Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine Abbess, visionary theologian, artist, composer, writer, and philosopher. While it was her deeply spiritual work that elevated her to Saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church, it was Hildegard’s work in medicine and scientific inquiry that helped build the foundation for her belief in the interconnectivity of holistic health with the natural world.
Modern Wellness through Interconnectivity with Nature
Hildegard’s work in the monastery, infirmary, and medicinal herb garden undoubtedly provided practical experience from which she produced her two principal works, Physica and Causae et Curae. These two volumes of theory and practice catalogued vast amounts of information pertaining to the scientific and medicinal properties of various natural objects as well as exploration of the human body and its interconnectivity to the natural environment.
It was Hildegard’s notion of interconnectivity with nature that unified much of her work. She coined this vital connection between the natural world and the health of the human body and spirit as Viriditas, or “greenness, vitality, or growth.” Hildegard believed in the interconnectivity of nature’s greening power with the health and wellness of the human body.
Viriditas ahread of its time
While her notion of Viriditas came 800 years before modern science began to explore the inner workings of our minds, her ideas about nature and wellness – namely our need to directly experience nature on a regular basis, are proving-out, as modern science unravels the relationships between nature and our well-being.
Hildegard’s spiritual motivation for maintaining interconnectivity with nature was not an offshoot of her theology, but rather a central tenet. She believed nature to be divine and thus engaging in this connection was a means for humans to thrive both physically and spiritually.
“With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and sustaining”
– Hidlegard, Book of Divine Works
The Divine Healing Power of Nature
Hildegard’s notion of viriditas, or the divine “greening power” of nature may seem mystical (see, Hildegard as mystic), but we have all likely experienced the relaxing, calming, and uplifting effects of even small moments in the natural environment. We seem to know innately about the restorative powers of nature yet struggle to engage, to find the time or means to connect.
Unfortunately, the progress of modernity has eclipsed the wisdom of Hildegard – or even as far back as Hippocrates (“Walking is man’s best medicine”), by constructing elaborate boundaries between our daily lives and the natural environment.
Yet there is hope. The mysteries of our interconnectivity with nature are being revisited by modern science. One such area of study that incorporates many of the principles advocated by Hildegard is called Attention Restoration Therapy (“ART”).
The ART of Wellness
ART was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s and popularized via their book: The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Since then, ART has been an area of growing research that demonstrates positive medical outcomes and promising relationships between natural environments and cognitive function, mood, and physiological wellness.
In simple terms, interconnectivity with nature de-stresses us. ART is based on this premise. Nature can indeed heal us by merely placing ourselves in its midst.
The value of involuntary attention
Urban environments build stress because they constantly recruit our involuntary responses while also forcing us to focus our attention to specific tasks, resulting in fatigue. This stress, however, is absent in natural environments. Green spaces, parks, forests, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans demand very little from us in terms of direct attention.
Instead, these environments allow us to drift through what is called involuntary attention; we can think as little or as much as we desire. We can focus on the clouds, the sunset, the moving water, but this focus still allows our mind to wander. It is this free-flowing, immersive state that acts as meditation, producing calmness and relaxation. The most interesting part is that this restorative, relaxing experience actually increases our focus and energy.
Interconnectivity with no strings attached
Nature is still stimulating; it can be engaging and call our attention, but it is different than urban landscapes in how it commands our attention. Where natural environments are indifferent to our presence, urban environments constantly ask of us. The built environment requires our participation and awareness in ways that flood us with stressors.
The natural environment provides for a wide array of optional engagements. We can just “be” or we can engage in select aspects of the environment, but in either case our attention is not asked to focus directly nor is our involuntary attention taxed by an over-abundance of stimulating signals.
When Hildegard advocated for spending time in nature and taking walks after meals she was prescribing ART. Once labeled as fringe and quirky, the ART approach to wellness is now a legitimate practice finding its way into modern healthcare, architectural and environmental design, and therapeutic programs across the country.