October 17, 2012
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.
resting easy in on the library table