Sometimes God sends you a fiction book to read at just the right time, a book that will teach or tell you something that you might not have learned another way. Have you ever had a book on your TBR pile for a long time then something prompts you to read it and you realize that God had kept you from reading it earlier? You weren’t ready earlier and the lessons would be lost.
I recently read Illuminations: a novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt and this book has stuck with me in the days since. I think I am still processing all of the wisdom and lessons contained within its pages, but I will share my thoughts so far.
I have long been interested in cloistered communities and in the lives and stories of medieval monks. Normally I shy away from nuns, because they seem to be left with the helping professions of teaching and nursing, while the monks get to do the fun stuff of learning, writing, and studying. I realize that this is generalization, but even Hildegard’s life reflects this pattern.
Illuminations is a work of fiction, but seems to be faithful to Hildegard’s actual life story. The tenth child of her parents, Hildegard was given to the church as a tithe at the age of 8 to serve alongside another young lady as anchorites for the Benedictine monks at Disibodenberg in 1106. Anchorites were walled into a small chamber or chambers attached to a church following a ceremony that resembled a funeral. They were considered dead to this world and were expected to spend the rest of their mortal lives praying for the community to which they were attached. The only contact they had with the outside world was a small hatch through which food could be passed and a small screen to speak to their abbot through.
Can you imagine?
The first part of Illuminations is an extremely powerful re-imagining of what Hildegard’s life was like as she fought against, accepted, and then fought some more against this enclosed existence. She longed for her freedom, but found a way to use her time to learn about God and His creation. It was not the life she chose, but she was determined to be useful and to grow in the confined space
One of the points made by Sharratt is that families at this time sometimes chose this life for their daughters as a means of protection. When new girls are brought to the anchorage, Hildegard pleads with their guardian, saying they are too young. The woman responds “lest you think me heartless, let me tell you that an even harsher fate might befall these girls outside your walls.” Married off at a young age, without their consent or input, to bear child after child, women had no rights and were often abused at the hands of their husbands. To many, the church seemed the safer option. When Hildegard continues to protest, asking why not a nunnery, the woman replies “Sister Hildegard, what stronghold could be safer than this?”
I finished reading this book on the day that Hilary Clinton won enough delegates to claim the Democratic Presidential nomination and women all over the country, regardless of political affiliation, celebrated the victory for the female sex. I was struck by how very far we have come. And how thankful I am to be living now.
Illuminations continues to tell of Hildegard’s story. How at the death of her original cell-mate, Hildegard is elected leader, or magistra, and demands that the anchorage not be walled up again following the funeral of her companion. Thus the anchorage becomes a nunnery and the women have some limited mobility and freedom.
Hildegard is now remembered for her visions, her writings and music, and her knowledge of nature. One of the points made in this book that struck me concerns her visions and her questioning if she should make them public. Ridiculed from a young age, Hildegard is often told that her visions come from the enemy not from God. Others upheld her conviction that they were holy visions. At the age of 42, according to Sharratt’s version, Hildegard was sent a powerful message from God, telling her “It is time. Time to do what you were born to do.” Forty-two. After 34 years of preparation, it was time to make her visions public and begin work on her first book, one that would take 10 years to complete.
This sense of timing is not lost on me. Sometimes God’s timing is not our timing. Sometimes the preparation needed to accomplish something takes longer than we think necessary. Sometimes we do what we were meant to do at a much later age or life stage than we expected. I hope so.
As the years went by for Hildegard, she became bolder in her ambitions, leaving Disibodenberg against the wishes of many to form her own community at Rupertsberg. She spoke out against certain leaders and practices of the church and was often in trouble. There was tension amongst church leaders concerning her and within herself as she questions her own boldness compared with the humility she knows she is called to.
One of my favorite passages of this book comes near the end. Hildegard has lost a dear friend and she blames herself. “My sin is my pride,” she tells her friend and scribe Volmar, “And my cursed ambition. How I wish I could be purged of it.”….. “Would you really wish to be purged of your true character?…. God made you who you are for a reason. Without your boldness and strength of will, you’d still be in the anchorage. Locked within two rooms……. You led us to this house. Now fulfill your true purpose.”
Volmar asks Hildegard, as we must ask ourselves, if God made you a certain way, who are you to rile against it and ask to be made otherwise. Within your true character, do what God has given you to do. No matter how many years it takes.
As I struggle to find my next steps, I think these are good points to remember. One, things may take longer than I think they should. Two, God made me who I am for a reason. Stop trying to fight Him so much and accept that He knows what He is doing. In recent days, I feel like I am following breadcrumbs leading me to something yet unseen. This book and its message helped me to take another step along the road and gave me patience to take along on the journey.
Illuminations is a beautiful book. Despite being such a huge fan of libraries, I am glad that this is a book I own. I think it is one I will return to again and again. Well done, Mary Sharratt.