Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review: Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

The author Mary Sharratt posted a response to a National Catholic Register story about the canonization of Hildegard of Bingen by Pope Benedict XVI (confirmation of her cult) and his proclaimation of St. Hildegard of Bingen as the fourth woman Doctor of the Church (the other three are St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Therese of Lisieux--I'm hoping that St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) will be added to the list someday). She offered bloggers an opportunity to receive a review copy of her book, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, so I followed up with her. I received the review copy in exchange for my honest opinion about the book. One thing I liked right away about the book was the cover--the designer did not cut off the tops of the heads as so many cover designers do when using portraits or paintings!

I recommend the novel highly as an excellent historical novel, one built on the relationships of men and women in a religious milieu, representing the world of medieval Germany, yet also resonating with very human and common themes. Once I started reading it last weekend, I read it straight through. St. Hildegard von Bingen appears throughout the novel as a person of great integrity and dedication, resiliency and growth. As the first part of novel began, with young Hildegard being immured as an acolyte of the anchorite Jutta, I wondered how the narrative would develop from what seemed to be a deadend for the main character! A little girl of eight, walled up in a monastery, expected to endure physical deprivations and take part in religious services far beyond her age--but it was through little Hildegard's developing relationship with Jutta and with a young monk, Volmar that the story took off. From the small space of that anchorite's cell, all of Hildegard's future relationships developed, in fact--with Volmar, with the Benedict abbot, with the new anchorites brought by the von Stade family, and of course, with the celestial visions Hildegard experienced, the love of nature she nurtured, and books! It's from that anchorite cell that Hildegard gathers her community and begins her quest for a life of virtue and service suited to her talents.

Before I read the book I did consult the marketing materials included in the package sent by the publisher--they almost put me off from reading the book because they used conflict with the Catholic Church as the main selling point for the context of the novel--a context I didn't see present in the book at all. A lesson in Church History provides greater insight here. Many saints, male and female, have endured conflicts with the hierarchy of the Church on matters of theology, but even more on practical matters of vocation and projects. Blessed John Henry Newman, for example--his life as a Catholic is filled with misunderstandings and failed projects (the Oxford Oratory, the Catholic University of Ireland, the English translation of the Holy Bible, etc). Nevertheless as he stated, in spite of those thwarted public plans, his spiritual and devotional life was blessed with progress in the virtues and consolation. And, in addition to the conflict and failure he endured, he received support and encouragement from members of the hierarchy, and ultimately, approval from Pope Leo XIII. Hildegard herself was aided by Pope Eugene III, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and others in the hierarchy. St. Hildegard, like John Colet in England and many saints after her, rightly warned the clergy of their failings; that does not necessarily make her a proto-Protestant or a feminist. As Sharratt depicts her address in Cologne, St. Hildegard envisioned the holiness of the Church as the guide for the clergy and all believers.

In the marketing materials, the author states that "Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard's burgeoning cult", evidently unaware of this 1979 document in the first year of his reign! He referred to her as holy Hildegard and as "a light for her people and her time”. The author uses the political term conservative with regard to Pope Benedict XVI, who confirmed her cult earlier this year and proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church on October 7, 2012; he is "one of the most conservative popes in recent history". Compared to whom? Pope Benedict XVI teaches nothing different than what Blessed John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul I, or Blessed John Paul II taught; those words mean nothing. The materials also mention that Benedict "reportedly . . . has long admired Hildegard": that's easy to confirm, as he presented two General Audiences on St. Hildegard (as he called her then) in 2010. Read the second one here.

Once I ignored those marketing materials and the proposed hook for stories about this novel and St. Hildegard of Bingen and just read the book, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of a great visionary, foundress, musician, and saint. One of the sections I enjoyed most was when St. Hildegard faced her own limitations of love, realizing that she had tried too hard to control her great illuminator, Richardis von Stade, who had helped her with the preparation of Scivias, Hildegard's great book of visions. Like any follower of Jesus, Hildegard had to deal with her own desires, as throughout the novel, she tests her plans to assure herself and her community that they are fulfilling God's will, not merely their own. A fascinating and transporting read.


  1. Thank you for your feedback on this book, Stephanie! I also enjoyed your review of Mary Sharatt's Daughters of the Witching Hill, a book I loved,

  2. You're welcome, Elena Maria--it has been fun to correspond with Mary Sharratt. She praised you highly when I mentioned that we are friends, and commented that she values your reviews of her books!

  3. I know this post is old, but thank you for this review. I very much want to read this book but was unsure about all the "feminist" reviews I had read - I didn't want something with a New Age twist on the saint's lives.

    1. You're welcome; I was concerned about that too at first, but I think that Sharratt depicted St. Hildegard and her world fairly and effectively.