Monasteries of the Heart

Doctor of the Church

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Mary Sharratt sent me an advanced reading copy of her book, Illuminations: a novel of Hildegard von Bingen, which is being released to coincide with Hildegard’s upcoming (October 2012) elevation to Doctor of the Church.

The first chapter begins with seventy-nine-year-old Hildegard, abbess of Rupertsberg, Germany, and her community in the monastery cemetery chiseling off every inscription on the tombstones. Why are they doing this? Because under her leadership the community had dared to give a Christian burial to a young man church officials had declared an apostate. A delegation of prelates was arriving soon to dig up the boy’s body and dump it in unhallowed ground so the nuns razed the cemetery making identification impossible and preserving the boy’s burial. For this action the community would be placed under interdict--denied the liturgy, the sacraments, including Eucharist and the recitation of the Divine Office.

What I found most poignant in the first chapter was how Sharratt imagined the turmoil in Hildegard as she pondered her decision. These are Hildegard’s thoughts: “The men I’d railed against gathered like carrion crows to wreak their revenge on me and put me in my place once and for all. It was not my own fate that worried me, for I have endured much in my life. This year or next, I would join the departed in the cold sod and await judgment like any other soul. But what would become of my daughters? How could I die and leave them to this turmoil—what if this very abbey was dissolved, these women left homeless? A stabbing pain filled me to see them so lost, their faces stark with fear. Our world was about to turn upside down. How could I save these women who had placed their trust in me?”

This happened 870+ years ago. Do you know how many prioresses and superiors—because of the Vatican’s recent mandate to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious--are wrestling with these same questions right now? “How long, O God, how long….”

P.S. In addition to this novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I know of two other Hildegard books soon to be released-- one by Avis Clenendon and the other by Matthew Fox. Joan Chittister is doing the introduction to both books.