Few of us today understand the lives of anchorites, individuals who for religious reasons chose to live in a sealed room, with only a hatch providing contact with the world at large. In Illuminations, Mary Sharratt presents a fictionalized biography of one of the most famous anchorites of all time, Hildegard von Bingen. As a child growing up in early medieval Germany, Hildegard experienced frequent visions, a dangerous trait in the eyes of church and society. As a result, her mother "tithed" her to the church as companion to Jutta von Sponheim, a girl from a noble family who chose to become not merely a nun, but an anchorite.
Sharratt chronicles the stages of Hildegard's life, from those miserable early years of forced confinement, to her fight for the opportunity to live as a normal nun, to her founding of her own religious community. In the process, her visions continued and grew in intensity, to the point that they dictated her choices and created her reputation as a genuine and revered mystic. Sharratt's prose, at times luminous and at times decidedly down to earth. She has managed to convey a sharp sense of Hildegard's personality and spirit, relying upon primary sources, especially the brilliantly illuminated manuscript in which she recorded her visions. Her Hildegard is humble, yet not afraid to employ flamboyance to achieve her goals. She did not hestitate to criticize hypocrisy and abuses of the church to which her life was bound, which caused her enormous difficulty. But she remained unbowed, and in her more peaceful, contemplative periods, she composed exquisite music to accompany the divine office.
Today, Hildegard is often regarded as a proto-feminist, but as portrayed in this book, she is more a proponent of self-actualization and justice. She is also called St. Hildegard, but her canonization has not yet taken place; that will occur October 7, 2012. I'm not certain exactly what she did to earn that title (it has been speculated that her visions were manifestations of migraine aura), but her life was extraordinary and her story deserves to be told as eloquently as Sharratt has done.