Were Hildegard’s Visions Caused by Migraines? by Mary Sharratt


hildegard's vision of christ 2

Hildegard’s vision of Christ, surrounded by concentric circles of light.

 

 

When I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.

–Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B., and Jane Bishop

Neurologist Oliver Sacks believed that the dazzling visions of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the great Benedictine abbess and polymath, were caused by migraines. Hildegard struggled with chronic health problems. In Scivias, her first book of visionary theology, she described being bedridden when she received the divine command to write and speak about her visions that she had kept secret since childhood. According to Sacks, the symptoms she described are identical to those of migraine sufferers. He also stated that the concentric circles in the illuminations illustrating her visions are reminiscent of a migraine aura.

But can Hildegard’s visionary experience truly be reduced to pathological hallucinations?

In her medical treatise Causae et Curae, Hildegard described the migraine in detail but never connected this diagnosis to herself. Moreover she herself did not paint the illuminations. So the rings of light could be the artist’s stylistic interpretation, unrelated to any alleged visual hallucinations on Hildegard’s part. The migraine sufferers I know in my own life regrettably report that they’ve never beheld wondrous visions.

Thus, the migraine theory remains speculative.

In our hyper-rationalistic age, I think we are too hasty to “diagnose” historical figures, particularly spiritual women, with various maladies—i.e., “Joan of Arc was suffering from mental illness.” One thing we do know is that Hildegard lived in an age of faith. She and those around her sincerely believed her visions were real. Hildegard’s revelations of the Feminine Divine and of divine immanence in the natural world make her so relevant for us today. Her authority as a Doctor of the Church rests in her epic trilogy of visionary theology, not in any catalog of physical symptoms.

In Scivias, Hildegard wrote:

The visions I saw I did not perceive in dreams, or sleep, or delirium, or by the eyes of the body, or by the ears of the outer self, or in hidden places; but I received them while awake and seeing with a pure mind and the eyes and the ears of the inner self, in open places, as God willed it. How this might be is hard for mortal flesh to understand.

Fortunately the field of neuroscience is evolving to embrace, rather than dismiss, visionary experience. New research has revealed the impact that spiritual experience has on the brain–without attempting to pathologize this phenomenon. In their book How God Changes Your Brain, neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman reveal how regular prayer and meditation not only reduce stress and slow down the aging process, but can change the way our brains function and transform the way we view our world.

We might not all be extraordinary visionaries like Hildegard, but uncovering our own deeply held spiritual truths through personal devotional practice can open our eyes to life’s radiance.

 

Mary Sharratt’s book Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award: Better Books for a Better World and was a 2012 Kirkus Book of the Year. Her forthcoming novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask, will be published by Houghton MIfflin Harcourt in Spring 2016. Visit her website.

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Categories: Christianity, Female Saints, General, hildegard of bingen, Women Mystics

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23 replies

  1. You mention the artist’s stylistic interpretations. Do we know who the artist was? Years ago a Harper and Row slide show on women artists I had said the artist was Hildegaard. If not Hildegaard, was it a woman? a man? directed and watched by H? more than one person?

    Great post.

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  2. Thanks, Mary. There was an online article I saw recently that showed statistics where the same symptoms in a woman vs. a man were often diagnosed differently — the woman was accused of emotional or psychological problems, the man with the same symptoms was taken more seriously as having medical problems. The story was in the Huffington Post and the headline read: “How Sexism and Implicit Bias Hurt Girls and Women’s Health” by Soraya Chemaly.

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  3. I have had migraines, not the kind with the visual effects, but the kind that effects the entire gastro-intestinal system. I don’t think visions should be dismissed or explained away as having some pathological source. I also believe that intense experiences like migraines, or childbirth, (migraines are worse!) can have a spiritual dimension. That kind of pain and its extraordinary aftermath open you and take you to places you don’t usually go. I am glad that I don’t have migraines often any longer and I would be happy never to have one again. But I can still recall that sense of vulnerability and utter openness and the peace that followed.

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  4. As I read your post and the comments to it I could not help but wonder why it should be that a presumably ‘physical’ explanation of a phenomenon (a migraine induced vision/experience) should be considered to negate the legitimacy of interpreting it as being ultimately a manifestation of what is otherwise ‘metaphysical.’ Is that not the issue every scientist–especially neuroscientist–squirms away from addressing?

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    • That’s a really interesting point, Stuart, and I think it deserves its own indepth post. What I object to is the dismissal of visionary experience as physical or mental pathology. The neuroscience of how physiological and physical phenomena link into spiritual and visionary experience, however, is vastly intriguing and I hope more research is done in this vein.

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  5. Reblogged this on Magick Thoughts SL and commented:
    Is it possible that the artistic visions can be causes by migraines??? IF this is possible then this may be why my visions are so vivid and clear ever since my dreams I had when I was 4 years old. I sued to have recurring dream when I was young.

    The dream was of my Aunt Shirley’s farm house. (picture of it below) I dreamt that it was night time and there were lots of gunshots. I wake up from my cousins bed upstairs and run down and outside barefoot. My white nightgown brushing my legs. My heart is pounding and everywhere I run I see dead bloody bodies laying all over the ground. Near the picnic table I see one of the dead bodies turn its head and look straight at me. I screamed. I remember running back in the house tot he kitchen and my Aunt consoles me and I remember looking at the moon shadows of the blinds on the wall.

    I used to have this dream quite often. It is so vivid I can describe it detail for detail even now 40-ish years later. I grew into my migraines. They are feirce and rather often. I try to illustrate my art the best I can get it right for my vision. Is it possible that these visions are due to migraines? Hildegards experiences was around 40 years old with her bright golden light. I never saw the light but I believe I live in it so I don’t see it so much.

    I am adding a picture I took of my Aunts house recently and it is due to be knocked down and wood salvaged. The house was built around the 1850’s and the whole time my Aunt and her family lived in it they used the wood burning stove and an outhouse up until 10 years ago. Such memories I have of that house .. so much love and family memories to cherish. There is a new house now built on the property in southern Indiana. But that dream of mine took place here around this old house.

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  6. leave it to an allopath neurologist to believe such a gift to be caused by migraines. good grief!! i’d never heard about St. Hildegard, so am very grateful to become acquainted with such an amazing n gifted woman of God.

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    • Good point. Why are allopathic medical men so eager to pathologize visionary women?

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      • Maud Burnett McInerney has similarly suggested that Singer’s initial proposal of Hildegard’s migraine phenomena can be seen to reflect a male desire to pathologize and thus temper and mollify women’s mystical experiences that are perceived as uncomfortable or even threatening (see McInerney’s introductory essay in the 1998 volume she edited, “Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays”).

        This reflects the broader post-Enlightenment trend of privileging a narrowly-defined “rational scientific inquiry” is the best or even only path to knowledge — and that has impacted not just women but men, too. For example, Padre Pio (now St. Pio di Pietrelcina) was for years shunned and silenced by a Church hierarchy that sought rationalizations to explain away his stigmata.

        On the other hand, we should be careful not to discount the immense value of scientific inquiry and its positive impacts on human life — otherwise we fall prey to that dangerous cycle of fear and suspicion that leads some, for example, to reject the immense benefits of vaccination. Remember that Hildegard herself embraced, in its given context, the scientific method — for example, her use of certain diagnostic methods in “Cause et Cure.”

        Hildegard’s insight was that the whole range of human epistemological experiences are unified in the divine being in which they are created. The theophany of Divine Love in the opening of “The Book of Divine Works” reveals herself not only as the fiery, creative force that enlivens all life, but also as Rationality. Exuberant creativity and rationality are not opposing forces in Hildegard’s thought, but necessarily complementary ones–either would falter without the other.

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      • Thank you for commenting, Nathan!

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