Advent is all about pregnancy. And if any religion honors pregnancy, it would be Goddess spirituality, don’t you think? If I could go back to myself, circa seven years ago, I might say this: “Enjoy your first Advent as a Catholic. But keep it grounded. Anchor it in the good earth, the silence of the soil, the pulsing heartbeat within all living flesh. The only Advent worth celebrating is an earthy Advent, just as the only spirituality worth practicing is an earthy spirituality.”
It’s hard to be grateful for the blessings in our lives when I’m so frightened about how we, as a culture, over-consume those very blessings. For me, it is a challenge to remain anchored enough in gratitude that I can consciously make choices consistent with my desire to live a sustainable, rather than hyper-consumptive, life. The temptation of the fear is a temptation to despair. And I suspect that many Americans, and perhaps folks from other parts of the planet, have already succumbed to that temptation. When we stare into the horrifying implications of climate change, the reaction of dread and anxiety that we feel is, in my opinion, very much related to the old Hebrew idea of “the fear of the Lord.” It is a fear we feel because we know in our guts we’ve done something wrong. So what do we do now?
We need to be telling the truth. Harming the environment is not just “wrong” or “bad.” It’s evil. It is suicidal. It is evidence of a profound sickness within the human condition. It is sinful, it is blasphemy, that we persist in harming our environment in greedy and hyperconsumptive ways. Many non-Christians will recoil at this emphatic religious language, I know; and many Christians, lacking Hildegard’s prophetic vision, will simply be unable to accept the idea that despoiling the environment is sinful, let alone a form of blasphemy. Well, forgive me for taking an unpopular position here, but I have to be true to the dictates of my own conscience, even though I recognize, with sorrow and humility, that I am party to this global dynamic of the blaspheming of nature.
Hildegard sees a direct link between Divinity, nature, and sacrality. No impassable chasm between God and creation in this woman’s theology. And for this reason, I’ve been rather boldly predicting that Hildegard, as a newly minted Doctor of the Church, could eventually even supplant Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of the environment. Francis’s feast day is October 4 — just three days before Hildegard’s elevation to Doctor of the Church — so it seems to me that maybe this month is the time for a sanctity smackdown, as we consider just who deserves to be the first among patron saints of nature (yes, it’s okay for there to be more than one).
On the first Sunday in October, the Pope will declare Hildegard of Bingen a “Doctor of the Church” — a fancy title meaning, basically, that her writings are considered exemplary sources of Catholic theology and doctrine. Hildegard and an obscure Spanish mystic will get this honor this fall, and will be only the 34th and 35th persons to be so named in all of Catholicism. Most of the Doctors of the Church are obscure theologians, folks like Gregory Nazianzus or Peter Damian or Lawrence of Brindisi. Others are more recognizable: Thomas Aquinas, the Venerable Bede, and Augustine of Hippo are all members of this rather exclusive club. Before 1970, no woman had ever been declared a Doctor of the Church; Hildegard will be the fourth to receive the title, after Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Thérèse of Lisieux — all mystics, which is not surprising since throughout most of church history women rarely were recognized as theologians unless they were seen as mystics, that is to say, as visionaries who insisted that their authority as theologians and spiritual teachers came directly from God.
What does “nature spirituality in the digital age” mean from a Christian contemplative perspective? I am writing here not because I have an answer to this question, but precisely because I don’t have much of an answer. The liturgy, theology, sacred stories, ritual practices, and ethical mandates of Christianity in so many ways seem foreign, perhaps even inimical, to the idea of “nature spirituality.” But voices in the tradition offer interesting insights. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Merton, Francis of Assisi, the Irish and Welsh saints, Thomas Berry, Rosemary Radford Ruether: these are just a few of the voices, from the past as well as the present, that have dared to explore a Christian approach to nature spirituality. What a wonderful privilege it is to be alive today, when submerged voices from the past can join together with visionary voices from the present to articulate an authentic, holistic, dare I say green Christian theology of nature.