Awakening to Life: Hildegard’s Cure for Seasonal Depression by Mary Sharratt

mary sharratt

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)

illuminations pb hi resBorn 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.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the Nautilus Gold Award and is now available in trade paperback. Visit Mary’s website:

Categories: Christianity, Female Saints, Feminism, General, holiday, Women Mystics, Women's Spirituality

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26 replies

  1. Just finished writing my blog for tomorrow and I too focused — in a different way — on gratitude for the gift of life as an antidote to despair. Strange “how great minds work alike.” Happy New Year!


  2. Thanks for this post, Mary, bright, beautiful and wonderful. On “Viriditas,” the Latin, as you mention, for greening (in Greek it translates as “Chloe,” thus chlorophyll) — Hildegard and other women mystics, Teresa of Avila or even Sappho, worked those amazingly simple and yet incredibly profound expressions of the divine nature of the cosmos into their writings so seamlessly. The 20th c. British mystic, Evelyn Underhill says: “Divine Love which, immanent in the soul spurs on that soul to union with the transcendent and Absolute Light — at once the source, the goal, the life of created things.”


  3. Mary: As I recover from surgery, your piece is a welcome ray of Sunlight, no matter how far away in darkest Lancashire you’re hidden. Bring on the Viriditas! Bring on the Sun! Send Mummers! May we all recover balance and harmony in 2014. Thanks for (as always) a great bit of writing. And a Happy New Year to all. :-)


  4. Mary, thank you so much for your insightful post. I too moved from sunny southern California to a different clime, one of sometimes bitter cold and ice. I am slowly training my senses to see the exquisite beauty of the Spirit here in the drops of ice and frozen bushes, here where the days are so short, and from my experience they are so dark. I wanted to experience the four seasons, and I am. I consciously seek out the Life here, the tiny birds in my bird feeder, unknown tracks in the frost. It seems false to equate Life with Spring. Today there is Life, right here, and tomorrow too. It is simply reflected differently in this season. I have read some of Hildegard’s writings, and I am so looking forward to curling up with my imaginary fireplace and reading “Illuminations”.


  5. Lovely post, thank you! Beautiful to remember and honor the diversity of Mother Earth in all her dressing gowns in all seasons. I have experienced the opposite; I spent my first 50 years living in all four seasons, and we moved two years ago to the other extreme of the Sonoran Desert of Tucson, AZ, where I am still struggling with the constant brightness year round. LOL In fact, for Winter Solstice, I wrote on my blog a sort of sad “goodbye” letter to the longest night as the wheel turns. Hildegard fascinates me; I’ve added your book to my wish list. Blessings to you!


  6. Thank you so much for commenting, Darla! The desert is amazing, but I can understand how you’d miss four seasons. Wishing you all the best for 2014!


  7. What a lovely post! I am looking forward to reading the novel! Bright Blessings!


  8. Hi Mary —

    Good to “meet” you here on FAR! I came at Hildegard’s life from the perspective of her music while teaching “Women and the Arts” at the University here in Madison. Her music was highly original for the time, but my favorite memory of it is that in her morality play “Ordo Virtutum,” every character sang except for the devil. As someone who has a hard time distinguishing between music and spirit, I thought she had it right with that characterization! I look forward to reading your novel.


  9. Thank you so much for your comments, Nancy!

    It IS very hard to distinguish between music and spirit. Hildegard believed that sacred song was the highest form of prayer, connecting the singer directly to the Divine. Late in her life, when her archbishop placed an interdict (collective excommunication) on her and her nuns for refusing to exhume a supposed apostate buried in their churchyard, the hardest thing for Hildegard was that she and her daughters were forbidden to sing the Divine Office. This disturbed her more than being forbidden Mass and the eucharist. She wrote an ominous letter to her archbishop warning him that in denying God the sung praises of her and her daughers, the archbishop himself risked going to an afterlife destination where there was no music! Don’t mess with Hildegard!

    The interdict was lifted only a few months before her death.


  10. Mary, I’m so happy to see you here. ILLUMINATIONS came to my attention when it first showed up on Kindle. I literally breathed it in. What a profound, inspiring and literary accomplishment! Thank you. It still haunts me, and your essay has me wanting to read it again.


  11. Amazing post, I enjoyed reading it and I am reblogging it because it is so true. Happy New Year :)


  12. Reblogged this on Sighild's Lair and commented:
    As some of you may know this passage from the end of a year to another year which needs writing can cause some state of confusion. An excellent article for you to read :)


  13. Mary,
    Thank you for your lovely reflections. As I sit here in the quiet dark amidst the “polar vortex” in one of the coldest places on the planet at the moment (Minnesota), it was a refreshing reminder and counterpoint to the season of “Giftmas” as well as the post-holiday blues. There is no “greening” here … yet all is a microcosm of the greater Whole we seek to know.
    Many blessings to you in 2014.


  14. What a lovely article!
    I have long loved the amazing works of Hildegard, & of Julian of Norwich … I live close to the 45th parallel, & taking care during the winter months (extra vitamin D, bright lights at times, & the honoring you bespeak) are so important! I just joined a delightful women’s choir, where we sing songs from many traditions & forms, much acapella … what a joy as we move into winter!
    I just checked online, & Illuminations is on the shelf at our library, so I’ll pick it up this afternoon!
    Thank you again for your lovely words!



  1. Women Welcome as Monks of Viriditas! « Monk and

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