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Hildegard of Bingen: Our Greening God

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Isaiah 58:8-11 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

John 15:1-5 I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Christian mysticism is a subject that is difficult to define. The best definition I’ve been able to find is this: “Christian mysticism seeks to describe an experienced, direct, non-abstract, unmediated, loving knowledge of God, a knowing or seeing so direct as to be called union with God.”[1] So a mystic is a person who has a close, emotional, experiential relationship with God. Sometimes these experiences take the form of visions, and mystics who have visions are called visionaries. Each Sunday in Lent I will be preaching about one of these visionaries. I will tell you a little about each one, and I will share an excerpt from their writing and some of their theological points of view. The earliest of those I will discuss was born in the year 1096 and the most recent I will discuss died in 1941. I believe that because we say God is still speaking, perhaps we should listen to some people who have been speaking, and seeing, since the Bible was written.

Today we are looking at Hildegard of Bingen.[2] Hildegard was born in 1098. She claimed that by the age of three she was experiencing God’s presence in unusual ways, and by five began to understand them as visions. When she was eight years old she joined her aunt or cousin in seclusion, and a few years later they opened their walled-off retreat and turned it into a convent. Hildegard became a nun at the age of fourteen and ultimately became the abbess (the leader of the abbey) and founded several other abbeys as well. “Hildegard was a sort of Dear Abby of the twelfth century. She was taken seriously as a prophet by everyone, it would seem, from . . . the pope down to the humblest laborers.”[3] In addition to being a mystic and visionary, she also was a poet, philosopher, natural healer, and scientist. She wrote several medical books, is still cited by natural healers today, and was one of the most important composers of the Medieval Period.

She experienced a midlife awakening, “embracing a new life and spiritual path in her early forties, resulting in the most prolific and creative period of her life that continued into her early eighties.”[4] “She was a staunch defender of the groups she led, traveling far distances when she felt the interests of her abbey were being ignored or threatened. She stood up to the patriarchal leadership of the day, and when she didn’t get the answer she wanted from her male superior, she would go over his head until she got what she needed. One time she even fell prey to a paralytic sickness until her wishes were honored, at which time God healed her of her illness. She also conducted four preaching tours throughout Germany, preaching to men and women, clergy and laity. (Remember, this was the 12th century.) Ahead of her time in terms of theological viewpoints, in reference to the creation story she said, “woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.”[5] There is a recent movie about her called The Unruly Mystic. Is it any wonder I like her?!

Her theology was beautiful. In contrast to the teachings of St. Augustine and many others, who emphasized our depravity and the original sin that envelops us, Hildegard affirmed humankind’s inherent goodness. She wrote, “Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of Divinity.” This is not to say that Hildegard ignored evil or suffering. She did not. But she believed that the spark of God within us was always greater than the temptation to do wrong. That’s why she could say, “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong.” It is a good reminder for us this week.

Hildegard also espoused the goodness of the natural world and had a creation-focused spirituality that is very appealing to modern spiritual seekers. She believed the care of the earth was part of our responsibility as followers of Christ. She wrote, “We shall awaken from our dullness and rise vigorously toward justice. If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.” Is this not also a lesson for our time?

But arguably one of Hildegard’s greatest contributions (or at least that for which she is most known) was her coining of the term viriditas. “The origin of Viriditas may be the union of two Latin words: Green and Truth. But like most Latin words, Viriditas does not easily translate into convenient, straightforward English. While being difficult to translate may be frustrating to some, there is beauty in this complexity.”

The meaning is both literal (green and growth) and metaphorical (freshness and vitality).  Viriditas is the creative power of life. Most of all, viriditas is God’s greening power, which “gives life to all things and inspires and revives our spiritual lives.”[6] Her poem called Viriditas proclaims:

I am the one whose praise echoes on high.
I adorn all the earth.
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.
I am led by the spirit to feed the purest streams.
I am the rain  coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.
I call forth tears. I am the yearning for good.

But here is my favorite, addressed to the listener, to the reader, to us.

Good people, Most royal greening verdancy, Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light, in this circle of earthly existence.
You shine so finely, it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.

Amen.

What would it mean for us to be a royal greening verdancy? What would it look like if we were rooted in the sun and shining with radiant light? How would it feel if we were filled with viriditas, the creative power of life, God’s greening power? How would that affect our malaise, our apathy, our indifference? How would it affect our relationships, our parenting, our work, or our retirement? How would it affect our church, our community, our country?

Hildegard believed that God was the source of all viriditas, God’s greening power. But she also believed that we all have viriditas, this creative life power, within us. Healing comes when we figure out what is blocking our viriditas. So I will ask what Hildegard might have: where are the brown, dead spots in your life or your spirit? What area is in need of greening? What is getting in the way? What needs to grow in you?

My original plan was to preach on Hildegard next week, but I switched it to this week because we need her now. After a week with too much death and destruction, we need to hear of God’s healing verdancy. We need God’s greening. Of course, Hildegard also believed that we are co-creators with God, so we have to do our part. She said we cannot thwart God’s greening power. What might we be able to do if we embraced it?

“I am the vine, and you are the branches,” Jesus said. We are connected to Christ and one another. Let’s do some greening.

 

BENEDICTION:

“Dare to declare who you are. It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.” – Hildegard of Bingen

 

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/an-faq-on-mysticism-and-the-christian-life/

[2] The background info on Hildegard comes from several sources, including Wikipedia, www.healthyhildegard.com, and the Petroff book mentioned below.

[3] Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Medival Women’s Visionary Literature, p. 139.

[4] healthyhildegard.com

[5] wikipedia

[6] Epperly, p. 61.

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