Reading as a Spiritual Practice: Illuminations

I never mean for there to be long pauses in our conversations. I could tell you about family obligations, logo revisions, and allergies but it sounds a bit like “the dog ate my homework.” So, instead I will just say, “I am sorry for the long pause. I will try to do better.”


This wonderful book is difficult to categorize. On the one hand, it is written as historical fiction. And it fills that category well. On the other hand, it is also a hero’s story.

Illuminations is the fictional portrayal of the life of Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard was a mystic in Germany in the twelfth century. She served as an anchorite from the age of 8 until she was in her thirties. Anchorites were seen as the “anchors” of the church. Women were entombed below churches and held the church up with their prayers. Yes, you read that right. Entombed. In fact, on the night that they were dedicated to their work of prayer there was an actual funeral held for them. These children were given by their families to die for the church. In this book, the author suggests that Hildegard was given to this ministry because of her mystical visions. For whatever reasons daughters were given to die, the practice is chilling.

Hildegard was rare in that she escaped her tomb and refused to return. Instead, she accidentally became an abbess; although, she never officially held the title. She, and her sisters, followed the Benedictine rule and lived under the authority of an abbot, even when they moved out the church where he held power.

Hildegard saw visions from the time she was 5 years old. She had a mystical understanding of God and the natural world that scared many because of their radical ideas. God came to Hildegard as a woman, as a mother. If we put our psychological hats on for a moment, it isn’t difficult at all to understand how a child, abandoned by her mother to die in the basement of a church, needed God to come as a mother. What is truly a gift to me is that she recorded that vision. Not only did she describe it but she had a scribe add illustrations to her recounting of the vision. And then, later in her life, God came as a glorious sister embodying the church. The vision was in shades of gold and red.

These visions would make plenty of people uncomfortable even now. It is truly remarkable that a woman, in this dangerous church political climate was able to say them. Even more amazing is that the pope of the day declared Hildegard to be a gift to the church in her ability to bring to light the portions of scripture that describe God as female.

After reading this book, I spent some time with my spiritual director regarding the things that came up in me. I felt this sense of heaviness and pain that weren’t entirely my own. Over the course of several sessions, I came to recognize this pain as a connection to wounded women across history. I am especially sensitive to women who have been injured by the church.

This image of a woman wounded stayed with me. She was real to me. She was old, she was hunched, her face was drawn. She sat in the lower left part of my gut and wouldn’t go away. With my director’s encouragement, I asked this wounded woman, who represented generations of harmed women, what her name was. I was astonished when she answered.

“I am Charis.”

I didn’t know what that word meant and so I turned to ever reliable Google. Imagine my surprise when I saw this definition:

charis- the spiritual condition of one governed by the power of divine grace.

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