Hildegard of Bingen’s Lament for the Environmental Crisis Caused by Human Sin

When Poland’s Environmental Minister, Jan Szyszko, began allowing widespread logging in primeval forests in and eliminated the need for permits for logging on private lands, his justification included a citation to the book of Genesis: after creating humankind in his own image and likeness, “God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.” (Gen 1:28)

This command for us to subdue and dominate creation as its masters has often been used in the last century by Christians of a certain stripe who want to justify expansive human exploitation of the environment and who bristle at environmental regulations that might slow them down. Conversely, many Christians have labored to combat the exploitative interpretation of the Genesis command, to develop theologies of stewardship and integral ecology. With climate change proving to be the defining crisis that will face our world in this century, Christians now have a responsibility to interpret and use their faith in support of an integrated and sustainable ecology, rather than to support the exploitative domination of the earth.

In , Pope Francis devoted his second encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, to just such an endeavor. With the encyclical’s title taken from the words of the famous “Canticle of the Creatures” of St. Francis of Assisi, the pope held up his saintly namesake as “the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically” (Laudato Si’ §10). But as admirable (and well-known) as St. Francis of Assisi is (he was, after all, proclaimed the patron saint of ecology by St. John Paul II in 1979), the extraordinary holiness of his life remains a difficult instrument from which to fabricate a systematic theology. The history of the Franciscan order he founded is a testament to how hard it is to implement his Gospel vision within an institutional and systematic framework.

Fortunately, a woman who lived several hundred miles to the north and a few generations before Francis can fill the void: St. Hildegard of Bingen. She may be nearly as famous a medieval saint as Francis by now, between her chart-topping musical compositions; the artwork she designed for a manuscript of her first work, Scivias; or the dietary recommendations drawn from her writings in natural science, including the benefits of baking with spelt and brewing with hops. But she was also a prolific visionary theologian, which is why in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared her a Doctor of the Church—only the fourth woman among a group of thirty-six theologians considered the most preeminent in the history of Christianity. Her vast visionary theology provides us a toolkit for solving theological problems, such as the relationship of humankind to the rest of creation entrusted to our care.

Interpreting Genesis 1:26-28: Dominion, Image, and Likeness

So, how would Hildegard deal with the Genesis command to have dominion over all creation? It turns out we can answer that very easily, because she wrote a commentary on the Genesis Creation story as part of her Book of Divine Works. (She is the only premodern woman known to have done so, and in detail, too—the commentary runs to sixty pages in English translation.) Here’s what she wrote in explication of Genesis 1:27:

[God] blessed [humankind] and commanded them to grow with their increase and to progress in their multitude, and to fill up the earth under their command and to make it subject to themselves, so that, as it is cultivated by humankind, it might burst forth in fruit; and to rule over the things that swim in the waters and fly in the air, for they excel them with the extension of their five senses, and all living things that have the movement of vital air upon the earth, for rationality’s glory surpasses them all (The Book of Divine Works, 2.1.43).

There is a purpose here for humankind’s command over the world: to cultivate it in order for it to flourish; and to investigate and learn from it through our senses and especially our rationality. Why rationality? This takes us back to the previous verses in Genesis, where God makes humankind in his “image and likeness,” because this proves to be the lynchpin in Hildegard’s theological anthropology.

What does it mean for Hildegard that we are made in the image and likeness of God? The image, she says, is the garment of the Incarnate Word, predestined by God’s ancient counsel or plan. God predestined his Son to take on human flesh, and so he created the human body from the very beginning to be his vessel. The Incarnation is at the center of everything for Hildegard. Everything that God has done, everything that he has made, has been for this singular purpose: to prepare for God to enter into creation, to become a human being. The perfect ordering of all that exists, foreknown in their forms by God before creation ever came to be, reaches from the outermost edges of the cosmic spheres into the very smallest organisms—and all of it is ordered on behalf of and therefore within humankind, precisely because that human form was one day to contain divinity.

The likeness, meanwhile, is the rationality of that Word by whom all things were made. The human person shares in God’s creative rationality:

With knowledge and wisdom to understand and discern what he is to enact with his five senses, so that through the rationality of his life, hidden within him and which no embodied creature can see, he may know that he is to rule . . . the whole of creation that dwells upon the earth . . . for human rationality surpasses all these things (The Book of Divine Works 2.1.43).

Humans have the rational vocation to be creators just like God; and the physical bodies to interact with creation, to do God’s work with it. Hildegard explained this more fully in a sermon she preached to the clergy at Cologne around 1165:

[The parts of the physical world] are the materials for the instruction of mankind, which he comprehends by touching, kissing, and embracing, since they serve him: by touching, because a man remains in them; by kissing, because he gains knowledge through them; by embracing, because he exercises his noble power through them. Thus mankind would have no freedom of possibility if they did not exist with him. So, they with mankind, and mankind with them. (Letter 15r)

Hildegard imagined this relationship between humankind and the world with this famous image in the second vision of The Book of Divine Works, illustrated in the Lucca manuscript (see also: the featured image of this essay). We see the human figure standing astride a series of concentric circles that represent the spheres of the cosmos, from the earth at its center, out through the atmosphere and into the star-studded ether or outer space, with rings of fire at its outer edges. The human person reaches out across them all because he both contains all creation and works with all creation to do God’s will:

God, for the glory of his name, gathered together the world out of the elements, strengthened it with the winds, stitched it together and gave it light with the stars, and filled it up with all the other creatures. With all these things in the world he surrounded and fortified humankind and everywhere imbued them with the greatest strength, so that creation might assist them in all things and partake in all human works, so that they might do their work with creation—for humankind can neither live nor even exist without creation, as shall be shown to you in the present vision (The Book of Divine Works 1.2.2).

Hildegard’s vision of the cosmos and the place of humankind within it is, then, profoundly anthropocentric—it has to be, because the God-Made-Man is the very reason for all of creation in the first place. At first glance, such an anthropocentric viewpoint might seem to exacerbate the problem right now, as we face a climate crisis fueled by human activities. But the key to Hildegard’s anthropocentric view of the universe is that it comes with a moral responsibility: we are to work with creation to fulfill our vocation as bearers of God’s image and likeness, to fulfill the purpose and plan that God had for the world. Furthermore, this moral responsibility is embedded within the very structure of the universe: God created the world with a moral meaning baked into every element.

Macrocosm and Microcosm

The way that Hildegard explained and explored the moral meaning of the universe and the human relationship to it was through the idea of the macrocosm and microcosm. This was an ancient concept, already richly explored, first by Greek and Roman philosophers, and then later by a variety of Christian thinkers, including Lactantius, Isidore, and John Scotus Eriugena. The idea is this: all of creation (the macrocosm) is contained, reflected, or interconnected within the human person (the microcosm); or as Hildegard sometimes puts it, the human person is all of creation or every creature (omnis creatura).

In the extremely lengthy fourth vision of her Book of Divine Works (105 chapters spanning 130 pages and culminating in a twenty-page exposition of the Prologue to John’s Gospel), Hildegard meticulously mapped each aspect of the world around us onto corresponding parts of the human body: the head equals the cosmic spheres of fire and ether and the firmament; the chest is the atmosphere; the midsection and groin are the earth; and the extremities (arms and legs, hands and feet) are the network of winds. The physical correspondences, meanwhile, also have a spiritual meaning for the life of the soul, so that the entire framework tells of humankind, “the complete work of God, divine by soul and earthly by earth” (The Book of Divine Works 1.4.92).

Some examples of these relationships will help us begin to understand how Hildegard saw human beings as physically and morally enmeshed within the whole of the universe. If you look closely at the Lucca manuscript, you will see that there is a network of lines crisscrossing the cosmic spheres, and thus also the human figure. These are beams of energy that connect each part of creation with another, as one part shares its power with another, to exert a balancing force on them and to be balanced and restrained by them, in turn.

Some of these come from stars arrayed in the sphere of black fire—Hildegard likened these to the nails that hold up the walls of a house (The Book of Divine Works 1.2.39 and 3.4.14). Others come from the seven major heavenly bodies known to Hildegard’s age—the five planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as the sun and the moon—which appear in the illustration above the head of the human figure. Still others are connected to and from the circuit of twelve winds that Hildegard envisioned as animal heads blowing into the wheel of the cosmos to temper and sustain both the world and humankind:

For with the breaths of their forces, these winds contain the circumference of the globe and rouse humankind, as they live on within it, to recognize their purpose, lest they should fail and perish. And so, whenever any wind of all the aforementioned qualities brings forth its blast either naturally or through God’s disposition, if no obstacle gets in the way, it penetrates the human body and, lifting it up in the soul, naturally enters inwardly to whatever limb of the body with whose nature it corresponds. Thus, through the blasts of the winds, a human being is either strengthened or forsaken (The Book of Divine Works 1.2.29).

The physical function of these winds is to transmit energies from the cosmic spheres into the atmosphere and thus to the earth, “to preserve the things that are in the world by tempering them” (The Book of Divine Works 1.3.1). That physical interaction extends to humans, to impart energies to our bodies, but also to awaken our minds to know the vast web of creation to which we are thus connected. We are physically connected to the universe. Creation exerts a pull on us; we in turn have an effect on the rest of the world around us.

But that interconnection is not just a physical fact. It is also a moral one. Each and every one of these elements in the world has a moral meaning. The stars in the outer spheres represent the teachers of the Church; the seven major heavenly bodies show us the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; and the winds, for Hildegard, correspond to the respiration of the virtues, breathing their strength upon and into us. The moral function of the winds is to admonish us to keep our fear of the Lord (East), to beware of the punishments of hell (West) and the judgment of God (South), and to be pricked with bodily distress (North) in that warning. Yet they also support us with the subordinate breaths of faith and holiness, and trust and constancy (the subordinate winds flanking the East and West winds), with patience and gentleness, and prudence and providence (the subordinate winds flanking the South and North winds), amidst the ups and downs, the prosperities and adversities, of life.

Hildegard thus understands the entire physical universe to act like a sacrament: each and every outward and visible thing points to an inward and spiritual meaning. It is not so much an allegory by which she visualizes each wind as having a corresponding virtue. Rather, the pattern of virtues is an inherent created property of the network of winds: they communicate that spiritual reality to the soul. This is how God designed the universe to be: its cosmic, human, and spiritual elements are united in their relationship to him.

The Climate Crisis

But that relationship is often broken, both physically and spiritually. Christians have a special word for the spiritual aspect of that brokenness: we call it sin. But Hildegard remembers that human relationships with God, the world, and each other are both spiritual and physical. And that means that the physical world around us also reacts when the right relationship is broken:

God made all parts of creation in both the upper and lower realms and directed them to be useful for humankind—but if humankind perverts them with corrupt actions, the judgment of God brings creation down upon them with vengeance. Furthermore, though they aid humankind in the necessities of the body, they must be understood to attend no less to the health of the soul (The Book of Divine Works 1.3.2).

The inextricable link that Hildegard saw between the physical world and the spiritual one meant that she saw the moral state of humanity reflected in the physical state of the world. As she explains in one of her scientific writings:

For the elements were made subject to humankind, and they usually exercise their functions in accordance with how they are impacted by human deeds. For when humans are entangled in fighting and terror, in hatred and envy, and in other contrary sins, [the elements] are overturned into another, contrary mode, whether of heat or cold or great downpours and floods . . . But when humans keep to the right path and act with moderation in good and evil, then the elements exercise their functions by God’s grace according to human need (Causae et Curae 2.124).

In the third vision of her second large work, the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits), Hildegard imagines the elements themselves crying out in lament to God at the environmental crisis caused by human sin: “We cannot run and complete our course as we were put in place [to do] at your command. For humans overturn us like a mill wheel with their depraved works. So we stink with pestilence and the hunger for complete justice” (LVM 3.1). Hildegard explains their lament more fully later in the vision:

This is because the elements utter their complaints as with the loudest shouts to their Creator, not so that they might speak like humans do, but so that they might demonstrate what their oppression means. For because they are caught up by human sins, they transgress the proper mode that they received from their Creator, with movements and courses that are foreign to them. They demonstrate that they cannot keep to the paths and purposes to which they were enjoined by God, because they are subverted by human wickedness. So too they stink with the pestilence of depraved reputations and the hunger of miscarried justice, for humans do not tend them rightly. For they sometimes are contaminated by the fog of stinking human filth brought on as punishment, because the elements and humans share a common bond—humans exist with the elements and the elements exist with humans. (LVM 3.23)

Viriditas and Justice

One of Hildegard’s theological hallmarks is the concept of viriditas (“viridity”), the greenness of flourishing life, both physical and spiritual. The Latin word derives from an adjective meaning “green,” and it refers in the first instance to the greenness of the natural world—it is what you will soon see when you look out the window, a world so new and wonderful and fresh in the spring. But Hildegard took the concept and ran it up the flagpole, so to speak—all the way up to God, in fact. She used it once in an organic analogy for the Trinity, where the “damp viridity” of a stone represents the Father, “Who never withers and Whose power never ends” (Scivias 2.2.5). Frequently, she ascribes viridity to the Holy Spirit, denoting God’s creative fertility, the maternal goodness that gives birth to and nurtures the whole world. When Hildegard looked at the greenness of a healthy natural world, she saw it reflecting spiritual goodness and health.

Likely inspired by the similarity between the words viriditas and virtus (which means both “virtue” and also “strength” or “power”), Hildegard quite frequently talked about “the viridity of the virtues.” As we saw above, the whole physical universe has a corresponding moral meaning in inspiring the virtuous life, and so both are their most alive when they are fruitful. Here, for example, is how Hildegard describes the physical role of the atmosphere and the corresponding function of the soul:

For this air permeates all places of the earth to temper them, so that it makes the earth moist where it is dry; restrains it with heat where it is fertile; dries it out where it is waterlogged; and softens it where it is hard—and it does this all the way to the core of the earth’s depth. It also turns over the earth as with a plow to face heat as well as cold, and returns it to fruitfulness with a proper balance. In this way, too, when the soul senses that its body is parched of all viridity of the virtues, it is turned to grief and sadness, and urges its body to sighs and weeping through the knowledge of rationality and the spirit of remorse, for the soul recognizes that its [the body’s] works are perverted. Thus it causes its parched body to grow green again through the moisture of divine grace (The Book of Divine Works, 1.4.57).

So, when humans are spiritually virtuous and verdant, then this is reflected in the physical world by verdant balance. By contrast, when humans are spiritually sinful and arid, then the physical world is thrown into chaos as a result. Hildegard saw her own time period as one of those eras of great drought, and at one point, she indicates that as a result, “the earth’s fruitfulness has failed, because the very elements, violated by human sin, have been stripped of all their proper function” (The Book of Divine Works 3.5.20). It is not too hard to think that Hildegard would say the same thing about our world today, too.

But Hildegard also had hope that we could turn things around—and the way to do that was through the restoration of justice. The solution to our climate crisis does not lie in fixing the physical damage of the natural environment alone. From Hildegard’s perspective, the only way to restore balance, harmony, and viridity to the natural world is to restore true justice to all aspects of the human condition. To put this in terms familiar to modern discourse, environmental justice is also a matter of social justice. Hildegard thus prophesied that the renewal of creation will come when corruption in the Church and in society is cleansed and holy living is renewed, when “the princes, together with the rest of the people, will rightly ordain God’s justice and forbid all weapons that had been prepared to harm human beings.” She continues:

Indeed, in [those days], sweetest clouds will touch the earth with sweetest air and cause it to exude the viridity of fruitfulness, for people at that time will hasten toward all justice . . . And as at that time the clouds will release rains gentle and right for the fruit of the just sprout, so too the Holy Spirit will pour forth the dew of its grace among the people, together with prophecy, wisdom, and holiness, so that they will then seem to be changed into a different way—a better way—of life (The Book of Divine Works).