You Are a Tree: Understanding What We Are From Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen was a brilliant woman from the middle ages. She composed music, wrote medical treatises, interpreted scripture, was a competent and effective administrator of a large monastery, and was gifted with profound visions from God. Today I would like to share with you one of her teachings about the human condition. She compares the human being to a tree and tells us that the soul is inside the body as sap is inside the tree.

She weaves her metaphors together so closely that it can be very difficult to pull one out from amongst the rest, but I am going to try nonetheless. Let’s start off with her understanding of how the Trinity gives life to the whole human being, just as the natural elements give life to the tree:

For the soul passes through the body just as sap passes through a tree. What does this mean? It is through the sap that a tree is green, produces flowers, and then fruit. And how does that fruit come to maturity? The sun warms it, the rain waters it, and it is perfected in the mildness of the air. What is the significance of this? The mercy of the grace of God will make a person as bright as the sun, the breath of the Holy Spirit will water the person just as the rain, and thus discretion will lead the person to the perfection of good fruits just like the mildness of the air does for the tree.

Just as the sap is what allows the tree to flower and eventually fruit, so does the presence of the soul in the body allow us to produce spiritual fruits in the form of good works and deeds of kindness and charity. Yet, the sap alone does not accomplish this. Without the nourishment of the sun, rain, and air the tree will never produce fruit. In much the same way, by taking in the gifts of the Trinity we also receive inward nourishment which allows our soul to move freely within us and makes us blossom with goodness.

Hildegard names three main aspects of the human being – body, sense, and soul. The body attracts the soul to itself and when the soul dwells within it the senses are awakened. The senses are the means by which the soul and the body interact with each other. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting are how the body and soul communicate.

She describes the soul as having two branches: understanding and will. These two branches are very different from each other. Understanding is the power to comprehend. It works by distinguishing this from that. Good or evil, useful or useless, lovable or hateful, giving life or death etc. In modern terms we might call this the dualistic mind, however for Hildegard it would not have the same negative connotations often associated with that in modern dialogues.

Reason is associated with understanding, though it is not the only kind of understanding. Hiledegard describes in other parts of her writing a type of understanding which is not reasoning but something more akin to an intuitive knowing, a sort of light of revelation.

As the sun, moon, and stars appear mirrored in water, so writings, discourses, virtues, and certain human works are formed and flash forth for me in this light. And the things I write are those I see and hear through the vision. And the words that I see and hear in the vision are not like words that come from human lips, but like a sparkling flame and a cloud moved in pure air.

It is the branch of understanding which, whether by reasoning or intuition, understands the divinity and the humanity of God. The will, on the other hand, does not discern truths but rather gives commands.

This is the part of the soul which controls the body. It is the one which directly bears the fruit of good works, which is what makes the tree complete. But, understanding is not the only influence which directs the will. The will can be affected by other forces as well and this is when a person loses their way.

There are both inner and outer influences on the will. The inner influences come from our inner emotions like anger and joy. These can affect the will without the power of understanding and can cause us to make poor decisions. The outer influences come through the senses and can also trigger our subconscious tendencies and emotions as the senses are the bridge between body and soul.

Hildegard goes on to say that:

The soul is in the body just like sap is in a tree. And the powers of the soul are like the shape of the tree. How is this? Understanding is in the soul just like the greenness of the branches and of the leaves is in the tree. The will, however, is like the flowers on the tree. The soul is truly like the power of the tree bursting forth its fruit. Reason, however, is like the fruit – perfected in maturity. The senses are truly like the height and width of the tree. Accordingly, the body of a person is made solid and is sustained by the soul. Therefore, oh person, you who trust your understanding as good and you who wish to compare yourself to a sheep, understand what you are in your soul.

She really wants to drive home the point that to understand what we are in our soul is an essential part of the spiritual life. Simply having awareness of the various aspects of what make up the human condition can have a profound impact on our ability to be healthy fruit bearing trees.

How much attention do you give to your soul? How well do you understand where your desires come from and how your understanding, body, and senses work together to make you a complete and whole person?


If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or sign up for our email list to receive weekly reflections. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.

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