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.