Voice of Wisdom: What Hildegard Means Now by Mary Sharratt

sharratt$mary_lresHildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Pope Benedict XVI canonized Hildegard on May 10, 2012—over eight centuries after her death. In October 2012, she was elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. Hildegard is the fourth woman in the entire history of the Church to receive this distinction.

But what does Hildegard mean for a wider interfaith audience today? 

I believe her legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women.

illuminationsWhile writing Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women bishops are still a subject of controversy in the Anglican Church, while the previous Catholic pope, John Paul II, called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests. Although Pope Benedict XVI has elevated Hildegard to Doctor of the Church, he is suppressing Hildegard’s contemporaries, the sisters and nuns of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, who stand accused of radical feminism.

Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—according to Guibert of Gembloux’s Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, she was entombed in an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, one that can inspire us today.

Too often both religion and spirituality have been interpreted by and for men, but when women reveal their spiritual truths, a whole other landscape emerges, one we haven’t seen enough of. Hildegard opens the door to a luminous new world.

The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine is manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, so according to Hildegard believed, a flower or a stone is God, though not the whole of God. Creation reveals the face of the invisible creator.

“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows,” the voice of God reveals in Hildegard’s visions, recorded in her book, Liber Divinorum. “I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.”

Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature, and she even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was as an egg inside the womb of God.

According to Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine , Hildegard’s Sapientia, or (female) Divine Wisdom, creates the cosmos by existing within it.

O power of wisdom!

You encompassed the cosmos,

Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit

With your three wings:

One soars on high,

One distills the earth’s essence,

And the third hovers everywhere.

Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is a Kirkus 2012 Book of the Year. Visit Mary’s website at www.marysharratt.com .

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13 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this enlightening post! I find it so inspiring that Hildegard’s life and work are still so deeply meaningful to so many people many centuries after she lived and long after all those who repressed her are forgotten. True vision is what lives on!

  2. Hi, Mary. We met at a long ago BEA, I think in 2000. I just read and loved Illuminations–beautiful, informative and moving. I also read Daughters of Witching Hill, which I also loved. Thank you for your work. Right on, write on!

  3. While I appreciate everything that you have done to promote Hildegard to the modern world, it is regrettable that you continue to perpetuate the erroneous idea that she was enclosed at St. Disibodenberg at the age of eight.

    While it is true that the Vita S. Hildegardis records that as the age of her entrance, modern scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that the claim is erroneous and that the real date of Hildegard’s enclosure with Jutta was on All Saints’ Day, 1112. As John van Engen has shown, she was pledged to the religious life at the age of 8 but remained for about 6 years at home until the time of enclosure at age 14. (See Van Engen, “Abbess: Mother and Teacher” in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and her World, ed. Barbara Newman [Berkeley, 1998], pp. 32-33.)

    The confusion between the two dates may have been intentional on the part of Hildegard’s hagiographers, to emphasize Hildegard’s life-long sanctity. Today, however, perpetuating the erroneous information only serves to obscure Hildegard’s early life and make it seem more inhumane and dark than it really was.

    • Dear Nathaniel, thank you for weighing in. I’ve already replied to you in another forum, but I will do so here as well.

      Two versions of Hildegard’s early life exist. I mention as much in the Afterward of ILLUMINATIONS. As a novelist, I chose to base my fiction on Guibert of Gembloux’s version of Hildegard’s early life, his Vita Sanctae Hildegardis.

      I have John Van Engen’s essay open before me. The essential facts remain the same. Van Engen writes, “Hildegard was pledged to the religious life at age eight and entrusted to the care of a recluse . . .” It’s just a question whether she was enclosed with Jutta at age eight or fourteen.

      Either way, Hildegard’s early experience seems to have left a bitter taste. In SCIVIAS, she strongly condemned the practice of offering child oblates to monastic life.

  4. My daughter and I both walk a dual path – Catholic and earth based. What you’ve written here is like a beacon for us. Thank you.

  5. Thank you so much, everyone! Elizabeth, I remember meeting you in 2000 and am so happy to see all the lovely books you published since that date. I wish I could meet up with you again some time!

  6. Mary, this is wonderful! As you know, I also loved your book. I’m glad you pushed through the jetlag you told me about and wrote this blog. Illuminations deserves a wide readership. And Hildegard and the other female mystics deserve to be better known today. And the popes need some education.

  7. Whether Hildegard was actually enclosed at age eight or age fourteen–and any author of fiction is surely allowed to choose which version of a story is the best fit for telling his or her tale–”Illuminations” (which I just finished, and which made me wish I were a slower reader!) is a marvelous seeing into medieval life, religion, and the constraints placed on women. Mary has done her research. She’s allowed to choose.

    I lived for four years in the very area she wrote about–Hildegard’s setting–and was drawn into Mary’s vision of Hildegard’s times as surely as if I had suddenly been transported from the Bingen train station into the Middle Ages as I gazed abstractedly at the Rhine Valley. (I was, especially as a woman, very glad to come back!) The settings, the characters, the insight into history: Mary, for me, this is your best book yet.

    I have to shake my head over this particular Pope being the one to canonize Hidegard, too: although 21st-century conservatives in religion–the ones who still have a problem with the very idea of women priests, for example–keep repeating that Hildegard was, herself, “conservative” (whatever THAT means) and shaking their heads over her adoption by feminists (Ooh…be afraid! Be very afraid!) I think that given a contemporary setting, Hildegard would have been a mighty troublesome challenge to their notions and behavior today.

    I think Hildegard continues to speak to all women: too bad there isn’t a Hildegard in every religion in the world, right now.

    • Thank you so much, Onoosh. I am so happy you enjoyed ILLUMINATIONS. And, yes, Hildegard’s landscape is so numinous and lush. How wonderful that you lived there for four years!

      Yes, every religion in the world needs a Hildegard right now!

  8. Thanks so much for this article, Mary, especially for the reference to viriditas! The term is new to me, but what it expresses is utterly in line with my own experiences and god-image. I was shocked and delighted to see that it was the essence of her spirituality as well! I’ll be ordering Illuminations as soon as I sign off here!

  9. I wanted to step in and let you know an interesting response a friend and priest once told me when I asked why women could not serve in that capacity in the church. He told me that the moment of transubstantiation–when the host becomes the living body of Christ–is an eternal moment that has been going on virtually every hour around the globe since it occurred, when Jesus was broken in the flesh. It is time stripped away, Because Jesus was a man, the church believes a priest needs to be a man to re-live this moment. It is not intended to be a slight to women.

    Now, I realize he has a pure interpretation of why women can’t be priests, and not all priests have that pure insight, but it is worth noting.

    This was a wonderful post, and I can’t wait to read ILLUMINATIONS.

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