Oliver and Hildegard and Me

This morning I woke up to the news that Oliver Sacks had just died a few hours earlier. (Here are his LA Times and NY Times obituaries.) It was Oliver Sacks who introduced me to the great 12th-century mystic-saint, Hildegard of Bingen.

In the early 1970s, I began to experience occasionally some rather weird images in my field of vision, accompanied by an odd sense of lightheadedness.  When I mentioned this to my eye doctor, he pulled a book off his shelf, and asked if it looked like this. I said, “Exactly!” He went on to explain about the migraine aura, which some people, like myself, experience without ever having an accompanying migraine headache. He recommended I read the book if I wanted to understand it better, which I did. My first introduction to both Oliver and Hildegard.

Sacks devotes a whole chapter to drawing parallels between the visions of Hildegard of Bingen, as depicted in her own drawings, and the migraine aura. It was not his intention to”debunk” the visions or explain them away as merely pathological. Instead he gave me an insight into how God makes use of psychological phenomena, including what we might consider a disorder, as a tool by which God seeks to reveal his presence. By noting the parallels between the fantastic shapes one sees in the migraine aura and the designs in her drawings, it seems evident that these vivid images became the visual language by which she expressed the inexpressible.

Migraine was Sacks’ first book, and he went on to become a passionate, relentless and unconventional explorer of the human psyche and a prolific and engaging  writer. He also overcame many personal obstacles, which gave him deeper insight into and compassion for the human condition. As with so many great people, his contribution to the well-being of humanity stems in large part from the challenges he encountered and rose above.

I was deeply impressed by the beauty and hope evident in his reflections on the end of life which he wrote in the New York Times last February. While he was not a man of explicit religious faith, he lived with integrity and in relentless search beyond conventional limitations.  I can only call that “graced.” I have been praying for him, and trust that he is now surprised by a welcome into the world of God, perhaps with Hildegard as a guide.

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