Greening

greenery

It’s Spring and everything in the garden is blooming. In Sydney the winters are not harsh but we still appreciate the lengthening light, the warmer days, and the signs of nature renewing itself that come with the change of season.

In medieval times, someone who watched and understood the seasonal cycle of renewal Hildegard_von_Bingenwas the great visionary, Hildegard of Bingen. Born in Germany’s Rhineland in 1098, Hildegard was not only a prominent religious figure of her day but also – as her considerable writings and works demonstrate – an expert on natural science, medicine and herbal treatments, cosmology, poetry and music. Further testament to her influence is that many of her writings (and musical compositions) survive to the present day. Hildegard’s works are not ‘easy reads’ but a lot of her ideas resonate with our current interests, particularly our concerns over climate change and caring for our planet.

Don’t be mistaken: Hildegard was a woman of her time and, it seems, a very strong personality. She had an extraordinary intellect and pulled no punches when it came to asserting a theologically precise view of the medieval Church; but, she also had a deep reverence for, and an amazing insight into, the beauty and order of creation. So powerful are Hildegard’s expressed views on the importance and dignity of all creation that the coining of the term viriditas (greening/greeness) is frequently, and somewhat mistakenly, attributed to her.  In fact, earlier theologians such as St Augustine had made mention of viriditas but it is appropriately and particularly associated with Hildegard because of the new and interesting way that she interpreted and applied the concept. For Hildegard, viriditas was the reflection of God’s goodness and beauty in everything in the natural world. It stood for vitality, fertility, fruitfulness and growth; in essence, all the things that we now associate with the greenness of nature.  For Hildegard, viriditas was also synonymous with physical and spiritual health. Similarly, for us today, ‘greenness’ and the seasonal renewal of the natural world are signs that the Earth is healthy and flourishing.

Hildegard was canonised (becoming St Hildegard) by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2012 and, though it took the Church nearly 900 years to acknowledge her remarkable contributions, the canonisation is strangely timely as it coincides with our efforts to come to terms with the ravages of a changing climate. Hildegard of Bingen has a lot to teach us.

Fast Food

monk-brewing-beer

Most of you will know that, in the Christian calendar, the forty days preceding Easter is known as “Lent”. Though the stringency of requirements and restrictions associated with Lent in our present day have been relaxed greatly by Church authorities, some people can still be heard saying that they are “giving up chocolate/alcohol/coffee” in acknowledgment of the tradition that dates back to the earliest Middle Ages. The broad idea of eschewing something enjoyable for Lent is that the awareness is drawn away from self-gratification and directed towards a more spiritual focus. Sometimes, the money saved in effecting the self-denial is redirected towards a deserving cause, thereby adding a social dimension to the season.

Forgoing chocolate or coffee, however, is nothing when compared to the privations that accompanied Lent in medieval times. For our medieval ancestors, Lent didn’t mean just giving up something enjoyable; it meant a full fast, forty days (or more) on little more than scant amounts of the most basic foods – no meat, few vegetables, barely even a piece of daily bread. But this wasn’t because our ancestors were more strong-willed about abstinence than we are today. The word “lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon len(c)ten meaning “Spring season” and herein lies the clue to the origins of fasting as a Lenten practice.

The fact is that there was actually very little left to eat by the time the medieval people came to the spring season. Summer was their growing season, autumn was the season of harvest when the barns and granaries could be filled (depending on the fruitfulness of the fields). With limited means of keeping food fresh, by the time winter came around any stockpiles of food were starting to dwindle. By spring they would be all but gone unless carefully conserved. Wisely, then, the church refashioned the unavoidable hunger and scarcity into a purposeful (if not positive) experience. People were assured that “going without” in the material world today would ensure abundance in the heavenly world to come. Material disadvantage worked to spiritual advantage. And, by the time Easter morning arrived – along with the return of the growing season – feasting was the order of the day. Of course, feasting for the poor of the Middle Ages was quite different to feasting for the wealthy but, overall, the majority of the populace could at least enjoy eggs (and egg flans and custards), milk, butter, cheese, seasonal vegetables, fish (eels came under this category), bread, and some preserved fruits like figs and raisins.

And beer, plenty of beer (which, by the way, was a staple and so never given up for Lent).

Christmas Rush: Mind the Gap

Simeon_Stylites_stepping_down

There is a line from the TV series Seinfeld that often comes into my head when I’m getting ready for a family celebration or holiday, and especially for the great event of Christmas. The Seinfeld character quotes his father as observing that “Sometimes even a picnic’s no picnic”. How true that observation seems as, in the frantic rush to prepare for Christmas, the joyous underpinning of the season is obscured by the mad frenzy of parties, shopping and cooking. It is not that we intentionally lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. In fact, I think it is the opposite: we want to honour Christmas, to celebrate it with all the joy that it deserves. As in so many things we undertake, we intend to do well. It is into this gap between trying and achieving, between intention and attainment, between journeying and arriving that we, as fallible, ‘unfinished’ humans fall. We can strive for perfection but we cannot reach it. The stories of some the early hermits often make me think of this yawning gap between intention and achievement.

St Antony is sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Monasticism’. The title is unlikely to be an accurate one but there is no doubt that Antony’s life story, written by St Athanasius of Alexandria between 356 and 362 AD, helped to establish Antony’s renown as a holy man whose life modelled a particular approach to a life dedicated to God.  Athanasius tells us that Antony was born in c251AD in Egypt (at Coma, near Heracleopolis Magna) to prosperous, Christian parents.  At about thirty-five years of age, Antony decided to take up an ascetic life of prayer and absolute solitude but things did not go exactly to plan. As Antony’s dedication became known, more and more people approached him for help and healing; so many people, in fact, that Anthony’s plans for a solitary life became virtually impossible to sustain.  Although maintaining his customary discipline and austerities, he frequently had to mingle with, and attend to, a growing number of followers. As Scott Cairns, in his Foreword to Robert C. Gregg’s translation of The Life of Antony observes, “In the person of Saint Antony we are able to witness … a life that is, decidedly, a life along the way, a life led by one who understood that way to be a never-ending one, a manner of progress without conclusion”.

Symeon the Stylite faced a similar dilemma but reacted more dramatically. Symeon was born around 390 in Sission, northern Syria. He apparently decided on a life dedicated to God when he was very young and he further determined that this dedication would be manifested by great austerity and acts of mortification. In those days, the trend toward a solitary life of severe self-denial was gaining in popularity. To our modern sensibilities it may seem strange but these early hermits were regarded with awe by their faithful counterparts who, in an effort to ‘gain by association’ some of the (perceived) holiness of the solitaries, would follow them at a distance, even into the more remote areas where the hermits ventured for solitude.

This social practice resulted in a rather bizarre situation in which hermits, attempting to live a solitary life, came under the watchful gaze of large groups of people who would approach the hermits whenever possible for prayers, healings and advice. It is said that Symeon, unable to ‘horizontally’ escape the attention of his ever-increasing band of followers, finally took a ‘vertical’ escape route, climbing many metres up a pillar to live atop its meagre platform for thirty years or more.

Sometimes at Christmas, we too might feel like escaping ‘up a pole’ as Symeon did but it may be more practical for us to take Antony’s lead and regard our lives and endeavours as ‘a life along the way’, towards peace and kindness. And, even if Christmas is not always a ‘picnic’, we might be better off if we abandon any escape plans and simply put ourselves squarely amongst the mad, happy throng of our fellow humans, all rushing around with good intentions – and, sometimes, slipping through the unavoidable gaps.

A ‘rush’ of Christmas happiness to all.

Lions, and Dragons and Beasts, Oh My!

lion_bestiary

In the Middle Ages, the understanding of the natural world was not based on scientific observation but on utility and moral applicability. This was particularly so for plants and animals: if they could be eaten (or could produce eggs, milk etc for human consumption) then they fitted into the scheme of things and were farmed or domesticated accordingly. However, many plants and animals defied ready explanation and represented, instead, a source of such wonder and (often) fear that their very existence could only be accommodated if they were regarded as serving a moral purpose. Enter the bestiary, a book that was a sort of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast.

Although the bestiary had originated in the ancient world (with the volume known as Physiologus bringing together insights about animals from such authors as Aristotle and Herodotus), it was later Christian writers like Isidore of Seville and St Ambrose who gave the stories a moral and religious focus. Because the majority of the medieval populace was illiterate, the imparting of the Christian message in stories and allegories was an essential part of the Church’s teaching method. Nevertheless, the creatures presented in the medieval bestiaries were usually so exotic that their descriptions were often considered to be factual in many respects. Griffins, dragons, and unicorns featured along with lions and elephants.

Even in early times, the lion was considered to be the king of the beasts, and as such, generally is the first beast described in the bestiaries. Two types of lions are described: a timid lion which has a short body and curly hair (think, the Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz); and a fierce lion with a longer body and straight hair. Both types were understood to have three particular attributes: the practice of erasing their tracks with their tail; always sleeping with eyes open; and giving birth to dead cubs which the mother brings to life on the third day by breathing into them.

The Christian association of Jesus with the lion is relatively straightforward: the lion as King of the Beasts = Jesus Christ the King. (In this aspect, such writers as C.S. Lewis with his character Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be seen to be drawing directly on the medieval parallel). And the three attributes are similarly associated: the lion’s erasing of its tracks was representative of Jesus’s hidden divinity; its sleeping with eyes open represented Jesus’s (and all Christians) physical death to the world but spiritually alive and alert; and the lion cubs being brought to life after three days is, of course, allegorically standing for Jesus’s death and three days in his tomb before his resurrection.

The bestiaries’ lion could be injured by a scorpion but it was only serpents that could kill it. And supreme among the serpents was the dragon, with its strength in its tail and not its teeth. Its thrashing, coiling tail enabled it to kill any animal – even one as large as the elephant – by suffocation. Thus, the dragon stood for the Devil, with his ability to squeeze the (holy) breath of life out of souls, suffocating them with sin. Further, with his fiery breath, the dragon could make the air shine and so he would sometimes appear to be an angel of light, tricking and luring the unsuspecting to their spiritual demise.

The dragons of today’s literature (for children in particular) are generally quite placid, with their mythic quality overtaking their earlier ‘evil’ connotations. dragon
I have a harmless dragon, myself, in my garden.

 

(Well, I hope he’s harmless!).