About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Abbey of St. Hildegard

Since North Rhine/Westphalia is a Catholic part of Germany, the week before last, being Whitsunweek (the week of Pentecost), was an official university holiday—their version of a mid-semester break, I suppose. Although my class schedule is hardly strenuous, and my free-time that week hardly greater therefore than normal, I nevertheless decided to take the opportunity to visit for a few days the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard in Eibingen, a small town near Rüdesheim, on the northern bank of the Rhine river west of Mainz.

Two years ago, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday of 2006, I had the opportunity the first time to visit the Abbey, though, because of the impromptu nature of that first visit, I was forced to stay in a hostel in Mainz and commute each day. This time, I thought to plan far enough in advance to secure several days in the guest quarters of the Abbey.

Thus, I boarded a train that Tuesday morning, and though it would have been faster to take an express train to Frankfurt and then connect down the river, I chose a more scenic route that took me first to Koblenz, and after changing trains, directly along the river upstream to Rüdesheim. By mid-afternoon, I stood on the train platform of Rüdesheim, and began the half-hour walk up to the Abbey, situated on the hill above the town. After wending through the narrow, tourist-crowded streets of Rüdesheim, one eventually comes out above the town but below the Abbey, for between then stand some of the Abbey’s many acres of grapevines; this Abbey is one of the last of the monastic wineries in this, the heart of the Rhineland’s vineyards. The last time I visited, it was the cold of winter, the vines lying bare under a soft dusting of snow; now, their green foliage was bright and young, the first buds of the grape flowers just starting to open. Though the weather that afternoon was perfect, the burden of my pack as I trod the paths through the vines left me sufficiently drenched in sweat upon arrival at the Abbey’s gates to require a bit of a break before actually ringing the bell at the gatehouse.

Though standing in the tradition of the abbey founded by St. Hildegard herself in the 1140’s, the modern estate is not, in fact, the same foundation. The community of women at whose head Hildegard found herself in the 1140’s had grown up around St. Jutta of Sponheim, an anchoress at the Disibodenberg (Mount St. Disibod), a men’s foundation a little to the south of Bingen, up the river Nahe. Finally, having outgrown their quarters and on the instructions of the voice of the “Living Light” that guided Hildegard throughout her life, she moved to separate her community from the monks and found a new house in the town of Bingen, on the southern bank of the Rhine, about fifteen miles downstream from the Disibodenberg. Though at first opposed by several fronts, Hildegard eventually prevailed, and by ca. 1150, she and her nuns were established at the Rupertsberg (Mount St. Rupert). Yet, the community continued to grow, and eventually, she was forced to establish a daughter house across the river in Eibingen. The main house of the Rupertsberg was, alas, destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War, and the Eibingen house heavily damaged, and what that war did not destroy, the Napoleonic secularization confiscated. Yet, the spirit of Hildegard’s work was not to be deterred: at the turn of the 20th century, a group of nuns founded a new house in Eibingen, a few hundred meters up the slope from the foundations of the old daughter house; and thus, an Abbey of St. Hildegard has grown up to carry on the traditions of the “Sibyl of the Rhine”, more than eight hundred years after her death.

After checking in at the Gatehouse, I was given a set of keys and lead around to the guest dormitories; unlike some abbeys and cloisters that are completely open to visitors, much of the Abbey of St. Hildegard, being the private areas of the cloistered nuns, are closed off to the public, seen by none not in habit. After bidding the sister who showed me to my room farewell, I contentedly removed and unpacked my bag, and took stock of my quarters. While the decoration might be considered spartan or even severe by those used to finer accommodations, I found the simplicity of the room appealing. The bed, being not too comfortable, was nevertheless sufficient; the bathroom, while small, yet needn’t have been any larger; the desk, on the other hand, was large and the lighting good; and best of all, the rocker was most perfectly suited to the reading that I had planned.

Yet, though I had brought a certain stack of books (mostly on Hildegard) to wile away the time, I had not come to the Abbey with any intention of imprinting my own schedule upon the time. Rather, I was seeking to envelop myself in a rhythm not of my own fashioning but rather that of the life of the nuns—the rhythm of ora et labora, “pray and work”, as embodied in that rule laid down some fifteen centuries ago by the hand of St. Benedict. I was leaving the world, as it were, even if only for a few days, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of everyday life (perhaps best exemplified by that nexus that seems to rule so many of our lives today: the personal computer), and embracing that lifestyle of simple service to God.

Yet, despite the fact that it is a lifestyle of καιρός and not χρόνος, it is a life that is nevertheless regimented—but the beats of that regimen are the very essence of that special rhythm, for the Benedictine life is structured around the services of psalm-singing, readings, and prayers that make up the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. During the regular days of the week (for on Sundays and high feasts they follow a more elaborate liturgical schedule), the nuns arise at half past five each morning to sing Matins; although it was an option, and each of the mornings the bells calling them to the church at the appointed hour did rouse me, I nevertheless, weak as I am, chose to go back to sleep for another hour. Thus, the beginning of my days at the Abbey was marked by the call to Lauds at 7:30, followed directly by the Holy Mass. Only after breaking our fast properly by supping of the Body of Christ did the guests gather in the guest refectory for breakfast. The next point around which the day was structured was the mid-day prayer at noon, for which the nuns that week had chosen to sing the office of Nones; lunch followed. The bells would toll again to call us to Vespers at 5:30 in the afternoon, directly after which we would take our dinner. Finally, at 7:20, we would gather once again in the church for the singing of Compline, followed directly by the singing of Vigils.

Furthermore, I should note that the nuns of this particular Abbey sing each of the hours, with their appointed psalms, in the same way that Hildegard’s companions did eight centuries before them—in the same language (Latin), and to the same chant. This was the rhythm of my days at the Abbey, and it was one that I was sorry to leave that Friday.

I finally had the chance to meet some of the other guests at dinner that night; over the simple fair of bread and butter, with some meats and cheeses and a pasta salad, we made each other’s acquaintance, chatting away in German about what it was that brought us to the Abbey. There was the woman seven months’ pregnant, taking a few days at the Abbey to recollect herself; the Protestant school teacher in her early thirties who had nevertheless maintained the practice since her university days of visiting the Abbey on vacations a few times each year; the petite Italian-German Catholic in her fifties who was an amateur expert in Hildegard’s herbal and natural medicines; the recently retired professor of music from Munich who had for years now served as a tutor for the nuns in their Gregorian chant; and then there was the slim, silent woman with red hair and glasses sitting at the end of the table. As we all settled back down with bowls of pudding at dessert, she finally piped up.

“I’m very sorry,” came her lilting Scottish voice, “and I don’t mean to be rude, but I can’t speak any German.”

“Not a problem; we’ll speak English for a bit, then,” I replied. A look of great relief spread across Joan’s face to discover a fellow English speak in the lot. Yet, not to be left out, several of the others joined in according to their various abilities.

After clearing our dishes to the wash cart and making our way out of the refectory back into the courtyard of the Abbey church, Joan and I were joined by Tina, the German school teacher, whose English was, in fact, as good or better than my German (she had lived in an international dorm during her days at the University of Heidelberg, where English was often the language held most in common by the many nationalities). Our trio quickly became routine, forming a company in which to share the experiences of the next few days.

Thus ran our days, structured around the anchor-points of the bells that summoned us to each of the hours, our threads woven sometimes singly, sometimes together, into the tapestry of both individual and common experience. In the mornings after breakfast would be a nice, long walk, on Wednesday alone and on Thursday with Joan and Tina, up and around the top of the valley ridge, through the vineyards and the pastures, the fields of rape and the sheep paddocks. Here, Joan and I pose beneath a wonderfully-shaped tree that reminded us strongly of an ent. Afterwards, I’d find a spot on a bench in the courtyard of the church, passing the time with the pages of one of my books.

After lunch, I’d escape from the bright mid-day sun for a few hours in the rocker in my room, my books again before my eyes (though sometimes, a bit of a nap would accompany them). Later in the afternoon, our trio would come together again for a bit of an excursion from our hill-top refuge; on Wednesday, it was a visit to the parish church of Eibingen. Built over the foundations of the old daughter-house of the Rupertsberg, the church contains the remains of St. Hildegard, encased in a bejeweled casket of silver and gold, glittering in its display case behind the main altar. The church, which was destroyed by fire in the 1930’s, has been rebuilt in a thoroughly modern fashion; propriety will keep me from saying anything more on its art and architecture.

Our Thursday afternoon excursion was a bit more expansive: passing through the town, we came to the banks of the Rhine itself and clambered aboard one of the boats that cruise up and down this famous stretch of the river between Mainz and Koblenz so charmingly known as the “Romantic Rhine”. Indeed, the romantic notions that in the 19th century drove the revival of the castles that dot the landscape seemed to be with us a bit that day, too, for the weather turned briskly stormy, the dark clouds rolling in with peals of thunder and splashes of rain spitting down upon us, the wind whipping along fiercely—yet, as any good Romantic would, we braved the weather (which forsooth was not so fierce nor so wet as to actually hinder us), reverently experiencing the sublimity of nature’s power.

Our boat’s particular charge was to travel about two hours round trip downstream and back up, highlighting some of the inspiring, oft-romantic castles that are scattered high above the banks on this most scenic section of the majestic flood. Some of them, like the Castle Ehrenfels, were true medieval fortifications that lie today in ruins, victims of later, more brutal methods of war (built in the 12th century, the Ehrenfels was destroyed in the seventeenth). Others, though their first foundations might be medieval (like the 9th century nucleus of the Castle Reichenstein), were continually rebuilt and expanded, often taking their final forms in the 19th century as nobles, no longer in need of fortifications, nevertheless romantically took up the mantles of their medieval forebears. You may notice, for example, the neo-gothic chapel attached to the side of the Castle Reichenstein; the building continues to be used to this day—as a bed and breakfast.

The mixture of our company—Tina, Joan, and me—and our respective faith backgrounds added an additional layer to the complexity of our interactions. Tina, a Protestant, has nevertheless been coming to the Abbey for periods of vacation for years now and has developed close relationships with several of the nuns (as well as with the Italian cook who, alas, recently retired). And yet, although she attends each of the liturgies around which the Benedictine experience is structured, she noted her dissatisfaction with the Catholic form of the Mass; the focus in Protestant worship is on the reading and interpreting of Scripture, an activity she found lacking in the Catholic service, for ferial (week-day) Masses in Germany rarely contain a homily (though the priest will often offer a few introductory remarks at the opening of the service either illuminating the day’s readings or explaining the significance of the saint whose day it is). Joan, who was raised Protestant on the religious frontiers of Scotland—where the lines between Protestants and Catholics first begin to be drawn up, though with a cordialness foreign to the rougher relations found in Northern Ireland—no longer identifies with a particular Christian denomination and says that, if pressed to give it a name, her spirituality would align most closely with what one might call Taoism. Thus, the call to hospitality that is a hallmark of the Benedictine way of life allows for the extraordinary crossing of paths of many faiths; and while both the nuns and I certainly pray that God might work His grace for the conversion of the hearts of those who meet Him in the Abbey’s quiet confines, the focus for all of us is not the strict work of active evangelization but rather the via passiva of an encounter with other humans who, despite their various backgrounds, nevertheless sense the restlessness common to all humanity: et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te (St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1).

Unfortunately, this quiet interlude—a restive pause for weary pilgrims—came all too soon to an end, and Friday came, a day of departures. Joan left shortly after breakfast to catch a train to Passau to visit her son, who lives and works there as a translator; her farewell promise was to call again at the Abbey, and by that return to have learned some German. Though I was not to depart until the afternoon, I had to pack up and remove my luggage to the office in the Gatehouse in the morning to allow for the cleaning and preparation of my room for its next guest. I spent most of the morning, therefore, in the Klosterladen (“Cloister Shop”), browsing its many wares. I bought some herbal tea (by which Joan swears) for my mother and grandmother; a bottle of wine for a friend in Münster; and various postcards and notecards bearing images of the Abbey and its surroundings, or of some of the more famous illuminations from the manuscripts of Hildegard’s works.

Finally, my attention turned to the bookshelves. I had been hoping that they might carry, in addition to the various translations into German, English, and Italian, the actual critical editions of the Latin texts of Hildegard’s works, published over the course of the last two decades in various volumes of the Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, a many-volumed series, published by Turnhout in Brepols, that is making its way through all of the important works of the Latin Middle Ages—a feat last attempted by the indefatigable Abbé Migne in the 19th century, whose Patrologia Latina, though comprised of often lackluster and even erroneous editions, is still all too often our best (or even only) collection of so many medieval texts. I was hoping to add the CCCM editions, so well-known in their orange cloth bindings, to my collection of books, though knowing full well that they come not cheap—indeed, no normal bookshop, nor any of the various Amazon websites, carry them; the only recourse is often to antiquarian websites where prices quickly exit any reasonable range for my pocketbook. Alas, however, the bookstore did not keep them in stock (however expensive they might have been, I was hoping to find them at least conveniently collected in one place). I therefore contented myself to spend a still-significant amount of money filling my bag with various other books of Hildegardiana in both English and German, acquisitions that I know will very quickly justify their expense in the course of my studies.

As much as I was clinging to my time at the Abbey, however, those last remaining hours soon slipped away, and I found myself bidding farewell to the remaining guests at lunch and, after a few more fleeting moments caught on a bench under the eves of the gatehouse, I hoisted my pack upon my shoulders, with a large bag of my recent acquisitions in my hand, and made my way slowly down the mountain. I stopped in for one last look at the parish church of Eibingen, to make my farewells to Hildegard’s bones (as I had done before my departure two years previously), and to light a few candles for my special intentions. Though many of my prayers from two years ago had been answered and the requested guidance given, I had both some left to reiterate (the same petitions that, I imagine, I shall offer, in one form or other, until the day I die), and others to set anew before God, through the special intercession of His saints.

As I sat gazing out of the train window as the Rhine river zipped by on the way back to Koblenz, I fell again into a contemplative mood, searching with those inner eyes and ears that Hildegard so often mentions for one of those keys to unlock the experiences of the past few days; or rather, as is so often the task of the scholar, to find that one thread that runs through the whole tapestry, tying the disparate parts of random experience into a whole, meaningful picture. What, in hindsight, could I discern of the underlying meaning and structure of my visit? Just as the chanting of the canonical hours was the framework upon which was built the course of each day in that religious life, so also I was looking for the essence of that skeleton that made sense out of the ephemeral flashes of momentary experience.

I will not pretend that I had any great insights on that train, or at least, none greater than the standard connections we make as we survey each day of our lives, that is, in our quotidian mental activity of making what sense we can of it all. My conclusions were, therefore, often no more than simply the rehashing either of threads that I have already enumerated in this post, or of the threads that, more constantly and consistently, accompany me on my daily journey, the why’s and whither’s and what for’s that make up the bulk of human discernment.

There was one rather more special insight, however, that I would like to share. In encountering the other guests at the Abbey, each of whom had their own special reason and relationship with Hildegard, I was reminded once more not only of the manifold aspects of her life and work, but also of the great impact that each of those roles has on those of us today who encounter the “Sibyl of the Rhine”. Over the course of the months, I had begun, I realized, to succumb to that danger that lurks in the path of any academic: the danger of becoming too ensconced in our Ivory Towers, reducing, as it were, the true complexity of the figures we study to the merely academic and scholarly. My approach to Hildegard is (1) scholarly and (2) specifically theological, eschatological, and apocalyptic; and even when I step back from my specialty to survey the other fields of Hildegardiana—the music, the natural medicine, the theology not specifically eschatological—I nevertheless remain in that first mode of viewing, namely, the scholarly.

Yet, as I was reminded in those few days at the Abbey, Hildegard is to many much more than merely a topic of academic interest. I can look specifically to the Italian-German Catholic woman, whom we “scholars” would term an “amateur”, that is, whose interest in Hildegard is entirely practical. She studies Hildegard, spends time at Hildegard’s abbey, and reads Hildegard’s works, not because that’s her job, but because she finds meaning for her own life in Hildegard’s. Hildegard’s writings on natural medicine are not merely important as documents in the history of science; for her, they become actual tools in regulating the ailments of her own body. Likewise, Hildegard’s theology is not merely a collection of theoretical notions; rather, this woman has actually allowed her own spiritual life to be taught by Hildegard’s teachings. My time at the Abbey served as a great reminder to me that the vitality of Hildegard’s personality in our age is the product not of our scholarly researches but of actual people and their real encounters with an extraordinary woman of an age gone by. It is thus for us, the academics, not merely to write our books and give our lectures for the sake of other academics, but to realize that our profession, like all human activities, is meant to be for the advancement of humanity—and that such advancement is not merely an abstract goal of progress, but the concrete reality of people who live their lives in the here and now, perhaps weighed down by the weariness of day-to-day drudgery, yet also lifted up by the simple joys of day-to-day life, well-lived. Though we may use the language of us-versus-them, it is for us to recognize that, if we build the Ivory Tower and shut the world out, we but stifle and extinguish the vitality of our work. Let us, therefore, take as our example the Benedictine model: though we have our cloistered profession in which we trade in a commodity seemingly far removed from the lives of those outside the academic community, we must yet be open and, indeed, actively inviting to them; our principle should not be to close ourselves up, but to lay open the doors and take in our guests, providing them, in our own peculiar way, with refreshment in their lives—for it is the outsiders to our community who, in fact, provide our community with its own greatest rejuvenation.

1 comment:

Dl Smith said...

Beautiful...thanks for this.