Recently I signed up as a volunteer on CatholicFiction.net, a wonderful site dedicated to "news, views, and reviews of classic and contemporary Catholic fiction." The following is my first book review for the site. My Great Books series will return next week.
When I picked up this book I knew little enough about St. Hildegard of Bingen--only that she was a medieval nun who composed music and wrote books, both of which activities were unusual for women of her time. However, thanks to Joyce Ray's beautiful and well-researched novel, I now have a much greater appreciation for this unique saint and Doctor of the Church.
Young Hildegard is an unusual girl. The tenth child of noble parents in 12th century Germany, she is from her birth destined to become a nun, thanks to the medieval practice of "tithing" every tenth child to the Church. As a girl she is plagued by headaches, fainting spells--and visions. She predicts the color and markings of a calf before it is born. She sees fantastic landscapes and ferocious mythical creatures. Troubled about the source of these visions, her family agrees Hildegard will be safer behind the walls of a monastery.
The plot follows Hildegard through her years of preparatory training, her profession as a Benedictine nun at the age of fourteen, her life as a secluded anchoress in St. Disibod Monastery, and later her leadership role among the larger community of nuns. All through these events her visions continue. Some are terrifying, others unbearably beautiful. Because Hildegard is still unsure whether the source of the visions is holy or evil, she only shares them with her two closest companions--her ascetic mentor Jutta and her beloved disciple, Richardis. But when a Voice out of a blinding light commands her to write down her visions, she cannot keep them a secret any longer. With the help of a monk named Volmar she begins recording God's revelations.
Hildegard's visions are some of the most beautiful prose passages in the story. All her life Hildegard searches for love in her fellow man, but she only finds love's consummation in her intense encounters with the living God:
"In the clear radiance, the blue was azurite, as pure as the pigment illuminating her Psalter. The point came nearer, took human form and shimmered with sapphire brilliance. The human figure gazed as Hildegard. She floated on a gentle current....She neared the radiant human, knowing that he was her destination, that he was the answer to her pain. But the current supporting her flowed faster now. It became a torrent of floodwaters that churned and sped her toward the shimmering sapphire which radiated heat. When the figure engulfed her, she knew instantly that the arms of her Lord cradled her."
The strength in God that her visions inspire allows her to carry on her monastic work through much physical suffering and human opposition. In the latter part of the book she receives a vision, which she believes is a command, to move her community of nuns from St. Disibod and to build a new monastery at Mount St. Rupert. The abbot of St. Disibod, who has enjoyed the funds and notoriety his monastery has received ever since Hildegard revealed her visions, resists the change. But through Divine intervention he is eventually forced to allow Hildegard to follow her calling.
One of the remarkable things about the book is Joyce Ray's skill in portraying Hildegard a character with whom the reader can sympathize. Most of us are not cloistered monastics, nor do we have heaven-sent visions. But Hildegard is not distant or incomprehensible. She loves music and gardening. As a girl she dislikes the tedium of memorizing Latin psalms. She cannot follow the ascetic habits of her mentor Jutta, who flays herself and fasts to the point of sickness. As a young nun, she struggles with her attraction towards the monk Volmar; as an older woman, she feels a mother's pain when her faithful disciple Richardis leaves her to lead a different monastery. In fact, the character of Hildegard presents a remarkable portrait of a person who really is ordinary, but is also given immense gifts by God.
As historical fiction, the book is researched thoroughly enough that the setting feels honest and real. For an added treat, each chapter is headed by a quote from Hildegard's actual poetry, letters, and biography. As a young adult novel, is does an excellent job of turning a character who would at first seem foreign into a person whom the young reader can care about. Under Joyce Ray's pen, the monastic life becomes a drama of love between God the Creator and his created. Feathers and Trumpets is a worthy tribute to this unique and wonderful saint.
A bonus for my blog readers: a taste of Hildegard's music. Listen to as little or as much as you like; it is all gorgeous.