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.
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,
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.
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.