Sunday, 22 September 2013

Hildegard: Reconciling Faith & Science

by Mary Sharratt

September 17 marked the feast day of Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer, and Doctor of the Church.

Saint Hildegard, that famously broad-minded polymath, also wrote the Western world’s first known description of the female orgasm:

When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings forth with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract and all parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.
Hildegard von Bingen, Causae et Curae

How could a celibate nun write such a convincing description? Unlike some people in our own age, Hildegard saw no contradiction between science and religion, between being a religious woman and addressing every aspect of human experience, including sexuality.

Born in the lush green Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard was a Renaissance woman long before the Renaissance. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, and composed an entire corpus of sacred music. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. She was indeed a visionary in every sense of the word.

Hildegard wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as cosmology, botany, linguistics, and medical science, as well as theology. Even though she believed consecrated celibacy to be the highest calling, her medical text, Causae et Curae, discusses female (and male) sexuality frankly and without moral judgment. There is not a trace of prudishness or anti-intellectualism in her work.

In general, medieval thinkers, including monastics, were far more plain-spoken in addressing sexual matters than many of us might expect. But Hildegard’s writing on sexuality was unique in its inclusion of female experience, unlike that of her male confreres, such as Constantine the African, the 11th century monk whose book De Coitu manages to discuss every conceivable carnal pleasure without once mentioning women.

As the woman who coined the word Viriditas, or “sacred greening power and vitality,” Hildegard felt a profound connection to the natural world, which she regarded as the visible face of the invisible Creator who permeates every living thing. Her book Physica was devoted to natural science and is an encyclopedic study of plants, trees, mammals, reptiles, birds, marine life, stones, metals, and elements, describing their physical and medicinal properties. She lists in extraordinary detail the 37 varieties of fish to be found in the Nahe, Glan, and Rhine Rivers.

Her vision of the cosmos changed to reflect the science of her age. In Scivias, her first work of visionary theology, the universe appeared as a mandorla—shaped like an egg or almond.

But by the time she wrote De Operationae Dei, the third and final book in her visionary trilogy, her visions reflected the cosmos as a sphere.

Over eight centuries after her death, Hildegard was finally canonized in May, 2012. On October 7, 2012, she was elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have made a significant impact. Presently there are only thirty-four Doctors of the Church, and only three besides Hildegard are women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux).

My novel, Illuminations, based on Hildegard's dramatic life, is released in paperback on October 15.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

ILLUMINATIONS in Paperback, Fall Author Events, and Virtual Tour!

Like billowing clouds, like the incessant gurgle of the brook, the longing of the spirit can never be stilled.
--Hildegard von Bingen

Dear Friends,

I've had a very busy, productive summer.

My novel ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN has won the 2013 Nautilis Gold Award: Better Books for a Better World.

October 15, 2013, ILLUMINATIONS will be released in trade paperback. I think the cover is absolutely lovely!

Be sure to catch my Virtual Book Tour, beginning in October, which features book giveaways, reviews, contests and more.

I will also be visiting Minnesota for author events:

2:30 pm on Friday October 11, I will be speaking about ILLUMINATIONS at the Minnesota Library Association Convention's Break Out Books Series at St. Cloud's River's Edge Convention Center, 10 4th Ave. S., St. Cloud, Minnesota

10:00 am on Saturday October 12, I'll be visiting the Book Group at Fridley United Methodist Church, 680 Mississippi St. NE, Fridley, Minnesota.

2:00 pm on Sunday October 13, I'll be speaking in the Wilder Room at Chanhassen Library, 7711 Kerber Blvd, Chanhassen MN 55317

7:00-9:00 pm on Tuesday October 15, I will be joining Gabriel Ross of Creative Spirit for an An Evening Celebration of Hildegard of Bingen at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, Carondelet Center, 1890 Randolph Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105. This very special event will include presentation, conversation, and ritual surrounding Hildegard's music, theology, and life and a discussion of what Hildegard's work offers women today.

I'll also be visiting some wonderful Twin Cities private book groups.

1:00 pm, October 30, the Luann Dummer Center for Women's Book Club will be discussing ILLUMINATIONS. I will be attending via Skype. Luann Dummer Center for Women, University of St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105

If your book group would like to have me visit via Skype, please email me via my website. I love book groups!

In other news, my new novel in progress, THE DARK LADY’S MASQUE, the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first professional woman poet in Renaissance England, and her collaboration—and star-crossed love affair—with William Shakespeare, as his Dark Lady, sold to Nicole Angeloro at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The publication date will probably be sometime in 2015. I'm really enjoying writing this new novel!