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Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen
by Mary Sharratt
Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
274 pages
Reviewed by Kathryn Madden, RC

With the words from twelfth-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, “O noblest greening, who have your roots in the sun,” author Mary Sharratt introduces Part 2 of her novel and captures the poignant elegance of Hildegard’s life—an extraordinary venture into ever-deepening freedom and an embrace of Hildegard’s capacity “to see true” (6). In Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, Sharratt rivets us in the life of Hildegard from her birth to her death. Through exquisite blending of the factual and imaginative, recounted from the perspective of the recently canonized saint, we are drawn to make Hildegard’s story of overcoming bondage a beauty of our own, and to take firmer hold of our own tenacity in living and loving.

Given to the Roman Catholic Church as a tithe at the age of eight, Hildegard was walled up in a tiny anchorage against her will with Jutta von Sponheim, a mentally unbalanced and masochistic magistra, renowned for her holiness. Hildegard found her vocation within the unchosen vocation in the anchorage through her studies, cultivation of herbs, and heroic trust in her secret visions.

In the absence of the mother who abandoned her, God came to Hildegard as the tender Mother of her deepest longing, saying, “Beloved, don’t give up hope. When the time is ripe, I will set you free” (26). The wait took thirty years, until Jutta von Sponheim died, and when an opening in the walled enclosure was made by necessity, Hildegard and her sisters broke free. First they gained access to the entire property of the Benedictine Abbey, and eventually they galloped away on horseback to found their own abbey.

I spent many quiet evenings so engrossed in this book that I never wanted it to end. As a marvelous paradigm for the spiritual journey that would appeal to all Christian seekers, it simultaneously whisked me back to the spiritual ethereality of my childhood and empowered me to a liberating reinterpretation of my life as a consecrated religious and woman in today’s ecclesial context. As a spiritual director, I was fascinated by God at work in Hildegard’s archetypal experiences of movement from abandonment to intimacy, from being overshadowed to coming into her own, from powerlessness to ingenious power in the face of male dominance, from self-doubt to stunning confidence, from voiceless to music of the soul, and from self-preservation to self-sacrifice.

These very experiences equipped Hildegard to become a spiritual bulwark to her burgeoning community. We who are also entrusted with the responsibility for souls can learn from her how it is that, by coming to stand in the truth of our authenticity, we can best accept each soul confided to us as “a jewel to be treasured” (248). BAccording to Sharratt’s novel, Hildegard’s grasping and selfish nature drove away her most cherished and gifted protégé. Our invitation is thus vigilance around whatever would get in the way of our deepest calling: to spiritually guide those who come to us with purity of affection. Illuminations is truly like “brilliant streaks of light arching across the heavens” (268), the kind of marvel that Sharratt presents as marking Hildegard’s birth into eternity.

Kathryn Madden, RC, completed spiritual direction training at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, and at the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. She serves on the ministry team at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Ronkonkoma, New York, USA.

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