My initial engagement with Hildegard’s writings and especially with her notion of viriditas (literally: the greening green; figuratively: a self-refreshing vegetal power of creation ingrained in all finite beings) in 2017-18 has given an impetus to a book, Green Mass, which seeks whatever still remains of vitality in the creases of life’s material and spiritual dimensions, contemplative and engaged attitudes, visual and auditory registers.
The title Green Mass is charged with a double meaning. It refers, at the same time, to the way plants have been assessed as the heaviest biomass by far among all other forms of life on earth and to a musical composition in Christian liturgy that is “colored” on the model of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The mixing of the crudely material (weight, heaviness) and the refined, spiritual (Church music) connotations of this noun in English is no accident. It is my contention that Hildegard has no equals in drawing a higher sense from the most mundane physical realities, that is to say, in teasing out a theology out of an ecology and, vice versa, in endowing theology with an ecological meaning.
I do not, for all that, intend to reconstruct something like a system of Hildegard’s ecological theology. Instead, I occupy myself with the most emblematic sites where spirituality and materiality intermingle, from fire to divine and finite existences, lacking, for different reasons and with distinct effects, beginnings and ends. I argue, in fact, that to systematize Hildegard’s writings is to betray them, to make them crystallize into quasi-mineral formations, while turning a blind eye to the vegetal metamorphoses that operate at the levels of their content and form.
To confess, I feel particular affinity to Hildegard, in that I see her vegetalizing theology in much the same way as I’ve attempted to vegetalize the Western philosophical canon. Such efforts cannot help but lead to a delicious perversion: divine and metaphysical realities that are supposed to be immutable start growing, metamorphosing, and, yes, decaying when grazed by leaves and flowers, roots and branches. It is in this context that I focus on analogies and resonances as devices Hildegard avails herself of as she struggles to reveal the fluid similitudes and symphonic connections between psychic states and faculties, plant organs and phenomena, religious figures and biological processes.
I am also aware, of course, that the liturgical sense of “mass,” announced in the title of the book and hinting at Hildegard’s ideas on the symphonicity of being as well as her musical theory and practice, cannot be dealt with by textual means alone. That is why this project is not only mine; it is a collaboration with Swedish cellist and composer Peter Schuback. Thanks to Peter’s work, the resonances of ecology and theology are awash in the reverberations of music and philosophy, thinking and singing being.
It would seem at first glance that the insights of Green Mass are somewhat anachronistic. What can we learn about the current environmental crisis from texts by a twelfth-century Benedictine abbess? And why combine ecology with theology at all?
The answer to the second question actually holds a clue to the first. Theology and ecology are codes for mental-psychic-spiritual and material-extended-embodied relations, respectively. Their articulation in vitality, by means of viriditas, has the potential to heal the split—which was only exacerbated by Descartes, whose philosophy it predates—responsible for putting the planet on the brink of an environmental disaster. The onto-theological metaphysical tradition, already palpable in Pauline Christianity, in the works of the Gnostics, and in Neo-Platonism, has treated existence here-below as infinitely less valuable and stable than the true reality of spirit. As a result, the destruction of this world, which, from a metaphysical standpoint, is mere fog or a veil before our eyes, is viewed as nothing terrible; on the contrary, the world’s coming to an end is supposed to celebrate the final victory of truth and virtue over falsehood and sin. It is as a consequence of secularizing this logic and its economic ramifications that the planet has been transformed into a dump for the industrial activities of Western societies. The ecological nightmare we are living (or dying) in today is a hardly disguised cumulative outcome of the ideas and practices that have shaped Western theological tradition for millennia.
Though embedded within that tradition, Hildegard articulates ecology and theology otherwise in an endeavor that is not at all outdated, insofar as it occupies itself with the roots of today’s environmental disaster. As she imbues ecological relations with theological meaning and suffuses theology with ecological—largely vegetal—connotations, Hildegard intimates that the abuse of the earth and its issue, of the sky, water, animals, and even minerals is not qualitatively different from the ill-treatment of everything and everyone that is holy in Judeo-Christianity. The associations she foregrounds go beyond St. Augustine’s allegorical symbolism: physics and physiology express the truth of spirit, while something of spirit is manifest in the most mundane of phenomena. Ever a physician, she proposes an eco-theological cure to the eco-theological disorder that is the rift between matter and spirit.
Crucially, for Hildegard, the drama of sin and salvation is played out between the environmental poles of the forest and the desert, the revitalizing power of viriditas and the deadly force of ariditas, its dry scorching heat eerily anticipating anthropogenic global warming and the threat of mass extinction due to catastrophic climate change. On the one hand, the contrast between eternal and ephemeral being softens under the influence of viriditas that inflects finite life with a potentially infinite thrust of self-regeneration. On the other, ariditas hardens the divides between the body and the soul, matter and spirit, the ensouled body and its environment. It deprives life of the conditions necessary for living on, separates the living from life, exhausts life itself. Described in this fashion, ariditas is indistinguishable from metaphysics and traditional theology.
As for our own, presumably postmetaphysical, age, Hildegard portrays it perfectly in chapter 46 of the fifth vision included in Book II of Scivias. Here, God decries unbridled human mastery and control over creation: “I had a green field in my power [Viridem agrum in potestate mea habui]. Did I give it to you, O human, so that you would make it put forth whatever fruit you wished?” (Scivias II.5.46; CCCM 43, p. 214). The greenness of the field discussed on these pages is outer and inner, that of plants and of the heart of an oblate “dedicated and sanctified to me in baptism.” Having dared rashly touch (temere tangere) not so much the green field itself as that which makes it green, having meddled with the power (potestas) that is not theirs, human beings produce a strange effect (effectus) “that is neither dry nor fresh” and “a world that is neither dead nor alive” [Unde nec aridus nec viridis effectus est, ita quod nec saeculo mortuus est nec saeculo vivit]” (Scivias II.5.46; CCCM 43, pp. 214-5). Just as an oblate dies to the world while continuing to live in it, so, mutatis mutandis, our world dies to us, who continue trying to inhabit it and to keep harvesting its late fruit.
Today’s predominant growth—the desert’s self-reproduction on an expanding scale, both inside and outside us—matches Hildegard’s vision. But it is not only the earth that is becoming a desert; the world, too, is desertified, the realms of matter and spirit converging on their mutual destitution. What does the end of the world look like for a world that, neither dead nor alive, is in itself, in its very modus operandi, a scurrying to the end of itself and of the earth? Can we, still or already, espy ourselves across centuries and languages in a visionary portrait Hildegard has painted?
Note: Green Mass: The Philosophical Theology of St. Hildegard of Bingen was published by Stanford University Press on September 7, 2021. The above is an adapted excerpt from the book’s “Prelude.”