Part One: Hildegard’s Holy Wisdom
I’m on a mission to write women back into history, because, to a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover their buried stories, we must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. We must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks. My writer’s journey is about reclaiming the lost heroines of history. My quest is to give voice to the ancestral memory of that lost motherline.
My novels address spiritual themes. As a spiritual person, I’m very interested in women’s experience of the sacred. As well as being written out of history, we women, for the past five-thousand years of patriarchy, have been side-lined and marginalized by every established religion in the world. Even in alternative spiritual movements, male teachers and leaders have abused their authority over their female students and followers.
But in every age, there have been women who have heroically rebelled against this patriarchal stranglehold to claim their authentic spiritual experience. Often it has involved looking within rather than without for spiritual guidance.
One of these women was Hildegard of Bingen, the heroine of my novel Illuminations.
Born in the lush green Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard (who lived from 1098–1179) was a Benedictine abbess and one of the most accomplished people of her time. She founded two monastic communities for women, composed an entire corpus of sacred music, and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, an intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.
An outspoken critic of Church corruption, she courted controversy. Though women were forbidden to preach, Hildegard embarked on four preaching tours in which she delivered apocalyptic sermons warning her male superiors in the Church that they must reform their evil ways or suffer divine wrath. But she had to pay the price for being so outspoken. Late in her life, she and her nuns were the subject of an interdict (a collective excommunication) that was lifted only a few months before her death. Hildegard nearly died an outcast, her fate hauntingly similar to that of many canceled women in our contemporary cancel culture.
Hildegard’s theology of the Feminine Divine has made her a pivotal figure in feminist spirituality.
A key concept in her philosophy is 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 was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard celebrated the sacred in nature, something highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.
I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.
Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum (Book of Divine Works)
Hildegard’s philosophy of Viriditas went hand in hand with her celebration of the Feminine Divine. Although the established Church of her day could not have been more male-dominated, Hildegard called God Mother, and said that she could only bear to look upon divinity in her visions if God appeared to her in feminine form. Her visions revealed God as a cosmic egg, nurturing all of life like a womb. Masculine imagery of the creator tends to focus on God’s transcendence, but Hildegard’s revelations of the Feminine Divine celebrated immanence, of God being present in all things, in every aspect of this greening, burgeoning, blessed world.
According to Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Hildegard’s Sapientia, or 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 sapientiae
This might be read as an ecstatic hymn to Sophia, the great Cosmic Mother.
Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. Please check out her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, and her new novel Revelations, about the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich. Visit her website.