July 6, 2011 / Theology
David Williams reflects on the sources of our Western metaphysics and how they influence our theologies of the Eucharist.
October 16, 2017
Fire of the Holy Spirit,
life of the life of every creature,
holy are you in giving life to forms.
Rivers spring forth from the waters
earth wears her green vigor.
—Hildegard of Bingen
When spring arrives, my Pacific Northwest backyard becomes abloom with more than verdant greens and dazzling flowers. In addition to the stunning red rhododendron, the pollinator-calling pink of the flowering current, and the white-plated blooms of the dogwood, fairy houses built by children begin to appear. At the base of our birch trees my children spontaneously create colorful teas and soups out of herbs from our kitchen garden to heal imaginary ailments. Sage, thyme, oregano, chamomile, and parsley get stirred up; simmered upon blocks of wood, which are the children’s imaginary stove burners; and served to one another and a present parent in remnant cups upon mismatched saucers. These common herbs, also found in medieval monastic gardens, become the essence of play; they are foundational and inherent elements to the children’s way of knowing, understanding, and interacting with the natural world.
These seen and unseen worlds seem to go together. As many times as I have been served a “sage tea,” my child’s head has been turned by an invisible presence, and wondrous stories of the otherworld are told.1 Theirs are the tales of whispers and wings and a wondrous curiosity about creeping and growing things. This “region of delight” was also critical to the great visionary and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who spent decades investigating natural science, agriculture, herbal remedies, and the sacred spaces of the earth.2 I propose that Hildegard’s intimate relationship with the natural world was a conduit for sacred revelations and that this relationship provided the very essence from which her ecstasies were shaped and formed.
Although Hildegard’s visions were no doubt of divine origin, curiosity—and a deep sense of God’s interrelatedness with the more-than-human world—prompts me to wonder if Hildegard facilitated her visions through exchanges with entheogenic plants, not so unlike my children who come in from the garden often in a state of enthralled kinship with the life that exists beyond the back door.3 As the religious philosopher Huston Smith has shown, such plants have the potential to facilitate a deep and abiding sense of the sacred and ontological wonder, as well as a sacramental use in connecting more fully with the divine.4 Of course, seeing plants as portals isn’t to be confused with intentionally seeking psychedelic experiences through the use, for instance, of certain mushrooms. Rather, intimately living with and among the natural world invites an attunement to God through an interanimating relationship with the very plants that constitute our places.
For my children, this kind of approach, as illustrated by their extensive play in the garden and fringe forest of our backyard, produces a mysterious paradox of headiness and rootedness. To understand the natural world through this entheogenic lens is to take a step away from religion’s anthropocentric tendencies and to engage the realms of pneumatology—the doctrine of the Spirit. Such experiences create conscious connections between humanity and the natural environment within a sacred, scientific cosmology. Hildegard’s intimacy with her environs thus models how a deep interrelationship with the natural world in our contemporary time can usher in rapturous states of divine wonder, awe, and religious understanding, which can then facilitate change on behalf of the common good.
Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable female figure in tumultuous twelfth-century Germany whose work as an abbess, visionary, prophet, herbalist, and composer had great impact in her time. Her ethereal experiences, described today as mystical, clairvoyant, or paranormal, are recorded in her Scivias and Book of Divine Works. These mystical impressions began for Hildegard at the young age of three and continued throughout her eighty-one years of life. Hildegard confided in Jutta von Spanheim, her mentor, “When I was three years old, I saw an immense light that shook my soul; but, because of my youth, I could not externalize it.”5 These early visions are believed to have panicked her parents, so she was tucked away into the safekeeping of an anchorage, an enclosed dwelling under the care of her anchoress and mentor, where she had only limited encounters with religious and communities.6
This forced exile by her parents reflected a common fear of that era, specifically the fear of a child’s unusual visionary gifts. It was an age when healing powers and direct access to God were questioned, especially when embodied by a young female. The role of wise women, midwives, and healers, who practiced plant medicine and perceived the sacred in all of nature, was condemned by church authorities, and there was an emerging conclusion that the mystical and visionary experiences of women in monastic institutions perpetuated the medieval magic of a pre-Christian past.
In spite of these cultural concerns, Hildegard literally dug into the earth. Even her sleep was characterized by proximity to the land, as legends of her life claim that her particular anchorage was cut into a hillside. Living within and tending to the earth produced a heightened sensorial attunement to and a unique understanding of the other-than-human world. This embodied experience of the interrelatedness of the whole of creation gave her insight into nature’s immanent creativity and rhythms. Nature’s creative forms, made evident through the biodiversity of Hildegard’s medieval Germany, were capable of bringing forth a display of magnificence that endlessly provoked her wonder. Forested landscapes, pastures, moors, and countryside monasteries provided the environs for a multiplicity of meaning with wild places and animals, prompting Hildegard to develop a posture of openness and a desire to see the sacred within all of creation.7
This wild landscape and rural lifestyle meant that older practices, such as cultivating plant medicine, survived despite the growth of Christendom, and Hildegard joined in that thousand-year legacy of growing herbs.8 As abbess, Hildegard was responsible for tending to the neighboring sick at the monastery, and in this role, she became intimately acquainted with the healing properties of trees and plants. Hildegard’s Physica, the first German herbal treatise, and Materia Medica, in which she catalogs the properties of plants, trees, birds, fish, and stones, attest to her knowledge, competence, and concern for the physical world. Her Causae et Curae echoes this conscious awareness wherein she discusses the physical processes for the human body and its interrelatedness to the natural world. Moreover, her holistic healing abilities allow us to conjecture that she likely practiced a Middle Age version of biodynamic farming, an approach to agriculture in which the esoteric value of plants is considered within agricultural practices to create a diversified and balanced regenerative ecosystem; this practice most likely also encompassed planetary and spiritual components of horticulture.9
For Hildegard, herbs often had powers beyond the symptomatic relief of irritations. Take lavender, for example: “Whoever cooks lavender with wine, or if the person has no wine, with honey and water, and drinks it often lukewarm, it will alleviate the pain in the liver and in the lungs and the steam in his chest. Lavender wine will provide the person with pure knowledge and a clear understanding.”10 This integrative approach demonstrates Hildegard’s principle of viriditas, translated as “greenness” or “greening power” and interpreted as meaningful growth or life. This greening power is similar to what we now call photosynthesis. That is, Hildegard saw that there was a readiness in plants to receive the sun and to transform it into energy and life, and she recognized this as the inherent connection between the physical world and the divine presence.
The inherent greening energy of viriditas was foundational to Hildegard’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, the vivifying breath that animates all living things (Gen. 1:2, Ps. 104:29–30). She fostered a nature-centered pneumatology that allowed for a vibrant and immanent earthly Spirit, enfleshed, embodied, and encountered in forest, field, and flower. The garden and the whole of the great, green earth was understood to be the place where God’s Spirit and our spirit meet to produce fecundity: holistic wellness for the person and a profound mutual relationship with the natural world.
An understanding of the sacred interconnectedness within the natural world has existed for millennia within indigenous cultures that have developed a deep respect for plants, regarding many of them as sacred couriers of well-being, health, and wisdom. Indeed, a deep love and mutuality for plants, animals, and fish both grounds and elevates the inherent web of relationships that are seen as mirrored throughout the cosmos. Hildegard’s medicinal understanding of the plant world reflected these cosmic connections, and her practice with plants was made more palpable to the Germanic population of the time through her spiritualization of the proposed cure, as rational, scientific explanations were more enduring for ordinary people if offered with a heavy dose of faith.
One example of Hildegard’s magical blend of the rational mind with Christian cosmology is found in her belief concerning the mandrake root, which she identified as composed of the earth from which Adam was created. A sad man might obtain a mandrake root that had been purified in a fountain for a day and night immediately after being dug from the earth. He would take the root to bed with him, warm it next to his body, and recite these words: “God, who madest man from the dust of the earth without grief, I now place next to me that earth which has never transgressed in order that my clay may feel that peace just as Thou didst create it.”11 This particular plant, and indeed the whole of the natural world, becomes both metaphor and milieu for how the sacred manifests itself. Anna Minore argues that Hildegard recognizes that the connection between the “divine and its earthly hierophanies . . . plunges one into the necessity of the symbol for accessing the divine, and thus the realm where the ecological preservation of the trees and mountains has something to do with spirituality.”12 Like the cultural understandings of indigenous tribal healers, this responsive respect cultivates a posture of care and concern for the other, a much needed expression that fosters an interrelated sense of health and well-being.
Hildegard was also revered for her contemplative visions. She related that these visions did not come to her in dreams, ecstasies, or through exterior senses. Rather, by opening herself up to the will of God, she received her impressions in full consciousness with her interior senses. This was Hildegard’s epistemology, a way of knowing that involved integrating the soul and soil in such a way that her perceptions were finely attuned to the symbolic spheres of divinity and humanity. The earth became the medium by which she encountered and understood God. This way of Hildegard’s hearing is both ancient and universal—the sacred has often been presented through complex symbols, stories, and dreams, most of which can be found in basic patterns across a vast array of traditions.13
Moreover, the landscape of the soul has been revealed through a variety of rites and rituals, many of which utilized plants to heighten the experience of the holy.14 These kinds of practices are examples of what Lynn Hume calls “sensory syntactics,” practices that provide a somatic stimulus to access heightened awareness and divine realities beyond the physical body via some sort of portal or passage that leads to a significant spiritual encounter (e.g., mandalas, olfactory stimuli, and oral consumption). Apart from the wine used in Christian Communion services, the instances closest to us in time and space are the sacramental role of peyote within the Native American Church and the Mazatec people’s two-thousand-year-old tradition of using mushrooms in ancient rituals.15 These plants were sacramental and treated with respect due to their potent medicine and relation to mysterious theophanies.16 Thus, like the wise elders of many other traditions, Hildegard cultivated a sacramental understanding of landscape, particularly plant life; entheogenic plants were expressive and sentient, and they provided a constructive, life-giving addition to ceremonies and the soul-discovery process.
Ecophilosopher David Abram believes that the primeval functions of a traditional healer acted as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring a mutuality between the provisions offered from the landscape to the human, and also from the human community back to the earth. He states that “by the [healer’s] constant rituals, trances, ecstasies, and ‘journeys,’ [s]he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it—not just materially but with prayers, propitiations, and praise.”17 Likewise, Hildegard’s notion of viriditas placed her in relationship with the plant community and tapped her into an ancient wisdom that bolstered her divine visions and ecstasies and promoted a prophetic call for ecological social reform.
Population growth and increasingly destructive agricultural practices were causing the deforestation of Hildegard’s homeland. As trees were relentlessly felled, she had an intuitive sense of the environmental impact these human-centered behaviors would have on the whole of the natural world. Her intimate practice with plants provided her with a prescient voice that told of an immanent God that was present within all of creation; this divine presence required mutual care and cultivation of the natural world that was strikingly different than theologies that imagined a transcendent God who was no longer concerned with the minutiae of planetary life.
In Hildegard’s expansive range of knowing, there exists a profound connection to and affinity with biodiversity, a life-way that ceases disconnection and disease. In her interrelational understanding of life, separation is erased between the seer and the seen. Hildegard says of the Spirit, “You are the mighty way in which every / thing that is in the heavens, / on the earth, / and under the earth, / is penetrated with connectedness, / penetrated with relatedness.”18 Her contemplative visions uphold a truly Trinitarian universe, with all things spiraling toward one another, interanimating one another very much like a mandala.
However, unlike the spiraling form of the transcendent mandala, which has no perceptible starting place for the viewer, Hildegard’s rich visionary experience was in part a response to her particular position and station in life, a revelatory reaction to being rooted and of a place. Indeed, depth psychologist Bill Plotkin’s extensive research on human development leads him to propose that we each are meant to occupy one particular place on this planet, a place in which our relationship with the greater community of life, including plants, successfully accesses the soul and its connection to the divine by serving as a personal doorway to the world of the unseen.19 A unique and authentic relationship with our particular place within our bioregion thus becomes a portal by which the soul communes with God. At home and closely connected with the land, the soul and the soil become nearly indistinguishable. Hildegard exemplifies the power that exists in a deep knowing of one’s place through her intimate relationship with her homescape and the sense of belonging it instilled.
Similarly, David Abram tells us that “we are situated in the land in much the same way that characters are situated in a story . . . along with the other animals, plants, stones, trees, and the clouds, we ourselves are characters on a huge stage that is visibly unfolding all around us, participants within the vast imagination, or Dreaming, of the world.”20 He finds that the natural world that most Europeans regard as merely a pleasant backdrop to more pressing everyday concerns consists of “deeply mysterious powers and entities with whom the healer enters into rapport.” Abram affirms that there are “multiple nonhuman sensibilities that animate the landscape,” powers in the land that avail themselves to us if only we remember that our human consciousness is one form of awareness among many.21 If we can bespeak the wisdom of the more-than-human world, engaging the plant life, forests, and wind as mysterious powers and entities, we can achieve an intimacy with nonhuman nature that can take us back to what has been lost: ancestral reciprocity with the animate earth that cultivates a culture of belonging.
This reciprocity for Hildegard is her vision of the universe as God’s body. “I flame above the beauty of the fields,” she hears God declare, “I shine in the waters; in the sun, the moon and the stars, I burn.” She experiences the “airy wind” flourishing in all “its green power and its blossoming.” For Hildegard, God thunderously emanates from it all: “I, the fiery power, lie hidden in these things and they blaze from me.”22 What Hildegard describes as God, divine spirits, or angelic messengers, Abram would suggest to be modes of intelligence or awareness that simply do not possess a human form, and he would presumably echo Hildegard’s insight that if one observes these natural, nonhuman existents, one opens oneself to “a world all alive, awake, and aware.”23 German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart says something of the same: “If humankind could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world.”24
Creation is not a scenic backdrop designed only so humans can take the stage. Creation is in fact a full participant in human transformation, as the outer world is absolutely needed to mirror the true inner world; the world itself is a sacrament. Thomas Berry believes that “our most urgent need at the present time is for a reorientation of the human venture toward an intimate experience of the world around us.”25 Berry and Hildegard were prophetic healers, voices calling us to our collective, numinous relationship with nature. The land models mutuality and sustainability, but to come to know these values, one must be in renewed communication with other species—an occurrence inherent to inter-being in the natural world.
Hildegard as healer and mystic poses a challenge for us today. We have much to learn from the wisdom expressed in her visionary theology, which makes ecology a spiritual and social task. Hildegard lived in a right relationship with the natural world. She embodied a mutual meant-for-ness, and as a result of her sense of belonging to a place, she became a channel: the imminent sacred and the transcendent communicated to and through her. We each have this potentiality. If we could recover her ancient ways and methods of communing with the divine through our local lands, perhaps we too could develop a stronger prophetic voice and political agency to confront the destructive forces operating in our world today. If we could return to our childhood responses to the natural world—the wonder at hearing a robin sing, the calming effect of breathing in the sweet scent of lavender, the heightened perception following a drink of “sage tea”—we would recognize that our immediate response to any of these experiences is one that establishes deep contemplation, intimate connection to the land to which one belongs, and openness to Spirit. By going into the backyards of our lives to intentionally engage—even play!—with the soil, sage, and songbirds, we open ourselves up to numinous encounters. Herein is wonderment, awe, and a deep knowing of mystery and magic that allows us to rekindle and remember a vast terrain to our own existence: the greening power of God runs in and through us all, affirming the interconnections between all members of the biosphere. In the wake of such modes of engagement we might be able to receive Hildegard’s prescription for physical and spiritual health and well-being: live in mutual exchange with what is the other, and then we will begin to heal ourselves and live holistically as intended with our partnered places and planet.
Mary DeJong lives in Seattle, Washington, at Hedgewood, a home that for over a decade has hosted community connection through the reclamation and restoration of a neighborhood forest. As a long-time naturalist, practitioner, and guide of place-based pilgrimage in the Pacific Northwest and in Iona, Scotland, DeJong’s graduate work in ecotheology delves into why place matters, a commitment finding resonance within the Celtic tradition, Jospeh Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, and the emerging field of ecopyschology. She is the founder and chair of the Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mountain View, a neighborhood organization committed to creating equitable, safe, and welcoming hyper-local access to nature and play within public forests for urban children and families. Her husband, four children, ten chickens, medicinal and herb garden, and yard—a Certified Wildlife Habitat—keep her busy when her pen does not.