I love this sign, don’t you? I’ve traveled to a lot of holy places, but Bingen, Germany, is the only place where the pilgrimage route is marked by a nun sign. Hildegard is their most famous resident, and they want to make it easy for pilgrims to follow in her footsteps.
And more people are doing just that, for Hildegard of Bingen is enjoying a surprising career resurgence for someone who’s been dead for nine centuries (for more information on her biography, see The Life of Hildegard of Bingen). Her fan club is certainly diverse: feminists hail her as a foremother, environmentalists praise her views on nature, New Age enthusiasts recognize her as a kindred spirit, and musicians record her chants (the CD A Feather on the Breath of God was a surprise best-seller in 1988). And in 2012 Hildegard was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI, an honor given to only four women saints.
It’s no wonder they’ve put up nun signs in Bingen.
The best place to begin a tour is the Museum am Strom, located on the bank of the Rhine not far from where Hildegard’s abbey once stood. Most of its interior is devoted to an overview of her life and legacy, including models of the monasteries where she lived, information on the daily life of a Benedictine nun during the Middle Ages, exhibits on her many talents and accomplishments, and displays on the ways in which her legacy continues to influence the world. The ethereal, haunting background music, naturally, is by Hildegard herself.
On my visit I got the chance to visit with Dr. Matthias Schmandt, director of the museum, who talked about the challenge of presenting Hildegard’s complex life. “Sometimes it seems as if there is no single Hildegard,” he said. “Because she was so multi-faceted, it’s easy to see just one aspect of her life, as in the story of the blind men and the elephant. Our goal is to present the historical facts of her life and give background on the times in which she lived. Even if people are most interested in her as a religious figure, for example, they should know something about her accomplishments in music and medicine, and vice versa.”
I found the museum’s displays on Hildegard’s medicine particularly interesting. During her day, the art of healing was mostly practiced by Benedictine monks and nuns. As an abbess, Hildegard treated both her fellow nuns and others who came to her with complaints and symptoms. Like her contemporaries, she followed a form of medicine dating back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that four bodily fluids influenced people’s temperament and health: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.
But Hildegard was also a strong advocate for many of the practices that we have only just re-discovered in Western medicine. She believed in the importance of a healthy diet, the value of moderation and rest, and the necessity of treating the entire person, not just their symptoms. She knew people’s spirituality was closely linked to their physical condition. She wrote extensively about the use of medicinal herbs, some of which are grown in the museum’s garden. (It is Hildegard’s holistic approach to diet and health that draws the most attention in Germany today. Bob and I were amused in Dusseldorf, for example, to dine at a restaurant that had certain entrees on its menu marked with a Hildegard-seal-of-approval.)
But it was the museum’s upper level that was most fascinating to me, for exhibits there focus on Hildegard’s mystical visions. Enlargements of them are arranged around a statue of Hildegard, each displayed in a lighted panel that allows one to see the small details.
And what an amazing set of visions they are! Some are fiery and apocalyptic; others radiate a sense of serenity and peace. All are highly symbolic, which explains why Hildegard spent many years writing books trying to explain them. Scholars believe that Hildegard did not create these images herself, but rather closely supervised their creation by scribes. They are some of the most remarkable religious visions ever recorded, providing windows into a most-unusual soul. After seeing them, I have even more respect for the church authorities who recognized them as divinely inspired, for these complex and sometimes puzzling images are not easy to understand and would be easy to misinterpret.
“Even in her own time, some people thought her visions came from the devil,” said Dr. Schmandt. “Without papal and church approval, her story would have been very different.”
After leaving the museum we headed up the hill to St. Rochus Chapel, another landmark on the Hildegard Trail. This chapel overlooking Bingen became a focus for the veneration of Hildegard in the nineteenth century. Constructed in neo-Gothic style in 1895, its interior includes ornate, gilded panels illustrating scenes from Hildegard’s life as well as a side altar that includes two of her relics.
The church also illustrates the Lazarus-like nature of Hildegard’s reputation. After her death in 1179, her memory was kept alive in this region of Germany but faded in the larger world. Then in the 18th and 19th century the German Romantics discovered her. With their love for the medieval era and close ties to the natural world, these poets and philosophers found a kindred spirit in the German nun. It seems as if each era rediscovers its own Hildegard.
Another aspect of her legacy lives on in the nearby Hildegard Forum, a non-profit institution founded by the Sisters of the Cross that sponsors workshops and classes inspired by Hildegard’s teachings. The forum also serves a daily lunch buffet in a circular dining room whose shape echoes Hildegard’s vision of the wheel of the world. The food is prepared according to Hildegard’s principles, while outside is a medicinal herb garden that (as at the museum) features the plants that Hildegard regarded as having healing properties.
Before leaving Bingen, we finally went to the site where it all began: the spot where Hildegard’s abbey once stood at the junction of the Nahe and Rhine Rivers. Alas, the building was destroyed in 1632 during the Thirty Years War, and today the site is a hodgepodge of modern city streets and buildings. But underneath the surface lies a treasure: stone vaults that date back hundreds of years, perhaps to the time of Hildegard’s abbey.
There I met someone who’s even more of a fan of Hildegard than I am. Dr. Annette Esser is founder and director of the Scivias Institute for Art and Spirituality. After earning a doctorate in feminist theology, she has devoted her life to keeping the legacy of Hildegard alive, including offering conferences, workshops, and pilgrimages.
In a serene and low-lit room that has something of the atmosphere of a cloister about it, Dr. Esser spoke of the world’s continuing fascination for the German saint. “Hildegard influences people in a wide variety of ways because she was active in so many fields,” she said. “But I think Hildegard herself viewed her many accomplishments as all being connected and flowing from the same divine source. For her, all of life was one harmonious whole. And speaking personally, I am most fascinated by her experience of what she called the ‘Living Light.’ She took her visions very seriously and considered herself a prophet. I think we are still learning from what she proclaimed.”
After touring Bingen, I crossed the Rhine by ferry (it only takes five minutes) to explore Hildegard of Bingen’s legacy in the town of Rüdesheim, Germany. This is where she founded a second convent when her Bingen abbey was full. Like her original abbey, her second one was destroyed hundreds of years ago. But I’m pleased to report that Hildegard’s legacy is flourishing at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard,which is built on a hill overlooking the towns of Rüdesheim and Bingen.
I’ve visited a lot of abbeys, and this is among the loveliest I’ve seen. Surrounded by vineyards, it has expansive views of the lush Rhine River valley. The building itself lives up to its dramatic setting. It was built between 1900-08 by Prince Karl of Lowenstein, who (during an era when Hildegard was largely unknown to the larger world) wanted to celebrate her spiritual legacy near the site of her original abbeys. He contacted an order of Benedictine nuns in Prague and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: if a group of them would agree to move to the new abbey and name it after Hildegard, he would give it to them.
The Benedictine nuns happily moved into their new home and in their own quiet ways honored Hildegard’s memory, singing her music, researching her history, and welcoming the trickle of guests who came on the Hildegard Trail.
That trickle began to swell in the 1970s and has been growing every since. Today many pilgrims make their way to the Abbey of St. Hildegard, some for a brief visit and others for longer retreats. About 50 nuns live here, following the rhythms of Benedictine life that haven’t changed much since the days of Hildegard. In addition to hosting retreats, the nuns of the abbey have a variety of enterprises that support the community, including making wine from the vineyards and repairing books.
And what a home they have! The abbey is built in neo-Romanesque style, with a soaring interior lined with murals done in the Beuron style. I had never heard of this artistic style before visiting here, but I was quite taken by it. Though it originated in Germany in the nineteenth century, it draws on much older influences, particularly Egyptian art. The church’s interior is dominated by a figure of Christ with outstretched hands in its apse, while its northern wall has a series of exquisite murals depicting scenes from Hildegard’s life.
At the abbey I was pleased to get the chance to visit with Sister Ancilla, who has been part of the community for more than 40 years. She told of how surprised the nuns were a number of years ago when Pope Benedict XVI (who is German) mentioned Saint Hildegard in a speech. “We wrote to him and said that technically she wasn’t a saint because she had never been officially canonized,” she said.
Isn’t that funny? Despite Hildegard’s accomplishments and reputation in the church, she wasn’t actually a saint, a fact that even the Pope wasn’t aware of. But once this was known, Hildegard was put on the fast track to sainthood. Pope Benedict named her a saint in May of 2012, and in October of that same year he designated her as a Doctor of the Church, an honor given to saints whose lives and teaching are deemed particularly important. Hildegard was only the fourth woman saint to be so honored, joining St. Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and Therese of Lisieux. And at the ceremonies at the Vatican honoring Hildegard, the main image of her was taken from a mural at the Abbey of St. Hildegard.
I would guess Hildegard said, “Well, it’s about time!”
Sister Ancilla believes that Hildegard’s message of wholeness and divine love is more important today than ever. “She believed that a human being is a unity, and that you can’t separate the soul from the body,” she said. “Her message was always about God’s love for us. There is a such a great need in the world today to hear that teaching.”
After leaving the abbey, we made our way down the hill to our final stop on the Hildegard Trail: the Parish and Pilgrim Church of St. Hildegard, which is built on the same spot where Hildegard’s second abbey once stood. In her day this was known as the Eibingen Abbey, which lasted until 1802. The current church building was constructed in 1935.
As we entered, our eyes were immediately drawn to the immense mosaic above the altar. Made of 150,000 small pieces of glass, it depicts Hildegard’s vision of the Holy Trinity, showing the figure of a man surrounded by two concentric circles, one of gold and one of silver. The man is Christ, the silver circle is God, and the golden circle is the Holy Spirit. What an unusual image of the Trinity! I’ve never seen another altar quite like it.
Below the mosaic is a golden box containing the relics of Hildegard (while there are a few more of her relics kept here and there, the majority rest in this case). The reliquary is inscribed with a verse from Isaiah: “He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation and with the robe of joy He hath covered me: He hath crowned me with a diadem as a bride, as a bride whom He hath adorned with His jewels.”
And so we come, at last, to the end of Hildegard’s story. Healer, mystic, saint, musician and feather on the breath of God. I hope this digital pilgrimage has whetted your appetite to learn more. (Below you’ll find a few suggestions for further reading as well as a short video on Bingen.) But Hildegard herself gets the last word, in this passage from one of her letters:
Walk through the valley of humility and know peace. Lose your titanic, hard-to-satisfy ego. A greedy self-esteem is just a steep mountain you’ll find dangerous to climb. It’s also tricky (if not impossible) to come down from such heights, and anyhow the summit is too small for community. Focus on Love’s splendid garden instead. Gather the flowers of humility and simplicity of soul. Study God’s patience. Keep your eyes open.
- The Life of Hildegard of Bingen
- Hildegard’s Lessons for Aging Well
- Pilgrimage Sites on the Rhine River
To learn more about Hildegard of Bingen:
Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Readerprovides a good historical overview, with selections from her works as well as commentary. Victoria Sweet’s memoir God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine is by a doctor who became fascinated by Hildegard and her writings on medicine. Sweet ended up getting a PhD in Hildegard while continuing to practice medicine in a charity hospital in San Francisco, where she incorporated some of Hildegard’s wisdom into her treatments. Vision – From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen is a German-made film that is well worth watching, though I disagree with its characterization of Hildegard in some ways. And Matthew Fox gets credit for starting the current resurgence of interest in Hildegard with his Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen
If You Go: I recommend flying into Dusseldorf and then heading south along the Rhine River by train (the German rail system is marvelous) or by car. Bingen is located at the southern end of the most scenic stretch of the river. The 65-km section between Koblenz and Bingen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, honored both for its natural beauties and historical significance. I’m grateful to American Airlines, the Bingen Tourism Office and the German National Tourist Board for assisting me with my Hildegard research.