In midwinter 2002, I moved from the sun-drenched San Francisco Bay Area to Lancashire, in northern England, further north than I had ever lived. In bleak December, it was as though someone had switched off the lights. The sun barely managed to rise at 8:45 am. By 4:00 pm, it was pitch black. Even during the daylight hours, the sky remained muffled in oppressive clouds. There was no glittering white snow, either, just lashing, relentless rain. It was so oppressively dark, I felt as though I were trapped inside some claustrophobic gothic novel. For the first time in my life I began to suffer what they call winter depression. It didn’t help that it was Christmas and that I was new to the country and didn’t know anybody.
Every religious tradition that evolved in the northern reaches of the Northern Hemisphere honored the great mystery of the birth of the Divine Light from teeming midwinter darkness. As well as formal religious observances, countless folkways, carols, and mumming plays helped bring meaning and radiance to cold midwinter nights.
Unfortunately many of us have lost our sacred traditions and are left with an over-hyped “Giftmas,” drained of spiritual significance and marked by overspending, overeating, and binge-drinking, a hollow “feast” that cannot ultimately satisfy our inner hunger and longing because it only offers fleeting material pleasures instead of feeding the soul. Because our deeper needs are not addressed, seasonal depression, family strife, and even suicide can spike over the holiday period. Women, who often bear the brunt of holiday shopping and cooking, can suffer especially at this time of year.
But the “Bah Humbug” approach of trying to deny or repress the great numinosity of the season can lead to the opposite extreme, dragging us into a life-denying form of asceticism that only deepens our sense of alienation. Look what happened when Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas merrymaking and tried to force everyone to fast instead.
Neither fasting nor bingeing addresses what lies at the heart of seasonal depression—acedia, spiritual dryness. “In the Middle Ages, acedia, spiritual torpor or gloom, was regarded as a sin,” Joan Acocella wrote in “Renaissance Man: A new translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron”, published in the New Yorker (November 11, 2013). “You were supposed to love God’s world.”
Loving the Divine Presence manifest in this world was the heart of Saint Hildegard von Bingen’s visionary spirituality. Viriditas, or greening power, was her revelation of the animating life force in nature that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. This celebration of life, this miracle of Viriditas that triumphs even in the darkest ebb of midwinter, the recognition of God’s literal presence as the life force all around us, is the antidote to acedia.
I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.
Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum (Book of Divine Works)
Born in the lush green Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard (1098–1179) was a visionary nun and polymath. She founded two monastic communities for women, went on four preaching tours, composed an entire corpus of highly original sacred music, and wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken reformer, she courted controversy.
She was also a renowned physician and pioneered her own unique form of holistic medicine still practiced in Germany today. Hildegard’s medicine mirrored her theology—she believed that humans existed as the microcosm within the macrocosm of the universe and, as such, mirrored the splendor of creation. But if one fell into disharmony with the innate wholeness of creation, illness resulted. This could be treated through rest, herbal cures, steam baths, a healthy diet, and by making one’s peace with the divine order.
No matter what spiritual or religious tradition we follow, may we awaken to life as we begin the New Year. May we discover for ourselves the ecstasies of Viriditas and be fully and lovingly engaged with our beautiful, blessed, sacred world.