Meditating with Hildegard

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“There is the music of Heaven in all things.”
— Hildegard of Bingen

The world fell away, my body melting into the earth. Light-filled tonalities danced in the darkness, lifting my spirit upward into a Divine embrace of soul-stirring spaciousness. . . . This was not a Near Death Experience but rather how I described in my journal my first experience of meditating to the music of the 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. In short, it was a taste of Heaven. Each time I return to Hildegard’s music, I feel a bit closer to the angels.

When I wrote “light-filled tonalities,” I meant that each note feels like light — as if luminous angels are flying gracefully about in the darkness — soaring, dipping, and lifting again to heights of ecstasy. The melodies fill the listener with vibrating light from head to toe! This experience makes sense because of Hildegard’s continual reference to the Divine “Living Light” which she experienced in visions and felt compelled to express in many forms, including music.

It is easy to think of her music as angelic, other-worldly — and yet it is inspired by her love of all things earthly. She was madly in love with creation! To her, every tree and flower and whale and person is infused with a divine melody. As the Celtic mother of “creation spirituality,” is it any wonder that she finds “the music of Heaven in all things?”

In this way, her music embodies her panentheism — that is, that all things are in God, and God in all things. This means God is embodied in this world, but more than this world. Her music, then, is that marriage of heaven and earth, that “more than” united with earthiness.

Her modal tonalites remind me of Gregorian Chant, but her music is far more expressive, soaring, and ecstatic. According to Matthew Fox, singing her music takes extraordinary stamina. Many feel faint or experience a “high” as her vocals span several octaves in a single phrase! Few can sing her music, but we can all find refreshment, centering — and even ecstasy — in meditating with her music.

I have found meditating with Hildegard to be a richly rewarding immersion into Divine Beauty that both transcends and embraces this world. It feels cosmic, as if embracing the universe with tender, motherly love. That is why her music works so well as a lullaby to the spiritual seeker — especially for those of us who need a little help going to sleep!

Hildegard scholar Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook says, “Hildegard’s theology of music is closely associated with her view of celestial harmony. For Hildegard, music is an integral component of her spirituality. All music and the arts in general, are divinely inspired.” Hildegard’s cosmic sense of “celestial harmony” finds ecstatic musical embodiment. At the same time, her music incarnates the process idea (a la Whitehead) of Beauty as intense harmony, bringing us back home to our interconnectedness with all earthy life — and with heaven itself.

Practice: Find a quiet place to sit or lie down with headphones. Take a deep breath and begin to listen to a Hildegard’s music. I recommend starting with the Canticles of Ecstasy by the early music ensemble, Sequentia. Listen to only one or two pieces at a time. Simply be with the music. Don’t worry about following the Latin text unless you want to; just breathe with melody. Hildegard often referred to herself as “a feather on the breath of God.” Be that feather and feel yourself floating with the rise and fall of each phrase. If your attention is drawn away by a thought or worry, simply let it go and return to the music. Even two or three minutes of Hildegard’s music can change your entire day!

To find out more about Hildegard and her music, Spirituality & Practice has many resources, including a sampling from the page, Feast day of Hildegard of Bingen. I also highly recommend Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook’s Hildegard of Bingen: Essential Writings and Chants of a Christian Mystic and Matthew Fox’s Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times.

This essay is also published on and

The Queen’s Message

As millions of people world-wide mourn the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, I remember her beautiful Christmas message from 2015. As the head of the Church of England, she was a devoted Christian, but her words of unity, hope, and love surely resonated with many people, including those who do not share her faith:

“It is true that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. . . . Despite being displaced and persecuted throughout his short life, Christ’s unchanging message was not one of revenge or violence but simply that we should love one another.”

This simple message of “love one another” has been sadly lost by many today, so the Queen’s wisdom, born of 70 years as the head of the Church of England, was a breath of fresh air to people around the world. Such a relational message fits the relational power the monarchy exerts in today’s world. Since 1215 (The Magna Carta), Britain has slowly evolved from a coercive Empire with a dark past into a democratic constitutional monarchy that presides over a free Commonwealth of Nations. Of course, there is much to be acknowledged and repented of from past sins of imperialism, slavery, and racism. (The same is true of slavery and oppression in our own country.)

Today, the monarchy exercises what some call “soft power,” which is no longer controlling but rather influencing as they partner with Parliament and citizens to nurture democracy and offer reassuring cultural identity. Queen Elizabeth has been an integral part of that transformation.

The Queen’s death is a momentous moment in history. As I watched thousands of mourners waiting up to 20 hours in line to pay tribute to their beloved Queen, I was deeply moved. It is as though she served as a unifying and reassuring presence — a kind of royal grandmother to all. Her strength, generosity of spirit, and maternal power — even in death – awaken something tender within me and no doubt to millions of others.

Whatever you may think of Britain’s monarchy, this transformation of power relations from controlling to influencing is cause for celebration. It is the difference between what the systems scientist Riane Eisler calls “Domination systems” and “Partnership systems.” (See Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future.). Domination systems (autocracies) impoverish people while partnership systems (democracies) empower people.

Many people associate God with domination systems, which is bad theology. God is not a coercive, all-controlling dictator but rather our Divine Partner who beckons us toward partnership in all our relations, both personal and political. It is our responsibility to respond—and that means doing what we can to bring out more partnership-oriented power relations, which center around the notion of loving and empowering one another.

Rest in peace, Queen Elizabeth. Your message of unity, hope, and love lives on. 

Rocking Chair Meditation

I rock. Everyday. Sometimes twice a day — every time I get a chance. I particularly like to rock in the dark, before bedtime, as it works better than sleeping pills. My rocking chair has become my favorite place to read, to dream, to chat with a friend, to listen to music, to drink tea – carefully — and yes, to meditate. I rock away stress, bad news, obsessive thoughts, back pain, and the despair of this world.

After rocking for only a few weeks in my Amish-made wooden rocker, I am convinced that the humble rocking chair may just be one of the most enjoyable ways to love the body, refresh the spirit, and calm the excessive anxiety in these difficult times.

Rocking with God

Of course, the rocking chair has sterling reviews from health experts for improving the three M’s: mind, muscles, and mood. As a theologian and spiritual practitioner, I find that the rocking chair can aid in three more M’s: meditation, metaphor, and meaning.

According to Alfred North Whitehead, God “dwells in the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.” The rocking chair is the perfect place to meditate on God’s tenderness and love. If we understand God as creative, unconditional, nurturing Love, then what could be more appropriate for a spiritual practice than allowing ourselves moments that touch on those feelings? Think of yourself as an infant being cradled, rocked, and calmed. Such cradling Love whispers to us: You are loved. You are cherished. You are cared for.

We all need this reassurance, especially in times of fear, transition, and loss. Sometimes we just need it for no reason other than countering the years of shadowy, unloving voices in our heads that whisper: I’m not worthy of love; I’m not enough

Rocking reminds me that there is more than gun violence and climate change and insane politics. There is always a place of refreshment and peace within. Even hope. The movement of the rocking chair renews my faith in the openness of the future – “the creative advance into novelty” (Whitehead).

With the infant’s cradle as a picture of God’s tenderness, the gentle to-and-fro rhythm of the rocker can be a place of peace and refuge. All of us yearn to be tucked into the cradle of divine love!

When I rock, I am also reminded of the meaning of my life: a co-creator with God, unfolding in love and wisdom and beauty for the sake of the world. We often say something or someone “rocked my world.”  That’s because it moves us, gets us out of our static sense of ourselves, changes us, gives life meaning and purpose. I loved to be rocked: rocked by the dazzle of the universe as seen in the Webb photos from space, rocked by kindness, rocked by new ideas, rocked by beauty. What meaning rocks your world?

Co-Rockers in a Rocking Universe

In a rocking chair, we are not rocking on our own power alone; nor are we being rocked passively. In every gentle rock, we join the Divine to-and-fro rhythm of receiving/creating, receiving/creating. With our feet pushing us up into the arc of motion, we let go to the gentle flow of life unfolding in the sweet rhythm of a lullaby. Gentle movement carries us safely backward and forward again. Each lift of the heel is a Yes! to the ongoing flow of life.

As in walking meditation, rocking meditation asks us to pay attention to movement. But here the feet lift gently to create the regular rhythm that keeps our minds focused. 

Every repetition seems to be exactly like the last one, but it is different, each one. Like occasions of experience unfolding, one after the other, the window of the soul opens to the flow of fresh offerings. Like the gentle rock of a boat on a river, our rocking can take us into deeper depths of love. 

Hard Rock, Soft Rock

When we rock hard – big motions and feet off the floor — we sense joy flooding through our body as the blood circulates and muscles strengthen. When we rock soft and small with the gentlest of movement, we can sense the rhythm of a heartbeat — much like our mother’s heartbeat in the womb.

This heartbeat rhythm reminds us that we are inside God as much as God is inside us. The womb of God is filled with the steady heartbeat that moves through Universe, creating stars and immortal music, bringing lovers together in union, and giving song to the blackbird. 

Rocking Meditation Practice

Now find a comfortable rocking chair, sit down, and begin rocking. Take some deep breaths, close your eyes, and notice the rhythm of your rock. Do you choose “hard rock” or “soft rock”? Try some of both. Finally choose a comfortable rhythm and focus your attention on the forward/back motion, letting all thoughts gently fall away as you keep your attention on the motion and rhythm of your rock. Now try a few of your favorite spiritual affirmations. You might want to include these:

I am cradled in Divine Love.

I am safe.

I am loved.

I am cared for.

I move with the Spirit.

I am unfolding, moment by moment.

My heart beats with all the creatures of the world.

My heart beats with the heart of God.

I am deeply connected to everything in the Universe.

Now, if you find comfort in singing, why not sing yourself a lullaby? If you don’t like to sing, listen to lullabies with headphones, especially if the child within you is hurting and scared.

Keep Rocking On

If we are sad or suffering, we can preface our affirmations with: “Even though I feel sad, I am cradled in Divine Love,” and so on.

We know that in this relational world of free will and shared power, suffering is never God’s doing—or allowance; on the contrary, God’s heart breaks over the broken shards of unnecessary violence and needless suffering; But we also know that God’s heart is big enough to hold not only heartache but healing, too — and transformation and resurrection and fresh possibilities beyond our imagination.

We might even learn through the steady rhythm of rocking that our own hearts are bigger than we think: stronger and more resilient than we imagined, and even able move forward with hope amid sadness and discouragement.

When we spend a few moments in rocking meditation, we are ready to offer this same love and reassurance to those around us; we become a new creation, ready to rock the world with who we are and what we have to give.

Come what may, we keep rocking on.

Also published in Spirituality & Practice and Open Horizons

Sunflowers for Distressed Hearts

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“The sunflower is mine.” –Vincent van Gogh

Distressed Hearts

One year before his death, Vincent Van Gogh wrote to a friend that he yearned “to make of painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has been before us. . . a consolatory art for distressed hearts.” This was the purpose behind his art—to console the distressed and comfort the brokenhearted. Perhaps this is why we feel comforted by his loving brushstrokes of variegated hues. With his palette knife, he tenderly worked the fragments of light into textured waves of consoling colors and forms. He gave us what he had hoped to give:  a “consolatory art for distressed hearts.”

As the darkness of war rises in the East, we admit our need for consolation in art and in life. We long for Lenten light — lengthening light to combat the darkness within and without. And yes, after a long winter, we long for flowers! We can, in any season, turn to Van Gogh’s flowers, especially his favorite, the sunflower—a flower he associated with both light and gratitude.

Because the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine, we have been wearing and posting these “little suns” as they represent solidarity with Ukraine, hope for the future of democracy, and resistance against Russian aggression. But these luminous beauties represent even more for the people of Ukraine, and the world, too.

Sunflowers Instead of Missiles

A peaceful democracy, Ukraine once possessed the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. But on June 4, 1996, Ukraine gave up its last nuclear warhead on a former Ukrainian missile base. On this celebratory occasion of becoming nuclear free, the then US Secretary of Defense William Perry said to a crowd that included dignitaries from the US, Russia, and Ukraine, “Sunflowers instead of missiles in the soil will ensure peace for future generations.”  Then, they scattered and planted sunflower seeds on the site.  

Sunflowers then became more than a national flower. They gave us a symbol of peace worldwide, an icon of sun-drenched beauty to free the world of nuclear weapons.

Van Gogh would have loved this. In 1888, in a letter to his sister, he wrote that he wanted to decorate his studio with nothing but sunflowers. Nothing but sunflowers! Is it any wonder that he filled no less than twelve canvases with sunflowers? The sunflower became his own personal artistic signature, telling his brother Theo in a letter in 1889, “the sunflower is mine.”

What if we all claimed the sunflower “as mine” in the sense of all it stands for. Could we then become like these little suns, reflecting light to the world?  What if we scattered sunflower seeds all over our neighborhoods and communities? And especially in places where tragedies have left a dark void. Would this not offer comfort, consolation, and beauty to our brokenhearted world?

Sunflower Souls

Science reveals that the sunflower is more than just a pretty face. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the sunflower stood alone as survivors in the desolated nuclear wasteland. They not only survived but thrived and blossomed afresh. That’s because sunflowers are, in scientific terms, “hyperaccumulators” that can soak up toxicity at a high rate, healing the soil of heavy metals and the air of radiation. Sunflowers help speed up the process of making water drinkable again. Sunflowers may not be able to stop disasters, but they can help heal and restore. Their beauty is more than skin deep. They have huge sunflower souls that can take in the bad as well as the good for the sake of the world.

“Beauty will save the world,” said Dostoyevsky. In the sunflower we begin to see glimpses of this declaration unfolding in bright fields of yellow suns. Sunflowers are, in life and art, light bearers of consolation, sharers of sorrow, resistant fighters against toxic forces, and restorers of life and beauty.

As the embodiment of undaunted resilience in the face of decimation, sunflowers hold within them the very spirit of resurrection hope. May that hope bring peace in Ukraine and in every distressed heart.

Why Not Paint Your Dream?

Over two centuries ago, a 19-year-old man left France to follow his dream of joining the fight for freedom in the American Revolution. Against the will of the French King, the Marquis de Lafayette procured his own sailing ship to take him to America. Some called him foolish, but soon he was called a hero, and eventually he brought France into the war. Without him, it is unlikely we would have won our independence.

If we could ask Lafayette, “Why did you come to help us?” he would probably tell us that his passion for the cause of freedom was galvanized by the motto emblazoned on his family crest: Cur Non, Latin for “Why Not?”

Today, Cur Non is the proud philosophy of Layfette College in Eastman, Pennsylvania, which challenges its students to move beyond the familiar, the comfortable, the easy. “We dare them to become thinkers and leaders themselves. We offer them opportunities to jump into the thick of things, to take risks, to care deeply. . . . Why not? Why not you? Why not here? Why not now?”

Two hundred years after the American Revolution, Robert Kennedy resurrected the spirit of Cur Non in one of his famous speeches, when he quoted George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream of things that never were and say why not.”

Here’s an idea: What if we adopted the courage and daring imagination of Cur Non into our spiritual life? Would we be less hesitant to follow our dreams? Would we finally pull out the canvas and paint brushes we’ve been secretly holding back? Would we dare to speak out for those being crushed by the powerful and greedy? Would we have the courage to follow the “lure of God” as we say in process theology? Could we galvanize our imagination to look beyond the world of “what is” to the world of “what can be”?

What if the motto Cur Non could be ours? Why not? Great thinkers and artists embed this motto into their creative work all the time. It’s what makes them great.

Van Gogh once wrote, “I dream of painting and I paint my dream.” Such is the spirit of Cur Non. After years of struggle over his vocation, when he finally said, “why not?” to his dream of being an artist, out poured over 2,000 luminous works of art in the span of 10 years. Martin Luther King had a dream, too, and he began painting it with bold, vivid colors, leaving us to pick up that dream and continue to paint justice. Why not dream? Why not create? Why not, against the naysayers, set sail for a revolution of mind and spirit?

Don’t just dream, whispers Cur Non, but paint your dream. Step out of your plushy comfort zone and say “Yes!” to the gladness waiting to rush out in a stampede of purpose and meaning. Simply take one step forward — one step, one breath, one stroke of the brush, and see how it feels. Why not? No one else will do it for you. The clock is ticking. What else have you got to do?

We have dreams tucked away in the drawers of our souls, and these dreams are precious. But we are born on this earth to do more than dream; the spirit of Cur Non beckons us to paint our dreams on canvas, in words, in brave acts that some will call folly; but, if driven by love, will leave an indelible impression on the whole planet so that it spins with just a little more gladness.

Lafeyette dreamed of a world of human dignity and freedom and dared to actualize that dream, fulfilling his family motto of Cur Non. But such stories can be intimidating. These giant figures of history remind us of how small and insignificant our own dreams are in comparison; our efforts wouldn’t make much difference anyway, we think. It would be risky, too. We might as well not try; better to be safe than sorry.

And we would be wrong.

We are all divinely imbued with the motto, Cur Non, “Why Not?” It is emblazoned on the hearts of those yearning for the freshness of adventure; it reaches to the heavens of novel possibility — and then boldly proclaims, Yes!

Our dreams don’t have to be big and flashy, and they are not just for the young and hardy. We can paint them at any age, on a canvas of any size we wish. If we could make our corner of world just a tad more beautiful, slightly more just, and fleetingly more kind, then, why not? Why not paint outside the lines of what is to the world of what can be? Why not now? Why not here? Why not you?