Viriditas

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On October 7 of this year, Hildegard of Bingen gets a promotion.

This medieval abbess/writer/visionary/musician, popular in our time as a sort of proto-feminist because of her surprisingly strong artistic and theological voice (quite remarkable for a twelfth century Christian woman), is apparently quite well-liked by Pope Benedict XVI. Granted, they both hail from Germany. But earlier this year the Pope invoked an arcane bit of Catholic policy called “equivalent canonization” that allowed him to officially declare Hildegard a saint, even though the official efforts to have her canonized had somehow ground to a halt however many centuries ago. But making her a saint is not that big of a deal, really — after all, the Catholic Church recognizes over 10,000 saints. Even Catholics can be cynical about sainthood: “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” snapped Dorothy Day at the thought of her canonization. Once someone does get the official sainthood seal of approval, then the relentless force of commerce kicks in and somebody somewhere will start selling statues, holy cards and medals stamped with his or her image. My guess is that Hildegard would find that particularly appalling.

Incidentally, September 17 is Hildegard’s feast day on the Catholic Calendar. She died on this day in 1179.

But the real big deal is what’s coming up in a few weeks. On the first Sunday in October, the Pope will declare Hildegard 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.

Hildegard, likewise, was a mystic; and was one of the first women mystics within Christianity (she lived in the twelfth century; the other female Doctors of the Church lived in the fourteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries). But in addition to being a seer, she was a savvy politician, who made sure that the leading male theologian of her time (Bernard of Clairvaux, also a Doctor of the Church) and the Pope himself, were familiar with — and endorsed — Hildegard’s writings. Once those endorsements were safely in her pocket, HIldegard’s reputation spread rapidly, and in her own lifetime she was renowned as “the sybil of the Rhine” — a Christian oracle worthy of the best that Delphi ever offered.

So why should we care about Hildegard in 2012?

For several reasons. First of all, she was a brilliant musician, and the recordings of her luminous, otherworldly polyphonic chants have become classical recording bestsellers in our time (if you’re interested in exploring Hildegard’s music, check out A Feather on the Breath of God by Gothic Voices). She could arguably be called the first multimedia artist, since her first and most important book of visionary writings, Scivias, including lyrics with music, vivid illuminations depicting the content of Hildegard’s visions, and of course, her written descriptions of the visions along with detailed commentary. Like so many medieval texts, Scivias is a challenging book to read, dense as it is with arcane arguments about Catholic theology and portentous messages of disaster and doom, often related to dire warnings for the church if it would not clean up its own act. And right there, we see what is perhaps the most important reason why Hildegard continues to matter, even beyond the self-enclosed world of Catholic piety. At a time when women had virtually no voice in the public square, Hildegard not only asserted her own authority, but proceeded to use it to attack the abuses she saw in the church. In other words, she was a medieval subversive — and now she’s getting honored as one of the 35 most important teachers of the Catholic faith!

This leads to what I consider to be Hildegard’s single most important contribution. Her theology is profoundly incarnational (i.e., positive in its depiction of nature and the body; perhaps not by twenty-first century standards, but remarkably so for her own age). She had a strong sense of the presence of God in the natural world, as well as of the interconnectedness of all things. Central to this dimension of her writing is the concept of viriditas. Viriditas is a Latin word related to viridian or”green” and has a connotation of “green power” or “green energy.” Translators render it in English as “green vigor” or “lushness” or simply “greenness” or even “sap energy.” It carries connotations of fertility, fecundity, life-force, and earth energy. Hildegard did not coin this particular word, but she used it so frequently, throughout her writings, that the concept has been pretty strongly linked with her. Indeed, if you want to understand Hildegard, you need to reckon with viriditas.

Conservative Catholics might try to explain it away as Hildegard’s idea of the Holy Spirit moving and acting within the natural world. But if that was all Hildegard meant, why didn’t she just speak of Spiritus and leave it at that? Pretty much any honest reading of Hildegard’s writing will see that this medieval seer (and now, official church teacher) understood — and promoted — the living, interconnected life-force of nature as a central expression of spirituality — and holiness.

The implications are splendid. I’m not naive enough to think that Hildegard alone can heal the Catholic Church of its tragic dualism, suspicion of the body and the earth, or hostility to the feminine. But she represents a vitally important perspective that can only help Catholicism on its long road toward a more holistic, balanced, and — dare I hope for it? — green future.

And that’s why we should care. And be thankful.


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) Leia Barker (source)


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