Longing for Green: Reflections of a Roman Catholic woman Priest
I turn to green to feel God’s love, to feel alive, to freely worship and to renew my soul. To remember who I am. I need green to live.
When I was a child we lived in the “inner-city” in Brooklyn, New York. But there were green bushes in front and back and two small green trees in my yard, one was a flowering Rose of Sharon, and the backyards surrounding my little two story row house had many trees. The ailanthus tree, the ” Tree That Grows in Brooklyn” like Betty Smith’s novel of the same name, a tree that “likes poor people” according to Francie in the novel, was my salvation as a kid. My best friend Jean Tracey and I would shimmy up her skinny trunk and fix ourselves in the long boughs with almost palm-like leaves and sway in the wind. We would hug the trees for dear life and we could almost fly. We were parallel to the second story window where my mother would appear. We laughed as my worried mother would tell us to “come down this instant before we kill ourselves”. But it was just the opposite, like Francie in Smith’s novel, we were fine when we could touch our trees.
When I taught at NYU School of Social Work in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the best perk was the faculty housing at 3 Washington Square North that faced a courtyard full of deep green trees, and the best tree touched my bedroom window. When I moved to faculty housing on Bleecker Street for more room I had a beautiful view of the city but I began to feel sorely deprived of my needed green. This was one of the several reasons I took a position at the University of Connecticut School of social Work and moved to West Hartford in 1984. I bought my first home and I was on the ground, the lawn was green with a beautiful dogwood tree in front and later a pine tree that I planted grew into a deep green gorgeousness as well. And the back yard was also full of green. I would be fine again until fourteen years later it was time to help start a new MSW program in Florida. But I would seek green to live fully.
I chose my home in Fort Myers, Florida twenty-four years ago because within a few feet of my back door a gentle green slope dotted with a variety of gently swaying lighter green palm trees led into a small lake filled with life, with water birds and fish and turtles. It also had a greenish hue. The trees across the water were deeper green and as the seasons passed I was saved because the green and the lake remains throughout the year. Winter is still green here and I am so thankful. And I am also near the Gulf of Mexico and the sea is equally important to the green in my life. As a child my trips to Coney Island and Rockaway Beach with my Mother and a little friend were the greatest treat. And I could not stay out of the water no matter how chilly it might be. So Fort Myers held deep and flowing life for me.
Yet, the green in Florida is not quite the green in the Northeast, and from time to time I long for the green of “home”. So I was extremely happy and elated when we could take a road trip from New York to Connecticut and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania this summer. Not only could we visit family and dear friends who are family, we could be enveloped in green, and near the sea. We could be renewed on all levels. For without relationship to dear ones the scenery is absent of what is most essential.
We did not have time to go farther out on the island to see all of our family, but we were truly blessed to be with Cousin Bobby and his family and Cousin Patricia Sullivan King in Massapequa as well as Cousin Jackie and Mike Marion. Cousin Jackie was born and raised in Coney Island.
In Brooklyn we went to Coney Island and saw our friend Laura who was celebrating her 85th Birthday and Danielle who helped us celebrate with Laura and then enjoyed an afternoon at a restaurant on the water at Sheepshead Bay with us. Laura lives in an Adult Home across the street from where my Mother spent her last twelve years of life looking at the ocean from the eleventh floor of her Senior building, and walking the entire Boardwalk often. This was home for me and filled with good memories from all periods of my life. It was such a joy to be there.
In Connecticut we were delighted to visit family of choice as we saw Marley and his family in New Britain and Felice and her family in Somers, and the chosen family from my teaching at the University of Connecticut SSW in Hartford and West Hartford. Marley sees me as his “other mother” and calls his beautiful children my grandchildren. I helped raise Marley and his sisters Perdita and Chanel for several years of his childhood and we love and continue our close relationship. Felice is Marley’s younger sister and my God-daughter. To see both Marley and Felice in their lives as parents and be with their families brought special joy to this trip. And at each home and locale we were surrounded by rich deep green trees and grass and flowers all around.
We were also so blessed in Connecticut to see those I was close to while on the UConn Faculty and beyond. Dr. Ruth Martin and her family, Jean Low and her cousin Bob, and Gail Bourdon were literally a “sight for sore eyes”- a joy to behold. Dr. Ruth and her daughter Vivian Martin, a Journalist recently completed and published a book entitled “Beatrice’s Ledger: Coming of Age in the Jim Crow South”. (The South Carolina Press). We were so happy to celebrate her success in this landmark achievement despite struggling with illness and just to be in her presence.
On To The Mountains
From Connecticut we travelled to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts and parts of the Poconos in Pennsylvania. Here we were surrounded by green on every side. The drive itself felt like entering paradise.
It was cool and it was an ascent into layers of green, with and without lakes and endless gorgeous flowers.
St. Hildegard of Bingen was an amazing late Middle Ages abbess, theologian, writer, mystic, visionary, musician, scientist and maker of medicines from all that is green. She coined the word VIRIDITAS, probably from the words for green and truth in Latin, veritas and viridis. She also coined the word “greening” as in “the greening of the soul-” “There is a Power that has been since all eternity and its force and potentiality is green!” Greening is a metaphor for physical and spiritual health, for the vitality of spirit, mind and body. She first saw God in uncommonly bright light, brighter than the sun. And she developed a theology of the living God known through creation. Indeed, it is this I feel as I too immerse in green. I come alive again. The greenness obliterates the dryness, drought and aridity that can cause us to be ill spiritually and physically. We renew in the green and in the flowing waters of nature.
Nancy Fierro has written Hildegard of Bingen and Her Vision of the Feminine. And it is such a joy to claim Hildegard, this feminine theologian and thinker so far ahead of her times. Fierro wrote a poem based on ‘Hildegard’s writings on greening that captures best what I am trying to convey here. I submit this excerpt from it:
“O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun,
You who lights up, in shining
serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence
fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded in the weaving of divine
The divine force of nature
greenness expression of heaven,
the creative power of life,
which can be witnessed
in the garden, forests and farmland all around us.
Viriditas to be cultivated
in bodies and souls-
Viridatas, gift of God
Health, wholeness, and holiness
Igniting the world into being
Illuminating all creatures
Giving them color and vigor,
root of growth
Proliferation of Spring
Making grasses laugh
Plants sprout-and flowers bloom…”
When you are feeling dry and arid. When you do not feel fully alive, when you feel ill, seek green, seek flowing water, seek life. If you can seek it with one you love and with those you love. For you will be renewed on all levels of your being. This is a story of my recent trip for which I am so grateful. There has been too much loss and death in recent times for me, and for this world. Once, twelve years back, I was hospitalized for eight days for a removal of a cancer. Thanks be to God, it was totally removed and I did not have to undergo any further treatment or radiation. It was the green world and the sun that would bring the final cures to me. My view in the hospital for those days was a brick wall. It was driving me crazy. As soon as I was discharged I ran to the grassy lawn, and laid down prone upon it. I cried and said “Now I am healed” and I was, and I am as long as I can touch and see even a few blades of green grass.
Thank God for green, thank God for Creation, thank God for love. Humbly and softly I say to you, get up, go out and be renewed.
Blessings and love,
Pastor Judy Lee
Rev. Dr. Judith AB Lee, RCWP
Good Shepherd Ministries of Fort Myers, Florida