The vision is one of the most enduring religious tropes. Religious visionaries have reported seeing otherworldly things that have put them in contact with the supernatural. One of the most famous examples of a religious visionary is Hildegard of Bingen, a nun, philosopher, and poet who lived during the 12th century. Hildegard left detailed accounts of her visions, beginning when she was still a child and recurring throughout her life. She described seeing stars, bright lights, and other inexplicable things, all of which she attributed to “the will of God.”
Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most famous Christian mystics, and tradition holds that she was able to communicate directly with God through visions. While Sacks suggests that Hildegard’s visions might have resulted from seizures in her temporal lobes, he doesn’t dispute the point that Hildegard was an important figure, or that her visions filled her with genuine religious ecstasy and insight.
A modern neurologist might say that Hildegard’s visions consisted of “a shower of phosphenes in transit … being succeeded by a negative scotoma.” But of course, Hildegard’s great career as a religious writer and scholar shows that neurological aberrations can become “the substrate of a supreme ecstatic inspiration.”
The chapter on Hildegard, brief though it is, emphasizes one of Sacks’s most important points: just because people’s visions and hallucinate originate in their physical brain doesn’t mean that their visions are somehow false or meaningless. Put another way, one can accept the divine nature of Hildegard’s visions while also accepting that they were caused by seizures.