Writing a novel about Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century visionary abbess and polymath, was a daunting process. I felt intimidated to be writing about such a religious figure. The last thing I wanted to do was churn out preachy inspirational fiction which would be both unconvincing and hypocritical coming from me, a lapsed Catholic who falls under the "spiritual but not religious" umbrella. How could I make Hildegard's story seem fresh and relevant to a modern secular audience?

For guidance, I turned to the literary fiction that has nourished and inspired me. Literature touches our spirit in a way that film, television, and even art cannot, for instead of presenting the passive viewer with a visual image, good writing demands our participation and co-creation. The words become the springboard for our own imagined vision of other worlds and other lives. In this imagined space, we can experience profound insights and revelations--soul-growing experiences we carry with us forever.

The Red TentBooks that try too hard to be spiritual can have the opposite effect. Educated readers demand books that respect them as discerning adults instead of preaching at them.

Too often both religion and spirituality have been interpreted by and for men, but when women reveal their spiritual truths, a whole other landscape emerges, one we haven't seen enough of. These three books, all focused on women's spiritual experience, transported me to completely new territory.The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No HouseAnita Diamant's The Red Tent dramatically recasts the biblical Dinah as a heroine rather than a victim and, in doing so, turns the entire Old Testament upside down. I was drawn straight into this tribal world of powerful women who make offerings to Asherah, the Queen of Heaven, and who tell their stories in voices as lyrical as the psalms.

Into the ForestLouise Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is the heroic saga of missionary priest Damien Modeste, who is actually a woman in disguise. But does "Father" Modeste convert the Ojibwe, or do they convert her? Christian imagery overlaps with the Ojibwe spirit world, resulting in great miracles.

Jean Hegland's Into the Forest is a dark, redemptive fairy tale. In rural California, two orphaned sisters struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic future. As society collapses into violence and chaos, Nell and Eva must draw on their own inner power and learn to live in harmony with nature, an experience that culminates in a blazing visionary epiphany.

IlluminationsThese are the soul-growing stories that have inspired me. What books, dear reader, have inspired you?

Mary Sharratt's Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is published in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Sixteen BookBrowse members recently read Illuminations and gave it very positive reviews! Mary lives in rural England with her Belgian husband and her spirited Welsh mare. Visit her website: www.marysharratt.com

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