Study Guide

A Brightness That Made My Soul Tremble

by Stella Ann Nesanovich

A Brightness That Made My Soul Tremble Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Born in what is now Germany in 1198, Hildegard von Bingen was tithed to the Catholic church at the age of eight. She lived in abbeys as a nun for the rest of her life and rose to a position of leadership from which she wielded considerable influence within the church hierarchy. Her visionary experiences doubtless contributed to her status as a healer, preacher, writer, and teacher of younger women, who became nuns under her influence. Her life as a female leader in a male-dominated church hierarchy was predictably one of constant struggle and conflict, but also often was one of eventual success. Stella Ann Nesanovich has selected the major struggles and successes of Hildegard’s life as the basis for poetic renderings, which creatively and with artistic license bring Hildegard to life for modern readers.

The first several poems, “Prayer,” “Entry at Disibodenberg,” and “The Child Hildegard at Her Needle,” present Hildegard at or near the time of her being tithed to the Church. These are simpler than the later poems, to appropriately reflect the mind of an eight-year-old child. One depicts the child in her loneliness and self-dissatisfaction, seeing herself as a weed outside the abbey. These poems also effectively capture the child’s immaturity in her fixation on the smell of leeks on the abbot and the ugly, toothless smile of the servant and in her inability to perceive their more subtle but more substantial inner virtues. However, they also show the child’s awareness of her own flaws and need to mature into adult religiousness. In these poems, Hildegard’s struggle is with herself.

In the next poem, “The Death of Jutta and Election as Magistra,” that struggle has been won. Hildegard is now thirty-eight years old and has been elected magistra, or leader, of the abbey in which she resides. Here, the imagery is complex and sophisticated, reflecting an intelligent, persuasive leader at the height of her powers, including metaphors of the black wing of death, the rose mallow as opening life, the world as God’s tapestry visible by only a golden thread, and the deceased former magistra as a star in the firmament. Even more impressive is Hildegard’s persuasive, humble depiction of herself as the irritant in an oyster’s eye that engenders a pearl, unworthy in herself but working for invaluable ends via service to her religion. Here, Hildegard is presented as having won her first and most important struggle, to become an intelligent, persuasive, powerful...

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A Brightness That Made My Soul Tremble Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Gottfried and Theoderic. The Life of Hildegard of Bingen. Translated by Adelgundis Furhkotter and James McGrath. Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1995. A biography of Hildegard von Bingen, as related by two monks very knowledgeable about her.

Hildegard of Bingen. Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs. Edited by Matthew Fox. Translated by Robert Cunningham, Terry Dybdal, and Ron Miller. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Bear, 1987. A diverse collection of writings by Hildegard von Bingen, including sermons, meditations, letters, and songs.

Hildegard of Bingen. Mystical Writings. Edited by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies. Translated by Robert Carver. New York: Crossroad, 1990. An extensive collection of writings by Hildegard von Bingen about her visionary or mystical experiences.