ANGELS: Hildegard of Bingen — A Voice for the Angels

My Writing

Hildegard of Bingen — A Voice for the Angels

Now, I retain a memory of anything I see or learn in this vision for a long time, so that, once I have seen and heard it, I may bring it to mind.  And I see, hear, and know all at once, as if, in that moment, I discover what I know.  But what I do not see, I do not know, because I am unlearned.  And I write those things that I see and hear in the vision, for I do not learn from this vision how to write like philosophers write.  And the words that I see and hear in that vision are not like words that are heard from a human mouth, but like a glittering flame and like a cloud moving in the clear air.  Moreover, I can in no way know the appearance of this light, just as I cannot gaze fully at the sphere of the sun.

And sometimes, though not often, I catch sight of another light in that same light.  This I have named the living light, but I am of course much less able to explain how I see it than the first; nevertheless, while I gaze at it, every sadness, every pain is erased from my memory, with the result that, at that time, I have the manner of a simple girl and not of an elderly woman.

Now, no hour of mine lacks the first light which is called the shadow of the living light, and I see it as if I gaze upon the firmament in bright cloud without stars, and in it I see those things I often speak about and what I give in answer from the radiance of the living light to those who are inquiring.

There is a lot that can be written about Hildegard’s relationship with the angels.  I would describe it as active and enthusiastic.  She teaches about them both in the writings of her visions and in her music.  I will do my best to keep this short and simple.

1.  The hierarchy

It is common to rank the angels thusly (from least to greatest): angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim, and arrange them in three groups of three each.  Hildegard, instead, follows the arrangement formulated by Gregory the Great.  He, and she, divide them into three groups of two, five, and two.

Angels and archangels represent the body and soul.  The cherubim and seraphim, on the other end of the spectrum, symbolize the knowledge and love of God.  And the five orders in the middle stand for the five senses.  Hildegard asserts that this heavenly hierarchy is a mirror of our own earthly hierarchy.  Further, she sees the angelic choirs as “armies arrayed like a crown,” inspiring the image of nine concentric circles all facing God on his throne.

Now we have spoken of nine orders of angels, since from the testimony of sacred eloquence we know them to exist, namely: angels, archangels, virtues, powers, principalities, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim.

2.  Mediators of visions and prophesies

While Hildegard repeatedly asserts that her visions are from God, she assigns the role of mediator of visions to angels.  They are to her, very literally, God’s messengers.  Like Augustine, she interprets the light created on the first day, in Genesis, to be angels.  They are the light of God that can never be extinguished.  She calls them, as in the first quote, the living light.  She also describes them as, “the awe-inspiring flashing of divinity.”

But you see, around this same image, a most beautiful multitude of angelic forms standing in such great veneration that they too fear and love her; which is to say that, everywhere, the blessed and excellent spirits worship the knowledge of God in angelic ministry through inexplicable and purest praise, embracing God in their ardor, since they are living light.

But angels do not just bring us our visions.  Hildegard also assigns them the responsibility of bearing God’s communication in the form of prophecy.  This is another level of inspiration that they bring to man.

All human knowledge of God, she states, are taught us by the angels who reflect divine attributes.  All this gaining of wisdom is received in the Holy Spirit.

The same virtue (wisdom) also examined her own handiwork, which, in the shadow of the living water, she arranged in proper order, when, indeed, through this unlearned form of a woman mentioned before, she revealed certain natural powers of diverse things and certain texts about the merits of life, and also certain other deep mysteries, and that woman, seeing these things in a true vision, was greatly weakened.

3.  The relationship between angelic song and human chant

And a fiery light of the greatest brightness, coming from the opened heavens, filled my brain, and like a flame it enkindled my whole heart and whole breast, not so much blazing, but warming, in the way that the sun makes something upon which it places its rays grow warm.  And suddenly I began to sense the meaning of the explanation of books, namely of the Psalter, the Gospels, and the other catholic books, as much from the Old as from the New Testament.  However, I did not have the interpretation of the words of their texts, or the division of syllables or the knowledge of the cases or tenses.

One could say that for Hildegard the entirety of man’s movement toward God can be found in song.  Our liturgical singing is a direct reflection of the singing the angels perform in Heaven.  Through our singing, we are taught by the angels the will of God.  It is also the direct means of our restoration to a happy relationship with God.

But that’s not all.  Far from it.  The songs of the angels, echoed in our chants, is the praise that the angels are declaring for those who are seeking divine unity.  Our singing is the means of our redemption.  The singing of the angels is the acknowledgement of our effort.

4.  The fall of Adam

Before the fall, humanity had a full knowledge of angelic song, itself (not just a reflection of it).  The fall resulted in a not complete loss of this knowledge.

Adam, while still innocent, used to have not a little association with the sounds of angelic praises.  Therefore Adam lost the likeness of an angelic voice which he used to have in paradise, and in this way fell asleep to the knowledge which he had possessed before his sin.  When he was deceived by the devil’s prompting, he was rendered unknowing and unsure, like a man waking from a dream is unsure about the things that he had seen in his dreams.

Hildegard viewed musical inspiration to be a kind of prophetic inspiration.  Music created by humans could contribute to the recovery of Adam’s lost knowledge of angelic music.

But God, who restores the souls of the elect to pristine blessedness, filling them with the light of truth, devises by this his plan, that whenever he renews the hearts of many with an outpouring of prophetic spirit, they might recover through his interior illumination something of that knowledge which Adam had before the punishment of his transgression.

But indeed, Adam himself, before he fell, used to take delight in the divine sweetness and praise of that same knowledge with the angels in God.  And since they may not remember it in this exile, and so that they themselves might be called forth towards this, the same holy prophets, taught by the same spirit which they had received, composed not only psalms and canticles, which might be sung to kindle the devotion of hearers, but also constructed diverse instruments of the musical art, so that (as much from the forms or properties of these same instruments as from the meaning of the words which are sun with them), the hearers, as said above, reminded and aroused by outward by outward things, might be instructed about inward things.

For me, it takes a lot of deep breaths to get through even the smallest slice of Hildegard’s visions.  But, in the end, what thrills me about her musings about the relationship between angels and man reflected in holy chant, is the idea that we have a tangible means to connect with angels directly, by listening to or perhaps even singing the music sent to us from God by way of his angelic messengers.

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