The Medieval world was full of powerful queens and saints, both real and mythical. Second perhaps only to Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen reigns as the woman who, after a thousand years, still moves us most with her life and work. Thirty years ago she was still an obscure saint from Germany little known outside her home area. Once rediscovered, her mystical visions and writings, and especially her liturgical music, quickly became magnificently popular. Though steeped in the culture and Christianity of her time, her art and biography have an essential and universal spirituality and message that speak clearly and passionately to women of our own time.
A new biographical novel has just been published, Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2012) that not only enlightens about the actions of Hildegard’s life, but really gives a sense of how completely women’s bodies and souls, aspirations and talents, were bound in medieval times. To me, Illuminations is the story of Hildegard’s remarkable liberation from a literal physical and spiritual entombment that also set free an almost other-worldly creativity. It is the story of the power of freedom of the spirit.
The novel begins with the literal entombment of Hildegard as a small child. She was given to the church by her family as the companion of a woman who was “enclosed,” a practice in which women and men were ritually made dead to the world and then spent the rest of their lives bricked up in tiny rooms that were, in this case, off the sanctuary of a monastery being, in the eyes of the time, made holy by their sacrifice. Finally freed years later, she became the leader of a group of nuns in the monastery, completely under the control of male clerics. She finally broke off from the monastery to form her own convent and spent the rest of her life battling the church hierarchy. As if this were not enough, she was also confined by her own body, suffering frequent debilitating illness and migraines.
Hildegard’s means of liberation was first her visions, which she had from a very early age but only began writing down in her 40s. Then her spirit was freed by her immense body of creative works, including books of her visions, theology, and medicine, stories of saints, and a voluminous correspondence (handily excerpted in Sabina Flanagan’s Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen, Shambhala, 1996). She also composed hours of liturgical music for the nuns in her convent to sing (I prefer the Sequentia CDs but others are also available). This freedom was won both because these brought her the fame and popular support that enabled her to prevail over her male opponents and also because of the ability of all art to rise above worldly circumstance and speak to all ages.
As beautiful as her work is, however, I find that it is its spirit of freedom that makes it so compelling. It is easy to see how the power of liberation unleashes spiritual and creative genius when we consider the oceans of works of art and literature by women in the 19th and 20th century who were finally able to speak their minds and hearts and tell their stories. So often, oppressors are celebrated and hold the power of life and death in their own time, but are forgotten or reviled by history while the songs and stories of those they held in bondage of one kind or another serve as anthems for future generations. To know the power of freedom, confine yourself to one room for even one day and then experience that joy and sense of being alive that you feel when you walk out again into the sun.
For many people in our world, past and present, freedom is not a religious value. Religion is about following a set of rules in order to stop humans from their inevitable wickedness and the belief that faithfulness requires one to exercise one’s freedom is considered to be absurd. To some, and especially those in Hildegard’s time, to think that each person must follow her or his own path, is heresy. When you consider freedom to be a religious value, however, everything changes. Valuing religious freedom means that one assumes that humans are not basically sinful but, rather, are at heart good and will do what is right if left to be themselves. Creativity that comes from each individual’s uniqueness is held in the highest regard as a spiritual act. Rather than spending time and energy protecting the power of the hierarchy, each individual is celebrated, supported and encouraged as an indispensable piece of a divine universal whole.
Hildegard of Bingen’s life is a testament to the power of holding freedom as a religious value. Her outpouring of creativity was like a spring that, once allowed a small trickle, burst through to become an ocean. Inside their own convent, the nuns under her supervision performed Hildegard’s own works, did not always wear their habits, and defied the church’s authority over them when necessary. While Hildegard would be considered conservative, in that she was always berating church officials from straying from the original tenets of behavior for religious, she was constantly challenging the authority of the church hierarchy to tell her how to believe or worship.
It is easy to find parallels to Hildegard’s struggles in the recent attempts by the Vatican to control American women religious. Certainly many things have not changed in the thousand years since Hildegard lived (though anyone listening to Sister Simone Campbell at the Democratic National Convention heard how powerful the spirits of contemporary women religious can be, especially when they are using their voices on behalf of those in need – You go, Simone!). But, to me, the message of Hildegard’s life is not defined by those who would have confined her, but rather the power and joy she found in her own freedom and in her lifelong work to liberate other women. When you read her life and her works and listen to her music, whether you share her religious tradition or not, may your spirit take wings.