Life Begins at 42: Saint Hildegard’s Guide to Becoming a Midlife Powerfrau


hildegard statue appletrees

We live in a youth-obsessed culture. The cosmetic industry pushes wrinkle creams and hair dye on us while celebrities resort to Botox and surgery to preserve an illusion of eternal girlhood. We live longer than ever before, yet advancing age, once a mark of honour, has become a source of shame.

But what happens when women embrace midlife as an inner awakening and call to power?

One such woman was Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), powerfrau and late bloomer par excellence.

Her youth was dire. Offered to the Church at the age of eight, she was entombed in an anchorage. Though she had been haunted by luminous visions since earliest childhood, she didn’t dare speak of them. Her entire existence was bent on silent submission to her superior, Jutta von Sponheim, an ascetic whose regime of fasting and mortification of the flesh eventually killed her.

Only after Jutta’s demise could Hildegard step out of the shadows and carve out a spiritual life based not on suffering but on celebrating life in all its burgeoning green beauty. Even so she might have remained obscure, lost to history.

But when she was forty-two, everything changed.

“When I was forty-two years and seven months old,” she wrote, “Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.”

Dazzling visionary experiences descended upon Hildegard, along with the divine summons to write and speak of her revelations. Reluctantly at first she embarked on her first book of theology, Scivias, or Know the Ways. After putting quill to parchment, she could never go back.

Hildegard went on to found two monasteries, go on four preaching tours, compose an entire corpus of sacred music, and write nine books on subjects as diverse as cosmology, botany, medicine, and human sexuality, thus leaving her indelible mark on history.

Most of us believe we live in a more enlightened age than Hildegard’s—after all, children are no longer offered as tithes to monasteries. Yet many young women find themselves in modern and secular forms of servitude—dead end relationships, soul-crippling jobs, credit card debt, a life of junk food and junk television—all the sadness and waste of an unexamined life.

We don’t need to be visionaries to break free. We just need to remember who we are, that we all serve some higher purpose. Each of us has our own unique gift to give the world.

In youth, it’s easy to be beguiled by the glamour of the surface of things—if we get the right job, the right partner, the right clothes we’ll be happy forever.

But in midlife we are gifted with the maturity to see through the false scripts consumer society hands to us. After a certain age we can see just how absurd it is to kill ourselves to emulate airbrushed supermodels. We realize that the greatest lover in the world can’t fulfill us until we are at peace with ourselves. And so we can let ourselves go. Paint the pictures we’ve always longed to paint. Learn French and travel the world. Dance under the stars. Play the saxophone. Offer our own song to the vast symphony of life.

Remember, it’s never too early or too late to embrace your inner powerfrau.

Mary Sharratt’s book Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award: Better Books for a Better World and was a 2012 Kirkus Book of the Year. Her forthcoming novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask, will be published by Houghton MIfflin Harcourt in Spring 2016. Visit her website.

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Categories: Feminism, General

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49 replies

  1. Time to burn those stupid, false scripts.

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  2. Thank you, Mary Sharratt — great to see your insights at FAR again! Hildegard is considered one of the greatest all-time, medieval composers of sacred music. Her chants were written for her convent and therefore for soprano or women’s voices. Most early choral music was written for male voices. For anyone who hasn’t heard Hildegard’s music, here’s a sample, just as life-giving and full of love, as everything else she did —

    [audio src="http://earlywomenmasters.net/hildegard_thesisters.mp3" /]

    O Frondens Virga (O Leafy Branch) by Hildegard of Bingen
    performed by The Sisters, a women’s a cappella vocal ensemble

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    • Sarah, I love her music. She wrote staggering body of work, completely unlike anything composed before or since, and she’s the first composer for whom we have a biography. For Hildegard, sacred music was the highest form of prayer, connecting the singer directly with the Divine.

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      • we have a biography of St. Kassia, who composed byzantine chant in the 9th century
        http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kassia

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      • So fascinating, Sorqaqtani! I hope you write a FAR blog about St. Kassia and her music! Thanks for sharing this.

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      • What I love about Hildegard’s _Ordo Virtutum_, the earliest liturgical drama written in Europe, is that the devil is not allowed to sing like every other character. I.e. music and spirit were intimately intertwined for her, as they are for me.

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      • Yes, Nancy, Ordo Virtutum, the devil could only grunt and croak. :D Late in her life, when Hildegard and her nuns in her monastery were the subject of an interdict, or collective excommunication, they were forbidden to sing the Divine Office, which was more traumatic for Hildegard even than being denied the eucharist. She wrote her archbishop a very terse letter saying that if he continued to deny them their right to sing the Divine Office and offer God sung praise, the archbishop himself might end up in an afterlife destination where there was no music! I love Hildegard! She didn’t take abuse from anyone. The interdict was lifted shortly before her death.

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    • Sarah, It’s truly amazing how tuned-in we are to the same things. I LOVE Hildegard’s music, taught several classes about her in Women’s Studies, am fascinated by her life, AND…here come the amazing overlap, I’ve sung “O Frondens Virga” several times!!!

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  3. Did HIldegard write about her early years? If so, what did she say?

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    • She writes about her early years in Scivias. There’s also the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, her vita as told to her last secretary Guibert de Gembloux, and the Vita of her superior, Jutta, which tells another version of her early life. The two conflicting versions of Hildegard’s early life have her entering the anchorage at different ages. In her own Vita at the age of eight, in Jutta’s vita, at the age of fourteen. Both accounts stress the gulf between Jutta’s asceticism and Hildegard’s embrace of the beauty of nature, immanent divinity, and healthy moderation. As an adult, HIldegard spoke out very strongly against the practice of offering child oblates to monastic life–you can read this in Scivias.

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  4. What luck! I clicked on the link to your book, Mary, and up popped Amazon where I have a gift certificate begging to be spent! Thank you for recalling Hildegaard for us.

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  5. “Powerfrau”–love it!! As you know, I’ve read and reviewed your novel, which is excellent. And your point here, too, is excellent. We’re supposed to be forever age 19 and size 0. Well, it ain’t necessarily so. We do indeed grow up and gravity strikes–not just the physical law of the universe but also an increased seriousness about life. Or maybe I should say, in Hildegard’s case, gravitas. She’s one of my two favorite medieval women. The other is Eleanor of Aquitaine, another powerfrau. Thanks for this post.

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  6. Oh my gosh, I needed this so much. Thank you for writing this.

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  7. Thanks, Mary, for this lovely post! Hildegard is my favorite medieval woman. She succeeded in a time of overpowering sexism, in an institution that had a glass ceiling that was opaque, and was truly a “Renaissance woman” (not that the historical Renaissance was better for women — it wasn’t — but you know what I mean). Thanks for bring her to mind today!!

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  8. If I lived in the middle ages, I’m almost certain I would climb some convent wall and beg to be tsken. In . Nothing to do with religion really but more to do with a peaceful life.

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    • If you were a woman and wanted a real education, or even basic literacy, you’d be more likely to achieve that inside monastary walls than in the secular world during Europe at this stage.

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      • And maybe have some say in your life. Women had autonomous communities in their convents.

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      • When I was young I had a job at the Cloisters Museum, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, and which is located on a hilltop overlooking the Hudson River. It was constructed with copies of medieval structures from old monasteries in Europe. The gardens were planted with the same medicinal herbs that would have been growing in Hildegard’s garden’s.

        My days were spent there selling books and acting as an information guide. I also had the job of ringing the bell in the tower every day at noon (done electronically, but still to set the bell ringing was very exciting). After a year of practically living in that space I really felt like I had experienced life in a Medieval monastery.

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    • What a beautiful opportunity to work in the Cloisters, Sarah! I visited there many, many years ago. An oasis of peace in Manhattan.

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  9. I recently read your book, Illuminations, and was enthralled – such a powerful and beautiful story. Thanks for continuing to share Hildegarde’s amazing life and story – a true inspiration.

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  10. That was wonderful! Thank you.

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  11. Mary I just wanted to tell you that I read Illuminations and loved it! What a fabulous woman and theologian Hildegard was! I think powerfrau is the perfect description of her!

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  12. Just revisiting this post and thought of the following website. Has anyone else seen it?
    http://mw.mcmaster.ca/home.html

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  13. Wonderful to learn about Hildegard’s age when she began her visions – inspiring on many levels!

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  14. Thanks so much for this. I love your words “all the sadness and waste of an unexamined life.

    We don’t need to be visionaries to break free. We just need to remember who we are, that we all serve some higher purpose. Each of us has our own unique gift to give the world.”

    In my own “middle age” this is what I hope to help others realise. It is wonderful to have inspiration such as this. Thank you!

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  15. As a Greek Orthodox Christian baptised in my 30s, I chose Hildegard as my baptism name. St Hildegard is my reference for the power of creativity and faith as one as well as healing. And this morning I am so inspired by this blog Feminismandreligion.com. Strangely enough, I listened yesterday on Iplayer to Women’s Hour BBC radio 4 discussion Feminism v Equalism. For the first time I understood better why Feminism may be the right word to choose sometimes. No doubt that life keeps beginning in our 40s_ a rebirth every day out of all the first years of life that the outside world gave an approximate shape to and that we may need to reassess. I would love to read your book Mary Sharratt.

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  1. » Life Begins at 42: Saint Hildegard’s Guide to Becoming a Midlife Powerfrau
  2. Life Begins at 42: Saint Hildegard’s Guide to Becoming a Midlife Powerfrau | Shade Tree Book Reviews and Blog
  3. dreams, sun & purpose {the love list} @ Lori-Lyn HurleyLori-Lyn Hurley
  4. La Vida Empieza a los 42: Hildegard Von Bingen | Vanessa Rivera D.

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