Illuminations: Book Excerpt

illuminationsShe is so bright and glorious that you cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines. For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightening, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans . . . . But she is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.

Hildegard von Bingen’s vision of the Feminine Divine, from Scivias, III, 4.15, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B. and Jane Bishop


The most ancient and enduring power of women is prophecy, my gift and my curse, the birthright I carry in my heart. Once, centuries before my existence, there lived in these Rhineland forests a woman named Weleda, she who sees. She took no husband but lived in a tower. In those heathen times, her people revered her as a goddess, for she foretold their victory against the Romans. But the seeress’s might is not just a relic of pagan times. Female prophets crowd the books of the Old Testament. Deborah and Sarah, Miriam and Abigail, Hannah and Esther.

And so, in my own age, when learned men, quoting Saint Peter, called woman the weaker vessel, even they had to concede that a mere woman could be a font of truth, filled with vision, her voice moving like a feather on the breath of God.

* * *

I was eight years old when my family sent me to Disibodenberg Monastery, to be buried with Jutta the Beautiful in her living tomb. Her tenth-born child, Mother said she would offer me as a tithe to the Church, and all because of my visions, those orbs of golden light with the jeweled trees inside them. Echoing with music that sounded like the harps of angels, they swirled around my head as I shivered on the barge going up the Nahe River.

A death shroud of fog clung to wooded banks—anything could be lurking out there, just waiting to strike. Guards, both on the barge and marching along the shore, scanned the glowering hills for brigands. Let them come. I willed bandits to burst out of the trees and pelt us with arrows, slaying everyone aboard, until the river ran red with blood. Only Rorich and I would be spared. My brother and I would then flee back home to Bermersheim. What would happen if I spoke this unholy fantasy aloud? With any luck this would convince everyone that I was unfit for the religious life.

“May God send the Saracen armies to slaughter us, ” I said, my voice strained and pinched. The wind carried away my words and no one paid me any mind.

Only a few feet away, Rorich traded jokes with the countess’s seventeen-year-old son, Meginhard von Sponheim. How my brother’s eyes shone as he basked in the attention of his new hero. Rorich acted as though this journey were the greatest adventure of his life. He was far too busy enjoying himself to plot our escape. Traitor.

I narrowed my eyes at Mother who seemed flushed with happiness, sitting only inches away from the countess. She cozened so close, anyone would think they were sisters or bosom friends.

“You’ve seen for yourself how delightful our Clementia is.” Mother practically purred. “My most beautiful daughter. Would you not consider taking her on as your handmaiden, countess? Clementia is our jewel.”

I wanted to stop my ears. If I were beautiful, Mother would not be shunting me off to a bunch of moldy old monks in the hinterland. Too wretched and lost to even cry, I decided that I despised everyone except Walburga, but Mother hadn’t allowed Walburga to come along, probably because Mother knew that if she had, my nurse would have put a stop to this. She would have upended the barge and drowned everyone to save me.

“Why so glum, little one?”

Jutta von Sponheim swept down beside me. Pearls of moisture beaded her long, loose hair where it flowed free from her cap of white marten fur. The cold wind stinging her cheeks only made her lovelier. She petted me until I wriggled away. I’m not your lapdog.

“Have I told you the story of Holy Ursula? A princess from Britain.” Jutta spoke of the distant kingdom as though it were as wondrous and unreachable as fairyland. “A heathen prince asked for her hand in marriage, but she spurned him.”

Jutta’s brother Meginhard burst out laughing. He was telling my brother some bawdy joke, not meant for female ears. I perked up, hoping to eavesdrop, but Jutta enveloped me in her cloak, trimmed with white marten fur and lined with sheepskin. Her voice was insistent in my ear.

“Ursula chose ten companions, all of them virgins of noble birth, and then Ursula and her ten maidens each chose one thousand virgins to join them. Eleven thousand virgins, Hildegard! They boarded eleven ships and sailed over the sea and down the Rhine. They crossed the Alps and rode to Rome to visit the graves of the apostles.

I desired to go to Rome, ” she added. “And Jerusalem. Why should I not now that it’s in Christian hands? I longed to visit the holy sepulcher, but Meginhard said it was too perilous a journey for a girl.”

She seemed to spit venom when she spoke her brother’s name. With her father and his knights, my father among them, still in the Holy Lands, Meginhard acted as head of the family and Jutta had no choice but to obey him as she would her father. I wondered what I would do if Rorich started bossing me around. Tickle his feet and taunt him until he turned red in the face, that was what I’d do.

Jutta bit down on her lip till I feared it might bleed. The girl’s huge blue eyes threatened to spill tears and her nails were bitten down to the quick. Jutta was so pretty and so rich, yet she seemed so fragile, as helpless as a baby bird cast out of its nest, reminding me of the blackbird chick with the broken wing I’d once held in my skirt, coaxing it to feed out of my palm. Taking Jutta’s hand, I squeezed it, hoping to give some comfort. She rewarded me with a blinding smile before continuing her story.

“Ursula and her virgins were returning from Rome. They sailed up the Rhine. When they reached Cologne, the Huns descended on them. The King of the Huns demanded that the holy Ursula marry him. Naturally she refused, for he was heathen. Then the Huns murdered her and all her eleven thousand maidens.” Jutta recited the mystical number as though it were a charm, carrying great power. “Not one survived. Saint Clementius discovered their skeletons in a field near Cologne.”

“My sister Clementia is named after him.” I thought that this might somehow cheer her.

Jutta only stared straight ahead as though she saw that field of hacked up virgins, as though that corpse stink filled her nose.

“I can hardly wait, ” she said, “till we reach our holy enclosure.”

At that she knelt and began to pray, her eyes squeezed shut as if to block out this sinful earthly realm. Only heaven seemed to interest her. Leaving Jutta to her prayers, I joined the others who spoke of the worldly things that gave me courage, or at least distracted me from what lay ahead.

“My husband sent home bolts and bolts of damask silk, ” the countess told my mother. “I would have used it for Jutta’s wedding dress had she not chosen this life.”

“Save it for the girl Meginhard marries, ” Mother said. “He’s such a fine young man.”

Meginhard was tall and curly-haired, muscled and sturdy looking. He was betrothed to some high born girl yet he acted as carefree as Rorich. The two of them cast fishing lines into the churning green water.

“Even the holy Jutta is allowed to eat fish, ” Meginhard said.

His booming voice sent a quiver through his sister’s body, seeming to shatter her prayers, but only for an instant. She lifted her palms in the orans position, as if willing everyone else to vanish. Meginhard made a face, handed his fishing line to Rorich, and strode over to his sister, his heavy footfalls causing the barge to lurch and sway. Jutta raised her voice, praying as though she were halfway to heaven already, but he forced a kiss on her nonetheless.He’s just teasing her, the way brothers do. I couldn’t understand why his attentions made her cry and shake. She screamed her psalms at her brother as if warding herself from Satan. The fuss only ended when the countess stepped between them and took the heaving girl in her arms.

“Hush, don’t be a fool. That’s only your brother.”

Meginhard shrugged and was about to saunter away when he caught me staring. I ducked my head, but it was too late. He closed in, wrapping his bear arms around me. His sister won’t laugh at his jokes, so he’ll amuse himself with me instead. I decided I didn’t mind—it was better than being completely ignored.

“Do you know anything about Saint Disibod?” he asked, his beery breath fanning my cheek. “He who gave his name to your monastery?”

“He was from Ireland, ” I said, proud to show off my knowledge. Of course, Jutta had already told me the saint’s story. “He came here five hundred years ago. He was a missionary.”

“Clever girl, ” Meginhard said, his fingers strumming through my hair. “You want to know something else?”

Ignoring Jutta who sobbed in her mother’s arms, I nodded.

“If it weren’t for the Irish missionaries, we’d still be heathen, ” he said, his voice so fiery that I felt its flames licking me. “Just imagine.”

That he would say something so sacrilegious! I grinned at the forbidden thrill.

“Gutting stallions for Old One-Eye and sacrificing goats to his son, the Thunderer, ” Meginhard went on.

He was saying this just to test me, to see if I would burst into tears as Jutta would do, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I’d prove then and there I wasn’t some weepy wet rag like his sister.

“He’ll pollute Hildegard!” Jutta wailed to her mother.

“Stop filling that child’s head with nonsense!” the countess told Meginhard.

Mother only smiled her blandest smile. I felt ashamed of her then—she wouldn’t dare reprove the likes of Meginhard von Sponheim, no matter what he said or did. He could set the barge on fire and boil his sister in oil, and still my mother would stand there and do nothing.

“And if the Irish missionaries had never come to this country, you, ” Meginhard said, pinching my cheek, “wouldn’t be sent off to a monastery to be walled in and left to rot.”

Walled in. Those two words struck me with a greater horror than any yarn he could have spun of heathen gods. But then I burst out laughing, shaking till the tears sprang from my eyes. Meginhard, that joker! To think that for a moment I had nearly believed him. Still giggling, I looked to my mother, but she dipped her head and turned away.

At the place where the Nahe and Glan Rivers met, a tall forested hill arose from the mist—Mount Disibod where the saint once lived. Stout walls and a squat church tower capped the promontory like a crude crown.

At the landing, the Abbot of Disibodenberg stood alongside Archbishop Ruthard of Mainz to welcome the countess and her holy daughter. As joyous as a bride on her wedding day, Jutta glided off that barge, her palms raised heavenward. Behind Jutta came her brother, now forgotten, outshone by the eighty monks who formed a dark ring behind their abbot. In Jutta’s wake, a parade of servants bore the trunks containing her dowry.

Mother took my hand, tugging me in the wake of Jutta’s entourage. Like a sapling in a storm, I swayed, my heart hammering in such panic that I thought it might stop. I was afraid to even look at those monks who now controlled my destiny. Could Mother not see that I wasn’t the least bit pious, just a grimy girl balking like a mule?

“Take me home to Walburga,” I pleaded.

If Mother could not endure the shame of my refusal to take holy orders, I’d go off and live with my nurse. I’d wear the rough undyed wool of the lowest peasants and toil in the fields all day if that was what it took to break free of that monastery looming in the mist.

“You’re giddy with excitement, ” Mother said, her arm around my shoulder. “Come along, darling. Jutta will look after you. Her mother has been so generous, paying your sisters’ dowries. We remain in her debt.”

Rorich pulled a face, trying to coax a smile from me. I could have scratched out his eyes. Behind him, a servant heaved my single dowry chest off the barge.

The path, snaking steeply uphill, took us through a tunnel of trees, bare autumn branches knit overhead to block out the sky. Walled in. Meginhard’s words pricked at me. What if he had been telling the truth? Those two words fell like boulders crushing my lungs. Already I felt as though I were trapped inside some tight, close place. The trees fell away, the path curving through a sheep meadow and then a garden flanked by orchards. Fog enclosed everything, obscuring any view of the surrounding countryside. I knew without anyone telling me that this was a remote place, chosen for its very seclusion—no villages or farmsteads in miles. Tomorrow, when it was over, Mother, Rorich, and Jutta’s kin would board the barge and sail back into the land of the living. But I would never be allowed to leave.

When those gates closed behind me with the clang of iron and the thud of oak, my heart plummeted, a bird pierced by an arrow. The monastery was in shambles, half-ruined, its stone walls pocked and cracking, as though foreign armies had sacked it. The crumbling church with its eight-sided tower, the chapel, refectory, kitchen, and ramshackle dormitories jostled together within the confines of those walls clinging to the hilltop. Eighty monks made this place their home. How could they squeeze another two bodies inside this place?

Even Mother looked as though she were having second thoughts about abandoning me here. I clung to her hand, silently imploring. Change your mind! But before I could put my terror into speech, Abbot Adilhum appeared, his head bowed as if he were offering himself as Mother’s bondsman.

“My lady, as I was telling the countess, this monastery, once the hermitage of Holy Disibod, has been in decline for many years. We hope to restore it to give honor to our saint. I offer my thanks to you, noble Mechthild, who have come with God’s blessing to allow us to accomplish this task and make it a home worthy of your daughter.”

I gaped at Rorich, who stared back and shook his head in disgust. Like me, he could see right through the abbot. The man was so eager to welcome Jutta and me because our dowries would fill his empty coffers.

* * *

When we gathered for supper in the guesthouse, my mother seemed so astounded at the honor of sharing a table with the archbishop, I feared she might swoon. Likewise, Jutta beamed as though she had just arrived in the holy city of Jerusalem. The archbishop praised her as though she were covered in gold.

“Blessed are the anchorites who live beneath the church eaves, ” said Ruthard of Mainz, “for they uphold the entire structure of the church with their blessed prayers and holy lives. For this reason you are called anchorites—you are like an anchor under the Church, which is the ship of faith, and you hold it steady so that all Satan’s huffing and blowing can’t pitch it over.”

Our meal was spare: the river fish Rorich and Meginhard had caught; millet, beans, and carrots from the gardens; the monks’ cheese, made from the milk of their sheep; and cloudy apple wine from their orchards.

Rorich, famished from the journey, wolfed down his portion with a greed that made the prior stare. While at home she would have indulged him, Mother seemed to cringe to see him gorging in the presence of the archbishop. Before Rorich could ask for another helping, she laid her hand on his.

“Son, mind yourself. Gluttony is the mother of all other sins.”

I wished I could offer him the food on my trencher which I could not bring myself to eat. My stomach was a cauldron of seething bile. If I took one bite, I feared I would spew.

Jutta did not eat a morsel, only sipped well water from an earthenware cup. Such peace shone on her face. She looked as though she were some angelic being who didn’t need food to sustain herself the way ordinary mortals did.

Floating before me, I saw the bubbles, the floating orbs, which left me faint and fuzzy-headed. There they came again, my cursed visions that had left me unmarriageable, cast out, only fit to offer companionship to a mad girl.

After reproving Rorich for his appetite, Mother now turned to me, begging me to eat, her eyes moist as though she were fighting tears.

“Please, darling, just a few bites. You’ll need your strength for the ceremony.”

At dusk on the Eve of All Souls, the rite began.

In our guesthouse chamber, I froze, bare feet on the cold stone floor, as Jutta tugged my earthly garments over my head and let them tumble to the ground.

“You don’t need these anymore, ” she told me.

She wore nothing but a death shroud of sackcloth woven from coarsest, scratchiest goat hair. As goose pimples rose on my naked flesh, Jutta made me raise my arms so that she could fit an identical shroud over my body. The goat hair dug into me, making me want to claw my skin to relieve the itch.

Jutta then bowed her head as low as it could hang and shuffled out of the room, leaving me to shuffle after. We processed to the abbatial church, now alight with tapers, as though a funeral were underway.

On the west end of the abbatial church lay a bed of black earth strewn with bare branches and dead leaves. Her face alight with bliss, Jutta flung herself belly down in the dirt. Dust to dust. I bridled, my stomach lurching. I remembered the story of Saint Ursula, the murdered virgins, the rotting flesh, and then it struck me like a blow, the full weight of what it meant to be an anchorite. The funeral tapers, the bed of earth—this night, I was to die. To be buried with Christ.

Flinging myself toward Mother who watched with the rest of the congregation, I mouthed the words save me. Mother’s face flushed. Weeping in earnest, she stepped toward me while my heart pounded in mad hope. But her gaze left me mute. It was as though she had taken a silken thread and sewed my lips shut so I could only mewl, as weak as a kitten, not sob or wail or rage. Taking my hands, Mother guided me downward, into that dirt.

“It’s God’s will, ” she whispered. “We must all obey those who stand above us.”

With trembling hands, she arranged my prone body till at last I lay corpse-still beside Jutta.

Holy water fell on my back like rain, wetting me through the prickly hair shirt. Incense and the stink of dank earth filled my nose. Finally the archbishop commanded me and Jutta to stand. Numb, my head ringing, I staggered to my feet and chanted the words they told me to chant.

Abbot Adilhum gave me and Jutta burning candles to hold in each hand.

“One for your love of God, ” he said as the hot wax dripped down to sear my fingers. “One for your love of your neighbors.”

I felt no love at all, only shuddering emptiness.

Jutta led the way to the Lady Altar while the monks sangVeni creator. At the abbot’s prompting, I mumbled,“Suspice me, Domine.” Receive me, Lord. I placed my candles beside Jutta’s on the altar before hurling myself back into the grave dirt beside Jutta. My ears burned as the monks chanted what even I recognized as the Office of the Dead.

“Rise, my daughters, ” said the archbishop, leading us out of the church and into our tomb, our sepulcher, the narrow cell built onto the edge of the church.

My eyes flooded as he swung his incense thurible round and round. There was only the low doorway and no windows, save for the screen viewing into the church and the revolving hatch where the monks could pass in food to Jutta and me without our even seeing who stood on the outside. Mother and Rorich were already lost to me, outside in the courtyard, chanting along with the monks.I’ll never see their faces again.

“Here I will stay forever, ” Jutta sang. “This is the home I have chosen.”

I choked and coughed as the archbishop sprinkled dust on us. Every part of my body shriveled as he spoke the Rite of Extreme Unction, reserved for those on their deathbed.

“Obey God, ” he told us before leaving our cell.

Tears slid from my eyes as I watched the lay brothers brick up the doorway that Jutta and I had passed through but would never be allowed to leave. Walled in. Only Meginhard had been honest as to what was to become of me and I’d just laughed in his face. This was what Walburga couldn’t bring herself to tell me, why my nurse had howled in protest and sobbed over me. As Jutta murmured her prayers, I lay rigid on that cold stone floor as though I were truly a corpse in my crypt.

When the last brick was laid in its place, blocking every hope of escape, Jutta took my hands and pulled me to my feet. In the light of the single taper the monks had left us, I saw her radiant smile, her transfixed eyes.

“My dearest dream has been made real, ” she said.

At that, she blew out the taper, and coffin-darkness enclosed us.

* * *

My first night in the anchorage seemed to last forever. At some point I must have fallen asleep, for I awakened with a swallowed scream to disembodied chanting. A faint glow came from the screen looking into the church and that square of light framed a black shape that might have been Jutta, or even a demon straight from the depths of the damned. I quaked, too frightened to speak or move, as the chanting went on and on.

* * *

When the night finally waned, a fragile glimmering beckoned around the edges of a drapery. Scraping the crust of sleep from my eyes, I scrambled to my feet before casting a look at Jutta who slept on, slumped on her knees before the screen looking into the church. When I turned away from her and pushed the curtain aside, the gray half-light seemed strong enough to blind me.

The drapery had concealed a doorway leading into another small chamber graced with a high window, its panes made of polished horn. And, glory of glories, beneath that window was a low door. My heart exploded. Had I discovered my escape? Could I flee into the forest, follow the river to find my way back to Rorich and Walburga? A band of robbers might adopt me, teach me how to steal through the woodland, my feet falling as silently as a deer’s. They would teach me to shoot arrows straight into the heart.

With one backward glance at sleeping Jutta, I let the curtain fall back into place and crept to that door. Palms sweating, I undid the wooden latch, tugged it open, rushed through. Scabby stone walls reared around me, as high as a tall man standing on another man’s shoulders. This was no passage to freedom, only a narrow courtyard with a smelly drain and broken cobblestones. But when I arched my neck as far back as it would go, I saw the pale morning sky, as blue as Walburga’s eyes. As blue as hope.

My tears wet the ash still coating my face, making it run down my cheeks until I tasted the gravedust on my lips. If I stood perfectly still and pricked my ears, I could hear the two rushing rivers far below, the Glan flowing into the Nahe. Tree branches whispered secrets while the wind stirred my hair. Then, oh wonder, a rust-colored beech leaf swirled down on the breeze to nestle in my cupped palms, the most beautiful thing I would touch that day. The wild forest rustled and murmured, just out of reach.

I broke down, wailing for my mother, pleading and sobbing until I thought my yearning could summon her out of the cold air. Mother would change her mind, bully the monks until they hacked open the anchorage entrance, allowing me to burst free and hurl myself in her arms. But the chilly place in my heart told me that Mother would leave this very morning, boarding the barge that would take her home. Her hand on Rorich’s shoulder, Mother would tell him it was for the best. Hildegard’s life is in God’s hands now.

What if Mechthild von Bermersheim wasn’t my real mother, I began to wonder. Perhaps she was just an imposter, or a wicked stepmother out of Walburga’s fairy tales. A good mother wouldn’t leave me to molder here. No, my true mother would have fought for me with the ferocity of a she-bear. She would have stood by me.

As if in answer to my desolation, a golden orb came floating and in the midst of that pulsing sphere, I saw her. A face like Walburga’s but not Walburga’s. A face bathed in tenderness, the Mother of my deepest longing, she who gave me all the love I craved and more. Beloved, don’t give up hope. When the time is ripe, I will set you free.


You are the seed. The anchorage is the husk. Here you will grow and grow until you grow too large for this place and then it will burst and you will step forth.

“Hildegard, did God strike you deaf?”

Whirling in a panic, I crushed the leaf in my hand. There stood Jutta, her skin corpse gray from ashes and earth.

A peal of bells burst through the quiet of dawn.

# # #

Excerpt from Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt.


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