Giving Life: On the Poignancy of Motherhood

Illumination from Liber Scivias: "Die Seele und ihr Zelt" (The soul and its tent) picturing the divine spark entering the human body (left) and it's journey throughout the challenges and difficulties of life (right, from bottom up) until finding the place to unfold her tent of rest.

"If Hildegard had been a male theologian, her Scivias would undoubtedly have been considered one of the most important early medieval summas.“ says the German Hildegard scholar Schipperges.

Some things you only understand when you have experienced them. For instance the odd feeling when new life settles first in your womb. Before, I only listened to mothers' stories of having borne, tended to, worried about or lost a child. But only when it happened to me could I walk into those feelings. For instance of what a mother endures, when the tender fruit of new life leaves her body before its time. Like after a flood that washes away the future, one remains behind in pain, but also in awe of how one's emptied body restores itself. Since that time, I wonder in new ways about the magic and vulnerability of motherhood.

Having borne, nurtured, and lost our children, mothers know from experience about hope and fear. We have worked through the big questions of being and non-being not only with our minds, but also in our very existence. Being granted the ability to give life, we are also confronted with the fragility and insecurity of all life, and the joys and sorrows motherhood carries in its core. 

For some, mother's day comes with a bittersweet undertone. No happy children posting happy messages. Some have lost their children before they could birth them, some lost them later, to death or to life. All mothers are also daughters, some cherishing, some mourning, some still struggling with their own mothers. 

I think about a client who grew up with a cold and rejecting mother, and now suffers her own lack of warmth. Or about the client who was given away as a baby, still searching, and longing, for her birth mother.  There was no love, no appreciation, no empathy which could heal that wound of a lost mother, until she found, held and was held by her birth mother.  

There is in all of us, sons and daughters, a deep longing for our motherly home. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) has embedded this deep longing at the heart of human creation.

Here, she pictures the soul's journey being embodied in her mother's womb, with its longing to find a place to set up its tent, its spiritual home.  We are born in a unity of body and soul, with our "original wisdom" ("sophia") folded like a tent inside us.

Life's journey is setting up this tent. Hildegard speaks in poignant terms of the longing of the soul, its challenges and lamentations on the way. Being faced with the pain of a bodily life the soul cries out, "Oh mother Zion, where shall I flee ... for I am a living breath which God has placed in dry mud..."  
After giving place to the soul's lamentations Hildegard provides the traveler also with some encouragement as mother Zion answers the soul's plea: "O daughter, run! For the Most Powerful Giver whom no one can resist has given you wings to fly with. Therefore fly swiftly over all these obstacles..."

Reminding a person of being soul and body altogether and of the ability of one's soul to transcend one's obstacles is probably the most rewarding part of a therapist's work. Hildegard has given us a powerful image for this secret of our inner journeys.

Still, Hildegard  has never been a birth mother. She never gave birth, physically. But she has become a mother to many. A foremother, a mother in spirit, an example of motherhood, a strong symbol for the mother archetype. For her, motherhood has always also been a powerful metaphor for the life force of all creation. For birthing new life and wisdom into us. Motherhood lies  at the core of her cosmology, theology and ecology (e.g. when she refers us to "mother earth" time and again). The maternal ability of birthing life lies also at the heart of her creation story pictured in the illumination above:


"The young woman who you see is Love. She has her tent in eternity... It was love which was the source of creation in the beginning when God said: "Let it be!“ And it was. As though in the blinking of the eye, the whole creation was formed through love... She made everything...Adam and Eve, as well were produced by love from the pure nature of the Earth.“


Though mothers can teach us from their unique experience, we do not need to be mothers, not even women, to participate in love's creation. We all have the spiritual ability to birth new life, to create and recreate. We all know about the "birthing pain" whenever a new insight is born in us, know the joy which ensouls us when we are first pregnant with and then give birth to the holy within us.  We are all daughters and sons of mother earth, mothered by love's creation, living beings longing for a resting place.

Do not forget that the giver of life has given your soul wings.

Method and Madness in Rumi

Method and Madness in Rumi

Welcoming Spring: Hildegard on "viriditas" and the greening of the soul.