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A male admirer of Hildegard

01 March 2013

Lavinia Byrne cannot dispel doubts about claims made for her by this advocate

Christ's sacrifice and the Church: an illustration by Ruth Elizabeth Obbard, a contemplative Carmelite, fromA Taste of Hildegard: Selected passages from Hildegard of Bingen's "Scivias", in Obbard's series of little books introducing today's readers to some of the great Christian spiritual authors of the past (New City, £5.95(£5.35); 978-1-905039-17-3)

Christ's sacrifice and the Church: an illustration by Ruth Elizabeth Obbard, a contemplative Carmelite, fromA Taste of Hildegard: Selected passages ...

Hildegard of Bingen: A saint for our times
Matthew Fox
Namaste Publications £11.99

THE Dominican Order's and the Roman Catholic Church's loss has become the US Episcopal Church's gain as Matthew Fox, "silenced" by the Vatican in 1993, has continued to plough the furrow of his interests in creation spirituality in general, and Hildegard of Bingen in particular. His most recent book has an ambitious subtitle, as the author claims to "unleash" Hildegard's power in the 21st century.

This explains his approach. He puts the 11th-century German mystic into dialogue with figures as diverse as Einstein and Dorothee Sölle, with the American poet Mary Oliver, and Howard Thruman, who was Martin Luther King's spiritual teacher; he demonstrates how she can be considered a herald of the divine feminine, a green prophet, an eco-warrior, and, ultimately a church reformer - indeed, a Trojan horse entering the gates of the Vatican.

So far, so good - depending on where the reader stands. But, equally, so far, so bad. Is Fox fair to take his own enthusiasms and find them endorsed by a figure who, truth be told, lived one thousand years ago? Is his passionate advocacy an overstatement of his own case? If we are to believe his material, then the answer is no. Hildegard was indeed remarkably prescient, and the written legacy is intelligent, creative, and free of the trappings that she would have acquired had she undergone a traditional theological formation in a male monastery. Hers was a free spirit.

But my anxiety remains. Despite Hildegard's achievement, does the conceit work? She may, indeed, have much to say to our generation, but was she really answering all our questions before we even had the imagination to ask them? Does this book tell us more about Fox himself than about Hildegard?

One excellent feature: in his final chapter, Fox lists 35 spiritual practices to be employed in the spirit of Hildegard. Now, that's more like it.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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