Fire of the Holy Spirit,
life of the life of every creature,
holy are you in giving life to forms.
Rivers spring forth from the waters
earth wears her green vigor.
–Hildegard of Bingen
Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
I am delighted to be offering a mini-retreat with Betsey Beckman celebrating St. Hildegard of Bingen on her feast day this coming Friday, September 17th. We were supposed to have been traveling to the Rhine Valley this year with a group of pilgrims, but due to the pandemic have had to postpone until next year. This means we can invite a much larger group of pilgrims to honor Hildegard’s gifts for us online. The following reflection is excerpted from my book Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics.
Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century Benedictine Abbess and in 2012 was canonized as a Saint and made a Doctor of the Catholic Church (one of only four women). She was a visionary leader of extraordinary creative power: monk, herbal healer, visual artist, musician and composer of chant, preacher, spiritual director, prophet, poet, the list goes on and on. She lived for eighty-one years with ongoing chronic health conditions and still left us with a tremendous legacy.
One of her great gifts was insight into what she called viriditas, or the greening power of God, the life force at work in all of creation. This central creative principle was key for Hildegard in understanding the vibrancy of her soul and her work. Viriditas is the force sustaining life each moment, bringing newness to birth. It is a marvelous image of the divine power continuously at work in the world, juicy and fecund.
We often experience our life as a kind of wandering through the desert, experiencing the spareness of the landscape. But there is another side to the desert. The prophet Isaiah writes that “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (35:1-2)
This abundant blossoming is the provenance of viriditas. We are called to wander through the desert tending to the abundant gifts of viriditas, the creative life-giving force at the heart of everything alive. Hildegard’s wisdom is for living a life that is fruitful and green and overflowing with verdancy. She calls us to look for fecundity in barren places.
She was my doorway into the Benedictine life. While in graduate school I was studying for my “History of Christian Spirituality” comprehensive examination and actually had a slight disdain for those ancient monks. My spirituality up until that point had been quite infused by the Ignatian vision of service and working for justice. I was turned off by the body-denying practices of monasticism (at least in some of its earlier forms) and wondered how those who chose a cloistered life could truly be engaged with the suffering of the world.
Of course, I hadn’t yet seen how my own life and spiritual practice up until that point had actually been thoroughly monastic already with my love of silence, my longing for sacred rhythms, my love of books and art, my ability to see God pulsing in all of Creation and through the seasons. Art and Nature had been my two primary places of revelation for most of my life. Then I began reading Hildegard. I had to read her for those exams I mentioned, but I was captivated by her because of the sheer brilliance and expansiveness of her life. Here was a 12th century woman who was a visionary, musician, artist, spiritual director, Abbess, writer, herbalist, and more. She challenged the hierarchy of the church of her day, telling them if God had to send a woman to deliver his message things must have gotten really bad. My feminist heart cringed, but I could see the rhetorical device between the lines and the way she was able to shame those in power using their own stereotypes and limited vision against them. I don’t believe for a minute Hildegard thought she was any less capable because she was a woman. Her letters demonstrate all the fierce ways she fought passionately for the things she believed in.
What I grew to love about her was her complexity. Certainly I felt a kinship to her because of her love of the arts – she believed that singing chant was the most important practice of her community – and her ability to see God in nature.
I also loved that while I identified fully with her vision of art and creation as essential sources of revelation of the Divine Nature, I found myself challenged by her apocalyptic mindset. She believed in the end times and the fiery wrath of God. She had powerful visions which showed what was to come. She lived in a very different age when elements of her theology made me entirely uncomfortable. And I grew to love that she was complex enough for me to discover in her a kindred spirit and a strange bedfellow all at once.
The more I studied her, the more I wanted to know about this Benedictine tradition she was so steeped in. I consider her in many ways the patron saint of my journey toward becoming a Benedictine Oblate (a lay person who makes a commitment to live out this spirituality in my daily life). Her complexity calls me to wrestle with the things I both love and hate. For me, one of the hallmarks of the Benedictine journey is in what I call “radical hospitality”– the welcoming in of all that is uncomfortable (especially within ourselves) as a primary place of God’s revelation.
In early autumn 2013, I had the great privilege of leading a pilgrimage to the landscape of Hildegard of Bingen with my dear teaching partner Betsey Beckman and the wonderful folks at Spiritual Directors International.
I had been to that place of lush greenness once before the previous autumn, and on that pilgrimage I discovered viriditas in a new way. While I expected to see this greening power alive in the vineyards draping the hills, in the beauty of the Rhine river flowing through the valley like a glorious vein of life, and in the forested hill of Disibodenberg where Hildegard spent much of her early life, what I received as gift was the greening that came alive for me in the community gathered.
The “greening” of the area where she lived is powerful. She was a landscape mystic, meaning that the geography of her world was a means of ongoing revelation into the nature of God. Gazing out over the shimmering autumn gold of the vineyards beyond Saint Hildegard’s monastery in Rudesheim, Germany, I felt this sense of deep surrender where that porous line between me and the earth seemed to fade. I let that green energy of the earth rise up and embrace me in ways I hadn’t previously experienced. I imagined Hildegard breathing this vision in and out. I felt the pulsing of God’s creative power through me in new ways. The sacred is the quickening force animating and enlivening the whole world, include our own beings. The flourishing of the world around Hildegard was the impetus for her to embrace her inner flourishing.
I consider Hildegard one of my spiritual directors, her voice providing guidance to me across the centuries. We know much about her practical wisdom through the letters she wrote to a variety of people in response to their requests for care. I like to think of this as an early form of epistolary spiritual direction. In her advice to another abbess she writes:
“A person who toils more than her body can bear is rendered useless in her spirit by ill-judged roil and abstinence. Living hopelessly and joylessly, that person’s sense often fails.”
The key to creative flourishing for Hildegard is cultivating moderation and balance. The virtue of discretio is about discerning the right path and not being overburdened or overworked so that we are stretched too thin and joy is lost. Our greening is lost when we lose sight of the call to stillness and presence.
With great and growing love,
Hildegard of Bingen dancing monk icon © Marcy Hall at Rabbit Room Arts