"The Green-Fingered God"
"I just need time to breathe!" Such was my complaint to my spiritual director in the midst of a crazily busy semester. I left our session agreeing to take action to create some breathing space, sooner rather than later. Twenty hours spent soon afterwards at a retreat centre near the beach did the trick. Time just to eat, sleep, walk and be. I came away feeling that perhaps I might last the distance to the end of the term after all, and indeed, here I am.
I am fascinated by the regenerative power with which God has endowed creation, including our bodies, minds and souls. Our batteries are recharged simply by resting. We don't have to do anything - other than ensuring that we do rest! Just as life and greenness creep back into the bush after devastating fires, so strength, sanity and creativity are quietly renewed in a human being burned out by busyness or distress.
At his lowest point, exhausted by prolonged spiritual battles, Elijah escaped to the desert, suicidal and despairing. Before meeting again with God, his immediate need was simply to eat, drink and sleep. "Otherwise," the angel told him, "the journey will be too much for you."1 Elijah obeyed, allowing God-given processes of renewal to work.
Into the spiritual weariness and hopelessness of his people, Isaiah spoke reminders that their God was after all the Creator, and that "those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength . . . ."2
Jesus knew the importance of creating space for re-creation. At times he would simply absent himself from people and the demands of ministry:
He modelled and taught this need for times of 'retreat' to his disciples:
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.4
In this light, the sabbath principle which God built into creation from the beginning makes a lot of sense - re-creative processes require time and opportunity to take effect. For Israel this meant rest from work, fallow seasons for the earth, jubilee opportunities for relief from slavery and crippling debts.5
Recently I bought a CD and discovered on it a song about the "greenness of God's finger". Although it was new to me, it's quite an old song. In fact it was written about 850 years ago by a remarkable woman known as Hildegard of Bingen.
Born in 1098 in southwest Germany, Hildegard entered a Benedictine convent as a young girl and eventually became the abbess at the age of thirty-eight. Hildegard's life, particularly from the age of forty-three, reflected creativity and leadership in an astounding range of areas. She had many visions which she not only wrote down but beautifully illustrated with her artwork. She wrote a number of books based on her visions and her understanding of God, the cosmos, salvation and judgment. She also wrote a book on the Rule of St Benedict, two biographies and two works on natural medicine. She may be the first known woman 'scientist'.
Despite having received no formal musical training, Hildegard wrote more than seventy-seven songs, as well as a musical drama. She was a musical innovator, breaking away from the gently varying patterns of existing plainsong melodies to produce songs with poetic and musical expressiveness that continues to inspire listeners and sell CDs in the twenty first century. Despite her evident strengths and prolific achievements in so many fields, Hildegard sums up her own view of herself in a beautiful and now famous self-description: Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.6
The song in which Hildegard praises the "greenness of God's finger," O viriditas digiti Dei, reflects a theme which pervades her writings, music and paintings. It is summed up in a Latin word - probably coined by Hildegard herself - from the title: viriditas, usually translated 'greenness' or 'greening'. Perhaps the inspiration for this came from the lush green Rhineland surroundings of the Disibodenberg monastery where she spent the earlier years of her religious life.
For Hildegard, viriditas seems to refer to the principle of vitality that is at work in all of creation. God breathed viriditas into Adam and Eve at their creation. It fills the season of spring and "causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life". Yet viriditas is equally the Spirit of God at work in us bringing spiritual life and renewal. 'Greening' was her way of speaking about the creativity and fruitfulness of a human being fully alive and in harmony with the purposes of God.
I find myself inspired and encouraged by the way Hildegard gives prominence to this green-fingeredness of God. It resonates with New Testament pictures of growth in terms of fruitfulness, which is the outworking of the life of God's Spirit within us.7 Focusing on viriditas invites openness and trust, rather than striving and anxiety. We may plant and water, but only God can give the growth.8
Hildegard's own explosion of creativity in her early forties is an encouragement in itself, and a vivid outworking of viriditas. I say that not only because I am forty-something, but because her life powerfully demonstrates how the greening principle will persevere in finding ways to express itself, even when conditions are far from hospitable.
Born into a grimly patriarchal medieval context, Hildegard spoke of herself in conventionally self-deprecating language as a "poor little figure of a woman . . . the daughter of many troubles, plagued by a grave multitude of bodily infirmities." Yet as this fragile "feather on the breath of God" opened herself to the possibilities of a life offered to God, her manifold gifts made room for themselves. Nearly nine centuries later, Hildegard's extraordinary colour, courage and creativity continue to inspire women and men in fields as diverse as science, music, art, theology and spirituality.
Sometimes I hear stories from people whose backgrounds would suggest that they just should not have grown up with any semblance of psychological or spiritual wellbeing. Yet here they are, able to tell the story, able to function, even able to offer love and encouragement to others. Not all of them are Christians.
What is it that enables a human being not only to survive the most appalling of circumstances, but beyond that to thrive? It surely has something to do with the way God has made us and the greenness of the fingers which tend and care for creation.
God's renewing, creative Spirit is always at work in creation and in us, but Hildegard warned that we may help or hinder the progress of viriditas in our own lives. The fact that God's green fingers may enable a life to flourish in the most unlikely conditions does not excuse us from seeking favourable, nurturing conditions for growth, when it is in our power to do so. The opposite of greening for Hildegard was to dry up, and to allow this was to sin.
Hildegard exhorted Abbot Edam of Ebrach in a letter, "pay careful attention lest with all the fluctuations of your thoughts the greening power which you have from God dries up in you." So also my spiritual director exhorted me to make the time and find the place where I could take some rest and time alone with God. That was my contribution to the greening process which God graciously facilitated.
The challenge, then, is to think seriously about what it is in our lives that enhances our greening, and what it is that causes us to dry up and restrict the outworking of viriditas. If we face choices, alternative paths, it is important for us to think about these same issues. Having thought, it remains for us to actively follow the beckoning green finger of God.