The Big Good Thing and Hildegard’s Greening

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the eight points of the wheel of the year. It is written by a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. You can read more of Tony’s writing on his website, The Enchanted Silence.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…

Dylan Thomas

The spring equinox takes its name in the Wheel of the Year from a Germanic goddess of the dawn called Ostara, also known as Eostre amongst the Anglo-Saxons in Great Britain. The Anglo-Saxons named the month of April after her (Eosturmonath) and the Venerable Bede recorded the tradition that in previous times, feasts had been held in her honour.

In the Christian era, wrote Bede, the Anglo-Saxons now “designate [the Christian feast of Easter] by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” The ‘East’ in ‘Easter’ is no coincidence if the festival was originally named for a goddess of the dawn and English and German are alone in using forms of this name for the season.

In Eastern Europe, Easter is often known as the Great Night, for example Wielkanoc in Polish. In the Armenian church, Easter is known as Zatik, which preserves the ancient name for the vernal equinox celebrated as the birthday of the sun god in ancient Sumeria. In Mediterranean & western European countries, however, the names for Easter such as French Pâques and Welsh Pasg are taken directly from the feast of Passover, with which Easter is aligned in the New Testament accounts – Pesach in Hebrew and Pasha or Pascha in Aramaic become Pascha in Latin and Paskha in Greek.

The timing of Easter was formalised by the church as the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox; the next full moon at the time of publishing this falls on 16th April, which accounts for the late Easter date of 17th April this year. Passover itself is reckoned as the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, itself a full moon date as the months of the lunisolar liturgical calendar start on the day of the new moon. Nisan is not specifically aligned with the spring equinox but as the first month of its calendar and the spring month at the time of the harvesting of the winter barley crop, it is tied firmly to this season of March & April.

The spring (as also the autumn) equinox is sometimes characterised as a time of balance in as much as the hours of daylight and night-time are numerically equal. The state of the year is far from equilibrium however; this is a time of flow, of the most vigorous and rapid change. The pendulum of the year swings with maximum velocity as it passes this mid-point. What was earlier in the year “in the belly” (Imbolc) has now been birthed and is visible in the outer world. The name for the equinox in Iolo Morgannwg’s druidry is Alban Eiler or “the light of the earth” and this light is all but visible in the radiance of growing things unfolding in the spring warmth.

The life force of the growing world is celebrated famously in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s book “The Secret Garden”, where the encounter with the unfolding spring life, in the secret garden of the title, is redemptive for the young characters Mary Lennox and Colin Craven. Colin’s word for this encounter is Magic.

“Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden – in all the places.”

The earth-motherly Mrs Sowerby does not call it Magic but offers the name “th’Good Thing” (& later “the Joy Maker”). “I never knowed it by that name but what does th’ name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i’ France an’ a different one i’ Germany. Th’ same thing as set th’ seeds swellin’ an’ th’ sun shinin’ made thee a well lad an’ it’s th’ Good Thing. It isn’t like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th’ Big Good Thing doesn’t stop to worrit, bless thee. It goes on makin’ worlds by th’ million—worlds like us. Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full of it—an’ call it what tha’ likes. Tha’ wert singin’ to it when I come into th’ garden.”

This “Big Good Thing” is something of which most readers of The Secret Garden, I imagine, have a direct intuition. We all understand the story and why the children (and old Ben Weatherstaff) sing the anglican Doxology in the garden using the only language of praise that is available to them in their Edwardian milieu.

The life force to which it refers is immediately recognisable in the relentless impulse that drives the natural world to reclaim an abandoned building, the tenacity of a wind blown seed that sprouts in a crack in the wall, or the sheer verve of the green world when plant growth is in full flow later in the spring. And yet we seem to be missing any specific term for the presence and motion we see in nature at this time of year.

Modern science seems unable to see this life force as a single cohesive thing, the concept of vita elan having gone the way of the lumiferous ether in the 19th century. Framed in purely scientific terms however, the mystery of life is profound. The elements of the universe, as understood by contemporary science, still spin and whirl with the momentum imparted by the big bang and within the cosmos there is a universal flow as energy pours steadily from areas of high potential to areas of low potential.

The mystery, in this frame, consists of the fact that there occur eddies and swirls where the universe throws up spires and peaks of complexity that defy the universal trend towards maximum entropy. And on our own pin-prick island of anti-entropy at least, this complexity blossoms into life, self replicating, endlessly diversifying life that flings itself into the future with such abandon. Science, however, does not seem to have a ready name for the capacity of matter to form such intricate complexity as is found in an ecosystem or living cell.

Theology barely helps, either. Many Christians would resist equating the Big Good Thing directly with “God” as that would conflate creation and creator in a pantheistic way. “Spirit” may serve but for me that word lacks the sense of flow, the sense of magical and musical expansion that is experienced through contact with nature at this time of year.

Richard Rohr continues to popularise the Universal or Cosmic Christ of Matthew Fox, Juergen Moltmann and others, denoting the totality of God’s action in the universe, but this does not seem to give a name to the specific energy that impels the living world and inspires the tenacity of the rose that grew through concrete. Besides, the use of such overtly religious language seems needlessly divisive in the face of something that is universally recognisable.

Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson reaches back, in his Mars trilogy, for an ancient, neglected word to describe the counter-entropy force that sustains the complexity of life; “a constant pressure, pushing toward pattern. A tendency in matter to evolve into ever more complex forms.

It’s a kind of pattern gravity, a holy greening power we call viriditas, and it is the driving force in the cosmos.” In ‘viriditas‘, Robinson has managed to excavate one of the few words that specifically corresponds to the Good Big Thing. The word is particularly associated with Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the Rhinelands more than 800 years ago, although previous Christian authors also knew of it.

For Hildegard the word denotes the ‘greening’ power that gives spiritual life to the human being, whilst simultaneously referring literally and metaphorically to the force manifest in nature that unfolds the leaves and the flowers on the one hand, and on the other, writing as a pioneering physician, the intrinsic ability of the human body to heal itself. Viriditas seems to be a much needed word whose time may have come. On the other hand, if you just want to say “Good Big Thing”, I will know exactly what you mean.

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