#4: Hildegard von Bingen and Growing Things

#4: Hildegard von Bingen and Growing Things


1 August, 2018

This April, just before Terry Tempest Williams' fantastic Ingersoll Lecture, one of my classmates, Jiaying Ding, sang Hildegard von Bingen's "O Viridissima Virga," a hymn to the greening forces of God, a paean to the tiny miracle of a blooming branch.

At the age of 12, sometime around the year 1112, Hildegard von Bingen was placed under the protection of an older nun in a local enclosure attached to a monastery. Her world drew down to the size of the building, but her responsibility to the world outside of that enclosure only grew. As a member of one of the more contemplative orders, the Benedictines, her role was as someone who would blanket her community in a protective mantle of prayer. While in later writings, she would say that she had been having mystical experiences since the age of three, the world didn't truly find out about what was going on in Hildegard's remarkable mind and soul until her early 40s.

Up until that point, Hildegard's life was fairly quiet, it's borders stretching to the edges of a small German river valley, by that point a prioress of her small convent, engaged with the logistics and spiritualistics of running a group of women religious. Her days were limited by the rhythms of her monastic schedule, and by a mysterious illness that plagued her for much of her youth. Long, mysterious illnesses were hardly an anomaly in the Middle Ages, long stretches bedbound. What happened at the age of 42 is that Hildegard had another vision, one in which God told her to write everything down, and she did. Several volumes of visionary theology, medical and botanical works, music, like "O Viridissima Virga," lengthy correspondences between her and other notables of the time, including several popes and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. She's one of the few women who is today considered a doctor of the Church, alongside St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Therese de Lisieux. 

Most of Hildegard's music, and a great deal of her scientific writing, is based in the natural world, on growing and greening as a manifestation of healing, of God's love, and of a love for God that found part of its basis in the world. 

This spring--largely an indoors one thanks to being overwhelmed by grad school and beset by my own set of mystery pains and the accompanying emotional funk--I grew my own little garden. Tomatoes, both beefsteak and cherry, purple bell peppers, tomatillos, jalapenos, all in little orderly pellets of dirt. Seeing them unfurl their little heads, shake off their seed casings, extend secondary leaves with the sharp green scent of tomato plants gave me an unmitigated joy. Watering them daily (and then less frequently when I realized I was killing them with my overenthusiasm), culling them so the remaining plants could go stronger, figuring out the optimal windowsill in which to balance their tray all was a kind of care I wasn't able to give myself.

The hardest part about this spring and the mystery pains and all the rest is that when they get really bad, it feels like doors slamming in my life, like everything gets put on hold to white-knuckle through pain, and it is going to be that way indefinitely. I still don't know how to think, much less write about this sort of sudden onslaught, although I've been trying. Still, Hildegard feels like a beginning. She teaches me that like a seed, the life of the mind, even when cast on rocky ground (or in a difficult body) will find a way to reach its greening. She gave herself the grace to go slowly, patience to wait until the right moment, the drive to seize the opportunity when it came. Through her, and through my seedlings, growing into myself feels like a possibility some of the time.