Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Christine Valters Paintner on "Viriditas" as a Discernment Principle

I am the living breath in a human being placed in a tabernacle of marrow, veins, bones, and flesh, giving it vitality and supporting its every movement.---St. Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias I 4:4

St. Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century Benedictine Abbess, who was also a theologian, visionary, musical composer, spiritual director, preacher, and healer. For centuries monasteries have been centers of healing and herbal medicine. Monks would grow the herbs and learn their applications, so that people would come for both spiritual and physical healing.

We are losing this connection, with medicine taking place in the efficient and sterile halls of hospitals. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am profoundly grateful for the gifts of modern medicine, and rely on it to some degree to maintain my own quality of life. And yet, we have lost so much in this shift from the model of slow medicine and healing to the pursuit of quick cures. In the process we have come to compartmentalize ourselves, seeking the fix for the headache or the stomach trouble, without considering the whole of our bodies and our lives. We become impatient when illness descends, rather than yielding to body’s needs and desires.

We rarely have a relationship with our doctors, spending only minutes with them each visit, whereas Hildegard, and other monastics like her, would have come to know her patients. She would have seen the profound connection between body and soul. She would have practiced slow medicine. She was an immensely practical woman who also saw the life of the body and soul as intimately intertwined. In an age when many distanced themselves from the body’s needs, she embraced the body as an essential portal to our experience of the divine through the gift of our senses.

One of the fundamental principles of Hildegard’s worldview is viriditas, which means the “greening power of God.” But even more than that, it refers to a lushness and fecundity in the world, a greening life force we can witness in forests and gardens and farmland. Hildegard, who lived in the valley around the river Rhine in Germany, was profoundly impacted by her witness to the profusion of greenness and how this green life energy was a sign of abundance and life. It is what sustains and animates us.

Greenness became not just a physical reality, but a spiritual one as well. Hildegard believed that viriditas was something to be cultivated in both body and soul. Her language is filled with metaphors for seeking out the moistness and fruitfulness of the soul. The sign of our aliveness is this participation in the life force of the Creator. Anything that blocks this flow through us contributes both to physical disease as well as spiritual unrest.

For Hildegard, viriditas was always experienced in tension with ariditas, which is the opposite experience of dryness, barrenness, shriveling up. She would keep asking how to bring the flow of greening life energy back in fullness to a person.

Victoria Sweet, a medical doctor in San Francisco and researcher in medieval history, wrote a wonderful book called God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine in which she explored Hildegard’s principles of greening in her own medical practice. Dr. Sweet worked in a long-term care facility and began to ask the question of what was blocking a patient’s access to this life-giving greening energy and shifting her perspective enabled her to find healing paths that were previously unseen. She also discovered that simply being in relationship with her patients over time allowed her to see patterns and behaviors which revealed far more into their care than a quick visit could ever do. She has really brought the question of what “slow medicine” might look like in our increasingly fragmented and rushed world.

A question we can bring to everything we do is: Does this nourish me or does this deplete me?

Is this truly nourishing? If not, can I change what I am doing? If I can’t change what I am doing, can I shift my perspective? Can I pay attention to how my body is feeling in this experience and make room for whatever that might be? Can I offer a prayer on behalf of someone in need? Can I commit to myself I will do something nourishing when this necessary task is completed?

Bring this question to everything: to eating, to work, to playing, to movement. Sometimes we are required to perform tasks for work which aren’t nourishing, and that is okay. But bringing our awareness to the moment can help to enliven us to new possibilities.

(excerpted and adapted from The Wisdom of the Body)

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual global monastery offering resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of ten books including her newest, "The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women." Christine lives on the wild edges of Ireland with her husband where they lead pilgrimages and retreats.

Imagine bringing the question: Does this nourish me or does it deplete me? to a decision you have or are making. How might it impact the process of discernment for you?

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