Fire Breathing Green: The Multimedia Mysticism of St. Hildegard of Bingen

One day last week, I slipped into the Art Gallery of Ontario on my lunch break. While I was there, I made sure to visit one of my favorite pieces of art, Emily Carr’s Church at Yuquot Village. The piece shows a small white-washed wooden church against a backdrop of the forest. While the church is portrayed in simple, clean strokes, the trees are wild and imposing, simultaneously majestic and threatening. It’s an image for me of the impermanence of what we build: in any battle between this little church and the forest, the wilderness was unquestionably going to come out on top.

It reminds me of those eerie photo essays of abandoned buildings being reclaimed by nature. As much as we try to keep it at bay, nature — the force of life — is unstoppable and insatiable, bringing green to the most desolate and unexpected places, if only it’s given the chance.

This force of greenness is one of the most notable images used in the works of St. Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century nun, visionary, theologian, graphic artist, musician, songwriter, and botanist. More than anyone else in history, at least until recent decades, St. Hildegard used this idea as a symbol for God’s work in the world.

In the first vision recorded in her Book of Divine Works*, she writes:

And I saw as if in the middle of the southern sky an image, beautiful and wonderful in the mystery of God, like a human in form. Her face was of such beauty and radiance that I could more easily look at the sun than at her; and a great circlet of golden color surrounded her head. … And this image spoke: ‘I am the supreme and fiery force, who sets all living sparks alight and breathes forth no mortal things, but judges them as they are. Flying around the circling circlet with my upper wings — with my wisdom — I have ordered all things rightly. But I am also the fiery life of the essence of divinity; I flame above the beauty of the fields, and I shine in the waters, and I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars. With the airy wind I quicken all things with some invisible life that sustains them all. For the air lives in viridity [i.e., greenness] and in the flowers, the waters flow as if alive, and the sun lives within its own light…

The most obvious thing to note in this passage is its bold imagery. Hildegard’s bright, technicolor descriptions stand in stark contrast to the wise, cautious counsel of St. Bernard or the spare, atmospheric poetry of St. John’s “Dark Night.” This shows just how broad of a phenomenon what we call ‘mysticism’ is. No two mystics are alike, just as no two spiritual journeys are alike.

The vision itself is essentially a creation myth. The Holy Spirit, who identifies herself as “The Supreme and Fiery Force” appears as a woman shining more brightly than the sun. She breathes life — immortal life — into the structure Wisdom, or Word, (both ancient titles for the eternal Son of God) has set forth. This fiery golden breath in all things manifests in the gold of a ripe field at dusk, the shimmering of water, and the light of the sun, moon, and stars. It is later revealed that the fields represent the earthiness of our physical bodies, the water represents our souls, and the heavenly lights our intellects, and in this way the human person is a microcosm of the whole world, containing within our personhood earth, water, and sky — all made in accordance with the Word and Wisdom of God and animated by the Spirit. While these images may in some ways be surprising, in just these few lines of stirring text, St. Hildegard has actually faithfully captured the patristic teaching on creation, the Holy Spirit, and the energies of God.

The Spirit then “quickens all things,” that is, provides them with the force of life, through the movement of “airy wind.” But this wind, this breath of life, expresses itself in greenness. Which gets us at last to the idea I want to contemplate today.

What is ‘greenness’ exactly? Just as the force of a river moves its waters and the sun is one with its light, greenness is the force of life and fertility that sprouts forth the life of living things. For St. Hildegard it can take on a wide range of meaning, from literal verdure, growth, and lushness to freshness and fertility to even spiritual health and holisitc life. These uses build off of biblical imagery, such as Isaiah 44, which describes a people alive with God’s blessings as being like green trees growing in a desolate land.

This idea has a strong connection to the metaphor of bearing good fruit, but the two aren’t quite identical. Whereas good fruit is the end result of God’s work in our lives, greenness is the gracious inworking of the divine life that makes that good fruit possible. Essentially, where God is, there is greenness.

This is such a beautiful metaphor for the life of faith.

And yet…

These are challenging times to be thinking of such a lush image. It’s a time of great uncertainty, fear and anxiety, when for many of us in the West, our lives are being upended in unprecedented ways. It’s a time when we’re all being challenged to live with less and, in a society in which so many already feel isolated, to remove ourselves even further from one another. It doesn’t feel green. Quite the opposite. Last week’s message of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul feels far more appropriate to this season.

And yet…

These two ideas are not as distant as we may think. The Dark Night is, after all, a season of unexpected and unknown blessing. I have no doubt that if he were to have used St. Hildegard’s language, St. John would have understood the dark night to be a very green time.

The other day I made reference to the life that seemingly grows out of nowhere when floodwaters hit desert lands. To me this is what this divine greenness is all about: That persistent, insidious, unstoppable power of Divine Life that is waiting to burst forth when given the smallest opportunity.

Using a slightly different example, the prophet Jeremiah, after describing those who turn away from God as being like shrubs withering under an unrelenting desert sun, has this to say about those who stick to the life of faith:

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.

They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
In the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit
. (Jer 17.7-8)

The image here is of a tree so abundantly and deeply rooted in its source of water that it is able to withstand, and even thrive in, times of drought. And this, I think, is the message for us in this strange season. There will be times of abundance in life, there will be times of drought. But no matter the season, both St. Hildegard and St. John of the Cross would tell us that, God’s greening power is at work in us — persistent, insidious, and unstoppable.

*St. Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of Divine Works, ed. and trans. Nathaniel M. Campbell (Washington: Catholic University of America, 2018), 34.

Further Reading

Butcher, Carmen A. St. Hildegard of Bingen: Doctor of the Church, A Spiritual Reader. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2013.

Jones, Jeanette. “A Theological Interpretation of ‘Viriditas’ in Hildegard of Bingen and Gregory the Great.” Boston: The Portfolio of the Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at Boston University. Available at https://www.bu.edu/pdme/jeannette-jones/.

Kujawa-Holbrook, Sheryl A. Hildegard of Bingen: Essential Writings and Chants of a Christian Mystic – Annotated & Explained. Woodstock, Vt. : Skylight Paths Publishing, 2016.

Massam, Katherine and Fotini Toso, eds. The Greening of Hope. Eugene, Oreg: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

 

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