Hildegard of Bingen on Emptying and the Via Negativa

Like Howard Thurman, who speaks in his book on Jesus and the Disinherited to “people with their backs against the wall,” Hildegard of Bingen teaches about emptying. 

“Emptying: The True Spirit of Poverty” by Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias.

She paints a picture with a girl “clothed in a plain tunic” who represents “the poor in spirit [who]do not seek to boast or inflate their spirits, but choose a simplicity and sobriety of mind.” 

In doing so, they imitate Christ, since he, “even though he had heavenly riches, subjected himself humbly to the poor.”  Here she is describing the theme of kenosis, of being emptied which happens in the via negativa.  Christ, emptied of divinity, became human.  (Phil. 2.6-11)  So we, emptied of boasting and self-inflation, become poor in spirit and in this way capable of receiving the Great Spirit.

While Hildegard celebrates the spirit of poverty as the spirit of being emptied, she goes out of her way not to make a virtue of being poor.  She criticizes those who ignore helping the poor for their lukewarmness and their being asleep—and ignoring of justice making.  Many people

…do not wish to be busy about justice or about rubbing out injustice or about paying back their debts.

She rebukes the laziness, timidity, and false fear of those who, in the name of a religiously pious poverty, do nothing in their lifetimes about justice and injustice. 

She admonishes people to

“Buddy, Can you spare three TRILLION?” by eyewashdesign: A. Golden is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

…cry out loud and speak about incorruption….Some refuse to speak or proclaim this because they are lukewarm and dull when it comes to preserving God’s justice.

Hers is a prophetic call. She declares that hard-heartedness is

…the worst sin since it shows no mercy.  Neither does it think that charity is necessary nor does it do any good works…. 

“Hard-heartedness was strong in tyrants,” she observes, and among the overly rich.  Yet “no one is able to be satisfied by abundance—you are only bored by it.”  Does this have something to do with billionaires in our time rushing to buy and sell trips for other billionaires and millionaires into space? 

Hildegard pictures hard-hearted ones saying:

Why should I do any work [for others]? Why should I wear myself out? Nothing excites me except what benefits me directly….If I am always busy being compassionate, what good will it do me? What kind of life will I have if I pay attention to all the happy and sad people? I will take care of myself. Let others take care of themselves.

Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos sparked a flurry of criticism after thanking Amazon workers for funding his trip to space aboard his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle. Video by Reuters.

Hildegard tells us that

this sin hardens people so much that they do not wish to know the image of God nor recognize it in other people because without kindness they lack any kind of mercy and goodness.

They instead fall into envy and hard-heartedness is

the worst evil of all evils. It spares no one and shows no mercy. It despises men and draws back from God. It does not rejoice with men nor does it encourage humans to do good deeds. It is very hard and despises all things.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, pp. 112-116;

Also see Matthew Fox, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint For Our Times, pp. 100f.

Banner Image: “A Drink of Water.” Photo by Sarwer e Kainat Welfare from Pexels

Do you see the inner work of emptying as useful for moving from a hard heart to a compassionate one and from injustice to justice?

Recommended Reading

Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen

An introduction to the life and work of Hildegard of Bingen, Illuminations reveals the life and teachings of one of the greatest female artists and intellectuals of the Western Mystical Tradition.  At the age of 42, she began to have visions; these were captured as 36 illuminations–24 of which are recorded in this book along with her commentaries on them.
“If one person deserves credit for the great Hildegard renaissance in our time, it is Matthew Fox.”  – Dr Mary Ford-Grabowsky, author of Sacred Voices.

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.


Join Matthew Fox for a thought-provoking 7-week course: Answer the Call for an Uncommon Life Through the Mystical Teachings of St. Hildegard, Tuesdays, 6/15 to 7/27. While the course has begun, registration remains open, with recordings of past classes available. Learn more HERE.

Join us for a Virtual Teach-in with Isa Gucciardi and Matthew Fox, hosted by Rev. Cameron Trimble.
August 13-14, 2021 (Fri-Sat)
Shamanism in Buddhism and Christianity
Session 1: Friday, August 13 at 4pm-6pm PT
Session 2: Saturday, August 14 at 9am-12pm PT
Session 3: Saturday, August 14 at 12:30pm-2:30pm PT

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5 thoughts on “Hildegard of Bingen on Emptying and the Via Negativa”

  1. Avatar

    Do we empty ourselves or is it done to us? The pride and boastfulness Hildegard talks about seems so subtle (in me) that I didn’t recognize it until the pandemic when things have shut down. It has forced me to slow down and let me see that I”ve been puffing myself up by running around in life. Now that I’ve slowed down a bit and become more quiet and thoughtful, I can see that my motives for helping others has not been pure. It has been fueled partly by making my own self feel good. But now that this feeling is gone I must still help others. I do feel like my pride and desire for comfort have had a hole punched in them and those balloons are deflated a whole lot. I’m left with a simple desire to help others. I turn to God in prayer to strengthen and sustain me.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Mary, it seems that you are being vigilant when it comes to the sin of pride. After being deflated you feel that you are left with “a simple desire to help others”–and that is as it should be. May God/dess bless you Mary !!!

  2. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    In my observation, the hard hearted never consider emptying… unless it is forced upon them by some cataclysmic event… which levels the playing field between the haves and have nots… such as the crash of the stock market and the great depression. If the injustices of this world do not directly impact the hard hearted… mainly in their wallets… or if it does not impact them in some other direct way… such as threatening their power or status… then the value of emptying is lost to them. The hard hearted need more than a crack for the light to get in. Protests, pandemics, earth quakes, forest fires, global warming, increased violence, wars… basically all that pertains to the global crises and the injustices that we facing… seem to have little effect on the hard hearted… and are often perpetuated by the hard heartedness of ignorance, arrogance, and selfish greed… which are the very things that they need to empty themselves of. And yet, in the midst of all this there are some who are open in heart, whom do know the value of self emptying, who do bring light, love, compassion, mercy, and justice into this darkened world… little lit tapers aflame… whom inspire hope where there is hopelessness… those whom are making a difference where they are, as best that they can… creating subtle changes often going unnoticed. Together these little lit tapers aflame… radiate a light for others to find their way to becoming and being more than we currently are. I choose to walk with these warriors, truth-tellers, prophets, mystics… the saints in the making… whom empty themselves for the greater good of the whole.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, you say that, “I choose to walk with these warriors, truth-tellers, prophets, mystics… the saints in the making… whom empty themselves for the greater good of the whole” and so do I. Thank you for reminding us of this!

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