In a speech given at the National Press Club, Patrick Stewart said that the reason he loved acting was that he got “to lie for a living.” In bringing to life Hildegard von Bingen, a complex and curious 12th century German nun, Carol Anderson crafts an artifice (emphasis on the “art,” if you please…) including most of the accepted history of Saint Hildegard, while carefully skirting many issues of interpreting her legacy.
Hildegard’s life carries wildly divergent meanings for feminists, holistic healers, and Catholics in search of her sainthood. Efforts at interpreting this legacy must inevitably fall through the filters and biases of our post-modern world. The twinkle in Anderson’s eye as she deftly recalls Hildegard’s “holy illnesses” preserves the mystery of whether or not they might also have been “holy manipulations.”
The structure of A Feather on the Breath of God, also written by Anderson, is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles. A young biographer has been given an audience with the aged Hildegard. Vignettes from various periods of her life follow, with the aged Hildegard providing a contemplative commentary. Anderson’s instantaneous transformations of age quickly drew the audience a very full picture of how both earnestness and guile existed in Hildegard. These yin/yang forces propelled her growth and provided fuel for achieving the higher states of consciousness that her friend and mentor Jutta called “visions.”
Anderson’s writing seamlessly blends quotations from the vita with educated conjecture to create a full, vibrant, and strong personality. Such strength can easily become a liability in contemplative communities, but Hildegard used that strength solely in obedience to her visions. Sentiments like “All is worship, all is one…” mix with the temporal realities of politics and power to create a very human portrait of a nun naturally inclined to non-dualistic states, yet living during a time when any descendant spirituality was thoroughly vetted before being acclaimed, “of God.” Indeed, the climax of the play is Hildegard being questioned by a council investigating her on behalf of the church. Even though she passes their test, the question remains.
As the young writer is leaving, Hildegard repeats his last question — “How to bring to writing who I am?” — and tells him to go to the chapel and listen to her music.