Poverty, Nobility, and the Patron Saint of the Environment

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I’ve had the opportunity to speak numerous times on Hildegard of Bingen this fall, at various churches and retreat centers, thanks to her being declared a Doctor of the Church this month (on October 7). As I mentioned in my last post, one of the many reasons I love Hildegard is because of her theology of viriditas or “green vigor,” the pulsating, life-creating energy that is found in all living things and indeed in all of nature, and which according to Hildegard originates in the Holy Spirit. So 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.

No doubt, Franciscans will howl over this heretical assertion. 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).

Francis is certainly the sentimental favorite. Just think of all the statues of him, hanging out with birds and deer and even wolves, that adorn the lawns of Catholic churches and the homes of the faithful? Such iconic imagery comes from legends associated with the gentle saint from Assisi, for (unlike Hildegard) Francis was not renowned for his theological writings. Indeed, in the Franciscan corpus, only one text attributed to Francis really makes the case for his environmental cred, although that text, the Canticle of the Sun, certainly has some weight to it. Francis in turn venerates the sun, the moon, and the four elements, and even embraces death as part of the natural order of things. And while Pagans might complain that Francis remains anchored in a dualistic world view that insists God is separate from God’s creation, such a theology is pretty much standard fare within Christianity and so the best we can hope for is an affirmation of creation as good, holy (and therefore, worthy of protection).

But as inspiring as the Canticle of the Sun might be, it remains a devotional rather than theological statement: lovely poetry, but too easy to dismiss as mere pious sentimentality. Which is why I think Hildegard and her notion of viriditas carries some real potential. Hildegard, as a medieval visionary, claimed to speak with the authority of God himself empowering her visions; and with the backing of both the pope and Bernard of Clairvaux, the leading theologian of her generation, she was respected in her own lifetime as the real deal. As I already mentioned, she emphasized her notion of viriditas to assert a worldview in which the Creator/creation divide was bridged by a sense of the Spirit’s presence in all living things, indeed, in all nature. Because of viriditas, a sin against nature is truly a sin against God: perhaps, even, the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” that Jesus so sternly warned against. Offering a woman’s sensibility to an intellectual field so long dominated by men, Hildegard offers an alternative understanding of the basic goodness of the human body, of women, and of the moist fecundity of the world. She also offers a prophet’s voice of warning against those who would misuse the gifts of nature: “God has directed for humanity’s benefit all of creation, which God has formed both on the heights and in the depths. But if we abuse our condition and commit evil deeds, then God’s justice will allow other creatures to punish us,” she wrote in her last collection of visions, The Book of Divine Works. While we might naturally reject Hildegard’s theology of punishment, we cannot avoid her common sense observation: if humans abuse our environment, God will allow us to suffer consequences for it.

But Francis will not go away. As much as I admire Hildegard and believe she represents the possibility of a new Christian theology of interconnection and responsibility with all of nature, Francis remains compelling for one significant reason: his relationship to what he called “Lady Poverty.” Francis’s nickname was Il Poverello — Italian for “the little poor one” — and he has jokingly been called the first  hippie, because of how dramatically he rejected the mercantile affluence of his family and literally stripped the clothes off his back to embrace a new life based not on material wealth but on spiritual principles.

Hildegard, by contrast, was not a child of the emerging mercantile class, but rather a daughter of nobility — and, as such, remained anchored in a  more truly feudal world view than Francis’s. She carried her noblewoman’s sensibility with her into the cloister, and was known for only allowing members of the nobility to enter her convent. She argued that mixing bluebloods and commoners would lead to discord in the community, although a more cynical argument might be that she was only interested in new novices who brought a dowry with them when they entered religious life. The bottom line is that Hildegard remained essentially conservative in her understanding of human society, and this influenced how she governed the temporal affairs of her responsibilities as a Benedictine abbess. She turned to Bernard of Clairvaux for advice on her spiritual experience, but tellingly she did not embrace the Cistercian reform, in which Benedictines sought a humbler, poorer lifestyle in their quest to be faithful to the Rule of Saint Benedict.

So if Hildegard had a bourgeoisie sensibility, does that delegitimize her theology of viriditas? Of course not; her ideas remain compelling and relevant today. But perhaps it does weaken my argument to have Hildegard of Bingen replace Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of nature. What Hildegard missed, Francis understood: that we “abuse our condition” when we embrace a consumerist lifestyle rather than a more spiritually-anchored approach to walking lightly on the earth. Poverty is not a goal in itself (indeed, to the extent that poverty means living without choices, it is a scourge on society). But the “voluntary poverty” of original Franciscan spirituality reminds us that environmental sustainability is related to living simply and to curtailing mindless consumerism. With that in mind, the way Francis lived his life may be more relevant to authentic nature spirituality than anything Hildegard said.



Carl McColman is an author, retreat leader and spiritual director. His blog, www.anamchara.com, celebrates the mystical and contemplative dimensions of both Christian and world spirituality.

Carl’s books explore spirituality from a variety of perspectives. His Christian writings include The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and Answering the Contemplative Call. His Celtic and nature-based writings include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom.

Since 2005 Carl’s spirituality has been anchored in the Cistercian monastic tradition. He is not a monk, but a professed lay associate of a monastery that owns and protects one of the largest green spaces in the metro Atlanta area. In Cistercian spirituality Carl has discovered the link between the Christian faith, contemplative practice, and a foundational love for the natural world. Carl’s writing reflects Cistercian earthiness integrated with the recognition of contemplation as an essential tool for peacemaking and sustainability.


Photo Credit: (CC) mtsofan (source)


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2 Responses to “Poverty, Nobility, and the Patron Saint of the Environment”

  1. [...] spell this out in a post I’ve submitted to the Faith, Fern & Compass blog, called Poverty, Nobility, and the Patron Saint of the Environment. Follow the link to check [...]

  2. [...] spell this out in a post I’ve submitted to the Faith, Fern & Compass blog, called Poverty, Nobility, and the Patron Saint of the Environment. Follow the link to check [...]

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