Feb 21 2020
O nobilissima viriditas
by Hildegard von Bingen
English version by Barbara Newman
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
/ Image by joemacjr /
Every week or so I check the visitor statistics on the Poetry Chaikhana website to see which poets’ pages are the most visited. I regularly update the top ten on the Poetry Chaikhana home page, if you’re curious. Hildegard von Bingen is often one of the more popular poets on the site, but I realized it has been a while since I last selected one of her poems for an email. It also occurs to me that I have featured quite a few contemporary poets recently, and perhaps it is time to dip into the rich well of wisdom from our past. So something today by Hildegard von Bingen…
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 when the light withdraws, the season most associated with turning inwards, meditation and 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 light and 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 (the cross being another representation of the tree).
So when Hildegard sings to the evergreen, she is singing to Christ, the Beloved, the Living One.
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 as a yogic image. In Yoga, the subtle energetic body is often described as a tree whose trunk is the subtle spine. Like this 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…)
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 vapor or cloud of a thought exists there. It is a state beyond the control of any earthly power (or the grasping mind). In this space of radiance and life, there is nothing to hold onto — a vision of spacious presence.
This tree, Hildegard’s evergreen “shines,” it “blushes like the dawn.” Hildegard is 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…
|Hildegard von Bingen|