Howard Thurman and Hildegard of Bingen: Brother & Sister in Creation Spirituality

One might ask what unites a twelfth century Benedictine abbess and a twentieth century African American prophet and philosopher?  It is the sacredness of creation and of life.

Hildegard of Bingen, self portrait.

Indeed, there is so much that unites Hildegard of Bingen and Howard Thurman that I devoted a chapter to that marriage in my most recent book on Hildegard. 

When religion is healthy and doing its job well, the distinction between the God of life and the God of religion need not apply. But when religion demonstrates signs of losing its way, as in Hildegard’s world of the 12th century and ours of the 21st century, the distinction Thurman and Hildegard make is crucial.  Some of the similarities in their thought follows. Says Thurman:

At long last it seems to me that the customary distinction between religion and life is a specious one… All life, indeed all experience, is heavy with meaning, with particular significance.

He continues:

God is not merely the Creator of all creatures, of all objects animate and inanimate; but also, and more importantly, God is the Creator of life itself. Existence is the creation of God; life is the creation of God. This is of more than passing significance.

Creation from the roots of plants, Gardens By The Bay, Singapore. Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Indeed it is! Hildegard felt the same way. “God is life,” she says. “Who is the Holy Trinity? You are music, you are life.” 

And I felt the same way when I wrote my very first book, a book on the meaning of prayer (and before I had encountered either Thurman and Hildegard).  The book was named On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American Style.  There I define prayer as a radical response to life and speak of our Yes responses to life (which I categorize as mysticism) and our No response to injustice and that which interferes with life (which I categorize as prophecy).  I still hold to that understanding of prayer to this day and the more recent version of the book has a more sober title, simply Prayer: A Radical Response to Life.

Communion. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Thurman gets excited on more than one occasion at the aliveness of life:

We are so overwhelmed by the personal but vast impact of the particularity of living objects that we are scarcely aware of a much more profound fact in our midst and that is that life itself is alive.

He exclaims a second time: Life is alive [sic]; this is its abiding quality as long as it prevails at all. The word ‘life’ is synonymous with vitality…

Vitality is an excellent synonym for spirituality. To be spiritual is to be aware to be fully alive, truly vital.

Hildegard attributes this sacred aliveness directly to the Holy Spirit calling when the Holy Spirit the “Life of the life of all creatures.”

Adapted from Matthew Fox, “The God of Life and Light—or the God of Religion?” in Fox, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, pp. 25-32.

See also, Matthew Fox: Prayer: A Radical Response to Life

Banner Image: Hildegard von Bingen. Line engraving by W. Marshall. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. On Wikimedia Commons. “Howard Thurman” by On Being, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Does spirituality as “vitality” work for you as an understanding of spirituality?  How do Thurman’s and Hildegard’s teachings in this DM support your journey?

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

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.
“This book gives strong, sterling, and unvarnished evidence that everything – everything – we ourselves become will affect what women after us may also become….This is a truly marvelous, useful, profound, and creative book.” ~~ Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism.

Prayer: A Radical Response to Life
How do prayer and mysticism relate to the struggle for social and ecological justice? Fox defines prayer as a radical response to life that includes our “Yes” to life (mysticism) and our “No” to forces that combat life (prophecy). How do we define adult prayer? And how—if at all—do prayer and mysticism relate to the struggle for social and ecological justice? One of Matthew Fox’s earliest books, originally published under the title On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American StylePrayer introduces a mystical/prophetic spirituality and a mature conception of how to pray. Called a “classic” when it first appeared, it lays out the difference between the creation spirituality tradition and the fall/redemption tradition that has so dominated Western theology since Augustine. A practical and theoretical book, it lays the groundwork for Fox’s later works.
“One of the finest books I have read on contemporary spirituality.” – Rabbi Sholom A. Singer

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5 thoughts on “Howard Thurman and Hildegard of Bingen: Brother & Sister in Creation Spirituality”

  1. Avatar

    Many years ago I read On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American Style. It struck me that it described the spirituality my Father Lived. Say yes to life and all that nourishes it and no to death and all that diminishes it. Now many years later I am not sure whether Matthew described that as Jewish, but it encapsulated my father who came from a Jewish family in London. He did become a Catholic prior to marrying my Mother who came from a spirituality nourished by her mother’s faith born in Czechoslovakia and the Infant of Prague. But my father never interiorized much of the dogma of Catholicism. When I spoke to him of what I found in that book, he wanted me to get him a copy of it (he never read books) and he so enjoyed it.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      David, Thank you for sharing the experience of your father with us. And I too read On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear, and when I later attended Matthew’s University of Creation Spirituality, one of our class rooms was named after the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. And Matthew once said that if he was stranded on a desert island and had only one thing to read it would be Heschel. And so Yes, Matthew is very Jewish in his thinking.

  2. Avatar

    Even in urban life, if we take enough time to sit outside and observe the animals living around us, we begin to see that they are inclined to love us. We notice that they have to notice that we are okay individually. When they notice that we are okay, we notice that they love us. Animals recognize us. Insects recognize us too. They are more aware of us than we are aware of them. When we take enough days to harmlessly hang around outside in the same area we notice that the animals consider us as loving relatives. Birds will come closer and fly closer. Rabbits will lay around close to us. Squirrels will beckon to us. The giving involved in maintaining a bird-bath and putting out treats illuminates us much quicker in the reception of this part of our natural reality if we have not been aware of it.

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