The Mystic Vision of Hildegard von Bingen

The cloistered nun who embraced the universe

Illumination from Scivias (Know the Ways) by Hildegard von Bingen (1151) depicting the nun as she receives a vision.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a German abbess, artist, author, composer, herbalist, and mystic. The prophetic visions she received by divine revelation offer passageway to an unseen dimension imbued with radiant light, soaring melodies, and symbolic forms. Transcribed into books and illustrations with saturated colors, her experiences convey a hopeful cosmology in which humans awaken to transcendent reality and exercise their innate creative powers.

Illumination from S
Illumination of the Universe from Scivias by Hildegard von Bingen.

Although she was enclosed in a stone cell adjoining a Benedictine monastery from the age of eight, Hildegard was more than a reclusive mystic. An outspoken critic of the Church, she used her voice to warn against greed and call for peace. Her arresting images warn of calamities ahead while offering keys to a new world transformed by Divine Love.

Hildegard’s illustration of the choir of angels from Scivias.

My story about Hildegard appears in the summer Reality issue of Parabola magazine and can be found right here:

The Mystic Vision of Hildegard von Bingen

Or visit Parabola.org.

Universal Man from Hildegard’s Book of Divine Works (1163–74). The image preceded Michelangelo’s similar work, his iconic Vitruvian Man, by 325 years.
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From Slavery to Sainthood: The Inspiring Story of Augustus Tolton

The Story of Augustus Tolton

From the spring 2024 issue of Parabola magazine, I bring you my essay on America’s first identified Black Catholic priest. Born a slave in Missouri, the Venerable Augustus Tolton found freedom through his great love for humanity. His ability to overcome reminds us of the spirit’s immanent power to rise above, even in the most impossible circumstances.

The article can be found right here: https://parabola.org/2024/01/31/rising-above/

In honor of Father Tolton’s life of dedicated service, artist and iconographer Joseph Malham created an original icon, which was commissioned by Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago. Signed and numbered limited editions of the Father Tolton icon are available at Trinity Icons.

Joseph Malham’s icon of Father Augustus Tolton

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From the New Issue of Parabola Magazine: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Village in the Woods

Riverside’s Swiss Gothic water tower designed by William LeBaron Jenney

You might know him by the emerald jewel of Manhattan, New York’s Central Park, but Frederick Law Olmsted was a landscape architect with far-reaching vision that extended throughout the United States and to my little hometown in Riverside, Illinois. Ahead of his time, Olmsted understood the consoling qualities of nature and worked tirelessly to bring the transforming power of green parks and expansive gardens–once a luxury reserved for the estates of the wealthy–to everyone.

View of the Des Plaines River from the Riverside Public Library

My essay about Olmsted and the magic of growing up in Riverside is in the new Comfort and Joy issue of Parabola magazine right here:

https://parabola.org/2023/10/27/o-little-town-of-riverside/

May the healing solace of nature always be near!

Mary A. Osborne, center, in the backyard of her childhood home.

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From the Summer Issue of Parabola Magazine

Owen Barfield–the Last Oxford Inkling–and the History of Consciousness

Back in February, I visited the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College to do some research on Owen Barfield, the fourth Oxford Inkling and friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Along with a huge repository of archival material on the Narnia and Lord of the Rings authors, the Wade Center Museum houses the C.S. Lewis ancestral wardrobe (the very one that leads to Narnia!).

Owen Barfield was lesser known among the legendary group of writers, and yet his ideas concerning the imagination and its power to perceive and create truth influenced both Lewis and Tolkien. A prolific author and innovative thinker, Barfield wrote extensively on the evolution of consciousness, among other topics. My new essay published in the summer issue of Parabola magazine explores Barfield’s theory. Here is a link to the article: https://parabola.org/2023/05/01/a-turning-point-in-the-cosmos/

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From the spring 2023 issue of Parabola: The alchemy of Cinderella

The ancient fairytale–beloved by many, dismissed as antifeminist by a few–was never really about the prince. A Jungian perspective sheds light on the deepest meaning of the story, illuminating archetypes and alchemical symbolism that express fundamental patterns of the human psyche. Start reading my essay below to discover the hidden meaning of Cinderella’s transformative journey.

Looking for Gold: The Alchemy of Grimms’ Tales

Once upon a time, “The wife of a rich man fell ill, and when she felt that she was nearing her end she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, ‘Dear child, continue devout and good. Then God will always help you, and I will look down upon you from heaven and watch over you.’”[i] So begins Cinderella, the tale of an unfortunate daughter who dreams of attending the King’s ball and receives assistance through a series of enchantments. In Grimms’ version, we find her grieving at her mother’s snow-covered grave, toiling in her dusty chimney corner, waltzing at the palace. The story is otherworldly from the start, and the closer one reads the more ethereal looms the landscape, the more incorporeal the prince.

The maiden’s odyssey plays out not on terra firma, not in the creative narrative of the imagination, but deep in the haze of the unconscious mind. Here interred lies the crucible of unresolved conflicts and inner demons—an alchemist’s cauldron of base metals melted and mixed with minerals and acids, salts and spirits. When the recipe is just right, the humble ingredients turn to gold. Cinderella will shed many tears and suffer through numerous trials before the desired transmutation comes to pass. But in the end, common lead turns to pure, precious metal; an imperfect soul transformed.

In the beginning, she was downcast, her noble lineage all but forgotten. Cruelly mocked by her wicked stepsisters, she was made to sleep by the hearth among the cinders and wear a plain gray frock, to cook and clean morning till night. But when the King proclaimed a festival, she rallied to make a wish, inviting in the magic of angels. Two white doves threw down a gorgeous gown of gold and silver and a pair of dainty slippers.


[i] Grimm, Wilhelm, et al. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Grosset & Dunlap, 1963, p. 148 

To continue reading the article, follow the link below or visit Parabola.org.

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An Irish Miracle Worker in the Spring Issue of Parabola

Here in the spring issue of Parabola magazine, you’ll find essays by beloved Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver, Zen Master Peter Coyote, and Wisdom teacher Cynthia Bourgeault, along with my piece about the Irish miracle worker, Valentine Greatrakes (1628-1683).

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.” I hope the following excerpt from my essay will remind you that Earth is a magical home, powered by love, filled with surprises.

If you enjoy reading about Greatrakes, you will eventually be able to catch up with him in The Last of the Magicians, my third historical, in progress.

The Inscrutable Cures of Valentine Greatrakes

At the dawning of the Age of Reason, before Isaac Newton’s mathematical proofs poured light on a shadowy universe, Valentine Greatrakes (1628-1683) healed suffering bodies with his hands. The Irish Stroker, as he was known, cured young and old of tumors and wens, paralysis, arthritis, assorted pains, eczema, deafness, blindness, and possession by demons. Hailed by some as an apostle, condemned by others as a fraud, he was a sensation that roused the interest of natural philosophers, churchmen, physicians, and even the king.

Crossing stormy seas to arrive on the coast of Somersetshire in January of 1666, Greatrakes would challenge the cessationist doctrine that miracles had ceased after biblical times. No one argued that God lacked the power to intervene, but Jesus Christ and the Apostles had already proven the truth of the Gospel, rendering miracles superfluous. In early modern England, faith may have rested properly upon the Word alone, but the time period was imbued with supernatural phenomena and signs of God’s providence. Female prophets went without food for more than a year. Baptists and Quakers restored the sick and raised the dead. Charles II, by virtue of Divine Right, applied his thaumaturgic touch to cure victims of scrofula—a tuberculosis infection of the glands in the neck.

Among an eclectic cast of healers, religious enthusiasts, imposters, and frauds, Greatrakes distinguished himself by advancing no agenda other than to heal the sick. A member of the landed Anglo-Irish gentry, he was a wealthy man who accepted no payments for his services, unlike the common quacks. His charitable work drew particular scrutiny from members of the recently formed Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. In Greatrakes, the virtuosi saw the opportunity to employ Francis Bacon’s new empirical method of investigation and to establish, once and for all, if phenomena truly existed.

The Stroker was drawing crowds in the county of Warwickshire when the king and his court returned to Westminster from Oxford, where they had fled to escape the bubonic plague. The idea of contagion existed in the seventeenth century even if the method of transmission was not understood and the causative organism, Yersinia pestis, was not yet known. Robert Hooke had just begun to study fleas and plant cells under his gold-tooled microscope.


Lacking understanding of the plague’s etiology, physicians prescribed sweat-producing cordials, remedies of angelica and rue, costly Venice treacle, and blood-sucking leeches. Given the limitations of Galenic medicine based on the theory of the four humors, physicians might almost be forgiven for absconding from London with their wealthy clientele during the epidemic. At least the apothecaries stayed behind to offer up antidotes such as unicorn horn and powder of toad.

To continue reading more from this issue and purchase a copy of Parabola magazine, click here. 

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Love letter from a COVID-19 foxhole

In the midst of a pandemic, there is still the simple joy of being out in nature.

There is, I think, cause for optimism, even though the war is just beginning. No doubt, the next couple weeks will be a bumpy ride. Maybe you are one of the fortunate soldiers like me, charged with staying home and flattening the curve. Stationed at my home office, I stand in awe of the health care workers who are serving on the frontlines, risking exposure to coronavirus as they go about their jobs. Their dedication is a daily reminder of the very best of humanity. Here in my Chicago neighborhood, I felt the love, too.

Earlier this week, a neighbor sent out a group email to everyone on our block. He wanted to identify those who would be able to help secure food and supplies for neighbors in need and those who would potentially need assistance. Right away, a whole lot of hands went up with offers to volunteer.

On Monday I had a long phone call with an old friend. We hadn’t done that in quite a while because there never seemed to be time. As we talked, I was sitting in my backyard. It was a cool day, but I felt the sun on my face. I saw a cardinal and noticed all the sprouting plants in my garden.

On Tuesday, I drove over to my favorite local bakery and dinette, Baker Miller, on Lincoln Avenue.  Since all Illinois restaurants are currently closed, Dave, the owner, set up a curbside pickup window. He waved to me when I pulled up. It was raining that morning, and before I even got out of my car, a cheery millennial came running out with my brown bag of lovingly baked sourdough.

Yesterday, my best friend and I exchanged thirty-some texts. We covered a lot of ground, including virus anxiety, recipes for a pandemic, and the latest on our kids. Another close friend has planned a virtual cocktail party. You can practice social distancing without feeling alone.

Besties

This is not to downplay the seriousness of our situation. When the pandemic is at last behind us, some will have lost loved ones and fortunes. But I have a feeling that we won’t take things for granted the way we did before. We might finally understand how much we need one another and how one person’s welfare impacts everyone’s welfare. It is just possible that humanity might emerge transformed for the better.

Painting by Mark Zlotkowski

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The longest night of the year

Winter sunsetLong before Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the third century AD, long before the custom of Christmas became a worldwide phenomenon, cultures across the globe celebrated Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this mysterious event occurs when the tilt of the Earth puts us at the farthest distance from the sun, after which every day grows a minute or two longer and every night a minute or two shorter. As it is with Earth, so it seems with our individual and collective lives; spring follows winter, light overcomes darkness, again and again, as our great religions proclaim.

Ice QueenMeteorological winter is only beginning, but it sometimes feels as though the barren season has long been with us. Millions lack food, medical care, safe housing, or basic human rights. To tune in to the nightly news is to wonder if we have been condemned to an eternal winter of despair by the White Witch, as was the Kingdom of Narnia. If we are to find any peace amidst the chaos, the great sages advise, we have to seek it within ourselves.

Christmas treeJesus Christ urged his followers to love their enemies, to refrain from judgment, to care for the least among us.  His words offer a way to respond to unfathomable suffering, to seek transformative wisdom.  Those who follow Christ and believe the story of His Holy birth are sometimes thought naïve or ignorant of science. Improbable miracles are not unique to Christianity. The Talmud tells us of Hanukkah, the wonder of the single cruse of oil that lit the temple Menorah for eight days. Buddhist texts tell of Guatama Buddha’s miraculous powers of telepathy, super hearing, and seeing of past lives. Think what you will of the ancient stories, I hold them dear.Menorah

On the silent, joyful nights of Advent, Hannukah, and Kwanza, on the eve of solstice, we are surrounded by the strange, the otherworldly, the glorious. Beyond the supernatural wonders are extraordinary human feats.  There are the peacemakers and educators working to build up their communities and vulnerable neighbors. There are the healthcare workers caring for us on the home front and in war-torn countries. There are the spiritual leaders tirelessly reminding us of our divine, lost lineage. There are the artists who share their beautiful and inspired visions. These Earth angels give us many reasons to believe.

BuddhaIn the bleak days of winter, when darkness falls early, when the sad events of the day weigh heavily upon us, we can set down our phones, turn off the news, and think about every day miracles. You have probably experienced at least one or two in your life.  And we can celebrate, in our assorted ways, the victory of light over darkness.

From the writer’s desk, wishing you peace and joy this holiday season.Mary A. Oborne

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Intelligent design and the imagined world

René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician, imagined the cosmos as a complex machine operating according to precise mechanical laws. His theory implies the existence of a designer, a benevolent Creator or watchmakerand describes an ordered elegance that seems counter to the madness of modern life. Joining Descartes and Newton—the men of the scientific revolution—writers and poets seek patterns amid chaos and explanations for the inexplicable.

Galaxy

The desire for order drives me to my desk, where I get to devise the plots and the characters conform to my whims. If only my city and my world would follow the structure of a novel. At the climax, the turning point, the good guys would emerge from their struggles better off than they were before.

Writers write stories, not the daily news. And yet we are, collectively, writing the story of our destiny. Just maybe we can write an ending other than tragedy. There are many among us—teachers, nurses, and counselors, to name a few—who do their jobs every day, trying to make it better. Good works create impact, as do beliefs.Imagine

What we imagine for our lives becomes our reality. Jesus, Buddha, and the mystics all tell us that what we dwell upon comes to pass. From the book of Matthew: “According to your faith be it done unto to you.” If this is so, collective pessimism, regardless of good works, will do nothing to lead us out of the mire.

Mindset is a choice, offered by the watchmaker, who stepped aside once his job was done. Negativity might seem the more natural attitude, in light of current events. But oh, how much better it is to imagine peace than annihilation.  John Lennon wrote it best. Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

AuthorDoes this mean all my books will have happy endings? Hmmm. It will be a while before I know for sure. The Last of the Magicians, my third historical, is on slow cooker mode while I work to complete a commissioned biography. (More on that later.)  A writer has to eat as well as dream.

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Making art while our beds are burning

Women's March Chicago 2017

I’ve been worried about things like climate change, clean air and water, nuclear war, women’s and immigrants’ rights, corporate greed, racism, and affordable health care. So many causes, so little time.  I try to be a good citizen by doing things like writing my congressmen and volunteering as an ESL tutor for refugees.  But as a novelist rather than a political activist, it’s not my forte.  As such, I’m more or less okay with spending countless hours researching 17th century England and working on my third novel, The Last of the Magicians. This doesn’t mean I’m burying my head in the sand. Midnight Oil’s song comes to mind.

The writer's desk

How can we dance when our earth is turning
How do we sleep while our beds are burning

The world is on fire.  The problems we face are grave and time critical, and how we respond matters enormously.  We can respond by voting, protesting, running for office, canvassing.  And if we’re writers, painters, musicians, and actors, the very process of creating art is an exercise in freedom of expression and an act of defiance against the status quo. The artist is the ultimate free spirit who flies in the face of complacency and never pauses to ask, “what’s the use?”

Paul Gauguin: Les Miserables 1888

Artists have always been revolutionaries, have always been creating profound impact.  Confronted with numerous obstacles and a distracted world that often forgets their value,  artists will go on celebrating the beautiful, exposing truth, defying conformity, and decrying injustice till the end of time.

So no, making art and writing novels is not escapism.  It is an act of patriotism, a symbol of the enduring human spirit.  While the earth is burning, I will be right here at my desk, much of the time, writing a novel.

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