she wrote to Pope Eugenius III about the firebrand reformer Arnold of Brescia, who had, as many a reformer will, pitched himself by enthusiasm right into heresy, she did not say, “Here is what I think.” She said that the Father had shown her a vision—in this case, a vision of a bear snatching at a precious gem. She did not do so of her own prompting. Eugenius himself had requested the counsel.
Hildegard was by no means the only woman of such influence. We can see why it should be so. God gives His grace to women as well as to men. When the psalmist says, “Put not your trust in princes,” he means to include all embodiments of merely human strength. We might say, “Put not your trust in armies, tools and machines, computer programs, scientists, political action, money, pollsters,” and so forth. We forget this advice all the time. Christians in the twelfth century forgot it, too, but not all the time.
I might say more. We no longer even understand what the advice implies. It seems to demand that we should not walk upon our two feet. On what else should we walk? The ancient Israelites, who were men as we are and therefore often foolish in the ways in which we are foolish, could sometimes turn to the law that God revealed to Moses, or to the prophets, those hard-bitten men of little comfort and no compromise. The law was holy. The prophets were holy. That was why the same children of Israel so often shredded the law and slew the prophets. But we do not even recognize the category.
This is bad for us, because it leaves us like two-dimensional creatures in a three-dimensional world, continually surprised by perfectly orderly phenomena that strike us as having come from nowhere. But the holy exists, because God exists.
To whom might we turn, then, for counsel in our troubled times? Where are the holy men and women who see more than we see, and who can help us to hear the word of God?
The Obama administration pressed charges against the Little Sisters of the Poor, because the sisters did not want to use their insurance plan to pay for contraceptive or abortifacient drugs. The courts in Massachusetts were set to command Catholic adoption agencies to place children with gay couples, but the cardinal forestalled them by shutting up shop. People by the hundreds of thousands march in usually bad weather in January, in Washington, D.C., not to demand power or money for themselves, but life for the poorest and most powerless in our midst, the unborn child.
I am not attributing holiness to any particular persons involved here. But it is at least surprising that no one would acknowledge in them any measure of selflessness or charity. No one says, “These people ask only the freedom to be kind to others as their faith demands. We should let them be.” No one says, “These people have come at great expense, and in a spirit of prayer, to beg us to let others live. We should at least listen to them.”
Similarly, no one is saying now, “We should seek out the holiest men and women among us to ask, in humility, how we might heal the divisions in our nation.” If you lived anywhere in Europe in the time of Saint Hildegard, and you said, “I need a holy man or woman to give me counsel,” you would be told right away where to go, and you would not have to go far. I do not mean that there was a greater number of holy people then. I mean that holiness was recognized. People could perceive the green of holiness. The world was not a universal brown or gray.
Where would we go? In 1998, a giant of a man appeared before the state legislature in Wisconsin. He was the future Hall of Fame defensive lineman, Reggie White—the Reverend Reggie White, “The Minister of Defense,” whose church in Tennessee had been burned to the ground by arsonists a couple of years before. White had had two ambitions in life. One was to play professional football, and the other was to preach the word of God. He did both. His works for charity were prodigious. He fought especially for harmony among the races. To those politicians in Madison, he said that God had endowed each ethnic group with peculiar gifts, so that all together they made up a mosaic which showed the face of God. He also said that it was wrong to consider homosexuality in the same way we consider a race or a people, because the homosexual chooses to do what he does, and what he does is wicked.
The legislators did not like hearing that Asians can “turn a television into a watch,” or that American Indians were “gifted in spirituality.” They heard such words as attacks. It was as if I had said, “You could walk through any town in Italy in 1500, and everywhere you spat, you would hit an artist.” How is that an attack? I suspect that the real object of their scorn was not what White, who had spent his career as a black man in an overwhelmingly white city (Green Bay), had to say about the races, but what he had to say about sex. When he died suddenly in 2004, one gay writer said gleefully that White was now “shoveling coals in hell.”
What nobody said, neither his friends nor his detractors, was that White was a man of God seeking nothing for himself, a man of great generosity appealing for understanding, and that we should listen to him for the holiness of his life. Nobody said it, because nobody believed it. It wasn’t that they had some other living exemplar of holiness. It just never occurred to them to think of such a thing.
To whom would we turn? All is politics, every minute of every day. There is no rest from it, no haven, no quiet abbey of prayer, no mountaintop where the holy man might hear the still small voice of God.