Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century nun, has long drawn the admiration of feminists and nontraditional spiritual seekers. Hildegard's legacy of otherworldly visions, herbal medicine and reverence for the natural world seem downright New Age-y viewed in the context of the repressive, patriarchal and dogmatic times in which she lived. Those who subscribe to this long-standing popular characterization of Hildegard as a sort of medieval flower child were surprised when the conservative, decidedly nonfeminist Pope Benedict XVI officially canonized Hildegard earlier this year and announced she would be made a Doctor of the Church -- Catholicism's highest veneration of a theologian.
These images of Hildegard -- as either a woman-centered free-thinker or as a dutiful nun -- would seem to contrast, but both versions of the woman entwine and make peace in Mary Sharratt's stirring new novel, "Illuminations." Minnesota native Sharratt, author of four previous novels, including "Daughters of the Witching Hill" and "The Real Minerva," conjures a Hildegard whose passionate spirituality is relatable to anyone who's walked a forest or found solace after hardship, but also makes clear that Hildegard experienced this universal spirituality through the practices and tenets of her Christian faith.
Working from ancient and sometimes conflicting histories, Sharratt, who developed an interest in Hildegard after living for 12 years in the nun's German homeland, imagines an intimate first-person autobiography in which an aged Hildegard recounts her remarkable life. Given to a religious order at 8, Hildegard is literally walled into a section of a German monastery for three decades as a companion to the deranged asceticism of noblewoman Jutta Von Sponheim. She doesn't crumple under the austere and sharply circumscribed existence, however; instead, she flowers in the sparse light, expanding her mind in books, finding a closeness to God in nature and mentoring younger women. After Jutta dies, Hildegard goes public with the visions she's long experienced and eventually comes to found and lead her own convent.
The masterful skill Sharratt displays in "Illuminations" is to create a real and accessible Hildegard who rises above the legends, projections and reinventions, thus allowing readers to understand Hildegard's spirituality as the nun herself may have experienced it. In beautiful language that dances on the ledge between secular and not, Sharratt not only tells the life story of one of history's most intriguing women, she also realistically invokes the internal sensation of deep religious experience. Sharratt's approach both respects this recently canonized saint's legitimate role in the theological structure of Catholic history and frees Hildegard's long-cherished aura of mysticism. This lovely, deeply felt depiction of a humble woman who survives darkness to give her heart to the world is a tribute to Hildegard in any way she is appreciated.
Cherie Parker is a writer in Washington, D.C.