Part 2: “Greening” in a Polluted World

“I am the one whose praise echoes on high.
I adorn all the earth.
I am the breeze
that nurtures all things…
I am the rain
coming from the dew
that causes to laugh
with the joy of life.
I call forth tears,
the aroma of holy work.
I am the yearning for good.”

(From Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings, eds. Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, New York: Crossroad, 1990, 91-93)

Hildegard of Bingen, an outstanding wisdom figure and a model for Christian disciples today, lived in an earlier age but anticipated the present ecological movement. She awakened people to the sacredness of the earth and their responsibility for preserving it. In pointing out the relationship among religion, science and art she foreshadowed the cosmology of the 21st century.

One of the most remarkable concepts that Hildegard introduced is the “greening power” (viriditas) that enlivens the earth. She said that all of creation, humanity in particular, is showered with “greening” vitality to bear fruit. She took to heart these words in John’s gospel: “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). These words continue with the sentence: “It was not you chose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain” (John 15:16).

Hildegard recognizes fire also as a cosmic symbol of the Spirit. Its ever-changing form is mysterious. “The light and heat that emanate from fire are indispensable to human well-being. It points to the greater fires in the universe, the glowing sun and stars, and the fierce lightening storms. All are powerful biblical symbols of the presence of God” as Elizabeth A. Johnson notes in Women, Earth and Creator Spirit (Paulist Press, 1993).

Hildegard has captured the symbolism of fire and the Spirit in this poem:

“I, the highest and fiery power,
have kindled every living spark
and I have breathed out
nothing that can die….
I flame above
the beauty of the fields.
I shine in the waters:
in the sun, the moon and the stars,
I burn.
And by means of the airy wind,
I stir everything
into quickness
with a certain invisible life
which sustains all….
I, the fiery power,
lie hidden in these things
and they blaze from me.”

(as quoted in Johnson, p. 48).

Johnson calls this act of creation “a Pentecost, a first and permanent outpouring of the fiery Spirit of life” (p. 48). She connects this with the contemporary scientific theory about the origin of the universe in a primeval explosion, called the Big Bang.

Hildegard, so many centuries ahead of her time, believed that Christ will bring fullness of life to people who respond to his call. In her life and vocation as abbess, theologian and preacher, poet and composer, healer and author she inspired many people to live fuller lives, to vitalize the earth and treat it well, and to be disciples of Jesus.

People today are attracted to 12th-century Hildegard because in her day she promoted holistic living, care of the environment, and creation-centered spirituality. As we know today, creation theology provides the basis for an understanding of human reality and its relationship to the rest of creation.

Like all disciples Hildegard served the people of her day with hospitality and compassion. She welcomed whoever came to her in need and offered physical or spiritual healing She models for all contemporary Christians how to make holistic use of intelligence, imagination, and creativity. For her, earth was home and a source of delight. She believed that every human being should assume co-creative responsibility with God for the well-being of the earth.

Read slowly the poem at the beginning of Part 2, “I am the one whose praise echoes on high….” and let your imagination conjure up, one by one, all these images from nature. Let yourself feel the breeze, smell the rain, laugh with the greenness, yearn for the good. Become more alive in God’s presence in creation. Then reflect on these questions:

  • How does my prayer include concern for the earth and its well-being?
  • How can care for a lawn or gardening be a prayer for me?
  • How can concern for global warming be a part of my prayer and my action?

Hildegard has another quite different meditation/poem which shows how foresighted she was. She could be speaking about today’s pollution!

Now in the people
that were meant to green,
there is no more life of any kind.
There is only shrivelled barrenness.
The winds are burdened
by the utterly awful stink of evil,
selfish goings-on.
Thunderstorms menace.
The air belches out
the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples.

There pours forth an unnatural,
loathsome darkness,
that withers the green,
and wizens the fruit
that was to serve as food for the people.

Sometimes this layer of air
is full,
full of a fog that is the source
of many destructive and barren creatures,
that destroy and damage the earth,
rendering it incapable
of sustaining humanity.

Discipleship in any age requires courage and sometimes risk. Hildegard’s courage came from the conviction that God would uphold her if she followed God’s will. Against much opposition from the monks on whose property her convent stood, she was convinced that it was God’s will that she, and her nuns, move to a location that would be more healthful. In the new location they could live a holistic life in harmony with creation.

She was so absorbed with nature, so taken by the revelation of the divine in creation that she sought out the finest scientific minds of her day. She made compilations of their knowledge, followed the scientific speculations on the shapes and elements of the universe, and wedded these to her own prayer and her own imagery. Her scientific thought evolved until finally, she wrote, “All science comes from God” (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, with commentary by Matthew Fox, Sante Fe: Bear and Company, 1985, p. 14).

Today science and spirituality are coming together in a new way to create a shared vision which gives hope to all of us. We are developing new understanding of God’s creation through scientific and theological study of the cosmos.

In many of his parables Jesus taught about the kingdom of God in terms of nature. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus uses the example of the seed. He tells the crowd: “This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how” (4:26-27). This mystery of life is still a puzzle to modern scientists with modern equipment. What does make this seed grow?

Jesus continues, “Of its own accord, the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come” (4:28-29). Jesus is referring to the life principle itself. Ecologists are still probing the secrets of life much as spiritual seekers are doing. Many of us know much, or maybe little, about the mystery of life. In recent times ecologists and other scientists have expanded our awareness of the extent of the universe from the smallest seed to the largest galaxy.

As modern-day disciples we need to be on the cutting edge of what the ecologists are discovering as they try to build up the kingdom of God (although they do not use the term). They are helping us gain a deeper awareness of the ever-expanding universe.

Take some time now to reflect on the parable of the sower and the seed and the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:26-30). What kind of seed do you sow that will help bring about the kingdom of God?

Refer to Hildegard’s poem, “I am the one whose praise echoes on high.” How can you as a Christian disciple of the 21st century incorporate ecological awareness and concern in your prayer and activity?

Please turn to Part 3, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth”