The Via Positiva: Mary Oliver & Hildegard of Bingen, Sisters of Astonishment

I had the privilege of hearing Mary Oliver speak a couple years ago to a full house in a large San Francisco auditorium.  Near the end of her talk she said, “I want to speak to the young ones in the audience.  I am 83 years old and I want to tell you everything I have learned about life.  Life is about three things: 1. Pay attention.  2.  Be astonished.  3. Share your astonishment.”

“Pay attention” – the awarenesses in the wilderness. Photo by Will Bolding on Unsplash

Surely “astonishment” is a fine synonym for awe, wonder, and the Via Positiva. 

No wonder Mary Oliver described herself as a “praise poet.”  Her praise did not come easily though since she was sexually abused by her father as a child, brought the news to her mother who went into denial, and left her home the day she graduated from high school never to return.  She says she struggled “years and years to love my life.”

Hildegard of Bingen also committed to Paying Attention; Being Astonished; and Sharing her Astonishment.  She writes: “Glance at the sun.  See the moon and the stars.  Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings.  Now, think.  What delight God gives to humankind with all these things.  Who gives all these shining, wonderful gifts, if not God?”  (16)

“Full Moon Over the Sea, Uruguay” Photo by Guzmán Barquín on Unsplash

And this:

         I, the fiery life of divine wisdom,

         I ignite the beauty of the plains,

         I sparkle the waters,

         I burn the sun,

                  and the moon,

                  and the stars.

         With wisdom I order ALL rightly,

         Above ALL I determine truth. (30)

Consider this I am poem:

         I am the one whose praise echoes on high.

I adorn all the earth.

“Finding My Roots” Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.

I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.

I am led by the spirit to feed the purest streams.

I am the rain coming from the dew

That causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.

I call forth tears, the aroma of holy work.

I am the yearning for good.

It strikes me that paying attention and undergoing astonishment and sharing it are what Hildegard is all about not only in her poetry but in her music and paintings, her scientific study, writings and healing practices as well.

Mary Oliver and Hildegard appear to be Sisters of Astonishment and the sharing of it–praise poets who have drunk deeply of the Via Positiva.

See Matthew Fox, “Hildegard Meets Mary Oliver,” in Fox, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint For Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, pp.11-24, 34.
Banner Image: “Grapes.” Photo by Rohit Tandon on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Do you share Hildegard’s “yearning for good?”  Do you feel the grasses “laughing with the joy of life”?  Do you taste the “sparkling of the waters” as Wisdom speaking to you? 

Is astonishment alive and well in you and a priority in what you share with others?

Recommended Reading

Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century

Author Matthew Fox writes in Hildegard of Bingen about this amazing woman and what we can learn from her.
In an era when women were marginalized, Hildegard was an outspoken, controversial figure. Yet so visionary was her insight that she was sought out by kings, popes, abbots, and bishops for advice.

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10 thoughts on “The Via Positiva: Mary Oliver & Hildegard of Bingen, Sisters of Astonishment”

  1. Avatar

    I, too had the same traumatic experience as as a child that Mary Oliver had. I did not remember until I was 42 and in graduate school to become a counselor. A dark veil had wrapped itself around the memories. Fifteen years of every kind of therapy helped. Then I completed the certification for the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music. It’s a beautiful, transpersonal kind of therapy. During that training I learned about “the astonishment of beauty.” I have followed that path ever since. Oddly enough, Facebook has proven to be a good source. Everyday I find many postings of beauty, kindness, music, art, poetry and nature. I chose to only look at things that astonish and uplift my spirit. Then I share it on fb with others. I love the term “Sister’s or Astonishment.” I feel privileged to be a part of that sisterhood. Thank you Matthew, for this particular meditation today – a wonderful gift on my 70th birthday!

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Kathie.
      I am so glad that “the astonishment of beauty” was so integral to the healing of your childhood trauma. One of the most profound dynamics of the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality is that the Via Negativa (pain and loss) lead to the Via Creativa (co-creating a new reality in the space made empty by loss.) Here you have taken your pain and loss and created more opportunities for “the astonishment of beauty” for others! Beautiful!
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar

    In one evening I experienced the joy of watching Hummingbirds sip nectar from our garden blossoms and a full moon reflecting a pool of light on the bay in front of us and lighting our bedroom in the wee hours of the morning – What bliss –

    1. Gail Ransom

      Thank you for sharing this blissful moment. What an inspiration for the rest of us to look up from our usual pursuits and find bliss all around.
      Gail Sophia Ransom
      For the DM Team

  3. Avatar

    August 2nd in the evening, I received an offer to work on my favorite kind of language arts textbook project–my career for over 30 years. And I need the money. Problem is, I am semi-retired; my focus has changed; and I made a commitment to write the first draft of a play by December 31st of this year, and this fall is the time I carved out to complete it. I went to sleep asking for guidance. Should I accept the project? If I did, would it be out of fear? As an older woman, I have only so much time to effect positive change (The Via Transformativa) through my playwriting. I did the math. The project–satisfying and lucrative as it would be–could take about 1/20th of my remaining healthy creative years. And so I awoke on August 4th to Matthew’s meditation on whom? Mary Oliver. And my play? It’s on Mary Oliver. You know, sometimes God hits us over the head with answers to our prayers. Talk about wonder!

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Michele,
      Thank you for your many comments. It is good to hear from you. Your story of refusing the textbook project to continue your work on Mary Oliver is inspiring. Messages and hints come to so many of us through odd and impressively clever means. I don’t know about you, but when such message come to me in unique ways, I can be as awestruck by the means and the message. A meditation. part of a series, prepared days in advance somehow comes to you on the very day of your dilemma. Such an intricate multi-layered universe we live in! No doubt your Mary Oliver project will be supported from start to finish!
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditations Team

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