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Book Review: Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

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Hildegard von Bingen is the German native saint (1098-1179) you never heard of until now. That will soon change thanks to Pope Benedict XVI—when she will be canonized officially October 21, 2012.

I received an advance reading copy of Illuminationn: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt, written and released to coincide with the canonization.

This historical novel details the extraordinary life of a woman who, as a child, was given away to a “holy” anchorite named Jutta. Hildegard was then forcibly walled up as her companion. In those days women who did not marry still carried a dowry and that was paid to the order, Abbott or abbess. Many of the women came from wealthy noble families. Feminism lay in the distant future. While many biographers have attached “feminist” to Hildegard’s intent, I do not. Rather I find her an artist of the spirit. True artists are often the boldest of their generation.

I have always preferred biographies and hagiographies, reading many as a young Christian product of Catholic education. One of my favorite saints was Spaniard Saint Peter Claver, patron saint of missionary work among African peoples and black slaves. It was admittedly gritty reading for a girl but his was just one of many lives of saints I read. These books shaped my reading adventures for the rest of my life.

Then about 11 years ago while at a conference at Texas A&M University in Bryan/College Station I walked into a small bookstore and left with a book that would change the direction of my research. A small paperback with a strange title Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses caught my eye. It detailed the rules and the daily life of the anchorite, usually a woman who traditionally chose to live alone, sometimes after raising a family who wanted to spend the winter of her life celibate and in prayer. She was secreted in a small house with a screened window where she conversed with the outside world. That book led me to other illustrious women of late-medieval Europe: Heloise, Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempt, to name a few.

Anchorite life then was normal but there was nothing normal about Hildegard’s new life with a fanatical holy woman often seen as a living saint. In many ways Jutta was no saint. She went where the Buddha and the gurus often warn seekers not to go—extremes! Jutta was a master of starvation, self-torture, denial, and social isolation. Jutta did not cross that stream by herself. No, she dragged a young, beautiful girl down that river with her. This novel Illuminations is their story.

Hildegard experienced and suffered a deep meta-anxiety in her forced walled-up existence, her Holocaust complete. And as anyone imprisoned against their will–she dreamt of freedom. Only one faithful friend, a young man who lived nearby, assuaged her isolation. Hildegard was a defenseless, vulnerable, nascent seeker of nothing she could put her finger on.

Yet she exhibited fearless curiosity about life and death. So after the death of her turnkey jailor Jutta, Hildegard wanted immediately to examine the tortured corpse. In life, Jutta spared no extremes of self-torture and one of the last things she did to herself was to wrap a chain around her torso where it buried itself deep into her mortal flesh. The sight of Jutta’s corpse must have been horrific.

This historically accurate self-torture combined with a dark secret led to an early demise for Jutta and the advent of freedom for Hildegard. Captivity and self-flagellation taught Hildegard that you can’t fool God or expect salvation from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined “cheap grace”—it would not fit her or her future followers.

Mary Sharratt has written a distinct historical novel set in medieval Germany of struggle and spiritual evolution in the life of girl taken from hearth and home to accompany a holy woman in a walled-up spiritual society. Hildegard’s revolt from constriction led her to become a beloved abbess and now candidate for sainthood, although she has long been called St. Hildegard.

I read this book from cover to cover and without reserve highly recommend it. Illuminations shed mosaic stained-glass light on Hildegard’s fame from visions, artistry, and composing holy music as Benedictine abbess strong. Will she become the new patron saint of Germany or occupy a spiritual niche as most saints do? That remains to be seen. It will be up to the German people who have come a long way: from the anti-Semitic speeches of Martin Luther to the nazification of Christianity (German Christians), to a German pope. But what is certain is that her fellow countryman Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI will declare her a saint October 21, 2012.

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