Book Review: Wisdom from the Middle Ages for Middle-Aged WomenSusannah Kent April 1, 2008
Author: Lisa B. Hamilton
Publisher: Morehouse Publishing
Book Publication: 2007
As women approach middle age, many are faced with physical and emotional upheaval: divorce, empty nest, rebellious teenagers, ailing parents, hard career decisions, and menopause. In these difficult times women need comfort, support and good advice. In her book, Wisdom from the Middle Ages for Middle-Aged Women, Episcopal priest Lisa Belcher Hamilton introduces a unique and fascinating source of support for women in midlife – women mystics from the Middle Ages.
Mystics are usually associated with the unknown, the exalted, and the godly. In other words, they are not ordinary folks. However, Hamilton sees mystics differently and presents them in a much more empathetic way, suggesting that they are just “people who are more focused on seeking God than most, and whose encounters with God are perhaps more dramatic than other people’s.” She likens the women mystics of the Middle Ages to big sisters “who know a lot about God and about living, and who want to make sure you never feel alone as they help you get through life as best you can.”
The challenges middle-aged women face with health, marriage, children and work are discussed forthrightly, with humour and sensitivity. Hamilton shares her own stories of life’s challenges: she was a victim of sexual abuse; her husband died of cancer at 32, leaving her widowed as a single parent of a three year old; and more recently she became caretaker or an ailing mother diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Interspersed with these personal anecdotes are stories about mystics that lived during the Middle Ages. Courageous women like Julian of Norwich, Margery of Kempe, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Clare of Assisi, who all had deep faith combined with the ability to persevere. Hamilton believes these “wonderfully wise women” have a lot to teach us.
A predominant thread throughout the book is women overcoming self-doubt, getting to know themselves, and finding their voice. It is the author’s contention that women who listen to themselves are more likely to find midlife a time of renewal. Hildegarde of Bingen, a German nun in the twelfth century, is a perfect example. Hildegarde stifled her creative urges and kept quiet about her visions and gifts until she was in her forties. She wrote: “But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write… until weighed down by a scourge of God, I fell onto a bed of sickness.” The scourge, Hamilton tells us, was severe migraines. Once she let her inner voice speak, Hildegarde communicated her visions through words and art. She composed more than eighty pieces of music, wrote medical, botanical and geological treatises, and created an alternative alphabet. At the age of 53 she established a new monastery and a sister house at 67.
Another recurring theme in this book is loss. Hamilton points to mystics from the Middle Ages as being able to offer inspiration for women to not only endure loss, but to grow and thrive. We learn how Julian of Norwich survives a near-death experience, finds her faith, and becomes an anchoress (a woman who has retired into seclusion for religious reasons). Her words, “All things shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” is an insightful and meaningful message of hope to those experiencing loss. Angela of Foligno’s husband, sons and mother all died within a year. She overcame her despair through prayer and pilgrimage, and was able to dictate two books. She also counseled the Franciscan friars.
In Wisdom from the Middle Ages for Middle-Aged Women, Hamilton connects contemporary women to the inspirational and still relevant voices of women like Julian of Norwich and Hildegarde of Bingen. Although faith, prayer and contemplation are the cornerstones of the book’s message, Hamilton does not deliver in an overly pious manner. Being middle-aged can seem daunting and even depressing. By sharing her stories, and those of some of the greatest medieval mystics, Hamilton gives us hope that we, like them, can find our own voice and “contribute much to the world.”