“We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.” – Hildegard of Bingen
Lately I’ve become convinced that our personal stories are not entirely our own.
When a story gets told, it becomes the property not just of the teller, but also of the audience. I am amazed how the stories of others become metaphors for our own experience. As we hear them, we are healed. And they gently guide us back home.
The story that has guided me for many years is Hildegard of Bingen’s.
My friends often ask me why a non-Catholic would be so obsessed with a fiery 12th century nun who was as loved as she was hated, as orthodox as she was mystical. Perhaps it’s because we both march to the beat of our own drums. Perhaps its because we’re both surrounded by people, but often feel alone. Perhaps it’s because we believe in the unseen—and let it guide our lives.
Or maybe, it’s just the tug of the ancient thread that has drawn humans to each others’ stories since the dawn of time.
That story inspired me to sell my possessions and travel in search of a different calling. It also guided me one cold December to Bingen Am Rhein, Germany, where I commemorated the anniversary of my aborted marriage with a “new” kind of covenant.
Stories with that kind of power can shape lives for centuries.
And what a story it is.
In the 1100s, around age 8, Hildegard—tenth child of a wealthy German family—was taken to the Abbey Disibodenberg and offered as “gift” to God. Like most of these types of arrangements with a religious order, it was a political and religious move. More than that, it was Hildegard’s parents’ desperate attempt to get the strange little girl off their hands.
She had claimed since toddlerhood to see visions of things that “weren’t there” to the naked eye. She had also correctly predicted several strange natural phenomena well before they happened.
In the medieval world, no one wanted a child like that around them for very long.
At Disibodenberg, Hildegard was locked up in a two-room cell with an anchoress, a woman who had pledged to live her life in solitude, praying and offering counsel to the monks from inside her “living tomb.” Hildegard and her anchoress weren’t allowed out of that cell. They fasted constantly, prayed for hours a day, went with out proper coats in the dead of winter, and forced themselves to go without sleep. All while, they kept up a rigorous schedule of reading and embroidering complicated altar cloths for the churches in the district.
Imagine the trauma of being “buried alive” in this way, at such a young age! Hildegard had no say in her life’s trajectory. She spent the next 30 years struggling to keep hope alive, while watching her un-chosen companion, the anchoress, go slowly insane from excessive fasting and bitterness over her own castaway lot.
Yet with the darkness came some light.
It was in that same cell that Hildegard received an education equal to the finest princes of the time. She developed friendship with brilliant monks who became her teachers and her powerful allies for a lifetime. She began her own ministry of comfort and healing, and she continued to receive visions from God. All the while, composing stunning religious music that is still performed today.
Probably no other woman in her age was as learned, or as wise, or as openly mystical in her faith, as Hildegard of Bingen. Yet the intensity of trauma she experienced would defy almost any that present to a modern psychotherapist.
Most of us would have died from that kind of pressure, or succumbed to bitterness that rotted us from the inside out. Yet somehow, Hildegard managed to remain whole.
And that is where her story becomes beautiful.
Around the age of 38, after the anchoress’s death, Hildegard negotiated her abbott’s consent that she be allowed to leave the cell. (An unthinkable breach of her forced vow of “living death.”)
Unlike the anchoress before her, Hildegard walked out into the sunshine again with her right mind fully in tact.
In the years that ensued, Hildegard went on to have a life of such blinding brilliance that it’s hard to match that woman up with the one who lived inside the cell.
Thanks to her writing, she provided wise counsel for the most powerful men of her time, including the pope. She founded a religious community—the first of its kind—where girls were able to celebrate their sexuality and spirituality, together, without shame. She wrote a seminal text on Western medicine and authored mind-boggling renditions of her visions, complete with highly abstract, metaphoric art. When she died, she was surrounded by people who loved her and a legacy that lives on today.
In short, her life was a triumph. And it all began the day she walked out that door.
If I had a patron saint, it would be Hildegard.
The last six months, I have faced some incredibly difficult circumstances. It’s been a process of realizing how closed up and walled off I really was, how cast away and locked in my own fear. I woke up one day and realized that I’d been watching the world from behind an invisible set of bars, reading my books, getting full of knowledge, and only ever dreaming what life was like on the other side.
And then one day, the energy shifted. I got my chance, through no planning of my own.
In the middle of cataclysmic changes that came unbidden, I realized that I was Hildegard. Her story held such power and attraction for me because it was a metaphor of my very own life . . . even though it happened more than nine centuries before my birth.
If Hildegard were here today, I’m convinced she’d have one message for me, and one message only:
“Freedom is possible, but only if you walk out that door.”
That single parallel—that connection between stories—unlocked more than my door. Slowly but surely, I’m watching everything unlock: my heart, my mind, my voice, my decisions, my courage.
I see myself for the first time now. I advocate for me. I respect my vision. I believe in the path I’ve been set upon. And I know that very soon, like Hildegard’s, my voice will burst forth again.
It might not result in letters to the pope or communiques with kings. But I’ve got things to say, and after a long period of recovery, I’m prepared to say them.
The key is to push past fear, and step over the threshold, into the sunshine beyond.
Certainly, life circumstances do conspire against us at times. We get a rough start. We feel like we’ve got so much catching up to do. We give in to false storylines about brokenness and incapacity. We “collapse into ourselves,” as an assistant of mine once described it. We become content to crawl further back into our cells every time we feel pain, watching the world from the safety of the shadows, nursing our suspicions of the world at large.
We believe that everything’s against us, and that we just have to survive the hand we’ve been dealt.
But really, truly, if we’re honest with ourselves, we do have a choice.
We always have a choice.
Even in the face of trauma, the only thing that ever holds us back is fear.
Fear can be pushed away as an enemy, or embraced as a friend. Hildegard once said that we have a duty to “embrace the terror.” This is how we truly get free.
Like Hildegard, we have the choice to embrace the terror that is our own voice, our own light, our own story. We have the choice to take the key from the shelf, and put it in the lock.
We always have the choice to walk out that door.
So here’s to the freedom that waits for us all on the other side of fear, and to the stories that touch us, no matter whose they really are. May we all have the grace to keep on turning that key until the doors of our self-made prisons yield.
Because there’s a story to live on the other side of bars. And someone else out there needs to hear it …
Even if they won’t live for nine centuries or more.