One Tough Sister

Proving that there is almost nothing these days that isn’t blogged about, I discovered recently a post devoted exclusively to the best films about nuns on a site run by the Turner Classic Film Union. Films like Lilies of the Field about a group of German nuns in a small Arizona town who convince a wander played by Sydney Poitier to build them a chapel. Or The Bells of St. Mary’s with Bing Crosby as a priest and Ingrid Bergman as a nun, The Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn who works in what was then the Belgian Congo treating lepers.

What wasn’t on the list was either of the Sister Act movies starring Whoppi Goldberg,  currently resurrected on Broadway and praised as “ a habit-forming “triumph. However included , a little apologetically, was The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews,  about  the Von Trapp Family Singers, how they came to be, and their daring escape from the Nazis during World War II.

Following the publicity and worldwide adulation that came from both a smash hit Broadway play and a blockbuster movie—and once again last year with the 45th anniversary digital release–  articles were published about the “real story” of the family, including Maria, the founder of the troupe and the matriarch, exposing many deviations between what really had transpired and the highly fictionalized story line.  Captain Von Trapp was not a detached cold-blooded patriarch, but rather a warm-hearted parent who always enjoyed musical activities with is children after his first wife died.

The family did not secretly escape over the Alps to freedom in Switzerland carrying their suitcases and musical instruments. They told people they were leaving, and left by train, pretending nothing.

And Maria was not always as sweet as her fictional counterpart, tending, as one daughter remembers, to erupt in angry outbursts, yelling, throwing things, and slamming doors. She had, truth be told, a terrible temper.

What is also true is that Maria, orphaned  as a young child, was raised as an atheist and socialist by an abusive relative.  And that following graduation from  State Teachers College of Progressive Education and what she called an accidental  religious awakening entered a Benedictine Abbey in Salzburg Austria as a novice nun. Whether or not she was the” wil of a wisp, the clown, or the moonbeam who couldn’t be held down” Maria of the musical lyrics, she did struggle with the unaccustomed rules and discipline, and with the lack of exercise and fresh air she was used to. At least in the dramatized versions of her religious life, no matter how genuine her devotion to the teachings of the Mother Church, she was drawn to the spirit or spirits she found in the surrounding hills,  with the songs they had sung, indeed, for a thousand years. She was perhaps at least partly drawn to earth-centered spirituality, joining her with some of her Catholic sisters across history.

At least that’s how I see it.

The lives of nuns have indeed fascinated me, especially those on the silver screen, so when a preview flashed across several times last fall of Vision, a feature film by a female German director , based on the life of 12th century Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen , this  got my attention. It was touted as a “ profoundly inspirational portrait of a woman who has emerged from the shadows of history as a forward-thinking and iconoclastic pioneer of faith, change and enlightenment.”

I had not known much about her, only vaguely that she was part of the Christian mystic tradition and that a prayer adapted from one of her meditations is in our familiar gray hymnal.

I knew next to nothing about this woman who was a prophet and visionary,  Abbess, poet, writer of books on natural history, spirituality,  medicine and herbal remedies.  A correspondent with both ordinary and powerful people, including kings and emperors, even the Pope.

Besides her writings, in fact for some more known, was her music ( as we have heard this morning). From the time she was a child, she was exposed to psalm singing, divine offices sung eight times a day, every three hours, in the monasteries and convents which became her only homes.

I could hardly wait for this big screen art movie to open at a theater near me.  I waited through Oscar nominated film screening time, then January, then February. It never did.  I t is now scheduled to open sometime in April of this year.

While I still eagerly await what insights and illumination a major film rendering of Hildegard’s life and times will bring, well before its release, she has already been rediscovered in many other ways: subject of feminist theological research, popular paperback collections of selected writings, and an earlier short British docudrama. There are critical biographies and no fewer than three historical novels about her. Whereas a few years ago there were only a handful of recordings of her music, now there are many more, and the many adaptations and original compositions inspired by her texts.

All this popular enthusiasm, as biographer Barbara Newman has written, as the life and work of this nun who lived more than 900 years ago  once again resonates with contemporary feminist theologians, renewal movements, musicians, artists, and holistic health practitioners. “Finding special favor with the gurus of creation-centered spirituality as a kind of New Age mystic .”  Being heralded as an early eco-feminist, who so long ago and so resoundingly sounded an alarm against the human destruction of nature and its spiritual consequences.

Humankind does well to keep honesty,
to keep to truth.
Those that love lies bring suffering
not only to themselves but to others as well,
since they are driven to ever more lies…
Now in the people that were meant to be green,
there is no more life of any kind.
There is only shrivelled barrenness.
The winds are burdened
by the utterly awful stink of evil,
selfish goings-on…
The air belches out

Proclaimed  by some to be  one tough sister(pun intended), a model of strong-willed womanhood, defying the patriarchy of her time, a model for independent female thought and action. The more we know, the more of her large and deep body of work that has been collected, her writings translated and analyzed, the less clear it is who Hildegard really was.

Was she a poor little female, as she was want to call herself, who was only a default messenger of God’s intentions for a fallen humanity ( perhaps especially women) and servant of the church orthodoxy and hierarchy? Or was she a courageous early advocate for an equal if not superior notion of female divinity , and therefore women’s religious authority?

How is it that she can be acclaimed and honored today by both one of our most conservative popes and by progressive theologians, male and female alike?

And what made it possible for her to be known at all, at a time, like most times, when women were so unlikely to have a voice at all?

First, what we know about her:

What we do know of her biography is ample, coming from several hundred letters written to or from Hildegard, as well as chronicles and documents from the two monasteries she founded, and the vita put together in application for her canonization as a local saint.

She was born in West Franconia in  l098 in what is now Germany, the tenth child of a wealthy family.  From an early age, she had visions connected with painful illness, perhaps migraines. Describing these experiences, she wrote that she never had fallen “prey to ecstasy” but saw them wide awake, day and night. Visions in the form of a light, a light she described as brighter than a cloud that carries the sun.

Even at an early age, these visions were coupled with an ability to foretell the future. One story is told that at five years old she astonished her nurse by looking at a pregnant cow and accurately predicting the color of her unborn calf.

At the age of eight, she was sent by her parents to a 400 year old monastery which had only recently added a section for women, calling her the family’s “tithe” to God. By doing so, they turned the care of this frequently sickly and probably challenging girl over to the Church, as aristocratic parents of that age were wont to do. Depositing her on the doorstep of the monastery, they also relinquished all financial responsibility, including her right to any inheritance.

While Hildegard as an adult condemned the practice of installing children in monasteries and convents, of giving them to this life without choice or consent, for her as for many other women in the Middle Ages, convents offered virtually the only opportunity to gain some control over their lives. Convent life spared them from arranged marriages and unwanted pregnancies and death from childbirth.

In addition to physical safety, Hildegard, like other nuns who had intellectual and spiritual gifts, learned some Latin—roughly as she would say—read the scriptures, and had access to a library of books in a religious order that valued study.  In her earlier years as part of the Benedictine rule, she worked as a nurse doing what some said was astonishing, miraculous healing, which led to a lifelong interest in medicine and writings on this.

Later she illuminated manuscripts, which gave her skills and practice in preparation for her own body of work , recording her visions and  illustrating her elaborate theological framework. Until she was in her forties, hers was an uneventful, nearly invisible and disciplined life, marked  by regular rounds of prayer and psalm singing, duties and devotions.

When the abbess of the convent died, Hildegard was unanimously elected in her place, at which time she decided to separate the women’s convent from the rest of the monastery, freeing it and herself from male supervision, not before standing down her abbot’s opposition by lying like a rock in a rigid position until he gave his permission.  And seeking and finding funding for this enterprise as well.

This same suddenly emboldened woman sent an apologetically unpolished letter  to one of the leading religious leaders of her day, breaking her own long silence about her visions and her interpretations of the bible, telling him about, among other religious concepts, “ the sacred sound through which all creation sounds,”. And about the green vigor or force which gives life to the body and renewal in nature—a fresh  notion, as one writer has noted, of the power of Spirit at work in the world, the moral force that gives life and fruitfulness to human actions. As she believed: God’s mysteries and ongoing revelations could be found in the world as well as scripture, living, being, spirit , all verdant greening, all creativity.. manifest in every creature.

Hildegard’s   focus on the inner experience of the Holy, on personal meditation , an immediate relationship with God and even visions was in many ways consistent with the Benedictine movement of her time.

What was radical, and even dangerous was that these visions were being put forth by a woman in a religious establishment led by and shaped by influential, powerful male theologians.

Yet the same woman who made such  audacious moves and with such determination, even taking to her bed for months if disciplined or thwarted—when called before the Bishop to defend her right to share the “divine logic” of these visions, to prove they were not created by her or by the devil, delivered a most deferential defense.  In front of an official council or Synod of church fathers who had the power to declare her either a dangerous heretic or a venerated and legitimate seer, she presented herself as a weak woman, a vessel of clay, no more than a feather carried on the breath of God. Her word were not her own, she would say.  She was merely scribing the word of God.

Hildegard’s biographer tells us that this woman who is sometimes claimed as one of our religious feminist foremothers, never suggested  that as a woman and a Christian she had any right to teach or prophesy in the Church. Nor did she claim or demand equality with men.

When asked to explain the authority behind her mystic visions and her insights, she would insist that she was a human being with the fragility of a woman, and neither ablaze with the strength of strong lions or learned in their exaltations.

Having neither the energy or learning of male scholars, in other words, she merely recorded what she saw, as what she described as the voice of the living flame directed her.

And why her? Why a poor, frail, untutored woman like herself ?  Because the masculine clergy had become lax , weak, and sensual, more womanish than women. The wise and the strong had fallen even lower than the daughters of Eve. God had no choice.

Hildegard, we must assume, believed what she spoke( we do not know otherwise) and her humble self-presentation won over the male clergy to whom she was accountable, who acquitted her of charges of heresy. Freeing her to publish those prophesies and visions she had previously withheld, leading her within a few years to become a religious, moral and political advisor to half of Europe.

She was called the “ Sibyl of the Rhine”,  credited as an authentic prophet, which led to four preaching tours , almost unheard of for a woman, beginning at age 60, through much of the German empire. She vigorously chastised individual monks who broke their vows of celibacy and in other ways compromised the separation between church and secular practices and powers. She authored book containing dozens of her visions, composed choral music for the liturgy, wrote medical texts, which emphasized holistic health, balance and diet.

Her reputation and influence soared undeterred, until late in her life she defied the wishes of the Church by burying a man on the grounds of her convent whose family was considered infidel, refusing to exhume him, and punished for some months by having communion withheld for her and her sister nuns and most devastating, having her singing silenced.

To the end, both seeing and seeking her own way and defender of orthodoxy, a contradiction. Not only in her life within the Medieval Catholic Church, but in her thea-logical thinking as well.

As Barbara Newman writes about Hildegard’s understanding of The Feminine Divine,  Hildegard, like many 12th century writers, was much influenced by the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible and its Sophia tradition. An understanding of the divine as woman, either born of the masculine deity, his very first act– or even as a preexistent, from the very beginning a co-creator with God.

In one of her descriptions of the Divine, Hildegard spoke of a beautiful and wonderful image, what she saw as the human form in the mystery of God, a woman’s head, who sings her own praise: I am the supreme and fiery force who kindled every living spark..I am the fiery life of the essence of God. She is divine beauty and synergy, the life force.  She is the incarnation of God in the world through the Virgin Mary who gives birth to the Christ, even in the humanity of Christ himself, and the Holy Mother church.

It is this aspect of her beliefs that leads us to place Hildegard solidly in the feminist theology movement as she reinterpreted male-dominated imagery and language about God.

Ironically perhaps, it is this same woman and some of these same texts used to make a case for her feminism that were extolled last fall in a sermon by the current Pope, not a religious liberal by any means.

Speaking on the theological role of women in Catholicism, he formally praised her for her saintly and courageous contributions to the Church ,  and the specific intelligence and sensitivity of women in general. He especially noted her writings on the mystical ( and virginal) marriage between God and humankind which came about in the Incarnation.  He praised her for the ”shining example” of her devoted life .

It is significant that   the Pope did not mention Hildegard’s   ideas about female divinity  or her vision of a divinely infused creation, with its potential for continuous revelation, separate from scriptural authority. The Holy which embodies love, aflame with vitality, moving through all.

That this quite Orthodox Pope should single out for praise our mystic religious heroine is not surprising at all to scholars like Barbara Newman, who warns us that Hildegard’s notions about the Feminine Divine, her conviction that the cosmos is co-equally male and female, and infused with healing and life-giving energies, was only half of her world view.

There was the cosmic world—a world co-equally female—and then there was the moral world of the here and now where Hildegard’s beliefs were very much in line with those of the patriarchal church leaders of her time, who held a dualistic view of flesh and spirit, where women were regarded as highly sexual beings who were physically, morally and intellectually inferior to men by nature.

She gently informs us that for this Medieval woman, the possibility of divine feminine incarnation on earth ended abruptly with the “sins” of Eve.

As one writer noted, with the exception of the unique Mother of God, following the Fall, which was triggered by the temptation and seduction of a female, for Hildegarde   only virgins could ever again truly represent the feminine divine on earth. And the divine motherly quality she saw in Mary was almost completely embodied in male priests, bishops and abbots.

Hers was a theology of special random gifts for women, where we are only surrogate for ordained male authority when males have grown exceedingly weak themselves. It is only then we have powers of insight and of prophecy, and they are fleeting at best.

This aspect of Hildegard’s teaching, and the model of her life within Catholic Orthodoxy and hierarchy is not a legacy I can embrace. Here she disappoints those of us who would like to see her as an elder ally in the religious feminism. Here she relegates women to ancient submissive and even damaged status.

Despite her prophetic powers, Hildegarde of Bingen, dead nine hundred years, was shaped by her own time, even as the radical brilliance of her revelations would argue otherwise and point elsewhere.

This singing nun, this stunning poet whose vision of the divine transcends time and gender is  who and what I  will cherish and weave into my own thea-ology as I hope it may yours. Her creative and spacious life, her toughness, her cunning, her longing for the Holy in the stars and the meadows of the known world.

I am the fiery life of divine substance, she tells us. I blaze above the beauty of the fields. I shine in the waters. I burn in sun, moon and stars.

Always and forever.