I never really intended to write book reviews when I started this blog… In fact, I wasn’t sure what I intended to do, and so it has turned out to contain a bit of everything. And I wouldn’t be very good at writing just book reviews, because my reading tastes are so broad, and I am prone to read what falls off a shelf in a bookstore and bonks me on the head, or a good novel I’ve read numerous times before… or just about anything. I was a grad student for so long that I’ve avoided anything too scholarly for quite some years, although I suppose that could change eventually. Yet there are some books that I read specifically for inspiration, and Illuminations by Mary Sharratt comes under that heading.
Many years ago, my dear friend and university professor, Allan Combs, gave me a book of Hildegard von Bingen’s writings and illuminations, and it could have been a comic book for all the notice I gave it: do you find, as I do, that it has to be the right time to read a book, otherwise it’s a waste? Evidently I simply was not ready for Hildegard to come into my life at that point. But I thought of the book–and my old friend Allan–when I read Illuminations, because now it is the right time, and I was deeply inspired by Hildegard’s life and words on so many levels. One could find use in her work for so many reasons: she was a feminist–for her time–and a scholar, a composer and an artist. She was, of course, first and foremost, a mystic–and this book, while clearly a novelized version of her life, purports to have stayed as close to what is actually known about her as possible, and the writer subtly explores her tendency toward visions and mystical prophecy, although I was unable to avoid the impression that she did not take them seriously.
I, the fiery life of divine wisdom,
I ignite the beauty of the plains,
I sparkle the waters,
I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.
The book is a love story, too, perhaps first and foremost: but having said that, I suppose what it is about most of all is the life of a woman. Just that. A woman in a time when women were little more than property in a man’s world, yet a Catholic woman who was not only in a man’s world, but a world that worshipped the Christian image of the mother of its Christ, Mary. I suppose it is for this reason that her mystical visions of God, depicting God in the image of a woman, were tolerated…and if the author’s research is accurate, she knew her place in the world in which she lived, which was that of the lowest of the low, inherently unclean from the flow of menstrual blood, inferior, and incapable of competing with any man, at any level. How interesting that most of the male figures around her are long forgotten by the centuries, while she herself has continued to shine the light of her realization on the past, the present and, no doubt, the future.
O Holy Wisdom, Soaring Power,
encompass us with wings unfurled, and carry us,
above, below, and through the world.–O Holy Spirit, Root of Life
The book begins with some description of life in the 12th century in Germany, a time when women were first the property of their families and then of whatever man they were given to (or in her case, of the Church to which she was given, as was common in that time). Hers was a family of some status, and it was typical to “tithe” at least one child to the Church, if not more. Her father and older brothers, at the time she entered postulancy, were off fighting the Crusades, so for her mother, it was probably a time of some personal power. However, the family was all, and if it was impossible to make a suitable marriage for her daughter, then the Church was the next choice, and so Hildegard was given as handmaiden to the daughter of the family to which Hildegard’s family gave fealty: Jutta von Sponheim, either a saint or a madwoman, depending on perspective. Both were then given as postulants to the monastery at Disibodenberg, a monastery that had no nuns, only monks. Therefore, Hildegard and Jutta were given as Anchorites so that, in theory, their prayers and meditations would support the monks in their work. Hildegard only realized what this actually meant when her own mother pushed her face-down into the dirt of the two tiny rooms into which they were to be walled off from the world permanently–that to be an Anchorite meant just that: she was to spend her life with Jutta and no other person, in that space where there was only one small room and a tiny courtyard to which no other human being had access, and which neither she nor Jutta could ever leave. She was eight years old at the time, and she would only be allowed to leave her living tomb when Jutta died from her saintly ambitions, having fasted, prayed and physically tormented herself into an early death years later.
Underneath all the texts,
all the sacred psalms and canticles,
these watery varieties of sounds and silences,
terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me.
My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.
It was at this time of utter loneliness and deprivation that Hildegard’s visions began in earnest, and during the time in which she was incarcerated, she became a scholar, an artist and a healer, raising the herb cuttings provided by the kindly young monk, Brother Volmar, who became her lifelong champion. He intervened in the sparse diet and the wearing of a hairshirt upon which Jutta insisted, providing the child with a habit and increased rations, as well as education and emotional support, all through the small turnstyle allowed the nuns for food and provisions. Jutta, determined to achieve sainthood and the worship of the monks, tormented herself increasingly, fasting and praying and flagellating herself… but Hildegard, somehow, managed to keep her personhood and grew into a relatively healthy woman until, when Jutta finally died, the wall quite literally came down out of necessity. Hildegard was able to negotiate the freedom not just of herself but of the other two postulants Hildegard had been raising in that tiny space, Jutta having taken in and subsequently rejected them.
God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else.
The story after that is about Hildegard’s rise to the position of much famed and well-loved abbess, despite the constant opposition of the largely male Church, and about her development as an artist, writer, composer and mystic. It also outlines her very human struggles with herself, particularly her desperate need for human love in the relationships around her. One wonders how much of it is true to her actual life and personhood, but perhaps, given the words and music she left behind, the essence of the life of this remarkable woman that persists to this day continues and even grows as an inspiration to those who come across her in their inner searches. It is interesting, too, that while the ambitious male figures of the Church who surrounded her are largely forgotten, she not only continues to be a beacon of guidance and inspiration, but one that grows brighter as the years pass.
O Eternal God, now may it please you
to burn in love
so that we become the limbs
fashioned in the love you felt
when you begot your Son
at the first dawn
before all creation.
And consider this need which falls upon us,
take it from us for the sake of your Son,and lead us to the joy of your salvation.