Two medieval saints who model Christian womanhood

When we first dreamed up a Women’s History Month Blogging Project, I knew I would want to write a post to participate in the project. Today is March 26 and my post is not yet written.   I have been busy with other projects, but that is not why I have waiting so long. I have waited because every time I think of a woman or group of women I would like to thank and honor, I am flooded with awareness of the dozens of other vital women who mentored and formed me to become who I am. That list is hundreds of names long, and I refuse to publish it because I would never remember each one, and no woman’s contribution should ever be overlooked. So rather than write about a personal friend, mentor or role model, I’m going to retell the story of two Christian saints whose combined influence radically altered the shape of my life.

In my second year of college, I took a British literature class that included Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Julian was an anchorite (anchoress) -- a set apart lay person who withdraws from secular society to an ascetic life of prayer. Julian’s theology includes God’s mother-like love for all, Jesus’ compassion and grace, and, most unusual for her time, a steadfast faith that God’s will for the universe would bring all things to good in the end.

Julian’s theology absolutely resonated with my understanding of the Bible and God; however, it was her life and being itself that inspired. Julian was a woman who wrote a book in a time when teaching even the most wealthy woman to read was almost unimaginable. Julian dared to express theology that was more optimistic, graceful and inclusive of feminine images during a century when inquisitions often tortured and executed heretics. This was a woman who submitted wholeheartedly to God, but did so in a way that was radical and unique. Women did not withdraw for a life of prayer in those days; marriage and children was the standard. But by choosing something uncommon, Julian became one of the earliest women writers in English, a powerful spiritual mentor to another English writer – Margery Kempe – a theologian and saint.

The second woman is actually another medieval saint: Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a Benedictine nun and abbess who prioritized God and charity over obedience to her ecclesial superiors. As an Abbess, Hildegard would have had a tremendous amount of authority over the daily and spiritual running of the women under her care, and would have also born the responsibility for caring for those townspeople and individuals in her area. However, she was also merely a woman, and thus subject to the authority of the local priests.   Late in Hildegard’s life, a man died and was buried in the churchyard -- a step considered necessary at the time if he were to be admitted into heaven. However, the church officials soon found out and reported that he had been previously excommunicated and his body should be exhumed and moved to unconsecrated ground.

Hildegard refused, and for a time she and all the nuns in her abbey were not permitted to receive the sacraments (in other words, their salvation was in question). Considering that Abbess Hildegard was in her eighties at the time, this was a major decision that she understood to have the ability to put her eternal salvation into jeopardy. Regardless, Hildegard remained steadfast and appealed the decision, suggesting that because the man had confessed his sins before his death, he had died reconciled to the church. Eventually, church officials decided to both leave the man in peace and to lift the ban against her abbey.

This act of direct defiance contrasts sharply with some of Hildegard’s writings, which not only support a vision of the universe with a strong hierarchy led by God through church officials, but also described herself as only a woman and of the weaker sex.

Both Julian and Hildegard’s writings possess this fascinating dichotomy: women who refused to accept the standard roles and expectations of their community identifying as primarily obedient and subservient to God. Julian and Hildegard were pious, obedient, gentle women who served God humbly through prayer, writing and service.   Julian and Hildegard were revolutionary, powerful, brilliant women who served God humbly as faithful role models, leaders and theologians.

Sometimes, I feel torn between two extremes: will I be loud, brash, passionate and assertive in my calling to advocacy and service, or will I be quiet, gentle, peacemaking and nurturing? But this is a false dichotomy. The answer is not that I will be one OR the other, but that I will seek to embody each of these virtues. I will be empathetic and powerful, passionate and nurturing, loud and gentle.   Julian and Hildegard model such powerful lives for us as Christian women – lives which are not limited to that once demanded by a sexist society, but guided by the instruction to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22).

To learn more about Julian of Norwich, the Penguin Books translation of Revelations of Diving Love (Short Text and Long Text) includes an introduction chapter which offers a good deal of information about her life story and context. ISBN: 0140446737

For Hildegard of Bingen, a number of books are available, but a fairly comprehensive study can be found in Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias (Classics of Western Spirituality) ISBN: 0809131307

Additional resources exist; feel free to email Audrey J. Krumbach, director of gender justice and education, at akrumba[email protected] with questions or to identify additional resources.

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