Jun 01 2012
O most noble Greenness
by Hildegard von Bingen
English version by Jerry Dybdal and Matthew Fox
O most noble Greenness, rooted in the sun,
shining forth in streaming splendor upon the wheel of Earth.
No earthly sense or being can comprehend you.
You are encircled by the very arms of Divine mysteries.
You are radiant like the red of dawn!
You glow like the incandescence of the sun!
— from Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, by Hildegard of Bingen / Edited by Matthew Fox
/ Photo by Dave Shaver /
Greenness, the essence of life everywhere present…
Although it’s never explicitly stated, Hildegard von Bingen seems to be evoking the image of a tree, with its roots and its reach. This is the Tree of Life. Hildegard’s “Greenness” is elsewhere translated as “evergreen.” The evergreen tree is often used as a symbol of eternal life — it is always green and vibrant, even during winter, the season of death and withdrawal. 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 as ‘the branch’ and, of course, because of his crucifixion (being ‘hung upon the tree’).
So when Hildegard, a Catholic nun, 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 being “rooted 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, this Greenness, “glows,” it is “radiant like the red of dawn.” The “incandescence” of this tree suggests not only radiant light, but heat, fire. Hildegard may also be drawing a parallel with the burning bush Moses witnessed in the desert. If the Moses’s burning bush is the same as Hildegard’s incandescent Greenness, and they are both understood to be the structure of the subtle spiritual body… well, we, as mystics, have some interesting avenues to explore…
Have a day of Greenness and incandescence!
|Hildegard von Bingen|
Hildegard was born in Bermersheim, not far from Mainz, Germany to a noble family. She was the tenth and last child to be born to the family. At the age of eight, Hildegard was “given to God as a tithe” by placing her in the care of Jutta, a woman who had chosen a life of solitary seclusion. Hildegard would later describe Jutta as “uneducated,” yet she taught the girl the basic skills of reading, as well as her initial practices in the spiritual life.
Hildegard’s health was always fragile, but she had a rich interior life, by her own account receiving visions since early childhood. Hildegard describes one vision she had at the age of three of witnessing “a brightness so great that [her] soul trembled.” This was a light that remained a part of her perception throughout her life. Even in her seventies, Hildegard described it as a light that seemed to permeate everything without hindering her ability to see normally, as well.
She is said to have had a natural gift of clairvoyance and the ability predict the future. She was also widely respected as a healer and herbalist, having written works on natural history and the medicinal uses of plants.
Illness was intimately linked with Hildegard’s mystical life. Bouts of illness seemed to be brought on by the tensions that existed between her divine promptings and the limitations of the roles allowed to her as a woman and a nun. She had especially severe illnesses occur prior to the major decisions in her life.
Hildegard’s early life was relatively quiet. A small community of women gathered around Jutta, that eventually joined the Benedictine order. Hildegard herself took monastic vows in her teens. When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected to lead the monastic community.
It wasn’t until she was in her forties, however, that Hildegard began to gain notoriety for her visions. She was surprised to receive an inner prompting to “tell and write” her visions. She initially resisted and was soon bedridden as the inner conflict played out. Eventually she relented and began to dictate her visions.
The first work she produced was Scivias, a description of a cycle of visions about the relationship of humanity and nature with God. She also composed a collection of music and poetry called the Symphonia. She also wrote extensively about medicine and herbs.
Hildegard’s fame quickly spread, bringing pilgrims and the curious, eventually overwhelming the capacity of the small community. A new, larger monastery was built between 1148 and 1150 in Rupertsberg near Bingen.
Throughout the 1150’s, Hildegard made several teaching tours through the Rhineland.
Although Hildegard had received blessings from Church authorities through most of her work, toward the end of her life she ran into conflicts for, among other things, allowing an excommunicated man who had died to be buried in consecrated ground. She refused to have the body dug up and, as a result, she was not allowed to take the eucharist — a deep wound for a devout Catholic. This ban was eventually lifted, but she died only a few months later.