St. Hildegard the Green
On September 17 we celebrate the feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, (1098-1179), who was canonized rather recently. What is ironic about this is that many have known and revered her for centuries. In May, 2012 Pope Benedict XVI not only canonized her, but also named her a Doctor of the Church. Given that she wrote the world's first opera, was skilled at medicine, was an inventor, spiritual director, poet, theologian, and wisdom figure consulted by bishops and popes, the only thing that should surprise us is that it took so long for her to be recognized. However, it is her understanding of something she called viriditas which I would like to highlight and it is why I am referring to her as 'green.' Viriditas means the greening power of God. "She described this power as the agent of God, a divine attribute, that was the animating life-force within all creation, giving it life, moisture and vitality. Viriditas was green fire and energy, and Hildegard has been associated through history with the colour green." *
Viriditas is a unique gift of God, which gives not just animation (life) to creation, but it gives us a gift of God Himself. She declares: “There is a power that has been since all eternity and that force and potentiality is green!”* This is consistent with what we read in Genesis: at the moment of creation the Spirit of God (or ruah) hovered over the waters. Water is representative of life, and so we understand this to mean that God gave life to everything that exists and it was His Spirit who was "delivering" the life power that gave rise to everything. The Spirit made sacred all that God created. Therefore all life is sacred since it is imbued with the creative gift of our Creator God. St. Hildegard saw this not only as the life-giving force present at creation, but as the force which continues to give life throughout salvation history. It is what enables us to have a relationship with God that is not only life-giving to our souls, but which is life-sustaining. In other words, without the gift of the Holy Spirit, we would not be able to keep our relationship with God dynamic and growing.
The Old Testament describes Wisdom as the ultimate connection with sanctification and God. (See the book of Wisdom.) In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Spirit as one who brings wisdom, guidance, teaching, comfort and who empowers us with gifts. And both the Old and New Testaments describe the Spirit of God as coming in fire. Examples of this are the Burning Bush, the fiery cloud that led the Israelites through the desert in Exodus, and the shekinah, (God's protective presence) on Mt. Sinai when Moses would approach God; the Spirit is present as fire at the Transfiguration, (the bright cloud surrounding Jesus), and the Pentecost event when tongues of fire were present over the heads of the apostles as they received the Spirit.
Therefore, what St. Hildegard taught about the Holy Spirit using the term viriditas, was both scripturally and theologically accurate. Hildegard was a mystic, and like most mystics she had insights into who God is and how God acts which were revealed to her by God during prayer. She spoke of green fire, so for her it was the fire of God which creates new life and keeps it alive. Hildegard was quite brilliant, so she was able to come up with a concept in order to attempt to describe the indescribable. (All of her writings, such as the Scivias, are simply incredible, given her God-given wisdom and her holiness.)
I just read a short book which captured a similar concept, though the book was fiction and written by one who was probably not familiar with St. Hildegard and who was not trying to make a theological statement. This book was written by none other than Jules Verne (1828-1905). The work to which I am referring is a lesser known short novel by Verne called The Green Ray. Written in 1882 this book was penned midway through his prolific writing career, coming after his more well-known books, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It is a rather sweet story about a young woman who is searching for a phenomenon called the green ray which she has read about in a newspaper.
In the novel, the green ray is said to be a rare occurrence which can only be seen when the sun is setting over the sea. When the upper rim of the "disk" of the sun is just about to disappear beneath the horizon of the sea, there is a phenomenon which occurs "at the very instant the heavenly body sends forth its last ray." In order for it to occur there has to be a cloudless sky. The book goes on to say: "The first time you have the opportunity, and it happens but rarely, of making this observation, it will not be, as one might think, a crimson ray which falls upon the retina of the eye, it will be 'green,' but a most wonderful green, a green which no artist could ever obtain on his palette, a green which neither the varied tints of vegetation nor the shades of the most limpid sea could ever produce the like! If there be green in Paradise, it cannot but be of this shade, which most surely is the true green of Hope!" **
In the story, it is what happens when one sees the green ray that is of importance: according to ancient Highlands legend, when one sees this ray, “all truth comes to be known, there is no room for deceit or falsehood, …and the one who has been fortunate enough once to behold it is enabled to see closely into his own heart and read the thoughts of others." While this is a novel, the concept is that when one sees the green ray, one is filled with both deepened self-knowledge and heightened insights into the heart of the person one is with. In the story, the young woman discovers true love during the quest for the green ray and ironically it is more the quest than the actual occurrence which seals the love between her and her beloved.
While Verne was simply writing a sweet story, the connection I am trying to make between the green ray and St. Hildegard is that it is in the virtue of hope, given by the Holy Spirit, through which life really thrives. The heroine of the story, Helene, grows in the hope of finding the illusive ray, but in the process finds new life in the love of the man who believes in her quest. They share hope, and discover deep love. Not only that, but this ray is a shade of green that no artist could create. It comes from God Himself, as do all gifts.
St. Hildegard teaches that it is God who is the source of the hope which leads to deep love. God gives life to us through the gifts He gives, hope being one of these essential gifts. It is hope which keeps our hearts and spirits alive, especially when we are struggling with whatever burdens we are carrying. Therefore, viriditas is not simply that which starts life: it is that which sustains and enlivens life, both physically and spiritually. In the letter to Titus the author writes, “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of His mercy, He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7) This renewal or rebirth is what St. Hildegard means when she refers to viriditas.
Just as we connect creation with the color green, we can connect spiritual life with green as well. Liturgically green represents creation and life, (as well as hope), and this is why it is present at liturgy during the majority of the year, which we refer to as Ordinary Time. So during this season of Ordinary Time we can look to the Spirit to continue to renew our minds and hearts with the continual rebirth of hope and love. Let us ask for the intercession of St. Hildegard to help us to become more deeply attuned to God, to have our hearts honed to be more loving, compassionate, and peaceful, praying for our world to be filled with viriditas through our prayer and actions. Maybe we need to be living green rays so that along with the author of the Book of Job we can attest: “And you shall be secure, because there is hope; you shall look round you and lie down in safety.” (Job 11:18) Let us pray this becomes true for our entire world. And may our actions be consistent with our prayer!
May we be disciples and ambassadors of the Spirit, bringing life and healing to those in need! May we have reverence and gratitude for the gift of creation! May we pray for the green fire of God, viriditas, to enliven and sustain the world! May we continue to pray for peace, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit! And may we be filled with the grace of hope in a new and deeper way! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus, the Lord of Love. Peace!
* Quotes of St. Hildegard taken from http://www.greenflame.org/gf-viriditas/
** Quotes from The Green Ray, by Jules Verne.
-The icon is Hildegaard of Bingen by Rev. William Hart McNichols and can be found at
-The painting is from my personal collection and is called A Study of the Holy Spirit by Rev. William Hart McNichols. You can see a similar study in his icon El Espiritu Santo de Taos found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=377
(Reminder:The icon and painting are copyrighted material.)
-The photo is one of mine and it was taken in Ireland near the Dingle Peninsula.
© Michele L. Catanese
9/13/2013 01:01:52 pm
This was so interesting. I hope I shared with you a greening experience some months ago. It was at sunset, however, it was cloudy, when I noticed that the garden suddenly turned a beautiful green and the flowers looked brighter against the lovely green of the grass. I checked the hour: 8:25 PM and looked again the next sunset, but it was not. I thanked the Creator for showing such beauty. However, it must be different than viriditas because I experienced a deep joy and gratitude and not the other gifts you mentioned. Yet, I know that this was a special experience. Thank, Michelle, for another inspiring essay. .
9/13/2013 11:46:08 pm
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