There is likely no better time to ponder Hildegard of Bingen's concept of viriditas, the greening power of all creation, than a Minnesota spring. I am every year taken by surprise when dead looking branches finally, suddenly, purposely, sprout little green buds. And how full of potency do those red rhubarb heads look while pressing their new stems forcefully through the rock and cold mud? If we were patient, we could watch their first green leaves slowly unfolding.
The early threshold of Spring has always been a powerful metaphor for the new life, dormant, which has prepared itself under layers of dark and cold. Already, in the slow season of waiting, when it appears like winter will never end, even then, the new not-yet-green prepares itself silently and patiently for its coming.
“There is a power that has been since all eternity, and that force and potentiality is green!” wrote the sage Hildegard of Bingen nearly 1000 years ago on a wax plate. She wrote it in her German tongue and only later did her scribes translate it to Latin, the academic language of the time.
Hildegard names this greening force viriditas, the Latin for her original “das Grün,” the greening. The greening is indeed a rich Spring metaphor, but it reaches beyond Spring to encompass the power of life. With viriditas Hildegard captures the greening power, the living light, that breathes in all beings, flows through all that is alive: “Be it greenness or seed, blossom or beauty – it could not be creation without it.”
Pondering viriditas helps us understand how much Hildegard's spirituality is embedded in her philosophy of human nature and its fundamental connectedness to “mother earth:” “The earth is at the same time mother...She is mother of all that is natural, mother of all that is human. She is the mother of all, for contained in her are the seeds of all.”
Hence Hildegard was an early pioneeress exploring the feminine Divine and also the relation between ecology and spirituality. Her teaching reminds us of our deep connection with the life force which sustains the cosmos and also every living being:
“Viriditas is the natural driving force toward healing and wholeness, the vital power that sustains all life's greenness.”
For Hildegard this life force is a “living and fiery essence ... that glows in the beauty of the fields.” It speaks to the one who is listening: “I shine in the water, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars. Mine is that mysterious force of the invisible wind.... I am the breath of all the living.”
When I was walking through my own long winter season, it was Hildegard that connected me again with what got lost in the midst of all-too-human concerns and expectations. She reminded me of the living presence which is breathing in me, and in you, and which moves us from within. Just as in Spring nature renews itself, also our soul has this capability to blossom again, this greening power of renewal.
In our age we have lost the powerful images our ancestors wielded to grasp the mystery of our souls, the breath that sustains us, the “anima” which animates us. Or as Hildegard pictures it:
“The soul is for the body as the sap is for the tree, and the soul's energies unfold as the tree unfolds its gestalt. ...Thus, the soul provides the inner solidity and strength of the body.”
Surely there are deep scholarly questions here to unpack, like what today is often called the mind-body problem. But I want instead to point to the powerful images of our forebears which can do what abstract argument often cannot: open our eyes, console our deepest worries, and offer comfort and understanding to our troubled souls.
Then we will see that even the rain sustains the greening, just as it is falling today.
Here is a spiritual practice Hildegard recommends:
"Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars.
Gaze at the beauty of earths greenings.
What delight God gives to humankind with all these things..."
See also our Reading List for more suggestions.