Friday, August 7, 2020

Nun Month Returns: Vision

Vision - From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

An unfortunate feature of writing this blog is that  -- not infrequently -- I have to admit my ignorance. Yes, literally dozens of people are exposed to my lack of knowledge in many areas, particularly in church history. This another of those times.

While researching films for Nun Month, (my “research” consists of typing “nun” in the search bar at Amazon Prime and seeing what I find) I came across Vision. Its full title includes the name “Hildegard von Bingen,” who I had never heard of before. 

I looked her up and thought, “Why haven’t I heard of her before?” She was a Benedictine abbess who lived in Germany from 1098 through 1179, who was also a true polymath. To list some of her accomplishments:

  • Writer and composer: There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the Middle Ages. She was one of the few composers from the time that wrote the words and music. She wrote Ordo Virtutum (“Book of the Rewards of Life”) which is perhaps the first musical morality and certainly the oldest surviving morality play. (In the film, an older nun worries about nuns acting in the play in costumes rather than their usual robes and habits. She is also concerned that the devil is given a chance in the play to make arguments for sin, though virtue eventually triumphs.)
  • Scientist: She is considered by many to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Her work in this area seems to have been sparked by the herb garden and infirmary in her monastery. She studied how the herbs helped the sick and branched out into a broader study of botany. She also examined whether stones could be of use, so she wrote works on mineralogy. (The film portrays her convent’s work caring for the sick. Though medical knowledge at the time was, of course, limited, simply providing adequate rest and nutrition at that time made a great difference in the care of the ill.)
  • Sociologist: She also studied human nature, investigating sexuality, psychology, and physiology. Of course, Hildegard used Scripture to study human nature, but she also studied all available literature of the time, which included Greek and Roman examinations of the nature of man. Still, much of her understanding of human nature came from her work in ministry. (The film explores Hildegard’s interest in sexuality by telling a sad tale of interaction between one of her nuns and an unknown monk. As an abbess, she learns that one of her nuns is pregnant. She brings this news to the abbot who runs the monastery on the same grounds as the convent, and he rants about the seductive nature of the nuns. Of course, the monk responsible for the pregnancy is able to conceal his identity which is not a biological option for the nun. That nun commits suicide. This leads Hildegard to build a new convent far from the monastery so that her nuns can have a property of their own.)
  • Theologian: If Hildegard is remembered these days, it is most likely to be for her visions. At an early age, she experienced visions, what she wrote of as “the reflection of the living light.” She wrote three major works of theology. She received permission from Abbot Kuno to transcribe her visions. She wrote about 26 visionary experiences and her writing was approved by the pope during her lifetime. Prominent themes of her writings included creation, the relationship of the soul and the body, redemption, and heaven. And she illustrated her writing with her own art. (Much of the film portrays her battles to have her visions accepted by the male hierarchy.)
Again, how did I not know about this remarkable woman?

The 2009 film was written and directed by another remarkable woman, Margarethe von Trotta. She began her career as an actress, starring in films made by some of Germany’s greatest filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlondorff (she was also for a time married to Schlondorff and wrote screenplays for some of his films). Von Trotta began directing in 1975, working in feature films, television, and documentaries as well (including the acclaimed Searching for Ingmar Bergman.)

The film portrays the whole of Hildegard’s life, from when she entered a convent as a young girl (played by Stella Holzapfel) through decades of service first as a nun and then as an abbess (played by Barbara Sukowa), founding two convents, until her death the relatively old age (especially for the age) of 81.

The film offers a positive portrayal of convent life, but not through rose-covered glasses. Throughout the film, the Church is portrayed as being influenced and -- at times tainted by the politics of the era. The decisions of the church, and at times even Hildegard’s decisions, are influenced by considerations of power and finance.

But we still see the Church, and particularly an abbess, working to honor God and care for people. For this reason, we give to Hildegard of Bingen, Sibyl of the Rhine, our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

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