(all images by Kate Kennington Steer)
As I mentioned in a previous post for Godspace written in 2016, I have long been fascinated by and inspired by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), not least because despite her struggles with persistent ill health she was a writer, a composer, a scientist, a preacher, a prophetic visionary, and an Abbess of two Benedictine convents; and because, for me, she personifies what I called back in 2016 ‘expressive strength in creative weakness’. Here’s my concluding passage from that post:
It seems to me that it takes a very particular type of strong personality to be able to continue to live a creative, fruitful, flourishing life in the service of God and others; and that such a life-force is only found in those whose strength is based on a recognition of their absolute vulnerability and powerlessness. For Hildegard this life-force came from what she idiosyncratically identified as ‘viriditas’, a ‘greening’ of the spirit that forms the innate connection between God’s goodness in the heart and God’s goodness in the earth; a connection Hildegard personifies as Grace. ‘Greening’ is the epitome of God’s blessing to those God loves. She who was intimately acquainted with the brittle, desert times of pain, kept writing about the necessity of greening her own, and everyone else’s, spirit by contact with and obedience to her Beloved, the Creator, the All-Powerful God. She was determined to love her God and express that love in all the ways she knew how, despite the creative difficulties; indeed, through the difficulties. As I struggle to find ways in which I might join every day with the Creator in creating and healing, Hildegard’s expressive, exuberant celebration of the ways in which we may all still be greened continues to echo down the centuries to encourage me this day.
During the COVID-19 Lockdown I have returned to actively thinking about viriditas as part of my ongoing #projectgreen: an intentional, slow, gradual, mindful multimedia exploration of the colour green, asking what might I learn from its associations and usages (both traditional and modern), and what do I need to notice about the presence and absence of this colour in my life at this time ? So for example, a writing exercise in early May produced this:
I am green. I am processed water and light. I am spear, frond and plate. I rustle. I pool as pad on a pond. I impinge upon the sky. I am newness of life. I am Spring. I am calm joy. I sigh in resurrection happiness. I am emergence. I drink the sunlight. I am ribbed, veined, raised and rubbed. I am verve, energy let loose, momentum unbound. I am the very definition of go – go in, go on, go forward, go for it. I am all permissive freedom. I am unbound, the epitome of possibility, bursting from all directions, climbing up and creeping along, carpeting and clothing winter’s limbs. I am healthiness personified – eat your greens – each vitamin a mineral crunch of fresh nutrients eager to fuel up and be away to explore. I am a friendly embrace, universally welcomed, forcing myself into crevices, reclaiming my ground of being. I will always be with you, even despite your best efforts to shut me out, cut me back, tamp me down. I will return and return and return. I am dependable. I am hope.
Yet when I repeated the same exercise in late August I wrote this:
I am green. I am verdant abundance. I am the Great Mother’s handcrafted signpost: rich treasure lies buried beneath my rolling hills; this place will bring forth goodness. I am the colour of oxygen, the earth’s lung, seen from space. Even in my darkest, such velvety exquisite darkness that in winter’s shadows you might confuse me for black, I display the everlasting. My ancient forms are the stuff medicines are made of, curing the most pernicious of ills. At my brightest, freshly sprung, even in the weakest glance of sunlight, heart-songs lift up unbidden. I am returning, I am recurring. I am the very symbol of health, of growth, of new beginnings. Benedict’s ‘begin again’ is my motif, engraved into every vein, artery, stem and forest crown.
And yet, when I turn sickly, edged, blotched and patched at my most yellow, I am envy. I lurk within the poison of comparison. I am uneasiness, queasiness, nauseousness, another symbolic messenger, urging you to turn away from this place. I might turn opaque to block you out, translucent to entice you in. Wherever I appear along the sliding scale of my endless variety, wherever I may sit amidst the tumbling together of blue and yellow, I am always, but always, worth taking note of. For in most cultures, I am green for go, but not before you stop, wait, look. Now: go, grow, breathe, heal.
Along the way, I have taken note of when green appears in the books I study, the poems I read, the documentaries I watch. So, for example, I found Keren Dibbens-Wyatt writing on ‘Mint’ in her wonderful Garden of God’s Heart:
Such tender tips of lively greenness, your optimism rubs off at the smallest touch, and life even smells different. Possibilities open up and the now tangible tangents of our future days seem to start closer to where we stand. One aroma, one change of the fickle wind’s direction, and everything could be different, could be better. Let it be so. Let your soft leaves be for the healing of the nation’s hopes.
My Mum introduced me to Gideon Heugh’s poetry collection Devastating Beauty, and in ‘A Prayer’ he pleads:
Let the air be thick
with the spirit of green, slow things;
let their careful dream-light fill me,
pushing out what the world has put there.
Then in a documentary about one of my favourite painters Howard Hodgkin, I listened to Seamus Heaney say that Hodgkin’s work put him in mind of ‘The Trees’ by Philip Larkin (a poet I have read since I was a teenager). Heaney recited:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Larkin’s line,’Their greenness is a kind of grief’ pinpoints an association that has been humming through my writings this summer, as I have charted the Sun’s arc, and marked moments of particular turning and potential thresholds of revelation. I realise that, as my attention has shifted through the building of light and its affect on the intensity of greens surrounding and greeting me in my Mum’s garden, that once I was past the zenith of the Summer Solstice, I have been looking at green in a (literally) different light, as darkness begins to make its presence felt round the edges of each day as the peak of the season passes. It sounds so obvious to say green is not a homogeneous entity, a single universally understood ‘colour’. Nor, of course, is the light by which we see ‘colour’. My late Summer light is not the same even across the northern hemisphere, let alone the light experienced on other continents enjoying different seasons. Something of this found its way into ’blank green’, a poem found from the words of my journaled reflections on this collage I made:
and suddenly there is no such thing
as a blank green
see the paper crinkled by blued glue into
precipitous mountain top passes
and plunging crevasses the shape of a missing
plate framing bokehed sun shapes
masking whatever is currently unseen
glimpse rust flakes becoming moss trails over flocked rocks
inviting me to clamber into depths of evergreen
rich darkness enfolding me in forest
hear its promise to hold me in pined perfume
setting me down on the winding track into untold lostness
or perhaps only as far as the blue pool
where my yesness continues to echo off sunbaked
clay banks and the Spirit’s hovering ripples water
in a constant play of eddy and still in delight
unhesitating I plunge along the ridge of upturned leaf
stirring minute hairs freed from dew
parting to reveal a stippled pathway of midgreens
leading me on past the comfort of High Windows
and Larkin’s words of baptism in light
over the whale’s crustacean enhanced hide
onto the uneven terrain of the seabed itself
where murk and shadow disrobe what light
until I am spouted upward propelled into sky
until a rail steadies me
onto a look out over the aura borealis
a swirl of pea green against unimaginable layers
of receding blueback purpled at the edges
until returning to present I am pierced again
by the stripes of the tongued plant
(though lacking a mother-in-law how can I know
its’ true speech?) I traverse the hinterland of understanding
as it dips into hollows of familiar yellow and dances along
blazing minty ice cream heat heights
reaching past the softmeadow grass and the friable hayfield
into unexplored tropics extended fans and
upside down paintbrush trees mirrored
in jewelled swimming pools transfigured emerald
against a jungled sky
until here in this coolness
here where I am overshadowed by such unfamiliar shapes
here may I rest
This kind of welding of written and visual expression is something that speaks intently to me (as the name for my blog imageintoikon suggests). It is the path I wish to explore in future works, even if for the moment I needs must be content with an A4 collage made in bed, doodles made beside scribbles in a journal that is almost never beyond arm’s reach. Again, this brings me back to the tensions that Hildegard lived with. The reach of her ambitions were equally tempered by persistent ill health, and yet, her trusting perception of viriditas beyond the surface of all things, is what helps me, hundreds of years later, see the ‘greening power of God suffusing all life and creation’:
One of her great gifts was insight into what she called viriditas, or the greening power of God, the life force at work in all of creation. This central creative principle was key for Hildegard in understanding the vibrancy of her soul and her work. Viriditas is the force sustaining life each moment, bringing newness to birth. It is a marvellous image of the divine power continuously at work in the world, juicy and fecund … The prophet Isaiah writes that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Is 35.1-2) This abundant blossoming is the provenance of viriditas. We are called to wander through the desert tending to the abundant gifts of viriditas, the creative life-force of everything alive. Hildegard’s wisdom is for living a life that is fruitful and green and overflowing with verdancy. She calls us to look for fecundity in barren places … The “ greening” of the area where she lived is powerful. She was a landscape mystic, meaning that the geography of her world was a means of ongoing revelation into the nature of God … The sacred is the quickening force animating and enlivening the whole world, including our own beings. The flourishing of the world around Hildegard was the impetus for her to embrace her inner flourishing … This is what Hildegard of Bingen could perceive beyond the surface of things: she saw the greening power of God suffusing all of life and creation. This came to be a primary principle of discernment – how green was my soul, how green was my community? What was causing dryness and barrenness?
(original emphases) (Christine Valters Paintner, Illuminating the Way, 161-2, 164, 170)
Hildegard explored this “greening power” in every manifestation she could imagine. As a herbalist and physician she wrote extensively on ailments and complaints of the physical as well as spiritual body. A cure for scrofula might include a paste made from earthworms, because they came from the same green earth which is saturated with the life-force of viriditas. Or she might use emeralds (in the twelfth century considered the most precious of all jewels), specifically because they had sucked up all the greenness of the earth that created them, so she used them as an element of a cure for diverse ills such as epilepsy, migraine or pains in the heart.
In one of her books of visions, the Liber vitae meritorum, Hildegard receives a dialogue between two characters: Heavenly Joy and Worldly Sadness. In the opinion of Heavenly Joy, Worldly Sadness is sad because she does not ‘observe the sun and moon and stars and all the decoration of the greenness of the earth and consider how much prosperity God gives man with these things’. By contrast, of herself Heavenly Joy says:
‘I possess heaven, since all that God created, and which you call noxious, I observe in its true light. I gently collect the blossoms of roses and lilies and all greenness in my lap since I praise all the works of God, while you attract sorrows to you because you are dolorous in all your works.’
Hildegard’s viriditas reminds me to notice the gifts I am given in the ordinary details of my life around me. Viriditas reminds me that the Spirit always waits in readiness to ‘green’ my soul’s barren places and our planet’s damaged earth. There is always hope within viriditas. In the action of the Spirit’s ‘greening’ I am becoming who God longe for me to be. In the light that is itself a gift, I am called to notice and collect together the incidents of greening around about me, like where ‘moss trails over flocked rocks/ inviting me to clamber into depths of evergreen/ rich darkness enfolding me in forest/ hear its promise to hold me in pined perfume/ setting me down on the winding track into untold lostness’. The Spirit’s greening invites me to open my eyes, to see where the Spirit ‘sets me down’ to find even more green, and though at first I may appear surrounded by ‘lostness’, the ongoing greening of my soul promises always to lead me into the heart of God’s calling for me.
So perhaps this is the key to both viriditas and #projectgreen: they symbolise the continual flow of emergence and re-emergence of gratefulness in me, which inexorably leads me to pause to praise my Maker the Great Artist, with thanksgiving in my heart; before I move on, powered by viriditas, into the day God lays before me, welcoming whatever it may bring. Today, using Hildegard’s words of praise of the Holy Spirit, I ask that viriditas will bless us this day, and all the days to come:
Out of you clouds
come streaming, winds
take wing from you, dashing
rain against stone;
and ever-fresh springs
well from you, washing
the evergreen globe [terra viriditatem].
(From ‘O ignis Spiritus Paracliti’ (trans Barbara Newman Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations, 148-151))
[A shortened version of this post can be found on the Godspace blog, written as part of their season on ‘discernment’]