THE UNRULY MYSTIC: SAINT HILDEGARD OF BINGEN
In her lucid biography of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), author Fiona Maddocks calls the 12th-century German abbess not a, but the woman of her age. Assertion of the definite article would seem to mirror transformations undergone by so many of Hildegard’s followers, who in becoming aware of the sheer breadth of her insights have found themselves crawling out of indefinite shows and into affirmative light. Such was the case with filmmaker Michael Conti, whose own existential crisis brought him into communion with Saint Hildegard’s calling, visions, and prescriptions. One of those prescriptions was music, the art by which so many first came to speak her name when a slew of recordings flooded the early music market in the mid-1990s. Yet her ear for sonic devotions was but one of many gifts, for not only did she immerse herself in divine liturgies and holy works, but also learned to read and paint, skills passed on to her by an anchoress at her abbey.
And what, you might ask, led a 21st-century American to the accomplishments of a 12th-century prophetess? Conti explains:
“My initial transformation occurred in 1983, when I first caught a whiff of the creative potential found in Barcelona at that time. Being there gave me confidence to pursue a life of creativity when I went to Hollywood after graduation. Little did I know that Hollywood would be kryptonite to my desire to be truly creative in my own way. When I encountered Saint Hildegard’s spirit during a retreat to Germany in 2013, I rediscovered that deep, sweet connection again and had an awakening to her as my Patron Saint of Creativity.”
Conti’s connection between, if not equation of, mysticism and creativity is a leitmotif throughout his documentary, The Unruly Mystic. Fueled by his overseas revival and addressing the lack of Hildegard depictions in film, The Unruly Mystic puts forward the notion that mysticism is one true path to awakening of religion and culture. It’s an idea that will be familiar to any Jungian, but also one echoed by the film’s many passionate figures, each of whom brings an idiosyncratic perspective to the Hildegard ethos. Actor and singer Linn Maxwell, who has created a one-woman show of Hildegard’s musical life, calls her the “saint of creativity” and stresses the demanding nature of her songs. Also featured is Dietburg Spohr, whose bold interpretation of Hildegard’s morality play, the Ordo Virtutum was released in 2013 on ECM Records. She stresses the fact that Hildegard’s music was largely ignored, and that we simply don’t know how or where it was performed. What we can surmise is that, as something heard and transcribed through the spirit, music was her worship. This, Spohr reminds us, is what gives value as a composer, beyond whose commercial image we must look beyond in order to see innovation and longevity of purpose.
That we still have Hildegard’s music with us at all is a miracle in and of itself, and something of a recent wonder, more known as she has been for her many books, written by way of dictation to a monk (its own form of musical transmission). Among their ranging topics, and most famously of all, she left record of her divine visions. If the music was an expression of what she heard, then the writing was an expression of what was shown to her. Whether for fear of not being believed, or simply due to the intimacy of these revelations, Hildegard chose to keep them to herself for years, openly sharing them only in her prime.
“To be a superstar in the Middle Ages meant to excel in holiness,” says Dr. Beverly Kienzle of the Harvard Divinity School, also interviewed by Conti, and a superstar Hildegard certainly was. In addition to her creative pursuits, she founded two monasteries and even had a healing ministry. Her interest in medicine was erudite and held authority by its connections to the energies of elements, animals, and nature at large. Although current medical science would likely dismiss many of Hildegard’s claims, their innovation and timely importance are undeniable. The creation of goodness—for her a God-given responsibility—was ongoing, and fed into a personal mission of hope. Dr. Wighard Strehlow, interviewed at great length, speaks highly of the health benefits predicted in her work, which through his efforts eight centuries later have entered a phase of rediscovery. Hildegard was one of the first true (western) practitioners of holistic healing on record and was an advocate for “greening” the world long before it was ecologically fashionable to be one.
It’s important to realize that, contrary to popular use, the word “mystic” isn’t used here to connote the esoteric supernaturalia of an impenetrable soul. In Conti’s words:
“I use the word to emphasize we are all open to the possibility of awakening. It is not something owned by a few but should be democratic in nature. We tend to ‘pedestalize’ our ‘actor’ heroes in movies, sports, and arts. This limits ourselves through comparison. If we accept that being a ‘mystic’ is available to everyone, I think we have a greater potential for good.”
The film makes it a point to stress that mystics are the keepers of humanity at its best and most authentic, and that Hildegard’s vision can empower us by dissociating us from our egos. Regarding Hildegard, Conti would like audiences to come away with whatever moves them about her legacy. Whether through creative potential or potential creation, Hildegard has gifted us with more than enough tools to build virtues from scratch. In the end, it’s about understanding our beginnings.
To learn more about The Unruly Mystic, please visit the official website here.
Review by Tyran Grillo, Doctoral Candidate at Cornell University in Asian Studies, New York, USA. Please visit his ECM Reviews blog for this original review and more. Dietburg Spohr’s composition work on ECM Records, Ordo Virtutum, was previously reviewed by Tyran.