Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader

 

Hildegard cover Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess,  composer, and mystic. She is known by many today because of her music, but her creativity was born of mystical experiences which found their expression in a variety of ways. The book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader, is a reader which includes selections from her songs, theological texts, drama, liturgical music, and letters. Each section is introduced by the translator and editor, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, who also provides an introduction to this German woman who challenged the Church while producing in an astonishing range of artistic outlets.
 
Her songs can be especially moving, and Butcher says we may take that as a sign of being written in happy times. “But there were no such periods for this nun. She lived from illness to illness, conflict to conflict, responsibility to responsibility, and perhaps that is why we feel close to her, because, despite Hildegard’s many accomplishments, her life was clearly filled with the daily grind we all experience; and she through it.”
 
One example, her song “The Most Sanguine Moment” (Note: she did not give them titles — this is from the translator):
 
When the Creator actually spilled
His blood on the elements,
earth, air, water, and fire
screamed,
collapsed with grief,
shook from sadness.
Now, Father, with this gift
anoint our weaknesses.
 
Her letters show a very human side, and she never hesitated to direct people (including royalty

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

and Popes) as she thought best. Her drama seems unusual to our modern ears, but is worth reading as it is the earliest known morality play ever recorded.

 
It is in the theological works where her mystic self, as seen in visions, is most clear. She has tremendous visions which she describes in detail, and then explains. Giant people, piles of excrement, and speaking fire, water, earth, and air, are all part of what she sees. At times, her visions seem grand for the simple lessons, but at times they make us rethink our most basic beliefs. In explaining how one vision teaches us about the soul’s power, she says, “A person’s physical body is bigger than their literal heart, just as the soul is stronger than the body. This is what I mean: A person’s heart lies hidden within their body, just as the physical body is surrounded by and hidden in the soul’s powers, which cover the entire globe. Your body is in your soul, not your soul in your body.” 
 
In both her visions and her life, she was willing to turn things upside down to help profess God’s word. Although she battled with Church leaders, she was greatly respected and is now recognized as a Saint. In 2012, Pope Benedict the XVI recognized her as a Doctor of the Church, meaning one to study as well as imitate.
 
As such, this book is a great introduction as it provides a wide selection of her work, and just enough background to give it some context. 

Quarantine

quarantineJim Crace’s novel, “Quarantine,” centers around a 40-day fast in the desert. But this is not just any fast — it is the time when Jesus heads off for his 40 days of fasting, culminating in his resisting of the temptations. But Crace is not writing a religious novel in the Christian sense. Instead, we see Jesus as one of group of both intentional and unintentional pilgrims.

 
We have Musa, a bullying trader who is on the verge of death when Jesus appears and places a drop of water on his lips. Instead, of dying, he comes fully back to life, much to the dismay of his pregnant wife, Miri, who is off digging Musa’s grave when Jesus shows up. Musa and Miri had been left behind by their caravan, but now stay so Musa can make money off of three other pilgrims: Shim, a young, ascetic want-to-be; Marta, who wants to become pregnant before her husband throws her out; Aphas, and elderly Jew seeking a cure for his cancer, and an agile peasant who is unable to speak.
 
Jesus is not the center of the novel or the group. He traveled apart from the group, and chooses a cave separate from the others. His only direct interaction with them comes toward the end of the novel. As we watch the others as they progress through their 40-day fast, which is broken an sundown, we also see Jesus, refusing any subsistence. His prayers become part of his body and breathing, while at times he struggles with madness. He strips off all his clothes, sees the offers of food from the others as a temptation, and dreams of glory even when he knows he should not.

 
This is not a Jesus of miracles, but a young man wrestling with God’s intentions for his life. Crace sounds like the novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, in his earthly portrayal of Jesus. But Kazantzakis clearly sees the divinity of Jesus, while Crace does not take that step. Instead, it is up to the reader to impart their own beliefs on the struggles of Christ. Crace leaves the reader options to do so, even right to the end. But Crace will not be seen as supporting the divinity of his creation.
 

There has been some “controversy” about this book, which is certainly guaranteed when Jesus is a character and looks less than divine. But Christ is large enough to envelope such descriptions, and works, such as this novel by Crace, remind Christians of the humanity of Christ. We focus on the fully divine at the loss of the paradox, which includes being fully human. And the understanding of what Jesus faced from the human perspective makes our faith even clea

Jim Crace

Jim Crace

rer. While some can see Jesus’ loss of rational thought in the book as a sign of disrespect, the fact is that the Christian faith calls for a fierce irrationality which can look foolish to others.  

 
In addition to the controversy, “Quarantine” has also won both praise (NY Times Notable Book)and prizes (Whitbread Novel of the Year and Booker Prize finalist). I question if it would have done so without the insertion of Jesus as a character, although most of the novel does not involve him. At times the story seems as lost as its characters, although it always finds its way back to the center. The 1997 novel has also been adapted for stage. You can learn more about Jim Crace and his work at his website.

The Land of Spices

ImageKate O’Brien’s novel, “The Land of Spices,” does not offer much in way of a summary. Published in 1941, the novel is set in an Irish convent of a French order and run by an English nun. But outside of the upsurge of Irish nationalism and some politics in the order, nations play a small role. Instead, the convent is its own world, which deals with the outside world through the students who go home for vacations. Mere Marie-Helene is the nun, and throughout the book we also see the growth of young Anna Murphy, from six to sixteen, as she moves through life. There is a bond between the two, but the relationship is intentionally kept at a distance. In fact, as readers we are kept at a distance, watching a story unfold slowly. Although there are two events which occurs to each of them near the end of the novel, and these are life-changing events, we still see at the end what looks to be a natural parting of ways. Natural, because, indeed,  it is natural. Roles changes. Life experiences change us. We all make different decisions.

 
Hardly a description to sell a lot of novels, but it is still a novel not to miss. What goes on in these pages show a great deal of the human character, the thoughts and events which shape us, the faith which challenges many of us, the relationships with present and past people, the choices we must make, and the pressures we face. And it does so without the unnecessary drama of self-obsessed people. 
 
There are many themes which could be explored here. We have the challenge of personal obedience and personal freedom, without either side being shown as a preference.  Mere Marie-Helene understands her obedience to God and her order come from a personal choice, her personal freedom. She also understands that not everyone will make the same choice, which is expected. 
 Image
From there rises the theme of humility and judgment. If she teaches her young charge nothing else, it is to be humble about oneself, which leads to less judging of others. “You will make what you must of the life for which we have tried to prepare you. And you have gifts for life. Spend your gifts, and try to be good. And be the judge of your own soul; but never for a second, I implore you, set up as a judge of another. Commentator, annotator, if you life, but never judge.” 
 
Other themes grow even stronger, including the impact of death, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot. But O’Brien’s desire to face life is tied up in the comment, that “You cannot accept the mystery of life and refuse that of death.” 
 
Finally, as a fan of 17th century poetry, it was wonderful to see the importance of literature in this novel. The connection between the two characters comes because the six year old can recite a poem the nun learned as a child from her own father. The title itself comes from a George Herbert poem, which I provide simply for an excuse to sneak such a poem into my writing.

Prayer
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.
 
The novel itself has a challenging history. The book was banned for lewdness because of the line “in the embrace of love.” Of course, it is not the line itself, but the context which caused the commotion. O’Brien herself fell out of popularity, and this novel (and I believe others) went out of print. It would have been a loss for this novel to remain unavailable, so the return is welcomed.