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Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Hildegard and the Beatles


SERMON PREACHED AT ST JOHN’S CATHEDRAL
(THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL CHURCH
OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST) NAPIER
EVENSONG ON THE FEAST OF St HILDEGARD OF BINGEN (1098-1179)
September 17th 2015

 
Very briefly, and with a conglomerate of readings from evensong for this day and the themes raised by the life of the great feisty mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), let us reflect on the gift of God's tomorrow.
 
Hildegard, it should be said, has come somewhat into vogue in the last 40 years. That coming into vogue is not unrelated to the birth of alternative visions of life, including hippie cultures. A symbolic watershed for our era, our half a century, is probably the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” in 1962.
 
If pointing to that moment  is to draw a long bow don’t worry: most watershed descriptors are, but it’ll do. If we were to look for a symbolic moment at which mainstream, conservative, small-o orthodox religion went into its death throes it was when the Fab Four chanted those famous and vacuous lines. Love, Love me do, the way I love you: for I, of course, am the centre of the universe and the yardstick of all things.
 
It was of course far more complex. Without going into details in a family friendly service, oral contraception had hit the market, western civilization was peaking, psychedelic drugs were spreading, post-war euphoria had given way to harsh new realities of gender equality, capitalism was tapping on the door of Sunday trading, sport was becoming capitalist, television was spreading its soporific influence exponentially, the times they were a-changing (I had to get my guru in somewhere), and Christendom was dead.
 
Some theologians were even claiming God was dead, but reports of God’s death were, as Mark Twain didn’t put it, grossly exaggerated. And as one of the myriad wings of new feminist consciousness reached forward to the summer of love, another wing reached back into a small twelfth century monastic cell and there found twelfth century Benedictine nun Hildegard.
 
Feisty, feminist, reformist, peripatetic and prophetic, Hildegard has been called the most important woman of the twelfth century. She was a visionary who devoted her life to prayer and teaching, and who brought science, faith and art together in an inseparable tie of mutual love and respect. Like the Jesuit poet Hopkins centuries later she saw the whole world charged with the grandeur of God, but she saw equally the plight of the poor, heard the cry of the dispossessed, and exercised Jesus’ radical and unquestioning Hebrew ethos of inclusion and embrace.
 
But this is not merely academic and feel-good nostalgia. Where for us is the rubber of feisty prophetic vision to hit the road of post-Beatles nonchalance, misunderstanding and disinterest?
 
For the feisty prophetic tradition, from the Zechariah tradition of “My sword, wake-up,” to Jesus’ gauntlets at the feet of religious hypocrites, to Hildegard’s famous “Dare to declare who you are. It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap;” through these outbursts the challenge is the same: how do we speak of a radically compassionate God, a radically death-transcending God, a radically hope-bringing God in a world marked by all fifty shades of indifference, corruption, and self-interest?
Tonight we will share a gift and a vision and a talent or two in the body of Christ, but every night is only a pause of renewal before a new beginning: as we say cosily in one of the great prayers of He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa:
 
Give us that due sense of all your mysteries, that our hearts may be truly thankful, and that we praise you not only with our lips but with our lives.
 

Or, as might put it on this evening of the Feast of St Hildegard,
 
O God, by whose grace thy servant Hildegard, enkindled with the Fire of thy love, became a burning and shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever.
Amen.
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