On my one trip to Europe (in October, 2000) I enjoyed a 5-day river cruise, Frankfort-Trier-Cologne, as a guest of my parents, who arranged the voyage as a chance to spend time with their seven grown children. Wonderful reunion, great food and beautiful sights; but I confess I spent 25% of my daylight hours ashore and alone, visiting scenes from the life of the Christian ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’ -the 12th century Benedictine visionary and polymath Hildegard von Bingen.
Ancient well at the Disibodenberg ruins
Hildegard’s experience marks an epoch in Christian history which has held a fascination for me since I heard her story 30 years ago. And a leisurely Rhine cruise turned out to be just the opportunity I needed to reach out and touch the memory of this wonderful woman.
Her reliquary on the altar at St. Joseph's, Rudesheim
First port in our cruise itinerary, in fact, was the town of Rudesheim, with its main street oriented to the tourist trade. This 90 minute ‘shop stop’ for the others gave me a window of time in which to climb the hill to Eibingen convent, a late foundation of Hildegard’s which is active today and still cherishes her memory. I stopped on the way to have a look inside St. Joseph’s parish church, where her reliquary is kept. These two points of interest left me precious little time to make it back to my ship before it debarked!
Bingen itself was not a port of call and required a side-trip by rail. Here I found another parish church dedicated to her memory, with a scale model of the famous Rupertsberg monastery on display. Hildegard drew up the plan for her new monastery and directed the building of it herself – she became abbess when she and her fellow nuns moved in after 1150, and conducted four preaching missions from this point on the Rhine, all the while writing her books, until her death in 1179. The last vestige of Rupertsberg -a restored wine cellar below street level- was closed to the public the day I visited.
The absolute highpoint of my trip -among other sites which included the home of Nicholas de Cusa, the tomb of Albert Magnus, and the cathedrals of Trier and Cologne- was the day I jumped ship for a self-guided excursion by rail, bus, sidewalk and footpath to the hilltop ruins of the monastery at Disibodenberg.
ruins of women's quarters - Disibodenberg
“St. Disibod’s mountain” was Hildegard’s first monastic home. She spent the first 50 years of her religious life here above the confluence of the Nahe and Glan rivers south of the Rhine. And it was here that, in 1141, she heard those mysterious and compelling words, “Speak and write what you see and hear.”
For ten years after hearing ‘the voice,’ Hildegard kept listening, and seeing, and recording her experiences. In 1151 her obedience brought forth to the world her big, very uneven and very difficult book, Wisse die Wege or Know the Ways (in Latin often abbreviated as Scivias).
The teachings –or maybe just the wonder attached to her great experience- gave a wide-ranging impulse to faith among many who in her day rejoiced in hope (against hope) that God was still speaking to his broken church. And the church was so very busted in Hildegard’s day. In 1147, the pope (Eugenius III) was living in exile in France. The pontif’s ill-conceived Crusade had just ended in disaster. For many months he had been afraid to show his face in Rome, where Arnold of Brescia and his Roman Commune had rendered the city for the time quite immune to the pomp and pretensions of the papacy. That year Eugenius called a synod at Trier to investigate Hildegard’s writings. At Trier the pope himself read aloud to his court from the Scivias manuscript -and he judged at the end of the proceedings that she should continue the work. Even Bernard of Clairvaux (not a liberal) thought she was cool. Johannes Tauler also, in a sermon preached 200 years later, made a point with reference to an ikon of Hildegard which still had a place of honor among the sisters he addressed.
ruins of the abbey church, Disibodenberg
The 12th century is ancient history to us; however, if we reckon from the epoch of the Resurrection (c.30 AD), we still live and toil in the last years of the same Second Millennium in which Hildegard lived and worked – and I think this makes us her eschatological children in a sense – I mean I think we are obliged to take a look and to recognize that she started something that really hasn’t ended – that God ‘who in many and various ways spoke of old through the prophets,’ has not stopped speaking. I have more to say about things the Holy Spirit was alleged to have spoken through his daughter Hildegard … for a later post.
View from the meditation chapel, Disibodenberg
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