Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen. Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. October 2012. 288 pp. ISBN # 9780547567846.
This is as disturbing a story as it is inspiring! At the age of 8 years old, in order to win dowries for Hildegard's sisters, her mother "tithes" her to a monk's monastery to become an anchorite. That means that she and another young girl will be placed in two rooms that are completely walled in except for a small grille through which their spiritual advisor can speak to them and through which food and drink of the coarsest nature will be passed at mealtimes. Jutta with whom Hildegard is imprisoned is pious beyond what one would ever expect in such a young girl, wearing a hair shirt one-piece garment and ultimately a metal belt with thorn-like prongs that she wears around her waist under her gown that already makes her bleed.
A young monk, Volmar, befriends Hildegard, supplying her with books on medicinal herbs and providing her with paper and books from which she learns to read and write. She is comforted by the mystical visions she has of The Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears in different forms but always with holy messages. The visions, however, are always accompanied by a form of illness, be it dizziness or headaches. Jutta eventually dies and now the real life of Hildegard begins. She has a definite gift of hearing beautiful music and divine verses that will eventually make her famous throughout the world. Life is so so painful with constant conflict from the Abbot and other monks.
Eventually she will win the support of other clergy. Other women will join her and soon she will found her own convent and move through relationships that show her clearly how worldly and sinfully proud she really is! But then her saintly behavior and words of healing wisdom begin to attract pilgrims. After her first very tough lessons, Hildegard must grow up and realize that "balance" is mandatory; favoritism and uniqueness is heresy, a sign of a traitor, even a sign perhaps of the devil working in her life!
Mary Sharratt paints a portrait of a woman whose emotions and thoughts are the epitome of saintly behavior and attitude and at the same time frail with undeveloped pride and selfishness. What else could a woman do who was shut away from the world for thirty years - an inconceivable tortured time, at least to this reviewer. Every step forward to greater holiness is fraught with temptation and even abuse. It's not pretty at all and yet Hildegard learns that service to others is more important than her own temporal desires. Mary Sharratt has fashioned a novel that is riddled with problems that make the reader ask innumerable questions and offers few responses except for those trustworthy souls sharing her journey. What a remarkable novel. Hildegard is a historical work of fiction that may leave you with more questions than answers. The line between insanity and saintly behavior, thought, and feeling is thin indeed! Stunning fiction!