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

I might like Pete Rollins on the Apocalypse

Pete Rollins is planning a talk in Belfast in September to explain that The Apocalypse isn’t coming – it’s already happened.

“Fundamentalist Christianity has long expressed a view of apocalypse as some future event that will consume the present world and replace it with a new one. Yet while this is a bloody and destructive vision, I will argue that it is inherently conservative in nature… For those who hold to such a vision are willing to imagine absolutely everything around them changing so that their present values and beliefs can remain utterly unchanged.  In contrast I will argue that a Christian apocalypse describes something much more radical, namely an event that fundamentally ruptures and re-configures our longings, hopes and desires…”

This resonates with me, although I’m waiting to see where Rollins will take it.  If he has not forgotten his Greek, he will oblige us I hope with a vision of a true ‘apocalypse’ – not earth-scorching destruction but paradigm-shattering revelation.

In January I articulated my own growing sense that the Apocalypse is already history when I called out the folly of Harold (“I did the math”) Camping’s predictions of a Day of Reckoning for May 21 of this year.

Apocalypse now and then

I have absolutely no doubt that warnings about a day of the Lord scheduled for May 21 of this year are false. In fact, somebody who was as sure as I am that this preacher is making a bad call would need to have a vision of his own on the matter.  All right then.

Except my vision doesn’t grant me a view of the future; it gives me hindsight into the past – and I most solemnly warn you that the end of the first Christian dispensation has already happened.

I cannot account for the fact that this is still old news; perhaps others are too cowardly to come forward.  But I know those ‘others’ wouldn’t be the Pope or the Archbishops of any denomination – they were never told. No Synod or any other conference of churches had a clue.  And forget about the Evangelicals and the Jews – God can’t tell them anything any more.

I claim no knowledge of specific dates, but only a kind of ballpark figure.  But what I’m seeing is that, at some point during or shortly after the First World War, God very quietly and unequivocally wrote off the old Christian dispensation as ‘not good enough’ for his Son.  Believe me.

NO, I’m not talking about the alleged Apocalypse called by the Jehovah’s Witnesses for the year 1914 – that was no different than this latest 2011 deal – a makeshift built on Daniel’s well-known figure of 1260 and other textual cyphers.  Funny how it always comes down to these numbers in Daniel, and it’s always wrong.  It was just a lucky hit for the Witnesses that they came up with a year in which a World War started.  But the excitement ended for them on January 1, 1915, when it became evident God was featuring nothing more spectacular than the destruction of Christian civilization. The mistake was soon forgotten; membership was up, they moved on.

But for God this was a big thing.  Again, I can’t pin-point the year for you, but ‘the End’ of the old Christian dispensation was brought down in unheralded despair and gloom during one of those crazy, shifting, catastrophic years between those two monstrous secular conflagrations (WWI and WWII).  After a near-total failure by the Christian leadership to stand by the Gospel of Jesus in the summer of 1914, the Reformation gospel  was out on the dung heap with the Pope’s tiara as far as God was concerned.

Meanwhile God’s life goes on in temples not made with hands…  but those external, sectarian forms of Christianity we see ‘still rolling along’ are moving not by the grace of God any more but only by virtue of an original divine impetus – the same kind of motion a long train would exhibit on a very gentle but steady backwards downgrade after being decoupled from its engine.

The plan was not for Christianity to go away (clearly) but God definitely wanted a new model, a second dispensation, with an effective peace testimony and an end to the awful man-made creeds which had been mistaken for faith and only got in the way of his Son’s offer of love and salvation to all who sought him in spirit and in truth (God’s still waiting).