This is the third and final installment in a series of posts about the Catholic saint and nature mystic Hildegard of Bingen. The previous articles are Viriditas and Poverty, Nobility, and the Patron Saint of the Environment.
Since Hildegard of Bingen was declared a Doctor of the Catholic Church this month, I’ve had several opportunities to lead retreats or teach classes at churches and retreat centers on the life, thought and spirituality of Hildegard. As could be expected, so many of Hildegard’s devotees find Viriditas — the theology of the “green vigor” of the Holy Spirit, present in all living things — to be particularly attractive and relevant to our time. But Hildegard’s optimistic panentheism is not the only dimension to her nature spirituality. Being a medieval prophet, she decries the abuse of nature almost as much as she celebrates the Spirit’s life-force within it.
One passage, from her second collection of visions, the Liber Vitae Meritorum (“Book of Life’s Merits”) is particularly compelling. In it Hildegard frankly speaks about nature complaining (presumably to God) about the abuse that humankind has heaped upon the environment. Here is the passage:
All the elements and all creatures cry aloud at the blaspheming of nature and at wretched humankind’s devotion of so much of its short life to the rebellion against God; whereas… nature … carries out the divine laws. This is why nature complains so bitterly about humanity.
— From the Liber Vitae Meritorum, quoted in Hildegard of Bingen: Healing
and the Nature of the Cosmos by Heinrich Schipperges
It’s fascinating how I can read a passage from Hildegard (or, indeed, any profound thinker) multiple times and yet with each new reading be impressed by some detail I had not fully noticed before. This is what happened here: I was actually giving my fifth presentation on Hildegard this fall, when I shared that passage with the retreatants and then had to pause, so blown away I was by its meaning.
Think about it. So many Christians, not only in the past but even today, would use a word like “blasphemy” to describe an act of sacrilege such as worshipping false idols (including, perhaps the veneration of nature herself). And yet, here is a twelfth-century visionary saint, who has just been given the highest theological honor possible within the Catholic Church, describing the abuse of nature as a form of blaspheming.
I’m sorry I don’t have the original Latin text — I would love to see if the language in Hildegard’s own voice is that strong, or if this merely represents the zeal of her interpreter Heinrich Schipperges. For the sake of being cautious, let’s assume that Hildegard’s original language wasn’t quite that emphatic. Nevertheless, unless this translation is grossly inaccurate, the passage as a whole makes it clear that Hildegard is making a fairly bold theological claim:
- Humankind’s rebellion against God (i.e., sin) leads, among other things, to the despoiling of nature;
- Nature herself suffers because of this abuse;
- Nature complains to God because of this abuse;
- And the abuse is not only a sin against nature, but it is a sin against God as well.
I know many who read this blog may not be comfortable with traditional Christian concepts like “sin” and “blasphemy.” Even most liberal Christians rarely use such stark language in our day. That is understandable, to the extent that such language has in the past been used to attack and vilify non-Christians. But I firmly believe that such present-day realities as the alarming rate of global deforestation, the rapid loss of biodiversity as more and more species are destroyed by human greed, the horrors of Chernobyl or Fukushima Daiichi, the accelerating melting of the ice caps — these markers of humankind’s aggressive relationship to the environment should be described as sinful or blasphemous. Yes, I know it’s strong language; but it’s the simple truth. Incidentally, I believe the “guilty parties” to this sin and blasphemy include the entire sweep of humankind: we all participate in the despoiling of the earth (although, granted, those of us whose lives rely on American levels of consumption bear a correspondingly larger burden of the responsibility).
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.
Recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous note that recovery requires, first of all, admitting to ourselves that we are out of control because of our addiction. Until we take that all-important first step, we remain in denial. Most Christians — and, I suspect, most secularists — in our culture today live in precisely such a state of denial (just think of the widespread rejection of the evidence for climate change). Being in denial does not make the problem unreal. It’s just a delusional state of self-imposed blindness that can be deadly (because the next use of the addictive substance could prove to be fatal). How many alcoholics have died in car crashes because they refused to admit they had a problem and chose instead to go out drinking with the boys one more time? Isn’t that pretty much what’s going on right now on the planet, in regard to how human beings collectively interact with the biosphere?
Praying fervently that it is not too late, it is my cautious hope that Hildegard’s theology — both her positive idea of Viriditas and her more fiery denunciation of the blaspheming of nature — might lead Christians, and perhaps others, to take that essential first step of admitting we have a problem.
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) dmarklaing (source)
Tags: Addiction, Blasphemy, Hildegard of Bingen, nature, Sin