The following is a recollection of Ash Wednesday, 2006 (March 1), which I spent in a visit to the Abbey of St. Hildegard of Bingen, in Eibingen, Germany. It was a day that helped change the course of my life.
It was cold, very cold on that Ash Wednesday morning, as I saw the first darts of dawn sparkle on the Rhein’s waters and light the road up the hill to the Abbey of St. Hildegard of Bingen. The bare branches of the grape vines on the slope were dusted with the previous night’s snow, undisturbed by the revelry in Rüdesheim, the town below—the Germans call it Fasching, the French, Mardi Gras. I reveled in neither, for it had been early to bed Tuesday night, early to rise Wednesday morning, that I might catch the trains from Mainz to Rüdesheim in time for the morning service.
After the half-hour walk from the train station, I entered the cold abbey church and knelt.A few moments later, the nuns entered, hidden in the choir, and the first notes of Terce, the third of the Hours, rang out in anticipation of the Mass: Advenerunt nobis dies poenitentiae ad redimenda peccata, ad salvandas animas. Their voices soared, reaching to heaven with that ancient music, filled with such longing for God’s true forgiveness. My soul soared with them—or rather, was plunged into the depths, forced to acknowledge its manifest failings, its utter corruption, its complete unworthiness to come before God. But as my forehead was anointed with ashes, words of castigation and comfort winged over my head in an arc of celestial song: Immutemur habitu, in cinere, et cilicio: jejunemus, et ploremus ante Dominum, quia multum misericors est dimittere peccata nostra Deus noster. My heart was filled with the bitter-sweetness of a quiet joy: I may be a sinner, but God will redeem my soul. Returning to my seat, I fell deep into prayer and contemplation.
At ten o’clock sharp, I was ushered from the gatehouse into one of the meeting rooms, and in from the cloistered side came Sr. Maura, whose duty it is to help those inquiring after St. Hildegard. Sr. Maura a Hungarian, I an American: our only common language was German, a second tongue to us both. But we managed, and spent nearly two hours in conversation, I explaining my fascination with St. Hildegard, the twelfth-century Benedictine visionary, and she nodding knowingly as I described my discovery of Hildegard the previous summer while studying medieval Latin. She answered my every question (though sometimes with “Das weiß ich nicht”) and provided me with valuable new information for my journey into the sublime mysteries of Hildegard’s life and works. From footnotes she pointed me to sprang an enduring interest in the apocalyptic prophecies for which Hildegard was most famous until less than a century ago.
After Sext, lunch, and Nones, I met with Sr. Benedikta, who, being an American, simply wished the rare opportunity to speak her native language. Before donning the habit, she had been a part of the academic world, a student of medieval literature specializing in Arthurian legend. Divine must be the coincidence, I said, as I, too, have been captivated by the German High Middle Ages. With delight she listened as I described the course of my studies in Middle High German (the language of the period) and Hartmann von Aue (a poet of the language), as I prepared to write a senior thesis on Hartmann’s poem, Der arme Heinrich. Surely she would be equally pleased to see where my studies have led, to graduate school and now teaching—we start with Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne next week.
 “The day of repentance has come to us, to redeem our sins and to save our souls.” Antiphon for Terce in the first week of Lent. ↩
 “Let us change our raiment for sackcloth and ashes. Let us fast and mourn before the Lord, for our God is exceeding merciful to forgive us our sins.” Antiphon for the Imposition of Ashes. ↩
 A principal goal of my meeting with Sr. Maura was to find something about Hildegard around which I could build a proposal for a Fulbright project in Germany. After brief forays into the work of Sr. Maura Böckeler, a Benedictine nun of the early twentieth-century who pioneered the study of Hildegard in the modern world; I settled into a project on the collection of Hildegard’s apocalyptic prophecies developed and disseminated by a Cistercian Prior of the thirteenth century, Gebeno von Eberbach. ↩