Listening to Hildegard explain aspects of the conversion of bread and wine to the real presence of Christ reveals the uniqueness of the visionary’s prophetic gift as well as how that gift was viewed by Church authorities in the twelfth-century.
While the doctrine of transubstantiation can be traced back to apostolic times, because of its mysterious nature theologians have had a difficult time explaining it. They employed philosophy and logic to draw their conclusions and thus had little success in making various aspects of the miraculous transmutation understandable. In his discourse on the subject, Hildegard’s contemporary, the early scholastic theologian Peter Lombard wrote, “If, however, it is asked of what sort this conversion is, whether formal, or substantial, or of another kind, I am not capable of defining it” (Book of Four Sentences, Book IV, Distinction 11).
Through a visionary experience, St. Hildegard appears to have been given some insight into what happens to the bread and the wine. The following is a description of a part of a vision from her first book, Scivias (abbreviation of Scito Vias Domini, “Know the Ways of God”). It is important to note that this work had received formal approval by the Church, including that of Bernard of Clairvaux and the reigning pope, Eugenius III, (1145-1153):
“And when the Gospel of peace had been recited and the offering to be consecrated had been placed upon the alter, and the priest sang the praise of Almighty God, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts,’ which begins the mystery of the sacred rites, Heaven was suddenly opened and a fiery and inestimable brilliance descended over that offering and irradiated it completely with light, as the sun illuminates anything it shines through. And, thus illuminating it, the brilliance bore it on high into the secret places of Heaven and then it replaced it on the alter” (Book 2, Vision 6).
The meaning of this vision, Hildegard would explain, is that at the moment of consecration the bread, wine, and water are conducted to heaven by a special light for their conversion and then replaced back on the alter.
In the following quote Hildegard explains why the body and blood of Christ remain invisible. (Note that like an Old Testament prophet uttering “Thus saith the Lord…”, she speaks here in the first person, assuming God’s voice):
“But you, O human, cannot take this spiritual gift visibly, as if eating visible flesh and drinking visible blood; for you are filth of filth. But, as the living spirit in you is invisible, so also the living sacrament in that oblation is invisible and must be received invisibly by you. …The human soul, which is invisible, invisibly receives the sacrament, which exists invisibly in that oblation, while the human body, which is visible, visibly receives the oblation that visibly embodies the sacrament. But the two are one, just as Christ is God and Man, and the rational soul and the mortal flesh make up one human being” (Book 2, Vision 6, Chapter 14).
Complex as the mystery of transubstantiation is to comprehend, there is a simplicity to the way it is described here.
There is a special connection between the consecration and the birth of Christ. In this quote, again in God’s voice, we are told in a loving, fatherly way that God remembers the birth of His Son at each moment of consecration:
“Therefore, when I see My Son’s body and blood daily consecrated on the alter in My name, and you, O human, being sanctified by that sacrament, eating His flesh and drinking His blood, I always contemplate that birth. For when the priest does his office as is appointed him, invoking Me in sacred words, I am there in power, just as I was there when My Only-Begotten, without discord or stain, became incarnate” (Book 2, Vision 6, Chapter 34).
St. Bernard and Pope Eugenius were not hesitant to exercise their authority over the growing number of theologians in the mid-twelfth century and could be rather harsh toward certain writings and authors. Bernard’s condemnation of French philosopher Peter Abelard was particularly severe and led to the latter’s excommunication (which was soon thereafter lifted). These clerics not only fully embraced the writings of Hildegard, but even authorized her to conduct preaching tours on behalf of the Church.
(Quotations from Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, translated by Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. The Abbey of Regina Laudis: Benedictine Congregation Regina Laudis of the Strict Observance, Inc. Paulist Press, 1990).