Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Expanding the Apostolic Imagination

September 17, 2014
Katharine Jefferts Schori

We thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.[1]

Pray for that gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.  That is the root of an expanded imagination – for God is always doing new things beyond our understanding or ability to conceive, and all effective ministry depends on radical trust in that newness, like the green blade rising we sing of at Easter.

Hildegard of Bingen reveled in mystical wonder at every part of creation.  She overflowed with ecstatic joy in mystical encounter with the divine creative source of all.  Her visionary experience brought forth wisdom and formed an apostolic leader.  As we gather here to find our own apostolic ministries and imaginations expanded, she is a paramount example of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

Hildegard lived from 1098 to 1179, in what is now Germany.  When she was a small child, her parents sent her to be educated in the Benedictine convent, and she stayed and joined the order when she was 15.  If she had lived a few centuries later, we would call her a Renaissance woman.  Matthew Fox noted that if she had been a man, Hildegard would be one of the most famous figures in history.[2]  She was a mystic, poet, theologian, prophet, preacher, scientist, physician, composer, dramatist, abbess, ecclesiastical politician, as well as correspondent and advisor to popes, archbishops, and royalty. 

Beginning early in her childhood, Hildegard experienced remarkable mystical visions, but she didn’t begin to tell others about them until she was in middle age.  Her mystical experience informed and prompted and indeed compelled her active and apostolic ministry in the world. 

In the 12th century in Europe feminine or female authority was an oxymoron.  Women had no right or claim to public speech.  Hildegard acknowledged this herself, often beginning a letter or sermon by saying, “I am just a poor unlettered woman,” and then went right on to say that God’s power is perfected in weakness, and that God uses the most humble and most foolish of this world for divine purposes.  Hildegard claimed divine authority to speak, as a direct result of her visions.  She was sent to share what she knew – and she became a pre-Reformation apostle to the apostles, like Mary of Magdala. 


Hildegard claimed her authority to speak prophetically about reforming the church, and over the course of some 10 years preached four missions in northern Europe – an unheard-of activity for a woman.  In 1168 she took Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to task for continuing the papal schism by appointing yet another antipope.  Listen to Hildegard the prophet:  “He Who Is says, ‘I destroy contumacy, and by myself I crush the resistance of those who despise me.  Woe, woe to the malice of wicked men who defy me!  Hear this, king, if you wish to live; otherwise my sword shall smite you.”[3]

Mystical encounter as well as careful examination of the world around her evoked wisdom in abundance.  Her most famous work is Scivias, meaning “know the ways” [of God].  She also wrote a nine-volume encyclopedia of medical and scientific import, and a handbook of diseases and their remedies.  Her intuitive description of cancer accords very well with the most recent of our scientific research.  Her liturgical drama, Ordo Virtutum, is the earliest known liturgical morality play, in which personified virtues sing their parts, but the devil is condemned to live without music, and can only speak.  Hildegard’s music is haunting in its beauty and its challenging quality, fitting for worship of the Creator of all that is.

Hildegard uses a remarkable variety of images for God, particularly centered around Wisdom, as God who encircles and enfolds all creation.  Hildegard speaks of creation as Wisdom’s clothing, revealing God as a person’s clothes hint at the wearer’s body. 

Hildegard speaks scientifically and theologically of divine creativity as viriditas, reflecting both greenness and truth.  Viriditas represents the fecundity of the earth as God’s creation, and the fecundity of the soul, which gives life to the body.  Viriditas nurtures the virtues, through which human beings give evidence of God’s creative life in the world.  Viriditas as life-giving greenness is close kin to the holy wholeness Jesus speaks of as abundant life.  In one of Hildegard’s canticles Mary is described as grassland touched by dew, and filled with greenness.  In another, Hildegard speaks to God saying, “you summon and unite all.  Through you the clouds stream, the upper air flies, the stones have their temper, the waters lead forth their rills, and the earth exudes viriditas.”[4]

Hildegard helped to expand the church’s vision – as a theologian, woman, mystic, scientist and healer.  She reminds us that we may see God intimately in the myriad and seemingly mundane works of creation – the heavens, clouds, and the signs of abundant greenness that surround us.  She and her spiritual siblings remind us that God is never bound up in traditional images or names, and that God is known as mother as much as father.  Perhaps most importantly, Hildegard and other mystics open a window into the blazing fire of creativity at the heart of God.  Their experience is never the fuel of private contemplation, but rather it is given for love of all God’s body, for all seekers of the sacred, and for right relationship among the parts of creation – that each might show forth the goodness of its own creation.  Those visions propel their seers into the world with creative wonder, joy, and divine possibility.

Where do you meet viriditas?  Where is joy and wonder in the world around you?  What creative ferment engages and transforms you?  All are signs of expanding possibility, divine creativity, and new green shoots emerging.

Sirach knows the same reality – each part of creation, sun, moon, stars, and rainbow show forth that wondrous glory of divine action.  The psalmist would have us recognize divine humor in the great sea monsters, frolicking in the depths – and I think he must have seen giant squid as well as whales.  God’s creative spirit is at work bringing forth life and renewing the face of creation endlessly, eternally – even though human beings frequently reject the risk of newness.

John’s gospel speaks of those who love darkness as those who refuse the encounter with God’s creative, greening Word.  Those who do what is true, he says, are those who are willing to live in that fiery light that burns and transforms like a laser – perhaps a green laser that enlightens or heals.  The light has come into the world for life.  The Celts and others often imaged Christ as the green man – the life-giver – the way, the truth, and the life.


This Episcopal Church is in the throes of creative ferment, yearning to find a new congruence that will discover emerging life in new soil, and refreshed growth in the plantings of former years.  Our gathering here will offer opportunities to learn of greenness in different pastures, and God willing, transform us to discover abundance and possibility in more familiar ones. 

Hildegard’s vision motivates all healers of creation who understand the green web of connection that ties creation together in Wisdom’s body.  Creation is sacrament of God – the outward and visible sign of the green and growing, creative expression of God who is the origin of all life and liveliness.  Viriditas begins in wonder, and emerges to motivate constructive, healing connection between air and ocean, carbon and crops, hunger and floods, Ebola and economic inequality.  Bishop Michael Baroi of Bangladesh challenged the bishops of this Church to find that connection when we gathered in Puerto Rico in 2003.  He told of flooding on his coastal plains, and cried, “save us from these curses!”  He might as well have said, “show forth greenness.”

As Colossians puts it, be at peace, let the creative word of God take root within you and bear new branches, discover viriditas and truth, and be not afraid.  New life is springing forth – be thankful – and pray for the gift of joy and wonder in God’s good, green, creative possibility.


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For more info contact:

Neva Rae Fox

Public Affairs Officer

The Episcopal Church


212-716-6080  Mobile: 917-478-5659


[1] Book of Common Prayer p 308 (prayer after baptism).

[2] Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen.  Bear & Co; 2002

[3] Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom, Univ Calif Press: 1998.

[4] Hildegard’s poem “O Ignis Spiritus”



Bishop Jefferts Schori


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