Finding Hildegard: A Book Review
“We weave others into ourselves and ourselves into others, not fully realizing the risk we take.”
And so Gregg Koskela begins, unpacking a dual journey he undertook while exploring the life of 12th century mystic and Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. The journey took him across the Atlantic and deep within his own grief and pain-filled soul. He delved into the life and work of a Hildegard, one of four women identified as a doctor of the Catholic Church, a title given to saints recognized for their significant contribution to theology or doctrine. Hildegard challenged Popes and Kings, composed music, was a naturalist who practiced medicine, and wrote deeply of our relationship to God and the nurturing and disciplining of our souls. Gregg allows us to bear witness to the less visible part of his journey as well--his path of healing from a denomination and church split. This foray into Hildegard’s work takes him deeper into his own understanding of what it means to embrace weakness, to surrender, to confess, to obey, and to awaken the blazing fire that is always within our grasp.
With humility and grace Gregg weaves Hildegard’s story into his own, and perhaps into a story not unlike that in which many of us find ourselves. Gregg says Hildegard “points us to a Life Force as constant, present, rhythmic, and essential as the heart which thumps in our chest every second of every day of every year of our lives” (pg. 26).
Acknowledging that none of us ever arrive at our hoped-for destination makes Gregg’s journey feel possible. Hildegard was deeply aware of her own sins and shortcomings and was flawed in ways she did and did not see. Rather than attempt to lead us on a journey to the top of a mountain, Gregg invites us to journey for the sake of the walking itself. The contemplative life is not a life achieved, Hildegard tells her sisters, so much as a life practiced. Contemporary Episcopalian Cynthia Bourgeault makes a similar point in her instruction regarding centering prayer. The fruit of centering prayer does not come when one achieves an "empty" mind but in the practice of letting go again and again, and so learning the art of relinquishing our expectations, angst, hopes, and what brings us pain or joy. Writing redemptively, frankly, with humility and transparency Gregg highlights some of his own failures as he moves from self-pity and self-justification to confession to praying a blessing on others, and in the repetition of a process that is never once-and-for-all, finds a healing, life-giving path.
Gregg’s journey included a trip to Germany to walk in the footsteps of Hildegard, visiting her hometown in the Rhine Valley, the Abbey that carries her name, and sitting with the sisters as they assembled for daily prayers, placing the needs of the world and the Church before God.
Hildegard did not separate the physical from the spiritual, and her love of all creation exudes throughout her poetry, music and writings. She believed that “God’s life explodes endlessly through our cosmos, the indefatigable source of all energy, growth, hope, and life” (pg. 52). I find hope in that. Maybe particularly in the word “indefatigable.” God cannot stop bringing forth life.
At times Hildegard’s hyperawareness of sin becomes an uncomfortable mantle for Gregg, who admittedly prefers (as do I) the view of human nature that we are “saints beset by sin” more than “sinners saved by grace”. But rather than toss off Hildegard’s emphasis on sin and depravity as medieval culture, he leans into what God might have for him even there. His chapters on human weakness, confession, and obedience are profoundly moving and challenging, and call us all to consider the sin in our lives rather than escape into the easier path of focusing on the sin we see in others.
Contemplatives ancient and contemporary emphasize that contemplation (and confession and repentance) always lead to action. But action such as this is borne out of rhythms of rootedness. For Hildegard it came from the depth of her community, daily prayer with her sisters, study--all part of the obedience she accepted to a rhythm of life dictated by her order. But the monastic disciplined life is not the only way to create rhythms of rootedness, and Gregg shows us what it has looked like for him to live out of a rhythm of life that connects him to the Root of all things, leading to action that partners with God’s redemptive plan for the cosmos.
At one point in Gregg’s pilgrimage he visits the Einbingen Parish Church of St. Hildegard, which holds a few remaining bones of Hildegard’s body. Greggs personal words to her then were, “Thank you for being faithful, for pointing me to the Root.” It strikes me that Gregg is also being faithful in this journey of exploring Hildegard’s work and life, and from his own rootnedness, moving from contemplation to action. For Gregg that has included writing vulnerably from a place of brokenness and pain. Readers risk being woven into the story—Hildegard’s, Gregg’s, the great cloud of witnesses, a multitude of voices inviting us to embrace the Root of all life, the Light of all light, the Love that keeps the universe from coming apart.