My first attempt at painting the landscape in Sacred Bond resulted in failure. I painted it “realistically” and filled it with a variety of trees and bushes, plants and grasses. It felt too complicated; the wealth of detail was too distracting. I simplified it, but it still didn’t feel quite right. Then insight into my uneasiness came. The grass around the Mother and Child looked freshly mowed and glowed with the lush, radiant green of a well-tended golf course at a country club! At first I thought I would have to change it again. Then a memory surfaced that led me to leave it as is.
I was twenty-six in the summer of 1974 and had just finished my first year of theological studies. I joined two other Jesuits in giving personally directed retreats at Cranwell Prep, a Jesuit boarding school in Lenox, Massachusetts near the Berkshire mountains.
Before I began accompanying others on their retreats, I made my own silent eight-day retreat in which I shared my experience of prayer each day with one of the Jesuits on the team. About halfway through the retreat I was meditating on the story of the Annunciation. I read Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, “Rejoice, so highly favored! The Lord is with you.” I sat quietly with those words and... nothing happened. No insights, no feelings. I waited…still nothing. Eventually I moved on to Mary’s response described in the next line. “She was deeply troubled by these words...” Suddenly, I was the one who was “deeply troubled.” I began to weep and sob for several minutes with no idea what was happening. When the tears finally subsided, I felt a sense of peace and tender love well up from deep inside me. These feelings felt like the manifestation of a Divine Presence, a distinctly feminine Presence. I remained there quietly savoring that Presence till the hour of prayer came to an end.
I went outside and walked a path that bordered the upscale, private golf course adjacent to the Cranwell campus. The green fairways seemed infused with the same gentle, all-encompassing feminine Presence that had overflowed inside me during the hour of prayer. The landscape glowed with a diffuse green light that appeared to emanate from within the grass itself. The intensity of the experience gradually began to fade, but not entirely. For the next six weeks of my stay at Cranwell the inner radiance inside and around me remained. The simplified green “golf-course landscape” of Sacred Bond feels to me like an expression of what I experienced that summer forty-four years ago.
The same Presence surfaced in another form that summer. When my two Jesuit companions and I prayed together each day we would often sing a hymn called, “Sing of Mary,” a song of very simple words and melody that speaks of Mary as “pure and lowly” in the first verse. I remember being touched by those words over and over again that summer. The Annunciation experience had somehow opened me to an appreciation of those particular spiritual qualities, not just as concepts or abstract moral virtues, but as mysteriously attractive attributes of the Presence I was experiencing. The image of the Virgin Mary, the simplicity of the words and melody of the song, and the qualities of purity and lowliness all seemed to give expression of the encompassing feminine Presence I felt around me and within me. I understood from the inside why devotion to Mary, both “little Mary,” the housewife of Nazareth and “Cosmic Mary” the Queen of Heaven and Earth, could have such enduring appeal over nearly two thousand years of Christian tradition.
Several years later I came across the quotation below from St. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, visionary, musical composer, and healer in 12th century Germany. Hildegard perceived nature as the living garment of the Holy Spirit. She gives voice to that radiant Spirit in nature in this remarkable passage:
I am that supreme and fiery force that sends forth all the sparks of life. Death has no part in me, yet I do allow it. Wherefore I am girt with wisdom as with wings. I am that living and fiery essence of the Divine Substance that glows in the beauty of the fields. I shine in the water, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars. Mine is that mysterious force of the invisible wind. I sustain the breath of all the living. I breathe in the grass and in the flowers, and when the waters flow like living things, … I am life!
Phrases like “the Divine Substance that glows in the beauty of the fields” and “I breathe in the grass and in the flowers” captured something of what I experienced during that summer at Cranwell, though the intensity of Hildegard’s experience and the poetic beauty of her words far exceeded what I had felt or could express.
Elsewhere in her writings Hildegard speaks of this immanent Divine Spirit in nature as “viriditas.” It is a Latin word that literally means “greenness,” but has also been translated as freshness, vitality, fertility, fecundity, fruitfulness, verdure, or growth. For Hildegard it is a central metaphor for spiritual and physical health. For example, she writes of the “exquisite greening of trees and grass—earth’s lush greening.” But this natural vitality is sometimes associated with love and healing when she describes the “greening love that hastens to the aid of all…” or “healing is the return of greening power and moistness.” She goes so far as to call Jesus “greenness incarnate.”
Hildegard’s images help to develop the idea I introduced in the blog post of April 18th where I explored approaching the earth as a person rather than an object. Greening Power is more than simply a life-force in nature. It also suggests a personal loving and healing Presence that we can come to experience in and through nature. Psychiatrist and spiritual guide Gerald May expressed a similar union of life-force and Divine love in his book Will and Spirit: Contemplative Psychology:
…the fundamental life-force of creation is an expression of divine love, and divine love is realized most directly in the immediate appreciation of that life-force.
The green fields of Sacred Bond are, for me, an expression of that Life-Force, the Greening Power and Divine Love present in nature. That same force is incarnate in each of us as human beings. When those inner and outer forces connect a sacred bond is forged with both God and nature.