The Great Goddess and Divine Mother of Us All manifests where and to whom She chooses, no matter what faith we hold. In the 12th century, She manifested to a German nun named Hildegard. Hildegard’s story has been told in many places, including a highly detailed entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is a wonderful resource for stories about saints. I’ve just finished reading Illuminations (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), a splendid new novel about Hildegard by Mary Sharratt, who is the author of other excellent novels, including Daughters of the Witching Hill.
Hildegard, who lived from 1092 to 1179, was the tenth child of a family of minor nobility in the Holy Roman Empire. She’s a sturdy child who loves the outdoors and enjoys running through the forest with her brother. But early in the novel, she learns that she is to be her family’s tithe to the church. Her mother has already arranged for this bright and curious eight-year-old child to be the companion to Jutta von Sponheim, a “holy virgin” who yearns to be bricked up as an anchorite in the Abby of Disibodenberg. Being an anchorite means that, like Julian of Norwich (about 250 years later), this girl and her magistra are bricked in. There is a screened opening in the wall through which their meager meals are passed and through which they can witness mass and speak to Abbott Cuno, the other monks, and visiting pilgrims, but they can never go out. Never. In the Afterword, Sharratt writes that “Disibodenberg Abbey is now in ruins and it’s impossible to precisely pinpoint where the anchorage was, but the suggested location is two suffocatingly narrow rooms and a narrow courtyard built on to the back of the church” (p. 272). As Sharratt vividly shows us, Hildegard survived in that awful place for thirty years.
Although Jutta teaches Hildegard to read and write, her primary focus is on the masochistic self-torture popular in the medieval church that worshipped (and continues to worship) a tortured man hanging on a cross. Suffering, they say, is holy. Jutta disdains food and sanitation, she kneels for hours on a splintery plank in the snow, she winds a penitential chain around her body. The barbs on the links of the chain eat into her flesh. Suffering is holy. Jutta is a virgin martyr…well, no, not a virgin. She tells Hildegard that she was raped by her brother, and it is because she is no longer suitable marriage material that she chooses holiness. She becomes a sort of local saint.
Young Hildegard makes friends with a young monk named Volmar, who brings her books to read and potted herbs to grow in her tiny yard. After Jutta finally dies and the wall is broken down, Hildegard plans to run away with her brother, now a monk in another abbey, but when she’s presented with three young girls to be walled back in with her. One of these girls is Richardis, whose mother is one of those strong medieval women (like Eleanor of Aquitaine (a near contemporary) who are perfectly capable of handling their own business (including the disposition of their assets) while their husbands are off at the Crusades. Although “special friendships” are contrary to the Benedictine Rule, Hildegard falls in love (spiritually) with her. To prevent their being bricked in again, Hildegard appeals to Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius III, who praise her work, and wins their permission to establish a small convent at Disibodenberg.
As we know, Hildegard suffered from migraines that brought her profound, authentically holy visions:
“Such splendor I see,” I told Volmar and Richardis.
The vision unfolded as the three of us huddled in an overgrown corner of the medicinal garden where rosebushes grew tall to conceal us, enfolding us in their paradisial perfume …
“The voice speaks. It says, ‘Behold Ecclesia, the true Church and uncorrupted Bride.’ She is the towering woman. The maiden in her arms is Caritas, Divine Love.” …
Before me I saw the face of my God, my Mother, as awesome as lightning striking the earth, yet as gentle in her goodness as the sun’s rays. She was incomprehensible to humans because of the dread radiance of her divinity and the brightness that blazed in her. For she was with all, and in all, and of a beauty so great that none could comprehend how sweetly she bore with us mortals and how she spared us with her inscrutable mercy (p. 150).
As her story continues, Hildegard and her friends begin to compose her great works, including the Scivias, medical books, and The Play of Virtues, a musical work. After many years, she finally overcomes the misogynism of Abbot Cuno and leaves Disibodenberg to found her own abbey at Rupertsberg.
To this day, Hildegard is known for her wisdom, the letters of advice she wrote to rulers of the church and the state, and for preaching against the corruption of the church. While I was reading Illuminations, I also rented the Showtime series The Borgias, which is about Pope Alexander VI, aka Roderigo Borgia, and his children and the simony and lust (along with the other five Deadly Sins) that characterized his reign. (Its historicity is generally accurate. Cardinal Della Rovere will be elected pope, take the name Julius, and hire Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel.) Alexander became pope about 300 years after Hildegard’s death; some things don’t change.
We have heard about Hildegard before at Feminism and Religion. A year ago, Gina Messina-Dysert wrote about her proposed canonization, and Cynthia Garrity-Bond also wrote about her. This year we heard much about modern nuns working to overcome the church’s modern misogynism and challenging the church on issues of women’s rights. The Nuns on the Bus, do not have an entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia. We can hope that like the great Sibyl on the Rhine that they will thrive and succeed in their truly holy work.
P.S. If you’re as interested as I am in the lives of medieval women, here are more good books. (1) The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen by Barbara Lachman. (2) Julian of Norwich, a Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm. (3) Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.