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The Rhineland Mystics
The Rhineland Mystics

Viriditas: The Greening of Things

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Rhineland Mystics

Viriditas: The Greening of Things
Monday, August 3, 2020

Hildegard is not only mystic; she is also prophet. . . . She disturbs the complacent, deliberately provoking the privileged, be they emperors or popes, abbots or archbishops, monks or princes to greater justice and deeper sensitivity to the oppressed. . . . She can rightly be called the “Grandmother of the Rhineland mystic movement” . . . [which] brought the powers of mysticism to bear not on supporting the status quo, but on energizing the prophetic in society and church. For Hildegard, justice plays a dominant role. —Matthew Fox

Throughout the ages, mystics have kept alive the awareness of our union with God and thus with everything. What some now call creation spirituality or the holistic Gospel was voiced long ago by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Africa, some Eastern Orthodox Fathers, ancient Celts, many of the Rhineland mystics, and of course Francis of Assisi. I am sorry to say that many women mystics were not even noticed. Julian of Norwich (c. 1343–c. 1416) and Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) would be two major exceptions, though even they have often been overlooked.

Hildegard wrote in her famous book Scivias: “You understand so little of what is around you because you do not use what is within you.” [1] This is key to understanding Hildegard. Without using the word, Hildegard recognized that the human person is a microcosm with a natural affinity for or resonance with the macrocosm, which many of us would call God. We are each “whole” and yet part of a larger Whole. Our little world reflects the big world. Resonance is the key word here, and contemplation is the key practice. Contemplation is the end of all loneliness because it erases the separateness between the observer and the observed, allowing us to resonate with what is right in front of us.

Hildegard spoke often of viriditas, the greening of things from within, analogous to what we now call photosynthesis. She saw that there was a readiness in plants to receive the sun and to transform its light and warmth into energy and life. She recognized that there is an inherent connection between the Divine Presence and the physical world. This Creator-to-created connection translates into inner energy that is the soul and seed of every thing, an inner voice calling us to “become who you are; become all that you are.” This is our life wish or “whole-making instinct.”

Hildegard is a wonderful example of someone who lives safely inside an entirely integrated cosmology. In her holistic understanding of the universe, the inner shows itself in the outer, and the outer reflects the inner. The individual reflects the cosmos, and the cosmos reflects the individual. Hildegard sings, “O Holy 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, is penetrated with relatedness.” [2] This is a true, natural, and integrated Trinitarian metaphysics (what is) and epistemology (how we know what is), both at the same time! Perhaps many Christians overlooked Hildegard’s genius because we ourselves have not been very Trinitarian.

[1] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias 1.2.29. Translation supplied by Avis Clendenen, “Hildegard: ‘Trumpet of God’ and ‘Living Light’” in Chicago Theological Seminary Register 89 (2), Spring 1999, 25.

[2] Hildegard of Bingen, O Ignis Spiritus Paracliti (O Fire of the Spirit), stanza 4. This translation is from Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen, ed. Gabriele Uhlein (Bear and Company: 1982), 41. This chanted sequence is included in many recordings of Hildegard’s musical works.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: OrderDisorderReorder (Franciscan Media: 2020), 148; and

unpublished “Rhine” talks (2015).

Epigraph: Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen (Bear and Company: 1985, 2002), 23.

Image credit: Motherhood Through the Spirit and Water (detail), c. 1165; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Speak out, Hildegard says. And when you do, when you recognize that inner voice as the voice of God and say what it has taught you, the sickness in your heart will melt away. The fatigue you have lived with for so long that you did not even notice how weary you were will lift. Your voice will ring out with such clarity and beauty that you will not be able to stop singing. To speak your truth, Hildegard teaches us, is to praise God. —Mirabai Starr
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