In Germany with Hildegard

My one trip to Europe (October, 2000) comprised only a 5-day river cruise, Frankfort-Trier-Cologne. I was 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 was the town of Rudesheim.  This 90 minute ‘shop stop’ for the others gave me a precious window of time in which to hurry up the hill to  Eibingen convent, a late foundation of Hildegard’s which is active today and still cherishes her memory. On the way up I stopped inside St. Joseph’s parish church, where her reliquary is kept. I barely made it back to my ship before it debarked!

The town of Bingen 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.  The plan of this monastery was drawn by Hildegard herself, and she directed the building of it. She and her fellow nuns moved in after 1150. At Bingen the abbess lived until her death in 1179, conducting four preaching missions while writing her books.  The last vestige of Rupertsberg may be found within the confines of a restored wine cellar below street level- closed to the public the day I visited.

The absolute highpoint of my trip 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

Hildegard’s home for the first 50 years of her religious life. It was here that she heard the voice which told her “Speak and write what you see and hear.” In 1151, after ten years of listening and seeing, she brought forth to the world her book, Wisse die Wege or Know the Ways (abbreviated in Latin as Scivias).

The book  is large, difficult, and of uneven quality, but it has an undeniable core of experience, and it gave a wide-ranging impulse to new faith among many who in her day had lost hope that God was still speaking to his  church. For the church was so very broken in Hildegard’s day. In 1147, the pope (Eugenius III) was living in exile in France. His 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.

But it was in that very year of 1147 that Eugenius called a synod at Trier to investigate Hildegard’s writings. At Trier the pope himself read aloud to his court from the as-yet unpublished manuscript of Scivias -and judged 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


5 thoughts on “In Germany with Hildegard

  1. There is no written record of the twenty-four years of Hildegard’s life that she was in the convent together with Jutta. It is possible that Hildegard could have been a chantress and a worker in the herbarium and infirmarium.

  2. I think chantress is pretty likely, and her interest in healing etc. is well-documented later on – but there is also a pretty clear indication in the record that she was ‘enclosed’ by her own request a few years after being brought by her parents to Disibodiberg.

    This ‘enclosure’ refers to a dreadful practice among anchorites (like Jutta) to be closed up within very small huts attached to the monastery (sometimes literally sealed in). Clearly Hildegard busted this practice at some time (maybe through illness) because in later life she was not an anchorite.

  3. Actually, Jutta and Hildegard were attached to a cathedral, and given the level of Hildegard’s education (the extent of her reading) it is assumed that both she and Jutta had extensive contact with the monks at the cathedral (they were the ones with the books, after all). In addition, Jutta was so popular as a spiritual director, that eventually she expanded her little cell to become a proper convent for nuns, with Jutta as the abyss. When Jutta died, Hildegard was elected abyss. It was from this cathedral that Hildegard set out with most of her nuns to establish the convents in and near Bingen.

    • Julia, thanks for writing.

      I remember a place in her writings where she says she was not very well read before she heard the great voice which aided her in the writing of her Scivias (that would be age 42).

      And this bit about a ‘cathedral’ is news to me. Where did you get it? I have for 30 years assumed what I learned from the start and what is common knowledge among the scholars I have read – that for the first 45 years of her religious life she lived at Disibodiberg, where her parents left her at age 5 or 6, until moving to her own Rupertsberg at about age 52.

      From Disibodiberg, the nearest Bishop was (by boat) less than a day’s journey away, in Mainz (her diocesan head). And the cathedral at Trier was about a day’s journey in the opposite direction (overland).

      Do tell.

  4. Pingback: Hildegard level | Imageflot

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