O nobilissima viriditas / Responsory for Virgins

by Hildegard von Bingen

English version by Barbara Newman
Original Language Latin

Most noble
evergreen with your roots
in the sun:
you shine in the cloudless
sky of a sphere no earthly
eminence can grasp,
enfolded in the clasp
of ministries divine.

You blush like the dawn,
you burn like a flame
of the sun.

-- from Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia armonie celstium revelationum, by Hildegard of Bingen / Translated by Barbara Newman

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

The evergreen tree is used by Hildegard von Bingen as a symbol of eternal life -- it is always green and vibrant, even during winter, the season of death. Within the Christian tradition, the evergreen is specifically a symbol of Christ, the one who overcomes death, the one who is the embodiment of eternal life. Christ is particularly associated with the tree based on prophetic associations of the messiah with a tree and, of course, because of his crucifixion (being 'hung upon the tree').

So when Hildegard sings to the evergreen, she is singing to Christ, the Beloved, the Living One.

Hildegard's evergreen almost sounds like a yogic image. In Yoga, the subtle energetic body is often described as a tree: the trunk is the central axis, the subtle spine. But what does Hildegard mean when she refers to the tree as having its "roots in the sun"? This is one of the more interesting lines to me. In the Western alchemical tradition, the seat of the body, the "root," is sometimes associated with fire (in Yoga we would say the fiery Kundalini); and in alchemical engravings, we often find the the image of a sun at the body's base. Hildegard von Bingen was apparently using the language of spiritual alchemy. This raises the fascinating question: Was Hildegard von Bingen, in addition to being a Catholic nun, also an initiate of secret esoteric traditions? Her work as a healer certainly could have introduced her to medical alchemy practiced at the time.

(An alternate way to read the roots in the sun metaphor is that, like the yogic tree, Hildegard's evergreen is upside-down, with its roots in heaven (the radiant crown chakra), making its branches the energetic pathways of awareness that reach outward through the senses into the world. That reading, of course, raises even bigger questions...)

This tree, Hildegard's evergreen "shines," it "blushes like the dawn." Hildegard is describing the perception of radiance the mystic experiences in deep communion, when one discovers the real presence of this living tree.

I love the description of the tree shining "in the cloudless / sky of a sphere no earthly / eminence can grasp..." It is as if she is describing a state of pure awareness, not even a cloud of a thought, beyond the ability of any earthly power (or grasping, earthly mind) to find anything to hold onto -- a vision of formless presence.

The final few lines say a great deal from the mystic's perspective: There is both the scintillating radiance, and also burning "like a flame / of the sun." With the mystic's union, there is often a rush of heat, a burning that can be quite intense, a heat that burns away the world around you.

But is this "flame," this burning, something to be feared? The mystic's consuming "flame" (however your religious tradition names it) can be overwhelming, even frightening but, so long as you don't grasp at a fixed notion of things or yourself, it is oh so sweet and liberating.

Hildegard is also clearly drawing a parallel with the burning bush Moses experienced in his direct encounter with God. If the burning bush witnessed by Moses is the same as Hildegard's burning evergreen, and that tree is understood to be the structure of the subtle spiritual body in both cases... well, we, as mystics, have some interesting avenues to explore...



Recommended Books: Hildegard von Bingen

Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia armonie celstium revelationum German Mystical Writings: Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, and others Hildegard of Bingen's Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs Women of Wisdom: A Journey of Enlightenment by Women of Vision Through the Ages The Book of the Rewards of Life: Liber Vitae Meritorum
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O nobilissima viriditas