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Monk in the World guest post: Mary Sharratt

I first encountered author Mary Sharratt‘s work about a year ago when my interest in Hildegard of Bingen drew me to her new novel Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen.  We don’t know much about Hildegard’s years spent at Disibodenberg, but Mary does a masterful job of weaving together the historical sources we do have with historical imagination to create a compelling story about a remarkable woman. She is a beautiful writer and I loved the book. I am delighted that Mary was willing to share her own wisdom here about being a monk in the world.

Mary is also offering a free copy of her book to one lucky winner.  To enter the random drawing please leave a comment on this post below about your own interest in Hildegard.  You can earn extra entries by sharing this post on Facebook, be sure to tag me so that I can see that you have shared it.

Read on for Mary’s insights:

Visions of the Green Saint

Mary SharrattHow has Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century visionary abbess, polymath, and powerfrau, taught me to be a monk in the world? Her visions were so magnificent, so all-embracing, that she transcended cloistered walls and embraced the entire cosmos.

Born in the lush green Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard (1098–1179) was offered as a child oblate to Disibodenberg Monastery and walled into an anchorage at the age of eight or fourteen, according to which version of her biography you read. This sensitive child was expected to lead a life of utter silence and submission. Yet, after decades in her “mausoleum,” as Guibert of Gembloux’s account of her life calls the anchorage, she broke free to become the greatest voice of her age.

Hildegard founded two monastic houses for women and went on four preaching tours. She developed her own system of holistic medicine still practiced in modern day Germany and composed an entire corpus of highly original sacred music. She wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she was a reformer who courted controversy.

Hildegard calls me, as a spiritual woman, to resist all forms of physical and mental confinement. Instead she urges me to embrace life as passionately as she did. I believe she calls on all of us to discover our inner polymath and allow our God-given gifts and talents to unfold to their greatest fruition.

Following her example, I balance my daily meditation and prayer and my hours of writerly solitude with forays into the Divine splendour of nature. Hildegardian spirituality counters acedia, or spiritual dryness, with the ecstasies of Viriditas, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the burgeoning green world, that sacred power infusing all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the Divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Creation unveiled the face of the invisible Creator.

I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.

—Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum (Book of Divine Works)

Living in a semi-rural area in Northern England, my daily covenant is to go outdoors every day, regardless of the weather, and take care of my spirited Welsh mare who lives at a stableyard on a hilltop with views over the Pennine moors. Here the blasting winds and constantly changing weather patterns, the spring bluebells and shimmering trees, the owls and kestrels, the sun, moon, and circling stars, all place me in a state of mindful wonder. This is my daily revelation of the Divine whom Hildegard called Mother.

Hildegard revered the Feminine Divine in the form of Sapientia, Divine Wisdom, also called Sophia. After devouring Dr. Barbara Newman’s classic work Sister of Wisdom: Saint Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, I learned that Hildegard’s Sapientia is drawn directly from the scriptures—from the Book of Wisdom in the Old Testament of the Catholic Bible. There’s nothing “new agey” about the Feminine Divine within Christianity.

Sapientia creates the cosmos by existing within it.

O power of Wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere.

—Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

Hildegard’s theology of the feminine is deeply inspiring to me. While writing Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, no matter how devout they might be, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women priests and bishops are still the subject of controversy in the worldwide Anglican Communion while Pope John Paul II called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests in the Catholic Church.

Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, that can inspire people of all faith backgrounds today. Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature. Her vision of the universe was an egg inside the womb of God.

Too often religion has been interpreted by and for men. But when women speak their heartfelt spiritual truths, a whole other landscape emerges—one that we haven’t seen enough of.

Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within. Under Saint Hildegard’s mantle, we may all become sisters and brothers of Wisdom, our voices moving, as Hildegard’s did, like a feather on the breath of God.

Mary Sharratt’s novel Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012, Mariner 2013) won the Nautilus Gold Award and was a Kirkus Book of the Year 2012. Visit Mary’s website:

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33 Responses

  1. Thank you for this, most of which is new to me also. Despite being raised as a Christian, I did not find Christianity until recently, now in my 60s, and an important part of it for me is the monastic spirit, balancing meditation, finding God within us and within nature, and mindful action to be creative and to serve others in community, that I have found from reading Kathleen Norris, Joan Chittister, Christine Valters Paintner, and so much of Celtic Christianity. Our minister of music at my new church is an enthusiast of early music, and that led me to Hildegarde’s music and my interest in her as an outstanding creative and spiritual influence in her own time, when most women were invisible. I loved reading here about her journey to find her voice and empower her sisters to find theirs, because that’s been a part of my life too. I am going to enjoy reading your novel (whether I win it or buy it) and I appreciate the film suggestions from Betty, as well.

  2. I also first encountered Hildegarde through her music (which I find stunning and quieting at the same time) performed by Anonymous 4. I’ve also enjoyed the movie, “Vision”. I too, experience God in nature, but I would love to read more of Hildegarde’s reflections on that.

  3. Last week in a conversation with a student, the question of the meaning of nature came up. “What does nature mean to you?” was the direct question. I realized that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of nature. But I sense that nature and theology are deeply interwoven: that the Divine Spirit in-fuses and in-spires all that is. Now I will now send the student this quote to expand my answer: “Hildegardian spirituality counters acedia, or spiritual dryness, with the ecstasies of Viriditas, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the burgeoning green world, that sacred power infusing all creation with moisture and vitality.”

  4. As a pastor and musician I find great inspiration in Hildegard’s work. Her story resonates so deeply! Looking forward to the book!

  5. There is a beautiful movie by Margarethe von Trotta called “Vision: From the Life of Hildegarde von Bingen.” She is wonderfully portrayed by Barbara Sukowa. There is also “Hildegarde,” a portrayal by Patricia Routledge of “Keeping Up Appearances” fame. These are definitely worth seeing — both available through Netflix.

  6. Hildegard. Wow! You told me more about her and her journey in this short writing then I ever knew, what I have read here with you inspires me and I want to read more!

  7. My first encounter with saint Hildegard was through her music which left me utterly speechless with its depth and beauty. Over the years I have had a growing interest in herbalism, healing and humans’s direct connection to nature. It was last year while visiting a Trappist monestary that I discovered a book about Hildegard’s herbalism. At that point I felt a very deep bond with Hildegard and she has become, for me, one of the four Divine feminine, along with Sophia, Brigid and Mary.

  8. Thanks for offering this, Mary and Christine. I am a relative newcomer to Abbey of the Arts and am currently in a discernment period about where to go/what to do next. That is much easier said than done. It sounds like Hildegard was most familiar with this, also.

  9. When I was little, I remember my mom studying her and her music – and telling us stories about her. This has stuck with me always. My mom, sister and I are all ‘green’ healers per se – with great love and ongoing practice in the wisdom of earth medicine – and Hildegard’s wisdom as a healer visionary has touched me deeply in my own spiritual and practical path. Thanks for this chance!

  10. I did a long paper on Hildegard when I was in seminary. In 1992 there were only 7 books in the sem library with info about her. 2 or 3 of the books were her own writings. How great it is that so much is now available!
    I can’t wait to read your book, Mary!