Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On the Library Table: Illuminations, Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt’s gorgeous new novel begins as eight-year-old Hildegard von Bingen is given over by her family to the Roman Catholic church.  The young Hildegard is already experiencing visions, and her family fear she will be unmarriageable as a result. Then there is the matter of her dowry, for she is the tenth child in her family.

The future bestowed upon the child is austere beyond belief - she is to be the servant of a young aristocrat and consecrated anchorite named Jutta, renowned for her beauty, her severe penances and her religious devotion.

To be an anchorite was appalling, for they were walled up in tiny cells as a kind of living death, a single meager meal a day pushed through a slot, no contact with the outside world whatsoever, never going beyond their four walls after their consecration as hermits and brides of Christ.  Although such an existence might well have killed the young Hildegard (or at the very least quenched her intelligence and spirit), she somehow managed to prosper in her isolation, to learn diverse arts and even develop a measure of compassion for the moody and tempestuous Jutta.

When freed from the anchorage on the death of Jutta after thirty years, Hildegarde took her rightful place in the world as a Benedictine abbess, an artist and philosopher, a gifted composer, physician, scientist and author.  The depth and breadth of her learning and accomplishments is staggering.  Now, several centuries after her passing into the great beyond, Hildegarde's perception of God from a woman's point-of-view still sings as clearly as any bell.

To quote Mary Sharratt:  "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, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone is God, though not the whole of God. Creation reveals the face of the invisible creator.”

This is the story of girl child neglected, ignored and then cast away by her family, someone who rose from dread misfortune to found her own Benedictine convent and become a legend in the living world far beyond her monastic abode.  Hildegard von Bingen is one of the greats of all history, and she can have no finer champion than Mary Sharratt.  Mary has done something incandescent and transcendent in writing Illuminations - she summons Hildegard's time and the truth of her existence so beautifully that we are right there (first in the anchorage and then in the convent) with the gifted young nun.

This is probably the best book I shall read this year, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  If you only read one book this year, make it this one.  This is a wonder.

13 comments:

kerrdelune said...

Please note that a single copy of Illuminations is available to someone commenting on this post, and I am happy to draw a name from my bloggy hat in this regard. It is a GORGEOUS book.

Mystic Meandering said...

Goosebumps on this one! I can hardly wait to read it! I love the quote by Mary Sharratt - "To her the divine is manifest in every leaf and blade of grass" - Yes! - the animating life force in everything... If I don't win it I shall order it :)

Melanie said...

I thank you much for bringing this book to light for me. I would have never given it a glance otherwise.

the wild magnolia said...

reaching deep into the spirit of life, how it can be, lived and breathed by devotion.

so happy to find this new treasure.

Lynn said...

I am a huge fan of Hildegarde's, poems, music and general philosopy. Mary Sharratt has a gift in bringing history to life so I am really looking forward to this book. Lynn

Kameshwari said...

As a young person, I was always interested in the Franciscans and felt an affinity to the feminist Franciscans. For too many years, I lived as if I had blinders on my eyes and mind in relation to the other orders.

Then came my awareness of the Benedictines. Other than visiting contemporary convents with retreats for the lay person, I have very little appreciation for the beginnings of the order.

I am sure to read this book. Much of my reading has come at the suggestion of Cate, beginning with the excellent, "Hestia, Come Home." Thanks to Kindle, I enjoy carrying the Mermaid books on my Android.

Tomorrow, I'll be ordering ILLUMINATIONS from Collected Works, my local Santa Fe bookseller.

Prairie Star said...

Thank you for shedding a light on this lovely book! We spent a brief amount of time getting to know Hildegarde in our book group and I always remembered her "greening." I shall put this book on my "wish list" for sure!

Love to you this day,

Marti said...

Several years ago I belonged to a writing group that held a conference every two years. The year I attended, the luncheon speaker spoke of Hildegarde and taught us to chant some of her music. It was a transcendent experience as would be reading this book. Thank you for the opportunity.

Valerie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Valerie said...

Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. If my name is not drawn, I will still be looking for it on the shelves of my bookstore or library.

I deleted the previous comment because I wanted to add the following: You might be interested in the book God's Hotel by Victoria Sweet. She is a physician practicing in an almshouse in San Francisco while doing postgraduate work on medieval medicine. Much of her research involved Hildegarde's writings.

a gardener said...

Thank you again for bringing to light books I might not otherwise discover!

Heather said...

Thanks for sharing this. You always highlight such diverse and interesting books here - I add nearly all of them to my ever-growing list of books I want to read one of these days. This one sounds especially lovely. I know very little about Hildegard von Bingen, but what I do know has long intrigued me. She sounds like a truly admirable woman - even more so considering the time in history in which she lived.

Kameshwari said...

When I called Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, NM to order Illuminations, I was impressed to learn that the book is already on the shelves.

I am happy to now have a hardcover copy. Beautiful.

You can remove me from the drawing. I suggest to everyone to order Illuminations, Mary Sharratt's book, from your local bookseller.