Dancing in the Footsteps of St. Hildegard, Part 1

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Names matter.

I’ve always loved asking people about their names, and what they mean. People, too, often ask me where the name for this blog–“That Fiery Dance”–came from.

For me, “That Fiery Dance” has many meanings. And I’m sure it may have some totally different for you.

First, for me it’s a nod to freedom. (Because what do I do when I’m totally free in body, mind and spirit? I dance!) It’s also a nod to the Holy Spirit. (Listening and following His Voice is a dance all its own.)

But mostly, it’s a nod to the woman and the prophet whose memory has inspired my own journey over the past few years: St. Hildegard of Bingen. Here’s her whole quote:

“I will tell you a secret about that divine light, about creative fire.
The more you nourish it in your heart, the more it radiates out from you.
The more you release it through your words, your deeds, of wisdom, of
loving compassion, the brighter the flame burns … and in that fiery dance,
you will find that you are, as I myself discovered, no longer aware of your years.”
St. Hildegard of Bingen

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Freedom transforms us.

It causes barriers to fall away. It lifts off our masks. It gives us the courage to get up off the sidelines and dance under all the lights where everyone can see us–and we don’t care anymore what they think.

Freedom gives us the courage to go after the dreams God has put in our hearts. To own our gifts. To stand up and let His power flow through us however He wills it to… and not to fear the outcome.

Above all, the freedom of God takes away the weight of years–literally–from our hearts, minds and bodies. It provides us a continual wellspring of Living Water within that renews and refreshes us.

No matter how dry the desert she dwells in, a truly Free Woman is young in spirit, and spry enough to dance, because she drinks from the water of eternal life.

St. Hildegard is, to me, the picture of that kind of Freedom.

Almost a year ago, I got to walk in her footsteps.

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I first learned about St. Hildegard’s life when I was researching medieval convents for a writing project about five years ago.

Even though she was born almost 900 years before me, I resonated immediately with her isolated upbringing, her love of books and learning, and the creative determination that defines her story.

In a time when more men than women made headlines, St. Hildegard became an advisor to kings and the pope, a preacher who toured Europe, the first recorded female to found a spiritual community for women in Europe and an icon of her generation.

Armed with the courage that marked her 70-some years, Hildegard became one of the first practitioners of modern medicine, a gifted herbalist who contributed treatments for women’s sexuality and health issues, a dietitian who saw the relationship between food and health in an era when many did not make that connection–and a composer whose music is still performed today.

She was also a prophet, theologian and writer who recorded original visions from God that are still not entirely understood today. And she became the spiritual mother of several convents full of women. Together, these women defied the church’s tradition for nuns to dress in plain habits and ugly veils  by donning red dresses, letting their hair down and decking themselves with pearls–because, as Hildegard insisted, they were the bride of Christ, and ought to look like it.

Along the way, Hildegard escaped being buried alive in an anchorite’s cell and almost losing her life because of her prophetic gifts. When she left that cell, after almost thirty years trapped inside it, she never looked back. Instead of letting her long confinement break her, she made it a stepping-stone to full freedom.

She also felt extremely misunderstood and, for long periods of her life, was shut away from most of society.

I was enchanted with Hildegard’s story right away. While I could not relate to her many achievements, I aspired to them. But I could connect with her experience of feeling isolated and misunderstood in my creative gifts. At that time in my life, God had not yet begun to speak to me. But as I read books about her and watched Vision, a recent German film based on St. Hildegard’s life, I wrestled with whether or not I thought this strange but magnetic woman really could have heard from God.

Foreshadowing doesn’t just happen in stories; it happens in real life. I believe God used these experiences, bumping up against St. Hildegard’s amazing story, to prepare me for the beginning of my own.

After my divorce, when God began speaking directly into my day-to-day life, St. Hildegard’s experiences didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.  And One day, He spoke to me about her directly. When I was in Italy in September 2017, God told me to go to Germany that December, after the solstice, and retrace St. Hildegard’s steps through her home town.

And so it was, December 26, 2017, I found myself both homeless and penniless, riding a train from Frankfurt, Germany, to tiny Bingen am Rhein, Hildegard’s hometown.

I had just enough money for the hotel and food for the next three days. The German countryside was blurred with endless sheets of rain, and my soul felt just as grey. Here was the nadir of the year. I had been in Germany for almost four soul-crushing weeks. I was struggling with horrible digestive issues, not to mention a heart-wrenching lack of purpose. I had never felt less ready to make such a pilgrimage.

Though I had dreamed of visiting St. Hildegard for years, I never wanted to do it under such duress. Here I was fulfilling a life dream of following her footsteps, which had been a direct command from the Voice of God Himself. And yet I felt so beaten down. So unsure of what my own future held.

When the train pulled in to Bingen, I dragged my little red suitcase and a bag of food the 1/4 mile walk to the hotel I had booked. I remember having hot tea, prunes and a bath for my digestive condition, and going straight to bed.

I should have been excited about what was going to happen the next day. Yet I was feeling so unwell, I could hardly even think about it.

But then morning came: Wednesday, December 27, 2017.

I woke up to find that my digestive issue had been miraculously healed during the night. And I remembered one of those large facts in life that one tends to forget when they come associated with so much pain: December 27th, 2017, was also my 9th wedding anniversary.

Or would have been, anyway, had I not been divorced exactly 14 months to the day prior.

I laid there, listening to the rain on the hotel roof, remembering the hopeful young girl who had donned her wedding dress–still not entirely sure she wanted to be married, but putting on a brave face and doing what had to be done. A thousand thoughts and feelings flooded through my body at that recollection. And at all that had happened since.

Seven-and-a-half years of a life that had been aborted without warning. The roller-coaster ride that came after, including the first time of hearing God’s voice. Hildegard’s writings had carried me through that maelstrom of personal reinvention.

In many ways, I felt that, like Hildegard, I had found the key to my own cell and stepped out of it, as I began to hear the Voice of God and follow it.

And that obedience had led me here: broke, alone and empty-handed, to the womb of earth that had birthed my spiritual.

In that moment, I heard God say to me, “It’s your wedding day once again.”

I knew instantly that I had come to another kind of wedding: not the wedding of myself to someone else, but my own wedding to the vision He had given me. Coming to visit Hildegard wasn’t just another act of obedience. It was the beginning of a whole new life.

This date, which had been loaded with so much sorrow, was now reborn. December 27th will forever be “the day I visited Hildegard,” and I intend to celebrate it as such each year. Because why allow our past and our pain dictate what a day means?

Encouraged, I tramped across the rain-soaked cobblestones of Bingen, trying to imagine what it was like to be here in Hildegard’s day. Of course the town was much smaller then. And there was no railroad, nor any ferry across the Rhine River to Rudesheim, a town that also existed in Hildegard’s day, and is now dominated by a hilltop abbey of which she was abbess for many years.

I started my visit by stopping in at the permanent Hildegard installation at the Bingen City Museum, where I was able to see many artefacts I had only ever seen photos of: original paintings from Hildegard’s visions, letters she wrote to various kings and the Holy Roman Emperor, mockups of the now-destroyed monastery and various abbeys where she lived, and other documents.

Perhaps what I admire most about St. Hildegard was her willingness to be exactly who God had told her to be and speak exactly what God had told her to speak. This was her true freedom. Even as I read letter after letter where she delivered His words to popes and kings as honestly as possible … I was in awe of the authority she moved in.

“Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong,” Hildegard wrote. For many years, she herself gave testimony that fear had bound her and kept her caged in that tiny cell. But when she decided to let go of fear, she stepped into her voice and her power.

In her willingness to be exactly whom God made her, and be completely transparent about it, she made an impact that is still felt 900 years later.

In late morning, I walked up the side of a steep hill, through “downtown” Bingen, to the famous St. Rochus Chapel where a shrine stands to Hildegard’s memory.

Along the way I walked through a “garden of saints”–statues representing all of Jesus’ disciples, the Apostle Paul and others–and found my way through a muddy forest to the chapel road.

The door to St. Rochus was open, but no one was there. I stepped into a dank, chill medieval stone sanctuary, where a row of benches and a locked set of iron bars separated me from the priceless relics in the church itself. The famous icon of St. Hildegard was lit by single lightbulb on a timer; I had to keep flicking the switch to get a good look at her from afar, behind the bars that separated us.

But I was okay with the distance and the darkness, mostly. It gave me time to sit in silence, to contemplate all that had passed in the previous years and what coming to this place really meant. I felt pricked in my conscience that God was saying something me here, in this place.

Something, perhaps, about coming out of hiding myself.

Though I had not been locked up in a stone cell like Hildegard was for many early years of her life, I had been locked up in more invisible prisons than I could count. I had found the key when I had begun to find my voice, and (more importantly) the voice of God within me. But there was still a part of me that was silent and hiding.

Sitting here in the darkness, with St. Hildegard on the other side of the bars, I came face to face with that. I knew I wanted to be free to dance again–maybe for the first time in my life–and like St. Hildegard, help free other women to dance themselves.

After leaving St. Rochus, I visited the nearby nunnery, where I enjoyed a lunch cooked by the nuns from Hildegard’s original recipe, complete with wine from grapes grown on the property.

Side note: I’m in love with Dornfelder wines now, but I’ve never been able to find them in the U.S. (And good luck finding any particular kind of wine in Dubai.)

As I enjoyed this meal, I thought about St. Hildegard’s work as a healer. I myself had seen first-hand how my body had reacted to the tremendous sadness and stress I underwent during my divorce. I had enjoyed good health up to that point but found myself at the . mercy of terrible digestive issues that continued up to this day.

Every aspect of the meal I was eat was designed to heal the body. Though St. Hildegard had incomplete medical information, and not all of her medieval ideas were medically factual, she had indeed made a lot of sound conclusions. And she understood the root cause of such issues: the connection between mind, spirit and body.

What happens in the body affects the mind and the heart. And Hildegard had not been afraid to treat them together.

I have seen in my own journey how working with these three elements together brought me incredible freedom. And I want to pass that freedom on.

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As I completed my first day in Bingen, I felt that same tug in my heart that had drawn me to the city in the first place from more than 5000 miles away.

It was the tug to step into a life bigger, more courageous and more authentic than anything I had previously lived.

And just as it had begun for St Hildegard with owning her voice, her gifts and the visions God had given her … I knew it would begin there for me. This blog is the beginning of that journey. It has now been almost a year since I walked with St. Hildegard in Bingen … and God has brought me to settle in a new country and given me an entirely new life.

But have I truly stepped into my voice and my gifts? Have I really acknowledged who I am, and owned it to the whole world, regardless of what anyone thinks?

That’s a level of transparency hardly any of us reach. But this transparency is exactly the reason Hildegard’s life shines so brightly almost 900 years later.

Today, I resonate with St. Hildegard’s story more than ever. I understand now that my first attraction to her story was really God’s way of drawing me deeper toward my own calling. Like her, I hear from Him. Like her, I write down what He says–though I often am too afraid to share it. When people ask me for advice, I tell them exactly what I heard God saying to me about their situation.

I have stories to write, visions to paint, dreams to turn into dance. Not everything I have to say will be popular, or even appreciated. And I hope my life can shine brightly for some other woman who needs hope that God can transform her.

You can’t make an impact when you are sitting in silence behind prison bars. And I can’t make an impact while I’m silent, either.

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Like St. Hildegard, I found the key to my prison, and it’s time I leave it behind–and don’t look back.

The last almost three years were my first lessons in what it’s like to live without prison walls and without limits. What remains now is for me to pick up my pen, open my mouth, step into the work God has given me as His daughter and His prophet.

Because it is not in silence that we reclaim our lives. It is only in transparency can the light radiate out from us. It is only in the midst of THAT FIERY DANCE with God’s Holy Spirit and with the life that He has given us do we find that we are no longer aware of our years.

I’ve told you parts of the story but I haven’t told you the whole story. That begins here, today, in this space dedicated to speaking freely.

“I will tell you a secret about that divine light, about creative fire,” St. Hildegard once wrote. “The more you nourish it in your heart, the more it radiates out from you. The more you release it through your words, your deeds, of wisdom, of  loving compassion, the brighter the flame burns … and in that fiery dance, you will find that you are, as I myself discovered, no longer aware of your years.”  

May this blog be my sacrifice of praise and my platform of transparency.

It’s time to dance.

Want to reach me directly? Send me a message!

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