A Review of
Saint Hildegard: Ancient Insights for Modern Seekers
Reviewed by June Mears Driedger
In pop culture patois, Hildegard of Bingen is “having a moment.” This 12th century mystic has garnered popularity in the past few decades including references in popular culture with a character named “Hild” in the BBC series The Last Kingdom, references in the Netflix series Chilling Adventures with Sabrina, and a German film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen. Her musical compositions have been introduced around the world through the Hildegard Project, and recordings are readily available both on YouTube and to download and stream. A moment indeed.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine Abbess of Disibodenberg Abbey in Germany for much of her adult life. She is described as a polymath, accomplished in musical composition, medieval literature, medicine, biology, herbology, theology, and philosophy. Additionally, she was an administrator, visionary, mystic, and contemplative. She is known for the concept of Viriditas, the greening of the cosmic life infusing the natural world. She was named a Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Pope Benedict; one of four women Doctors, including Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Therese of Lisieux.
Add to this litany about Hildegard of Bingen: Saint Hildegard: Ancient Insights for Modern Seekers by Susan Garthwaite. In the introduction, Garthwaite states that the purpose of this book is distinct from other books or translations of Hildegard. She writes, “In this book [Hildegard’s] spiritual wisdom is brought to bear on spiritual development and the ministry of spiritual direction. Her proposal that we befriend our souls and become the friends of God forms the heart of the book” (2).
Garthwaite describes her book as a “true collaboration” between herself and Hildegard. The image of baking a cake came to mind while reading this book: a folding in of the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients to make a new creation. The book is the new creation, comprised of Garthwaite’s spiritual memoir folded into the wisdom of Hildegard.
The book is divided into three sections: “Becoming a Seeker”, “Becoming the Faithful Friend of Your Soul” and “Becoming the Faithful Friend of God. Within each chapter of these sections are further subsections separated by questions for reflection. Garthwaite is a spiritual director, and these questions are offered as one might hear them in a spiritual direction setting—gentle and open-ended.
In the first section, “Becoming a Seeker” Garthwaite tells of a childhood accident which caused serious damage to her leg that required amputation as an adult. As Garthwaite lay on the ground waiting for her sibling to run a long-distance to retrieve help, she writes, “I was all alone, helpless in my peril.” She remembered the four prayers she had memorized: Sign of the Cross, Glory Be, Hail Mary, and Our Father. She prayed these prayers with “heartfelt fervency.” When her energy seeped and she could no longer pray, she had a profound experience of God’s presence: “In surprising concrete physicality, I felt gently lifted up and held close in an intimate, loving embrace, as if I were a little treasure to be preserved” (20). Her fear and panic dissipated as she realized she was not alone, “I no longer thought I would die in God’s arms. I allowed myself to no longer struggle to stay alive; I simply rested in the solace, safety, and wonder of God’s embrace” (21). Eventually Garthwaite was rescued and her encounter with God shaped and formed her life. She emerged a changed person, seeking a deeper relationship with God.
In section two, “Becoming the Faithful Friend of Your Soul,” Garthwaite encourages us to become our soul’s faithful friend through spiritual practices such as journaling, Scripture reading, prayer, meeting with a spiritual director, and practicing discernment. To practice these disciplines is to befriend our souls which then “changes us and prepares us to be friends of God.”
In the third section, “Becoming the Faithful Friend of God” Garthwaite notes, “Being a faithful friend inevitably brings us into a more conscious relationship with God” (149). She guides readers through chapters focusing on integration, surrender, mysticism, healing, union, and ultimately, becoming the friend of God.
The chapter on mysticism is the longest one which details her own mystical experiences and discernment with a wise spiritual director. The concept of mysticism often makes Protestants uneasy, but her definition may help to ease those anxieties, “Mysticism reveals relationship with God but also accelerates our growth and maturity in that relationship. We more seriously and consistently cultivate, take responsibility for, become deeply conscious of, draw strength from, trust, enjoy, find our identity in, and proclaim our relationships with God. We are in a trusting relationship with God” (183). Garthwaite offers guidance in how to understand and discern mystical experiences, reminding readers that God truly desires to be in relationship with us.
As readers, we can trust Garthwaite; her writerly voice is honest, vulnerable, and direct. She is a retired medical scientist and the precision required in scientific research and writing is evident in her spiritual writing, tending to details, including lengthy endnotes pointing back to Hildegard’s writings. Garthwaite also translated Hildegard’s medieval German language into contemporary, accessible language including non-masculine terminology for God. Saint Hildegard: Ancient Insights for Modern Seekers is a rich, dense book to be savored slowly– perhaps in many moments during a liturgical season– for all the goodness held within its pages.