Monday, October 8, 2012

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them...And he said to me: Write, for these words are most faithful and true. ~Apocalypse 21: 2-3, 5
I behold you, noble, glorious and whole woman, the pupil of purity. You are the sacred matrix in which God takes great pleasure. The essences of Heaven flooded into you, and the Great Word of God dressed itself in flesh. You appeared as a shining white lily, as God looked upon you before all of Creation....Now let all Ecclesia shine in joy and sound in symphony praising the most tender woman, Mary, the bequeather of God. Amen. ~ from Ave Generosa by St. Hildegard von Bingen
In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be love. ~ from The Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux

As a child growing up in the 1960's and 70's, my Catholic education was a bit sketchy in some areas, a fact which I spent years remedying. The CCD books at the time had lots of pictures of wheat fields, dancing crowds and sunsets, but very little doctrine. We all knew we were supposed to love God, be nice, and protect the environment, but that's about all we learned at CCD, with a few rare exceptions. If my parents had not insisted on family Bible studies and if my mother had not given me a copy of The Imitation of Christ, I would have been a perfect heathen (like everyone else my age.) It was not until I was in my twenties that I learned that the Sacrament of Holy Orders is for priests alone, not for nuns. Nuns make solemn vows, they are not ordained; only priests are ordained. I once asked a cloistered nun the reason for this and she explained that a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. When a man is ordained he becomes an alter Christus, another Christ. When a nun makes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, she becomes the Bride of Christ, a microcosm of the Church, which is also the Bride of Christ. Being a nun does not need to be a sacrament pointing to a hidden reality, because being the Bride of Christ is in itself a powerful, cosmic reality.

The same nun gave me a book called Christ in His Consecrated Virgins by Ludwig Münster, which cleared up matters for me. The following passage moved me so deeply that I jotted it down in a notebook:
 When the Church speaks of a virgin, she means a human being who becomes powerful and strong, austere and noble, from the altar. The sacred power of the altar enters into the virgin....The sacramental re-enactment of Christ's death, which takes place on the altar and moves the whole cosmos towards God, seizes the virgin and consecrates her to the very center of her personality....The virgin's strength, drawn from Christ's death summons God's kingdom into the world dark with sin. There is in Christian virginity a victory over the powers of darkness, a victory which comes from the desire to be drawn into the Sacrifice of Christ.(Ludwig Münster, Christ in His Consecrated Virgins, pp13-14)
This is a mystical reality which St. Hildegard von Bingen, now a Doctor of the Church, explored in all its heighth and depth. One of the most extraordinary figures of the Middle Ages, St. Hildegard was not only a mystic but an author, a musician, a foundress and a director of souls, learned in the natural sciences as well as in theology and philosophy. She wrote some of the first mystery plays, laying the groundwork for modern drama.  The mystery of the Church as the Bride of Christ is present in Sacred Scripture and the writings of many saints, even into modern times. St. Hildegard was able to see the full transcendent beauty of her vocation as a microcosm of the Church, the Bride, and like St. Thérèse of Lisieux many centuries later, she strove to be Love in the heart of her Mother the Church. Hildegard's idea of Love was nuptial love, with all the glory and joy which accompanies it. The pain and suffering, of which there was plenty in her long life, were part of the tokens of genuine love for Christ her Bridegroom.

Mary Sharratt's radiant new novel Illuminations captures both the joy and pain of Hildegard's life which she lived out in her vocation as a twelfth century Benedictine nun in what is now Germany. The story opens with the eight year old Hildegard being given as a tithe by her family, not to a monastery of nuns as was customary, but to a teenage anchorite named Jutta, who lives in a small cramped hermitage adjoining a monastery of monks. The girls are literally walled in without so much as a door; they can not leave of their own volition and only have a small courtyard in which to walk and plant a garden. Jutta does not live according to the Benedictine rule but according to her own inspirations, which means constant fasting and harsh penances. Cut off from her family, Hildegard struggles for emotional survival in the austere environment, totally unfit for a child. It explains why later in the novel she must overcome with intense infatuations and inordinate attachments, which naturally occur in people who are denied all normal familial affection. Hildegard's existence is soothed by her visions, which are one of the reasons why her mother wanted her locked away from the world. Also a young monk named Volmar, who becomes a lifelong friend and later her confessor, brings her books to read.

As time goes by, Jutta dies, and Hildegard is joined by other girls whose families are donating them to the monastery. With masterful practicality and ingenuity, Hildegard builds a vibrant community of sisters, in spite of the constant interference from the Abbot, who is always searching for a hint of heresy in Hildegard. The nuns soon need a larger place to live and Hildegard must overturn Heaven and earth to obtain the land and the funds in which to build a new monastery.

Mary Sharratt, a careful researcher, whose novel Daughters of the Witching Hill I thoroughly enjoyed,  accurately conveys the vicissitudes of monastic life, the personality clashes, the efforts to obey unreasonable commands of superiors, the emotional and physical deprivations. There are temptations of the flesh as well as temptations to pride and vainglory. Hildegard exercises wisdom and compassion when counseling others but is always firm with herself. She never flinches from fighting for what is right.

I do question whether Hildegard would really have referred to God as "Mother" as the novel portrays her doing. Early on she has visions of Ecclesia, the Church, as her Mother, as well as visions of the Virgin Mary, who plays an integral part in her spirituality. The Church, as exemplified by Mary the Mother of God, was her Mother so it does not make sense to me that she would also call God the Father her "Mother." Also, one or two times the narrative refers to the nuns as being "ordained" or in "holy orders" which, as I pointed out at the beginning of this review, would not historically or metaphysically have been the case. 

Written for a wide audience of believers and nonbelievers, Illuminations depicts nuns and religious life in a positive manner, with its the many spiritual and temporal benefits for society in general, in spite of the corruption in the Church at the time. The book shows the happiness of the consecrated life when it is lived as it should be lived, under a superior who brings harmony, order and cheer. Hildegard is a Bride but she is also a mother, and the growth of the mothering aspect of her vocation is a steadfast theme in the book. I applaud the author's respect for the strong supernatural element in the story of Hildegard which is not downplayed or whitewashed in any way. The sacraments of the Church are likewise mentioned reverently. Ms. Sharratt's genuine regard for Hildegard shines in every word. It is a happy coincidence that this novel's release occurs near the day of Hildegard's becoming a Doctor of the Church. May St. Hildegard guide us all!

I also recommend the film Vision, a German production about St. Hildegard.

(*NOTE: Illuminations was sent to me by the author's representative in exchange for my honest opinion.)



elena maria vidal said...

Some comments for this post have been left here:

Diamantina, aka Gentillylace said...


I am a few years younger than you, but my Catholic education was similarly sketchy. (I was baptized in infancy, largely at the insistence of a devout grandmother; began to attend CCD classes in 1977, when I was 11 years old and was old enough to actively want to do such things on my own; and received my First Holy Communion at Easter 1979.) Since my parents were and are not churchgoers (my father is a lapsed Catholic, my mother a non-churchgoing Methodist: they were civilly married and are now divorced), I pretty much had to bring myself up in Catholicism, which was very difficult to do and I felt lonely in the large suburban parishes I attended by myself. I was well into my twenties that I realized that missing Sunday Mass without due reason was a mortal sin, or not fasting during Lent was a mortal sin, or non-penetrative heterosexual premarital genital expressions were mortal sins (I knew that premarital penetrative sex and homosexual sex were mortal sins, of course). By that time, I had converted to Orthodoxy (which gave me a deep love of the Psalms and the Mother of God, as well as Church history), and did not revert to Catholicism till my mid-thirties.

Yet I was not a perfect heathen as a young girl: people seemed to have considered me quite Victorian and devout, even when I was in high school. So I suspect that you, with your love of history, would not have been a perfect heathen if your parents had not been devoutly Catholic. I think that you would have attended Sunday Mass more often than not as a young woman, gone to Confession at least once a year, and avoided having premarital penetrative sex or living together romantically before or outside of marriage. Maybe not a very good Catholic, but a Catholic nevertheless.

elena maria vidal said...

That is so sweet of you, my dear Diamantina, to think so well of me, but things were not that simple. My mother was not Catholic when I was growing up and my parents separated when I was a teenager. My father lost his faith (he came back many many years later and my mother converted as well). Many of the people I went to school with behaved like total pagans or worse. I was surrounded by vice in high school, college and grad school. But God protected me from any number of terrible things and led me to the nuns and other staunch Catholic friends. I started really studying the faith when I was in grad school and my study intensified once I joined the Carmelite order at age 24.

julygirl said...

Thanks for your insightful and powerful review which I found to be quite educational.

I also read and enjoyed Mary Sharrett's excellent novel,"Daughters of Witching Hill" which skillfully portrays the trials of mediaeval peasant women struggling to live a pious life amid the persecution and hardships of that era.