Lately, I’ve become infatuated with Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century German nun. It was not love at first sight, believe me. I didn’t think she was my type. She was a visionary, and I am not interested in the supernatural. She was obsessed with cosmology and the architecture of the universe. I yearn for union with the Divine. She was brilliant: a scientist who analyzed and then harnessed the healing properties of plants. I dropped out of high school, and can’t decipher a simple plumbing diagram, nor am I motivated to learn how. Hildegard composed symphonies; I don’t even know how to read music.

And yet, don’t some of the most successful marriages happen between unlikely partners? Passion can sneak up behind us and suddenly our hearts are captured and all we can think about is the unlikely object of our affection. This is what happened to me with Teresa of Avila, by the way, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic. (I know: I have this thing for dead Catholic saints. Which is even more bewildering when you consider my secular Jewish heritage and long-term background in Eastern spiritual practices.)

Teresa first crept in through the door I opened for John of the Cross, her spiritual protégé. I had fallen in love with John the minute I first read Dark Night of the Soul in its original Early Renaissance Spanish. She, I could live without. He was quiet and serious, like me. She was gregarious, cunning, needy. If she hadn’t had such a profound influence on my hero, I would have gladly ignored her forever. But wherever he went, there she was. The next thing I knew we were having tea together. And then planting a garden. And then… publishing books.

Which brings me back to Hildegard. I would probably never have given her more than a passing glance – the way you notice an exotic guest at a cocktail party maybe, one with whom you instantly assume you have nothing in common – if I hadn’t been hired to write a little book about her.

I could have turned down the job, of course. And I briefly considered this. I don’t know German, for one thing. At least with Teresa, I spoke a version of the same vernacular, and knew I could make her accessible to the modern literary and spiritual sensibilities. But the Aryan nun from the Rhineland was alien to me, and a little scary. Teresa was merely madly in love with God and would get to him by any means necessary (the more dramatic, the better). Hildegard was simply strange. Maybe even psychotic.

For instance, Hildegard of Bingen was regularly overcome by a blinding light, out of which issued a voice. This voice, which she fondly referred to as “the shadow of the Living Light,” gave her very specific messages, often in the form of prophesies. When Hildegard was young, the prophetic information leaned toward the prosaic (such as the exact markings of a calf still inside its mother’s womb), but, as her gift developed, the transmissions became detailed explanations of the genesis of the Cosmos and advice about the ultimate purpose of human life (“Do not denigrate anything God has created. All creation is simple, plain, and good. And God is present throughout his creation. Why would you even consider things beneath your notice …”)

Still, as pertinent as these visions and voices may have been, that’s not the part that attracts me to Hildegard. Where she finally broke down the walls of my heart was when I read about how she had resisted her visions and voices for the first forty years of her life. And how suppressing them almost killed her. Literally. She finally became gravely ill from the sheer exertion of ignoring the divine imperative and holding in the truth.

But the Living Light was insistent. “Speak!” the Voice thundered from the nun’s deathbed. “Write what you see and hear.” Finally, Hildegard of Bingen reached for a quill and began to record everything the Voice told her. Her sickness melted away, and Hildegard proceeded to revolutionize a decadent Church with her theological insight and humanitarian devotion. From that moment on, whenever a vision overwhelmed her, Hildegard emerged feeling purified and revitalized, “like a simple young girl again.”

Teresa of Avila has a similar story. Culturally conditioned to be a submissive female who would never dare to question the authority of the patriarchy, she repressed her innate brilliance for as long as she could, but soon grew so sick she nearly died. Once she surrendered to the inner imperative to cultivate a direct relationship with the Divine, in apparent opposition to the mandates of the Church, she flourished and became the brilliant beacon she has been for five centuries.

But it is not only spiritual food these two saints offer us. It is practical inspiration. They give us courage to speak truth to power, at risk to our own comfort and even safety. When everything around us is trying to lull us into complacency (don’t worry about those disembodied starving children in Afghanistan. Go shopping; you’ll feel better), mystics and visionaries like Teresa and Hildegard model the revolutionary act of speaking (and writing, and singing) what we know in our innermost core. Because they made the radical choice to live authentically, we see the possibilities for actualizing an authentic life. In the face of the to-do list that will never be done, these great beings teach us how to be still. And from that place of deep quiet, we begin to truly hear – really listen, and hear – the divine demand, and then do what it tells us, no matter how crazy.

I carry my new friend Hildegard of Bingen with me wherever I go these days, like an amulet, like a homeopathic remedy. She is not always a copasetic companion, but she’s filling my head with some intriguing notions. It remains to be seen whether or not this affair turns into an enduring bond, as it has with Saint Teresa of Avila…