Hildegard of Bingen believed that the essence of life was bound by the connections of mind, body, and spirit and that the practice of holistic healing was central to living a vital life. These beliefs, like all of Hildegard’s guiding principles, draw in some way from the notion that there is balance in the body, and order to the cosmos.
It is from this order, or balance, that we seek divinity. Discretio is the practice of living the balance and bringing the union of the divine and man into order.
The ancient principle of discretio has deep spiritual roots but is also timeless in its value as an actionable practice for modern living. Finding the right measure in all things poses a unique challenge to our modern harried lifestyles.
Perhaps our expectations of ourselves have fallen out of balance, leading us to seek eternal youth and fitness, to levy our careers with 24-hour access, or to yoke all of our time with the burden of productivity. Even the very act of prioritizing our busy lives can muddy our perspective, impeding our ability to truly live a balanced life of moderation.
Discretio: the Mother of All Virtues
“In a true vision I saw and heard the following words: ‘O daughter of God, out of your love for God you call a poor creature like myself, “Mother.” Listen then to your mother and learn moderation! For moderation is the mother of all virtues for everything heavenly and earthly. For it is through moderation that the body is nourished with the proper discipline.”
– Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works, Letter to Elisabeth of Schongua
Virtues and vices according to Hildegard
Among Hildegard’s subconscious virtues, she thought of “discretio” as the virtue of moderation. The virtue of discretio stands in opposition to the vice of immoderation, once again affirming her emphasis on finding the right measure or balance in things.
Through practicing discretio we keep immoderation in its place. But more than a mere call to moderation in action, discretio, or “holy discretion”, was also a means to live the gifts of the divine.
A combination of conscious and subconscious effort
Discretio is a deeply spiritual idea as it calls upon both the reasoning mind to take action and the image of the divine in man to guide those actions. Hildegard used some of this imagery in her work, often representing it as the eye and the light, which she ties back to our very creation.
Discretio moves beyond mere moderation as an act of restraint. It is the discipline of a reasoning and intuitive mind in the pursuit of spiritual advancement.
Where Man’s Power Meets with Divine
Discretio can only be acquired when human effort is united with the generosity of the Divine. It requires constant use and practice to be effective. Through this effort, discretio also becomes a virtue of reason and the will, which is necessary to exercise the power to differentiate between good and evil.
Through this unification, Hildegard believed we utilize our innate ability, imparted to man from nature, to observe and understand the structures and proportions of the cosmos. It is through our actions – as moderated by discretio, that we bring man and the cosmos into completion.
Unity of Man with Nature
The notion of interconnectivity between the Divine (or nature) and man is a central theme in Hildegard’s spiritual works. This unity is so essential that in the case of discretio she does not or cannot state where the boundary resides between discretio as a virtue of reason (of the mind) and discretio as a mode of action. The connection cannot – or need not, be analyzed any closer as she sees them as inextricably linked. Which is rather a lot like her ideas on Viriditas.
The discerning of spirits
“And so the soul loves the discreet measure in all things. Whenever the body of the person eats or drinks without discretion, or does something else of this kind, the forces of the soul are injured, because everything is to be done with measure, since man cannot always dwell in heaven. ” -Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen considered discretio as a practice for the soul. She believed that through discretio we are better able to govern our lives. Through exercising discretion we guide our experiences with wisdom, understanding, and sense; discretio is thus a path toward spiritual enrichment.
In the Middle Ages, discretion and moderation were primary tenants of Hildegard’s Order of St. Benedict. The idea of discretio spiritumm, the discerning of spirits, a practice of possessing the virtue of discerning spirits, good and evil, or the recognition of the Divine, was also common during her time. Accordingly, her ascetic life was already subject to a great deal of order and restraint when she wrote of the dangers of immoderation. Yet she also addressed the importance of feeding the mind, body and soul.
Latin in the middle ages doesn’t easily translate into our modern lexicon. But it can be informative when we consider the context of that time when attempting to extract something meaningful today.
Translating the term discretio requires some distinction. We tend to turn discretio into our notion of discretion and leave it at that, but there is a much more depth and breadth to it. In the middle ages, discretio entwined root meainings from both discernment and discretion.
Discretio contains components of separation, difference, and distinction. It is more than just discretion; it also requires discernment, the act of shrewd judgment.
Listening to Our Longing
When we think of discretion, we think of the quiet exercise of restraint, of secrets and carefulness, and the exercise of good judgment. But with discretio, we not only need to have the good judgment, but also the practice of listening to the longings of our spirit. Through both mental clarity and spiritual reckoning, we can move through experience to progress toward our very own healthy goals.
We need to honor our inner compass just as we do our ability to reason, observe, and exercise our will in the world. Discretio then becomes the ability to clearly assess the right measure in all things and situations through action.
The challenge arises in determining the right measure for our own unique circumstances. The discipline falls on each person to both find and enforce the right measure of things.
Garden Bears Fruit
Hildegard appeals to our personal sense of reason. Though any phrase involving mindfulness exercises smacks of modern spirituality, it applies here to recognizing the signals of our body and soul, and finding our own Viriditas.
Remaining present in our bodies means perceiving the consequences of our actions. The more attentive we become to our everyday lives, the greater we build our sensitivity to awareness of our own balance. In short, through practice we find the right measure for ourselves.
Knowing our personal garden
According to Hildegard, we are responsibility to take action guided by our discretio. We’re given all the tools to identify the right measure for ourselves. Much like the medieval gardener managing a fruitful harvest, each of us possesses the ability to perceive the right measure mentally and physically.
Finding Harmony from Excess
Hildegard shows us that a fruitful life starts with finding personal harmony. The right measure comes through harmony among body, mind and soul.
Hildegard permitted no excuses for greed and excess. She spurned all matters of excess and pretention. She argued that the purpose for man’s reason was not just to distinguish between right and wrong, but also to discern between overabundance and deficiency.
Aligning the right measure with personal values
Whether its work, leisure, family, joy, nutrition, movement, or sleep, we must remain alert, paying attention to the right measure – our discretio, in all facets of life. Though we may lose ourselves in a world flooded with stimuli, our vigilance for preserving discretio remains all the more important if we are to find the spiritual nourishment we need to thrive.
Finding the right measure requires courage and self-confidence. It means saying no, and allowing our paths to deviate from others, to face our inner enemies, the thought-patterns, conditioning, and habits that we’ve formed over years of unconscious action. Discretio requires a deep sense of responsibility for our actions and our choices.
Discretio as a Compass
Discretio serves as our own compass through the path of life. As we refine these skills we improve our chances of making the right decisions in times of stability or crisis.
We gain freedom through discipline. This may feel counterintuitive, but as our experience and self-reliance improves in determining right measure for each of us personally, we gain freedom and creativity in making decisions. “Discretio” follows the Middle Way, not the path of mediocrity.