Arts: Is it possible to bridge the gap between sexuality and spirituality?

Playwright Tim Slover on his new play VIRTUE, premiering February 16–26 at Plan-B Theatre

Over the last couple of decades, the LGBT community, led by visionary and courageous individuals, has realized many gains in legal, societal and artistic status. As a theist, I am particularly interested in the intersection of the LGBT community and spiritual and religious experience. Particularly, is there room in religions—mainstream and otherwise—for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? Is there a place in the LGBT community for believers, even Christian believers? Or given the lamentable and well-rutted history of scriptural (mis)interpretation of sexuality by many Christian communities and the antipathy towards Christian believers by many in the LGBT community, must these two streams of human experience forever be divided?

Enter Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. If you lived in Twelfth Century Europe, even if you were a lay person without benefit of reading, you would probably have heard of Hildegard. She was a leader of Benedictine sisters on the banks of the Rhine River in a mixed-gender monastery, a not unimportant fact since it signals that this was a time before many of the rules, codes and strictures of devotional religious life were set in stone. Hildegard wrote books of midwifery and herbal medicine; she composed music so remarkable and distinctive that it is still widely recorded and revered today. She corresponded with kings and Popes and asserted her independence by, among other things, insisting that the sisters in her charge dress in white robes and wear jewelry and crowns, as befitted brides of Christ.

But what made her most famous was her visions. From the Pope to the lowliest novitiate, every member of her religious community believed these came to her from God, or as Hildegard put it, the Living Light. She vouchsafed her visions to a learned friend and fellow Benedictine who wrote them down while they transpired, and then translated them into Latin. Hildegard then drew and colored beautiful and intricate illustrations for them. Even without the pictures, her visions were remarkably vivid; they painted a universe filled with greenness and fertility as a manifestation of the love of God. But they were also orthodox enough that they came to the approving attention of the Pope, who read them out to the College of Cardinals—the first time that had ever happened with a woman’s writings.

In her middle years (she lived into her eighties), a remarkable event occurred which transformed her life. An aristocratic young woman named Richardis came to her monastery to become a sister—and quickly became her new amanuensis. Most biographers give the immediate and searing bond which formed between the two women a whole separate chapter. Some have conjectured, and I have followed this supposal, that the two became lovers. No respectable biographer considers the idea unreasonable or unsupported by the facts, and given Hildegard’s correspondence from this period, I believe it was likely. But this would have raised serious and agonizing theological issues for Hildegard, who had written against lesbian passions. How could these issues be resolved? Or put more generally, if one is a believer and trying to follow the will of God, which should be a more pressing imperative: past ideas, even scriptural ideas, or direct experience with the Spirit? This dialectic is at the heart of my play VIRTUE.

What is certain is that Hildegard’s visions changed dramatically once Richardis arrived. About to finish her first book of visions, SCIVIAS (“Know the ways of God”), she suddenly veered away from static, orthodox images and instead wrote the Western World’s first opera. Called ORDO VIRTUTUM (“the play of the virtues”), it’s about a war between good and evil for the welfare of a single soul and asserts the vital importance of kindness and the primacy of the individual. Given the backdrop of the Second Crusade, which was mustering at the time, it stands as a rebuke against that wholly destructive war. VIRTUE chronicles Hildegard’s simultaneous reception of these visions and her sexual and emotional awakening, with Richardis as both her scribe and her lover.
I admit to an ambition in this play beyond what I have attempted in other writing. My hope is that VIRTUE is both specific and universal enough to play a small part in bringing two communities for which I care a great deal into greater harmony. Q

Tim Slover’s VIRTUE premieres February 16-26 at Plan-B Theatre, featuring Christy Summerhays as Hildegard of Bingen alongside Jay Perry, S.A. Rogers and Emilie Starr, directed by Jerry Rapier. Tickets and more information at planbtheatre.org

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