Deep in the Mountains of Iowa


Ryumonji is a Soto Zen Buddhist Temple in northeast Iowa. (Lori Erickson photo)

Today I want to tell you about Ryumonji, a Zen monastery near Decorah, Iowa. That probably sounds like a perfectly reasonable sentence to you, but to me it’s in the same category as “Today I want to tell you about an ice cream shop I discovered on Mars.” The reason for this is that I grew up on Decorah, a small town in northeast Iowa. While it was a lovely place to grow up, this was during an era when its religious diversity seemed to me to be limited to the occasional presence of a Swedish Lutheran in a Norwegian Lutheran congregation.

So you can imagine how surprised I was to learn that a Zen monastery and temple had opened in the countryside about 20 miles from Decorah. Last summer I finally had the chance to visit in person, and I came away impressed and a little astonished. Zen is not only sprouting in rural Iowa—it’s flourishing.

This serene enclave is presided over by Rev. Shoken Winecoff, its founding teacher and abbot. You know how there are some people you immediately like within two minutes of meeting them? Shoken is like that. He strikes me as someone who has done his spiritual homework, and I felt more peaceful simply being in his presence.


Shoken Winecoff Roshi is the founding teacher and abbot of Ryumonji. (Lori Erickson photo)

A former Roman Catholic priest and native of St. Louis, Shoken left the priesthood at the age of 28, became a psychologist, married and had a son. But as with so many people, his renewed commitment to a spiritual practice came as the result of hardship, in his case a painful divorce. “My divorce was my greatest teacher,” he says. “It was a very valuable lesson in giving up control.”

Shoken’s study of Zen Buddhism in Minneapolis led to him seek ordination as a monk, a path that included spending three years at a Japanese monastery. In 2000 he came to the wooded, rolling countryside of northeast Iowa to establish a Soto Zen Buddhist temple as a satellite of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Forty acres of land near Decorah were donated for the temple, which is named Ryumonji, which in Japanese means “Dragon Gate Temple.” (Despite being named after a dragon, the temple’s first parishioners were actually cows, according to Shoken.)

Ryumonji’s first building was completed in 2004 and its fourth and final building was constructed in 2013. Its architecture follows the model of a traditional Buddhist temple and monastery, with two wings on either side of a central meditation space known as the Buddha Hall. A bell tower, another traditional part of Buddhist monasteries, contains a hand-cast bronze bell that peals across the wooded valley below.


Ryumonji is constructed in the style of a traditional Zen temple and monastery. (Lori Erickson)

While Shoken is the one permanent resident of the monastery, a far-flung community claims it as a spiritual home. At any given time several people live on site, helping with maintenance chores as well as deepening their practice, and about two dozen gather regularly for meditation and ceremonies. (And I was happy to hear that its first parishioners are still present. When I was there, their mooing in the distance sounded remarkably contemplative—they’ve evidently picked up some of the vibe here.)

As with many monasteries, you have to do some searching to find Ryumonji, and I took several wrong turns on my way there. Such isolation is deliberate, according to Shoken. “There’s a long tradition in many spiritual traditions of going to remote places to grow inwardly,” he says. “In Buddhism this is called ‘going deep in the mountain.’ I like to think of Ryumonji as being deep in the mountains of northeast Iowa.”

In talking to Shoken, I was struck by the way he seems to blend the best of the two religious traditions that have shaped him. “Zen Buddhism has neither god nor no-god, soul nor no-soul,” he says. “It does not take any stand on such matters. And so I didn’t have to renounce Christianity in order to become a Buddhist.”


Ryumonji welcomes everyone interested in learning about the teachings of the Buddha. (Lori Erickson photo)

The deep peacefulness at Ryumonji felt familiar to me. Despite its Iowa setting, its atmosphere felt similar to what I’ve experienced at Zen monasteries in Japan and South Korea. How wonderful that Zen has flowed from the Far East into this corner of rural Iowa, adapting and changing in some ways but remaining true to its serene heart. I can’t think of any better summation of Ryumonji than these lines that are quoted on the monastery’s website from the 13th century Zen Master Eihei Dogen:

Catching the moon, cultivating the clouds,

Untouched by worldly dust fluttering about

A thatched hut, snowy evening, deep mountain.

Growing up in northeast Iowa, I never realized there were mountains there—but I could see them from Ryumonji.

Ryumonji offers weekend retreats and two-month stays for those seeking an extended practice. Public sittings are held Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 9:00 a.m. For an orientation to zazen, arrive fifteen minutes early. For a visit outside of these times, please make advance arrangements to make certain someone is there to receive you. See Ryumonji for contact information.

Posted in Buddhism, Zen | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

What Good Is Philosophy?

9780226130385Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. I’ve long known him as a friend, but with the publication of his new book I’m delighted to discover that he is also a wonderful writer. I’m working my way through his The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone, and will eventually blog about it. But in the meantime I want to give you an excerpt from a speech Scott gave recently at Grinnell College. In it he gives an example of what philosophy can mean in the life of a student. It’s also one of the best descriptions that I’ve read of the power of philosophy to make us question our assumptions and dig deeper into the meaning of our lives:

Towards the end of the 5th century B.C., Chaerophon went to the Temple at Delphi to ask the Oracle if his friend Socrates was the wisest of all people.  The answer came back, “No one is wiser.”  When Socrates got wind of the god’s pronouncement, he was puzzled.  How could he be the wisest when he’s completely devoid of wisdom?  He set out to prove Apollo and his priestess wrong.  His strategy was simple: find one person with even a little bit of positive wisdom, which would clearly beat him whose wisdom level was at zero.  As the story goes, Socrates wandered around Athens questioning its citizens—politicians, poets, craftsmen—about the special truths they claimed to possess and eventually came to the conclusion that the god had spoken the truth.  Socrates really was the wisest of all.  He did have a little bit of positive wisdom: he knew that he knew nothing.

Like all good parables, this story generates deep puzzles.  How can it be that experts don’t know about their respective crafts?  Is Socrates’s questioning a blessing or a curse to his fellow citizens?  What good, if any, is philosophy to a world that seems to hum along fine without it?

It took a student of mine who had never read Plato to bring home the real meaning of this parable—and remind me of the liberating power of the humanities.

Her name was Jillian Kramer, a nurse’s aide at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and she was in Biomedical Ethics, a night class filled mostly with nursing students, lab techs, and a few souls with distant dreams of being doctors.  One of our most lively discussions was sparked when I casually asked the drooping class, “What’s a hospital for, anyway?”  I challenged the expected answers as they came out.  To fix people.  But what about those who have a terminal case?  To ease people’s pain.  But what about those whose pain can’t be eased?  To help people whose pain can be eased.  What about those who don’t want their pain eased?  To help sick people who want to be helped.  Is there no obligation to healthy people?  Though Jillian was bright, serious, and open-minded, academic philosophy wasn’t her thing.  But our discussion sparked something in her, and she asked me if she could write on the purpose of hospitals.


What good is it?

A couple of weeks later, as students were handing in their papers and filing out, I pulled her aside and asked how the project had gone.  Our conversation in class, she explained, had perplexed her; at first she thought my question silly, but after the discussion, she realized that she didn’t have a very clear idea of the overarching point of a hospital, which struck her as exceedingly weird.  To help her formulate a thesis, she lit on the idea of asking everyone and anyone at the hospital about the institution’s true purpose: doctors, nurses, patients, administrators.  What she found perplexed her.  When they could come up with an answer at all, they gave the same pat responses as the students in class, which she was able to prove inadequate.  The best answer, she said, was given by some doctor, who, after having his first couple attempts shot down by a nurse’s aide, said, “Maybe we’re supposed to do all of the above.”  But she soon figured out that that too was inadequate.  How are they to know when to cure, when to ease pain, when to help patients transition back to normalcy?  Should they always give patients what they want?  Should they always give them what they need?  How do you know when to do one rather than the other?  What should govern the variety of services that they provided?  Why were they there?

The problem, Jillian argued to me, is that the hospital can subordinate its whole purpose to mending broken people.  Too often pregnant women are treated like they’re sick, mourners are dealt with like they’re psychological cases, folks clearly dying are pointlessly “fixed.”  If the hospital is merely a mechanical body shop, then we live in a less than fully human world.  “Imagine,” she said, “doctors who’d spent decades studying and practicing medicine, who had never much thought of why they were really doing it!”  Imagine, I thought, poets, politicians, craftsmen, and citizens generally not understanding the ultimate point of their respective endeavors.


Socrates as Hospital Consultant? (painting by Luca Giordano)

Many of her co-workers, she figured, did good jobs—just going on their feel for what they ought to be doing.  (After Socrates discovers that the poets can’t explain their poems, he concludes, “I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration.”)  But she wondered if they wouldn’t be better off opening their minds to the full truth of it.  (“If,” Socrates famously says, “I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me.”)  She had to get going and handed her paper to a rapt professor.

I sat down and read her essay then and there.  She wrote of how Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian I had assigned, helped her to see the problem more clearly.  People who are sick grow alienated from those around them: their pain exiles them from the human community.  The closest she could come to formulating the goal of a hospital was: to be there for people.  To be there when they’re sick.  To be there when they’re dying.  To be there for the families who just lost loved ones.  To aid people when you could, and when they wanted.  But most of all to be there for them, human to human.   To be there especially when they’re suffering and to help them, as far as possible, to transition from the lonely realms of pain to the regular world again.  The point of medicine is care.  Doctors are there, she marvelously concluded, to help the nurses.  But doctors, she feared, overrate their wisdom based on how much they know about science.  (Socrates on the craftsmen: “On the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important; and I felt that this error eclipsed their positive wisdom.”)

Jillian admitted at the end that she didn’t feel complete confidence in her conclusions: they were simply the best way she had of putting what she had discovered deep-down.  She concluded by saying that her inquiry had opened her to the significance of what she was training to do.  She was more inclined to value the work she’d always intuitively known was valuable.  Had she read Plato’s Phaedo, she might have called her conclusions about the hospital “beliefs worth risking.”

Posted in Healing, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Scrolling and Linking Our Way to Superficiality

Young woman reading (in the style of Petrus van Schendel) by anonymous (Wikimedia Commons image)

Young woman reading (in the style of Petrus van Schendel) by anonymous (Wikimedia Commons image)

For many centuries, the practice of lectio divina–close, meditative reading of holy texts–has been one of the most important forms of Christian meditation. Many other faiths, of course, also recognize the value of a slow immersion in sacred words.

Contrast that with our reading habits today. Instead of novels, we read blogs (guilty as charged). Instead of reading a chapter in a book, we read a few paragraphs on a website. When our interest flags, we click on to another site, and then another and another.

So when I read this article from the Washington Post I immediately saw myself in its description: Serious Reading Takes a Hit From Online Scanning and Linking

From the article: “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

Cognitive neuroscientists, according to the article, believe that we are developing new brain circuits for skimming through vast amounts of information online. But this rewiring comes at a cost. Superficiality triumphs over comprehension. Speed replaces accuracy and engagement. Most disturbingly, when we do sit down to try to read something more serious, those habits of flitting from one topic to the next make it difficult to remain focused.

The article continues: Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.

The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading, and it has been documented in academic studies. Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well.

I must confess that thanks to my iPad, I read fewer books than I used to. There’s always something more out there to sample–some bright and shiny tidbit of information or news (did you see the newest pictures of Prince George in New Zealand, for example?).

The one thing that seems to work for me is taking some time right after I get up in the morning to read more serious things. I know not everyone has that luxury, of course, and for you that time might come at another time of day or week instead. But I increasingly treasure the time before the day begins, before the details and tasks intrude on my consciousness too much, when I drink a cup of coffee and slowly work my way through a few pages of something that demands concentration. Over the past few years I’ve read the Gospels of Luke and Matthew this way, as well as several of Paul’s letters. I’ve savored books by Henri Nouwen, Anne Lamott, Richard Rohr, and James Martin. And each day, I read five of the Psalms (if you do five a day, you can do the whole shebang in a month). I’m a believer in the words of Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker Movement): “My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the Psalms.”

The article in the Post mentions the beginnings of a Slow Reading movement, a counterpart to the Slow Foods movement. The initiative is particularly important for children, for if you’ve never had the experience of truly immersing yourself in a piece of literature as a child, you’re not likely to take it up as an adult. And even if you once had the ability to read in-depth, because the brain constantly adapts, you may lose it. In a sense, we become what we read, just as we become what we eat.

Dear readers, do you find your reading habits changing because of being online so much? And does that have an impact on your spiritual life?

Posted in Meditation | Tagged | 7 Comments

The Dalai Lama’s Ski Trip

The Dalai Lama on a chairlift in the mountains of New Mexico, April 1991. (photo courtesy of Bob Shaw)

The Dalai Lama on a chairlift in the mountains of New Mexico, April 1991. (photo courtesy of Bob Shaw)

What happened when the Dalai Lama went skiing at a New Mexico resort in 1991? Douglas Preston recounts the delightful tale in Slate’s The Dalai Lama’s Ski Trip. Preston served as press secretary during the Dalai Lama’s visit, wrangling politicians, celebrities, media people and spiritual seekers as they sought to be near His Holiness. While the majority of his multi-day visit was taken up with meetings, lectures, and other official duties, one afternoon the Dalai Lama decided he wanted to go skiing.

Picture the scene: four monks dressed in maroon and saffron robes riding a ski lift to the top of the mountain. As they were ferried upwards, the Dalai Lama marveled at the skiiers below, impressed by the novices navigating the bunny slope. Just then, according to Preston, an expert skier entered from a higher slope, whipping along:

The Dalai Lama saw him and said, “Look—too fast! He going to hit post!” He cupped his hands, shouting down to the oblivious skier, “Look out for post!” He waved frantically. “Look out for post!”

The skier, who had no idea that the 14th incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion was crying out to save his life, made a crisp little check as he approached the pylon, altering his line of descent, and continued expertly down the hill.

With an expostulation of wonder, the Dalai Lama sat back and clasped his hands together. “You see? Ah! Ah! This skiing is wonderful sport!”

As the group of monks was getting off the lift, they were so distracted by the gorgeous mountain view that they didn’t move away in time and were plowed into by four teenage girls who were on the lift behind them. A chorus of teenage shrieks went up as all the monks were topped over, like so many red and yellow bowling pins. The Dalai Lama was sprawled on the snow, helpless with laughter.

“At ski area, you keep eye open always!” he said.

And at the end of the essay (which I encourage you to read in its entirety), Preston recounts this brief encounter with a waitress at the ski resort’s restaurant, a story that shows that the Dalai Lama, even in the midst of a fun outing, never misses a chance to nudge someone farther along the path to enlightenment:

As we finished, a young waitress with tangled, dirty-blond hair and a beaded headband began clearing our table. She stopped to listen to the conversation and finally sat down, abandoning her work. After a while, when there was a pause, she spoke to the Dalai Lama. “You didn’t like your cookie?”

“Not hungry, thank you.”

“Can I, um, ask a question?”


She spoke with complete seriousness. “What is the meaning of life?”

In my entire week with the Dalai Lama, every conceivable question had been asked—except this one. People had been afraid to ask the one—the really big—question. There was a brief, stunned silence at the table.

The Dalai Lama answered immediately. “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?” He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.

“Thank you,” she said, “thank you.” She got up and finished stacking the dirty dishes and cups, and took them away.

Posted in Buddhism | Tagged | 3 Comments

A Pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland

iona retreat webpage bannerIf you’ve ever dreamed of going on pilgrimage (and if you’re reading The Holy Rover, you almost certainly have), I have a suggestion for you: sign up for Iona: A Celtic Pilgrimage of Renewal, to be held July 12-19, 2014.

st_martins_crossIona, a small island in the western Hebrides of Scotland, is the spiritual birthplace of Celtic Christianity. During the early Middle Ages, it was one of the most important and influential centers in Christianity. Remote and windswept, it is a “thin place” where the veil between heaven and earth is most permeable. Within the past century Iona has once again become a major pilgrimage destination, drawing seekers from throughout the world.

I won’t be able to join the pilgrimage, alas, but two friends of mine are leading it and you will be in very good hands with them. Ben Webb is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Iowa and the executive director of the Center for Regenerative Society; his wife Sarah Webb is an environmental educator and leader. They are warm, wise and delightful people.

Here’s how the Webbs describe the upcoming pilgrimage:

In our morning and evening sessions, we will circle around our daily themes using a combination of reflective reading, poetry, journaling, and small and large group discussions as we explore:

  • the rich natural and cultural heritage of Iona, its history and its people
  • the extraordinary sixth-century mission of Columba and the Irish monastic schools that contributed to a social tipping point in civilization
  • the “contrary way” of Celtic Christianity and its ongoing contribution to personal and congregational life today
  • the story of the contemporary Iona Community and other innovative models of emerging religious life
  • the recovery of contemplative, prophetic and sacramental practices so vital to personal and community renewal
  • resources for worship and daily spiritual practice, including poetry, prayers and blessings from the Celtic tradition

mapscotlandAfternoons are free for solitude and personal reflection as you explore your own growing edge within, including walks and hikes to places of great natural beauty or historic interest, and ample opportunity to enjoy the companionship of fellow retreatants and new soul friends. There will also be daily opportunities to experience Celtic models of worship in our Anglican Retreat House, in the Abbey with the Iona Community, the Catholic House of Prayer and the Parish Church of Scotland, or amidst the many ancient “altars of unhewn stone” that the Creator has provided on Iona since time immemorial…

While together on Iona, we’ll explore alternative resources within “the contrary way” of Celtic Christianity and the modern Iona Community that can help us reverse and revive three neglected dimensions in Christianity today that are vital for transformation:

  • contemplative practices that help us live and lead from within
  • prophetic practices that help us confront false religion and unjust society, offer alternatives, and demonstrate how we can live together in contrary ways
  • sacramental practices that instill a worldview of reverence for the earth

Come and see for yourself how the Celtic spiritual and monastic tradition can inform our task of renewing faith communities grounded in a reverence for all creation, the contemplative life, and the prophetic renewal of church and society.

I heartily recommend this trip. If you’re interested, you can find out more at Iona: A Celtic Pilgrimage of Renewal. And when you get back, I hope you’ll tell us about it!

Posted in Pilgrimage | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

In Taizé


The village of Taizé in France has become one of the great pilgrimage centers in Europe. (Bob Sessions photo)

At last we come to the end of our Holy Rover tour of northern Europe. This last post is about a place some of you may be familiar with because of its music: Taizé, an ecumenical community in France whose influence has spread throughout the world. In my home church, we sing Taizé chants nearly every Sunday. These meditative, simple songs typically feature a line or two from the Psalms, creating a kind of lectio divina in music.

Those who sing this style of music may not realize it’s rooted in a particular place: Taizé, which is located about an hour’s drive north of Lyon in east-central France. Surrounded by rolling pastures and scenic vineyards, the village is home to only about 100 people. The Taizé Community occupies a set of buildings on the outskirts of the town.


The entrance to the Taizé Community is marked by a bell tower. (Bob Sessions photo)

I must admit that my first reaction to Taizé was disappointment. I was tired, as this was our last day of touring at the end of a three-week trip. The weather was cold and bleak. And unlike many of the religious sites I’ve visited over the years, Taizé isn’t particularly scenic or beautiful. Instead it’s made up of a collection of utilitarian buildings surrounding a no-frills church. But by the time we left the next morning, I realized my initial reaction to Taizé was wrong. For even after only a brief visit there, I came away convinced that this is one of the most significant pilgrimage sites I’ve ever visited.

The community was founded during WWII by Brother Roger, a native of Switzerland who came to France (the country of his mother) to help those whose lives were devastated by the conflict raging across Europe. He settled in Taizé and began sheltering Jews and others fleeing from the Nazis, but in 1942 was forced to flee because his activities were discovered by the authorities. In 1944 he returned to Taizé and continued ministering to those in need, helped by a small group of brothers who had joined the ecumenical religious community he had founded.


The interior of the Taizé church is spare and simple. (Bob Sessions photo)

In the 1960s the quiet life of the Taizé Community began to change as young people began coming in ever-larger numbers to the village. To meet their spiritual hunger, Brother Roger developed a style of worship and singing that was suitable to pilgrims hailing from many different countries. Because Taizé songs have so few words and are repeated multiple times, it’s easy to sing them even if you don’t speak the language or aren’t particularly musical. Over the years the liturgy at Taizé became both increasingly simple and more deeply rooted in the monastic traditions of chant and contemplation.

Today Taizé attracts thousands of young people from around the world (while pilgrims of all ages are welcomed, priority is given to youth). During the height of the summer, there are up to 6,000 people in Taizé at the same time, gathering for worship services held three times a day in its church. Because the building is far too small to accommodate such numbers, the church’s walls can be opened so that those sitting outside can participate. Each service includes a few Bible passages read in multiple languages, an extended period of silence, and Taizé songs.

The Taizé church has icons lit by candles. (Bob Sessions photo)

The Taizé church has icons lit by candles. (Bob Sessions photo)

Brother Roger’s community has grown to include more than 100 brothers from 30 countries. About 65 live on site, while the rest do mission work around the world. The brothers come from a variety of denominations and do not give up that affiliation to join the community. The village is also home to three groups of Roman Catholic nuns, who assist in the hosting of the huge numbers of pilgrims.

Visiting in November, we missed seeing Taizé in full flower. But even with only a few hundred people in residence, it still buzzed with energy. At dinner that evening, we visited with young people from Sweden, England, Holland, Finland, Japan and Germany.

We were especially pleased to meet Jason Hill, a Presbyterian minister who has come on pilgrimage to Taizé several times and is discerning a call to join its community of brothers. “During the height of the pilgrimage season, Taizé is like a United Nations of languages, nationalities and cultures,” he told us. “But even though people come from many different backgrounds, there’s an incredible sense of unity and love that is formed here through worship and the discussion groups that take place each morning. People are asked to commit to spending a full week here so they can fully immerse themselves in the experience. It’s intense and life-changing.”

The brothers, who support themselves by making and selling handcrafts, lead discussion groups, provide spiritual direction, and develop liturgical materials. But most of the day-to-day work at Taizé is done by volunteer staff, who are young people who come for an extended period of service, typically six months or a year. The pilgrims themselves also help with cooking, cleaning and the many other tasks involved with hosting thousands of guests each year.


Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community, is buried outside the village’s small stone church. (Bob Sessions photo)

After dinner, Jason walked with us down the hill a short way to the small, stone church where the community of Taizé had begun. Outside its front door is the grave of Brother Roger, who at the age of 90 was killed during a Taizé service by a mentally disturbed woman.

“There were many thousands of people at his funeral, including religious leaders from around the world,” said Jason. “While Brother Roger’s death was a terrible tragedy, the community rallied around the woman and her family and forgave what had happened. It was a powerful example of how they live out their values of peacemaking and reconciliation.”

After our conversation with Jason, we went to the evening service in the church, which was filled with about 300 worshipers, most sitting on the floor. The lights were low and most of the illumination came from the dozens of flickering candles on the altar. The most moving part was the singing. The monks in the center of the church created a low-pitched anchor for the more soaring voices of the women, filling the womb-like space with resonance and beauty. It was one of the most remarkable worship experiences I’d ever had. At the end of the service the monks filed out silently but the music continued, led by the young people themselves. After an hour I finally left, but the songs were still being sung.

As I went back to our dorm room, I encountered a bewildered, exhausted young woman on the sidewalk. She explained in halting English that she had just arrived from South Korea and was looking for her room.

Many languages are spoken at Taizé. (Jason Hill photo)

Many languages are spoken at Taizé. (Jason Hill photo)

After I helped her connect with some friendly staff members, I marveled at the power of Taizé to lure pilgrims from around the world. “We’ll take good care of her!” the young people called to me as we parted. I’m sure they did.

Since leaving that small village, I’ve thought often of our too-brief stay at Taizé. In touring Europe, I’ve often felt that many of its religious sites seem more like art museums than living places of worship. In Taizé , in contrast, I found the simplest of buildings, but a thriving, living community. There’s a lesson in that, certainly. If Christianity has a future in Europe, it may well be sparked by what’s going on in Taizé. After all those thousands of young people go back to their homes, they bring part of the spark of Taizé with them. Most of them will likely settle into a comfortable agnosticism, I expect, like so many of their fellow Europeans. But some will remember their experiences in that darkened, holy church, that sense of being surrounded by song and prayer.


Pilgrims from around the world make their way to Taizé. (Jason Hill photo)

The next morning a light snow was falling as we carried our bags to the car. I could hear the faint sound of music coming from the church. As we drove away I vowed to come back one day, to stay longer and immerse myself more deeply in the rhythms of life here. But in the meantime, I am happy to know that the singing continues in Taizé, day and night, a sign of hope in a dark world.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who visited the community many times, said this about Taizé:

What do I come looking for in Taizé? I would say to experience in some way what I believe most deeply, namely that what is generally called “religion” has to do with goodness. To some extent the traditions of Christianity have forgotten this. There has been a kind of narrowing, an exclusive focus on guilt and evil. Not that I underestimate that problem, which was a great concern of mine for several decades. But what I need to verify is that however radical evil may be, it is not as deep as goodness. And if religion, if religions have a meaning, it is to liberate that core of goodness in human beings, to go looking for it where it has been completely buried. Now here in Taizé I see goodness breaking through, in the community life of the brothers, in their calm and discreet hospitality, and in the prayer.

And finally, a sample of Taizé (note: this is not my video). The song is Nada te Turbe (Let Nothing Disturb You).

Posted in Pilgrimage | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Traveling Mercies

When we were stranded by a snowstorm in a French village, this kindly cow kept us company across the road from our hotel. (Bob Sessions photo)

When we were stranded by a snowstorm in a French village, this kindly cow kept us company across the road from our hotel. (Bob Sessions photo)

Today’s post is by guest-blogger Bob Sessions:

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire

As regular readers of this blog know, last November Lori and I took a three-week sojourn in northern Europe. We weren’t on an official pilgrimage such as the Camino de Santiago, but our trip had many of the characteristics of one. In this post I want to talk about something we experienced nearly every day: the kindness of strangers.

I think of Caroline, whose job it was to introduce us to the arts scene in Dusseldorf (in good German fashion she marched us through four museums in one day!). But she also took us to two local concerts, both of which were in addition to our official schedule and her paid services. At a German abbey on the Rhine, we had to rely on the kindness of a young Polish monk. When we dropped into his life unexpectedly, he not only gave us an hour-long tour, but also a warm blessing as we left. In Paris when were were struggling to find our hotel, a passing Frenchman shattered my prejudice about Parisians being aloof by asking if we needed help. And in an unexpected snow storm in a rural village in France, the locals, who had spent much of the day dealing with a lineup of trucks blocking the highway through their town, came by with shovels and strong shoulders, first digging us out and then helping us find a safe place to park.

As Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, a major reason those of us who live in market (“exchange”) economies do not like gifting is because such transactions are asymetrical. In our system, when we perform an economic transaction we get and give equally, which means there is no residue of debt for either party. In gifting economies, things are out of balance once the exchange occurs. We feel obliged to the people who give to us, and these obligations have the potential to transform us.


St. James as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago (Lori Erickson photo)

Probably the major reason people go on pilgrimage is for self transformation. The key first step in this process is giving up control, opening yourself to the unbidden so that change can occur. Any mystic will tell you, of course, that control is an illusion anyway, but most of us need regular confirmation of that fact. Being given a gift, especially by strangers, is a powerful nudge to let go and open up. In the examples I have described, the choice was not just to accept help, but also to let go psychologically, realizing we were not in control.

These many acts of kindness made our interconnections, as well as our vulnerabilities, very clear. We not only saw our inability to find our way or get unstuck, but also our broader dependencies on modern technologies, government, transportation systems, people, and the forces of nature. The kindness of strangers helped strip away our usual obliviousness to these myriad ways we are connected with the world in which we are embedded.

Spiritual transformation can be painful, difficult, and frightening. But it can bring great joy as well, both to oneself and to those who give. I found it nearly impossible to be anxious or grumpy (family traits, I’m afraid) when we received these freely given gifts. Much of my joy was not so much at being liberated from a snow drift (although that was part of it), but rather wonder and delight that such an unbidden gift was offered. I don’t think I am projecting in my belief that the givers, too, found satisfaction, if not joy, in giving to us.

Typically, we believe that to receive a gift is to be subservient, and to relinquish control could be to let someone dominate. Part of why the kindness of strangers can be such a powerful spiritual experience is that it involves compassion. Such acts are a special kind of gifting where the gift is given without the expectation of external reward or any kind of direct return. After the many random acts of kindness we experienced on our trip, I no longer believe such selfless giving is so rare or the province mainly of saints.



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Hildegard’s Lessons for Aging Well

Mural of Hildegard from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard near Bingen (Bob Sessions photo)

Mural of Hildegard from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard near Bingen (Bob Sessions photo)

Are you up for one last post on Hildegard of Bingen? I wrote the following essay for Next Avenue, a website affiliated with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Some of this will be familiar if you’ve read my previous posts on Hildegard, but the lessons on aging at the end are new:

From Meryl Streep to Sting to Dame Judi Dench, we have plenty of contemporary role models for aging well. But when I think of how I’d like my next decades to unfold, I look a little further back in time for my mentor — nine centuries, to be precise. Hildegard of Bingen, one of history’s most remarkable women, is my inspiration. Writer, healer, mystic, composer, philosopher, poet and naturalist, Hildegard was a Renaissance woman before there even was a Renaissance.

I’ve been fascinated by Hildegard since I accidentally stumbled across her music in my 30s. The more I learned about her wealth of talents, the more intrigued I became. And I am not alone in my enthusiasm: Hildegard has as diverse a fan club as any celebrity. Musicians love her ethereal chants; health enthusiasts take inspiration from her writings on diet and healing; environmentalists appreciate her passion for the natural world; feminists hail her as a foremother; and in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church, an honor bestowed on only a handful of female saints.

Walking in St. Hildegard’s Shoes

This past November I had the chance to follow “the Hildegard trail” in Bingen, Germany, an adventure sparked by my son’s decision to spend a semester studying in Leuven, Belgium. (Luckily my son didn’t take offense when I told him I’d be visiting Hildegard first.)

Clearly much has changed in 900 years, but as I journeyed down the Rhine River, I suspected Hildegard had probably been as awed by this lush, dramatic landscape as I was. The 65-km stretch of river between Koblenz and Bingen — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is bordered by high bluffs and steeply terraced vineyards, with hilltops punctuated with medieval castles. As we cruised down-river, I understood how Hildegard’s deep appreciation for the natural world and her transcendental music were influenced by this landscape.

In Bingen, a tidy German town of 25,000, I was relieved to learn I wouldn’t have to rely on my rusty high school German. The Hildegard tour is well marked and translated. The town isn’t as inundated with pilgrims as Lourdes or Rome, but it hosts a steady stream of international Hildegard fans.

My first stop was the Museum am Strom, whose exhibits detail Hildegard’s entry into religious life at the age of 14 (at a monastery in Disibodenberg), her election as an abbess at 38, and her decision to found a new abbey in Bingen 14 years later, which she did despite strong opposition from the monks who wished to keep her and her nuns at Disibodenberg. A year later she published Scivias, a theological treatise on her prophetic visions.

I felt her spirit even more strongly in St. Hildegard Abbey, located on a high hill across the river from Bingen and home to a community of 55 Benedictine nuns. The imposing stone church was built long after Hildegard’s time, but it’s full of murals depicting scenes from her life.

Mural of Hildegard in Bingen (Bob Sessions photo)

Mural of Hildegard in Bingen (Bob Sessions photo)

As I wandered, I was struck with a realization that had previously escaped me: In an era when most people didn’t make it to 50, Hildegard actually become more productive with each passing decade. In spite of being a woman in a male-dominated period, lacking a formal education and suffering from chronic health problems (including exhaustion, fever and pain), Hildegard had a multitasking career that would make a modern CEO envious. She composed music for her nuns to sing, wrote texts on theology and medicinal herbs, advised political leaders, went on preaching tours and, at 67, founded an abbey across the river when her own community had grown to capacity. At age 80 she was still crossing the Rhine twice a week to oversee it.

My favorite moment of the trip came late one afternoon as I stood on the bank of the Rhine and imagined how the scene might have looked in Hildegard’s day. I could picture her striding purposefully down to the water, hitching up her robes before climbing into a boat, probably dictating orders to her assistant. I watched as her dinghy moved across the water, her figure gradually growing smaller in the distance. And just before she reached the shore—I know this sounds strange, but Hildegard of all people believed in the power of visions—I swear she looked back at me and smiled.

Hildegard’s Lessons for Aging Well

During my visit, I thought about how she was a role model for positive aging, and came up with a list of five lessons we could learn from following in Hildegard’s footsteps:

  1. Ripening is important — for fruit and people. Though she’d had mystical visions since childhood, Hildegard didn’t share her revelations with the world until she was 42. It then took her 10 years to write her first book about them. The takeaway: When you’ve got something truly important to share, there’s value in waiting for the perfect moment, when you have the wisdom and maturity to present it well.
  2. Your greatest weakness can become your greatest strength. Hildegard suffered poor health her entire life, but it didn’t deter her from passionately pursuing her goals. In fact, her own frailties arguably sparked her interest in healing. She also knew how to use her illness for leverage, as when she took to her bed until her superiors granted her request to found her own abbey.
  3. Inner harmony provides the wellspring for outer strength. Hildegard was deeply spiritual and intensely practical, a rare combination in any era. Nourished by prayer and ritual, she found expression in a steady outpouring of creative works.
  4. Speak the truth as you know it. While she had a deep respect for authority and the traditions of her church, she wasn’t afraid to bend the rules when necessary or speak up for what she thought was right. In fact, reading the sharply worded letters she sent to princes and bishops can almost make one feel sorry for the recipients.
  5. Joy should be the foundation of your life. A key concept in Hildegard’s writings is viriditas, the word she used to describe the mysterious divine vitality that fills the world. She nurtured it wherever she found it, giving what I think is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard: “Be not lax in celebrating.” I can picture those choruses of angels in her visions echoing the commandment, circling round and round in an endless dance of bliss.
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Hildegard’s Living Legacy


The Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard sits on a hill overlooking Rudesheim and Bingen. (Bob Sessions photo)

Today we cross the Rhine River (it only takes about five minutes by ferry) to explore Hildegard of Bingen’s legacy in the town of Rüdesheim, Germany. Remember I told you that Hildegard founded a second convent here 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.


The abbey church is built in a neo-Romanesque style. (Bob Sessions photo)

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.


Murals depicting scenes form Hildegard’s life adorn the church’s interior. (Bob Sessions photo)

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.”


The Parish and Pilgrim Church of St. Hildegard features a mosaic of her vision of the Holy Trinity. (Bob Sessions photo)

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.

To learn more about Hildegard of Bingen:

Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader
provides 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

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The Hildegard Trail

The Hildegard Trail in Bingen (Bob Sessions photo)

The Hildegard Trail in Bingen (Bob Sessions photo)

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. 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.


Statue of Hildegard in Bingen’s Museum am Strom (Bob Sessions photo)

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.”


Hildegard’s vision of the “Universal Man” (note that she includes herself in the corner)

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.


Hildegard’s mandela-like vision of choruses of angels surrounding God, who is depicted as a white space, signifying that the divine cannot be captured by an image

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.”

Image of Hildegard of Bingen in St. Rochus Chapel (Bob Sessions photo)

Image of Hildegard of Bingen in St. Rochus Chapel (Bob Sessions photo)

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.


The Scivias Institute for Art and Spirituality sponsors workshops and gatherings in the underground vaults where Hildegard’s abbey once stood. (Bob Sessions photo)

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.”

Next post: Hildegard’s legacy on the other side of the Rhine River

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