BARBARA SONVILLA writes about the divine feminine and the global awakening of women. She celebrates women telling their stories and taking action to bring alive a collective awareness of the need to respect and protect Mother Earth, nurture life in all its aspects, and hold it sacred. In part 1, she presents Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), one of the early eco-saints, and her love for Mother Earth.
Humanity, take a good look at yourself.
Inside, you’ve got Heaven and Earth, and all of creation.
You’re a world – everything is hidden in you.
—Hildegard von Bingen
When I was still a student of art and cultural history, I came across the wonderful illustrations accompanying the book Scivias (meaning “know the ways”), by Hildegard. I was mesmerized and wanted to know more about the author. I discovered a giant of a woman, an original thinker and mystic, who considered herself “the feather on the breath of God.”
During her lifetime, Hildegard was already famous throughout medieval Europe as a seeress, a writer, a philosopher, a mystic, a healer, a herbalist, and a health counselor. Today, she is widely known for her sublime choral music. Her pioneering and practical works on biology, botany, and medicine, and her scholarly writings on theology, reveal a remarkable personality with compelling teaching abilities, equipped with fearlessness in dealing with church elders and leaders. In 2012, Hildegard was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI, becoming the fourth woman to receive such an honor in the Catholic Church.
What drew me to Hildegard the most was that she was one of the “creation-centered” mystics of the West. She considered everything to be interconnected with everything else. In her own words:
“Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthly …
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.”
As was the custom of the time, as the tenth child of a noble family, Hildegard was dedicated to the church. Having had visions of what she called “reflections of the living Light” from early childhood, she was reluctant to share these visions, which came to her as inner experiences while her eyes were open and all her senses routinely engaged. Only at the age of 43, after seeking and receiving the blessing from Pope Eugene III, Hildegard started writing down her visions and thoughts in her first book, Scivias, including images of these visions.
In her writings, as well as in nearly 400 letters, Hildegard was quite outspoken, determined, and bold, yet always ready to help, educate, and uplift the correspondent. She loved to mix genres, including music and poetry. People would come to seek help and advice from her, and from this her two works on the origins and treatment of diseases and naturopathy emerged.
As an abbess, she asked the nuns in her charge to pay close attention to nature and its rhythms, as they hold the secrets to our physical well-being and aliveness of our inner world. Hildegard urged them to become partners with the natural world, saying:
“Humankind, full of all creative possibilities, is God’s work. Humankind alone is called to assist God. Humankind is called to co-create. With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life-sustaining.”
Viriditas, the divine healing power of Nature
One of the most recognizable contributions of Hildegard, her leitmotif, and the thread running through all her writings, is the concept of viriditas.
The origin of “viriditas” may be the union of two Latin words meaning “green” and “truth.” The definition is both literal, as in “green” and “growth,” and metaphorical, as in “freshness” and “vitality.” The term is difficult to translate, and it has rich and poetic connotations. I simply fell in love with the word. It represents the life force at work in all creation. For Hildegard, this green energy is love pulsing through the entire universe. It is the creative principle itself, sustaining her soul and her work.
Hildegard saw viriditas as animating every living being, inherent in everything, including humans. Much like gardens, farmlands, and forests need cultivation, Hildegard saw viriditas as something also to be cultivated in our bodies and our souls. For her, a healthy human body is “green,” our blood possessing special greening power, and the life force, the soul, being “green.” It is the very same greenness that connects us all together as humanity. It shines forth, giving us the common purpose of creating a joyful, peaceful, and productive life. It is the strength within us manifesting as a strong and healthy life.
“O most honored Viriditas, You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.
You redden like the dawn
and you burn: flame of the Sun.”
For Hildegard, green was not just a color – it was the universal life force. “Creation is the song of God,” she said, and viriditas its breath. If we could wish to describe a flavor that comes with this greenness, it would be the joy of being alive. Hildegard defines joy as an “awareness of God’s secrets.1”
As the Voice of the Living Light revealed to her:
“I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I adorn all the Earth. I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grass to laugh with the joy of life.”
How is this vital greenness sustained?
“The soul is the greening life force of the flesh, for the body grows and prospers through her, just as the Earth becomes fruitful when it is moistened. The soul humidifies the body so it does not dry out, just like the rain which soaks into the Earth.”
This belief in viriditas led her to become an herbalist also. She wrote extensively on the importance of selecting foods with curative properties, and in accordance with the Hippocratic tradition, she prioritized preventive medicine and remedies based on plants. As an example, she considered fennel to be a plant with truly holistic health benefits. It was one of her primary healing foods after surgery, for convalescence and immune building. In her own words:
“Fennel does not harm the body in any way. In whatever way it is eaten, it makes people happy and gives warmth, a good skin color, and promotes good digestion … it reduces the evil mucus and suppresses the foul odor of the breath.
The soul is the greening life force of the flesh,
for the body grows and prospers through her,
just as the Earth becomes fruitful when it is moistened.
The soul humidifies the body so it does not dry out,
just like the rain which soaks into the Earth
Hildegard thought that when the soul, body, and mind are equally strong, the four life juices (humors) and elements are balanced. This allows the organism to work optimally and operate harmoniously. Because of our connectivity with the universe, Hildegard believed the soul to be the source of everything and thus essential in achieving harmony. For her, what we now call the autonomic nervous system is the connecting language between the body and the soul. Hildegard described in detail how lifestyle affects that communication. The balance is easily disturbed through incorrect eating and drinking habits, but also through thoughts, emotions, and living against the principles of a virtuous and pious life.
To be continued.
1Butcher, C.A., 2007. St. Hildegard of Bingen. A Spiritual Reader. Paraclete Press.
Barbara is a long-time Heartfulness practitioner and trainer. She has been a course developer and instructor in art and cultural history at European universities. Barbara has additional training in integrative health and continuous health education. Her passion is to combine ancient wisdom, traditional knowledge, and cutting-edge integrative health science. Through hands-on workshops she inspires and... Read more