“Two Guys and a Bird” and Hildegard von Bingen


Don’t lie, the Holy Spirit is your least favorite hypostasis (follow the link “person: 3” in definition 2) of the Trinity.  You might want to argue against this, but consider that last Sunday was the feast of the Trinity and the Sunday before that was Pentacost; these past few weeks are probably the most likely time of the liturgical calendar that your thoughts and prayers would be dwelling on the Spirit.  But think about the images that pop up in your mind while you recite the Nicene Creed or listen to a homily on the Trinity.

Likely you think about the Father.  You know that He doesn’t have a body, you know that He actually isn’t even a “he,” but you still probably imagine Michelangelo’s Creator God: all muscles and beard, stretching out his finger to Adam.  Well, it leaves a lot to be desired, but at least that image gets across three cataphatic traits of God: power (muscles), wisdom (a beard, or age), and life giving (look at the way the Father’s whole body is stretching out to Adam, eager to give him life).  Then you probably imagine Jesus – you might even picture Jesus before you picture the Father.  That’s understandable; Jesus is the fullest manifestation of God that humanity has ever experienced – it makes sense for your mind to jump to that.  Jesus was human (and God) and you are human (and hopefully being divinized – see the Prayer of Jesus), so you can relate to Jesus and know more about him.  Why else would we spend so much time  talking about him in the Creed?  Jesus is still a mystery, but we know at least a little about him.   Then there’s the Holy Spirit – a dove.

A friend recently told me about her time in Puebla, Mexico – which is widely attested by Mexicans as the best Mexican food in all of Mexico.  In almost every church she visited – and there were many – there was always a depiction of the Trinity somewhere in the church and it was always an image of “two guys and a bird.”  Without getting into the complexities of religious iconography, depicting a mystery in physical media, sources of images, developing image traditions, cross cultural and time span image effectiveness, proper interpretation of images, perceived message from an image, and all the rest, have you ever wondered if the Holy Spirit feels a little cheated?  A bird? that’s the best we can do?

Yes, there are plenty of reasons why the Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove.  The dove is the sign of peace and plenty (Noah), doves where the offering of the poor as gifts to God in the temple to thank him for new life (the presentation of Christ), the Gospels describe the Spirit as a dove descending from the heavens on Jesus at his Baptism; but can the dove image do justice to all that the Spirit is and does all by itself, without any other images to help it?  You can probably think of a few different images of God the Father, lots of Jesus (the Pentocrator is one of my favorites), but can you think of anything besides a dove for the Spirit?

Hopefully fire and wind come to mind (Pentacost) and if you allow yourself a healthy, humble, patristic creativity you can probably come up with even more.  A good example of this kind of creativity is found in the works of Hildegard von Bingen.  I say works because the 11th century mystic not only wrote multiple books in her life, but was also an artist and composer.  Famous in her time for her visions and her preaching (she was often invited to speak during mass – ironically usually condemning the bad practices of the clergy), Hildegard gives us a great example of how to develop our spirituality and images of God.  So close after the feasts of Pentacost and Trinity, I would like to offer an image and a song from Hildegard that might help us look at the Holy Spirit and the Trinity in a new light.

The image is the image above, the first vision from Hildegard’s Book of Divine Works.  The song is “O Fire of the Spirit” (a more literal translation can be found here).  What strikes me most is the vitality, the necessity that the Spirit has in both the image and the song.  This is especially clear for me in the image, where the Father and Son exist in the Spirit.  The Father is a head that pokes out of the Spirit, and the Spirit cradles the Lamb in its hands.  The Father and Son exist and are supported in the relationship of the Spirit of Love – which is notably a female Spirit.  It seems to me that we often forget that the Spirit is a necessary part of the Trinity, worthy of our contemplation and love (to say nothing of forgetting that “female” could also be part of the Trinity).  I would ask to let Hildegard challenge us to give the Spirit the credit it deserves and expand our images of a mystery we will – hopefully – spend all of eternity in peace and joy trying to understand.  Besides, that song is just awesome.


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