In Taizé

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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With Hildegard in Bingen

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)

At last we come to Bingen, Germany, home to one of the most remarkable women in history. If Hildegard of Bingen had a resume (unusual for a 12th-century mystic, I admit, but humor me) it would have been many pages long. She was an abbess, healer, writer, musician, visionary, counselor, preacher, linguist, naturalist, poet and an adviser to kings, bishops and princes. She wrote more than 70 liturgical songs, the first sung play, and books on theology, medicine, diet and natural history. All the while she kept up a voluminous correspondence with people in and out of the church, leading one scholar to dub her the “Dear Abby of the 12th century.”

If I could invite a handful of people from history for dinner at my house, Hildegard would be among them—though I suspect she would likely dominate the conversation so much that the other guests would be intimidated.

So when my son Carl decided to study in Belgium and I looked at a map and found that Bingen was a short train ride away, I was delighted (one indication of my enthusiasm for Hildegard is that I visited her before Carl).

As I wrote in my post On the Romantic Rhine, Bingen is located at the southern end of one of the most scenic stretches of the Rhine River. Hildegard’s life was tied to this beautiful valley–in fact, she was called “The Sybil of the Rhine” by later generations of admirers. Thus if you’re doing a Hildegard Tour, there’s no better way to arrive in Bingen than by boat from the north, for a slow journey through the gorgeous countryside helps explain Hildegard’s love for the natural world and her view of creation as holy.

If you’ve ever been tempted to complain about your childhood (and admit it—you have), consider the life of Hildegard. Born in 1098 as the tenth of ten children of a noble family, she was dedicated to the church by her parents at the tender age of eight, though she didn’t formally enter religious life until she was fourteen. As a young woman she went to live with her older cousin Jutta in a nun’s hermitage attached to a male Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg.

Jutta seems to have been a pretty stern and ascetic sort, and one wonders how a bright spirit like Hildegard fared in such a constrained (at least by contemporary standards) atmosphere. The two lived quiet lives shaped by the rhythms of prayer, liturgy and Biblical study. While Hildegard didn’t have a formal education, the Benedictines had great respect for learning and she received instruction in natural history as well as religious matters, learning a rough-and-ready Latin that served her well in her later writings.

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An image of Hildegard from St. Rochus Chapel in Bingen (Bob Sessions photo)

Hildegard grew into a most unusual woman, brilliant, charismatic and interested in a wide range of subjects that went far beyond the cloister. She was also sickly, suffering from periodic fevers, pain and fatigue. And she had a secret unknown to virtually everyone: she had been seeing extraordinary mystical visions from the time she was three.

At the age of 42, Hildegard’s quiet life changed forever when she received a divine command to share her visions with the world. “I am merely a too-sensitive, frail rib with mystical lungs, who saw a living, blazing fire that couldn’t be put out,” she wrote. “This Light said to me, ‘Shame-filled, earth-shod woman—untaught and unlettered—remember you’ve been illuminated by My light. It ignites in you an inner sun, burning with divine mysteries and secrets. Don’t be timid. Tell these. Although you’re hesitant to speak out, don’t be. Speak of the Fire this vision has shown you.’”

By this time Hildegard was the abbess of a small community of nuns that had formed at Disibodenberg. She spent the next ten years writing Scivias, a theological work that attempts to explain the fiery images she had received. With characteristic Hildegard chutzpah, she sent a draft of the manuscript to one of the most prominent religious figures of the day, Bernard of Clairvaux. He in turn sent it to Pope Eugene III. And while popes throughout history have gotten many things wrong (i.e., Galileo), this pope got it right. He declared Hildegard’s visions to be divinely inspired, and from that point on the obscure German nun was launched into public life, gradually gaining fame and influence in both the religious and political realms.

At the age of 49, Hildegard founded her first abbey at Bingen, taking 18 nuns with her over the objections of the monks at Disibodenberg (Hildegard took to her bed when they refused her request, and then experienced a miraculous recovery when they relented). That abbey was destroyed long ago, but after visiting Bingen I can see why she would choose to relocate there. While Disibodenberg was in the hinterlands, Bingen was on the Rhine, the busiest travel route through Europe. While Hildegard was a nun, she also clearly liked to be where the action was.

During an age when women rarely lived into their 50s, Hildegard seemed to grow more creative and productive with each passing year. After she completed her first book, she launched into a second and then a third book of theology. She composed songs for her nuns to sing, taking the standard plain chant of the day and turbo-charging it, greatly expanding its vocal range to create soaring melodies that one historian has described as the equivalent of Gothic cathedrals in music. She wrote books on medicine and natural history and corresponded with monks and nuns on spiritual matters and with royalty about political concerns. She was both deeply mystical and deeply practical, a rare combination in any age.

At the age of 60, Hildegard went on the first of four preaching tours, speaking in marketplaces because at the time women were prohibited from speaking in churches. At the age of 67 she founded a second abbey on the other side of the Rhine because her own community had grown too large, crossing the river by boat twice a week to oversee it. And as if all of this indefatigable energy and creativity wasn’t enough, she even created her own language, a secret code that was discovered after her death. (Honestly, the more I learn about Hildegard the more I feel that I have totally wasted my life.) When she died at the age of 81, I bet they kept checking her body to make sure she didn’t leap up for yet one more endeavor.

So there’s a brief introduction to the amazing Hildegard, who intrigues the modern world as much as she did her contemporaries. Let me leave you with her own self-description:

“There was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”

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One of Hildegard’s visions, showing her being divinely inspired (image taken at Bingen’s Museum am Strom by Bob Sessions)

 

 

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Beginner’s Mind

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The city of Dusseldorf has the cartwheel as its city symbol–its exuberance a reminder of one aspect of Beginner’s Mind. (Bob Sessions photo)

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

Unlike the Holy Rover, I had no official assignments on our trip through northern Europe last November. But nevertheless I quickly found myself traveling with a sense of purpose—the very definition of a pilgrimage. Whether taking pictures or simply reveling in the wonders I beheld, I learned a great deal about opening myself to spiritual experiences and growth.

I have long known about the Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind, but this trip made me realize its truths deeper than ever before. While Beginner’s Mind is part of Buddhist teaching, it’s also a central goal of every meditative tradition, pointing to the necessity of reducing or eliminating barriers to contemplation such as our active internal dialogue (“monkey mind”), our prejudices and beliefs, and even our very selves (egos). While many people recognize that pilgrimage can help us open ourselves to the holy through spiritual experiences, I think it’s also important to realize that pilgrimage can be an avenue to Beginner’s Mind.

Having never visited continental Europe, for example, I was blown away by Dusseldorf, Germany, our first stop. Everything seemed different to me–the cobblestone streets, architecture, public art, small shops, riverfront, styles of fashion–even though this rich and vibrant city is very cosmopolitan, western, and new (since much of it was rebuilt after World War II).

As I was exclaiming about the wonders of this new (to me) world, Lori laughed and said just wait, reminding me of the places we still were to visit, including Amsterdam, Paris, the Rhine Valley and Belgium. She was right, of course, but the initial shock of the new was a crucial first step in opening my mind. What I was experiencing was a reality where my usual habits and presuppositions often were unhelpful, where I needed to observe carefully before judging or acting, and where many of my anticipations or predictions were off mark.

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One of my delights In Europe was spotting Green Men, an ancient symbol of the divine protectors of nature, including this fine example in Leuven, Belgium. (Bob Sessions photo)

Basically, I had two choices. Either I could follow my usual psychological strategy and try to fit what I was experiencing into familiar frameworks, or I could open up to the new and the unbidden—in other words, give up control. Initially, the former path is easier because it requires no psychological changes. All you need to do is use pre-existing categories to give your experience meaning and feel in control. To set such well-established mechanisms aside can be difficult because you are likely to feel out of control.

For whatever reason, the initial joy of discovering and exploring a new world was enough to allow me to suspend judgment throughout our trip. It was surprisingly easy, because once I slipped into Beginner’s Mind I discovered how much fun it is to experience life in such a fresh way. Almost every day brought rain or snow (after all, it was November in northern Europe) but the world I experienced sparkled with fresh possibilities and new delights.

I also realized that if I was to devolve into my habitual patterns I could at times have been the proverbial grumpy old man (or worse, the ugly American) because every day much of what the world dished up was contrary to my usual expectations. Twice I did grump: once when lost in Paris, and again as we were checking through customs on our return to Chicago and were waiting for our luggage. Both times I was startled by how quickly I fell into the pit of anger and self-pity, and I was embarrassed and sad to have jolted myself out of Beginner’s Mind and back into control mode.

When we were unable to find our hotel in Paris, happily, a kindly Frenchman jolted me out of my sour mood by helping us find our way, shattering my prejudices about rude and aloof French people. His graciousness ushered me back into a more open and less judgmental state of mind. And upon our return to Chicago, after several outbursts of frustration at the passing array of suitcases that were not mine I realized not only that my childish fits weren’t making any difference to the conveyer belt, but also that all I was doing was clouding my experience.

I was able to transcend my usual experiential lenses because it was simply impossible to keep up the pretense of independence and control when my dependencies were so palpable. Leaving much of my ego behind was also helped by my desire to know what it is like to be  German, Dutch, French or Belgium. You simply cannot get inside someone else’s experience if you begin with the assumption that their experiential filters are the same as yours.

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The philosopher Montaigne models Beginner’s Mind near the Sorbonne in Paris. (Bob Sessions photo)

Some of our richest experiences in Europe came as a result of being invited into the home and life of Annechien, a dear woman in Amsterdam who is a devoted reader of this blog. Through wonderful hours of socializing with her I realized how crucial a part of Beginner’s Mind listening is. And again, I discovered the joy of experiencing the world on terms other than my own.

I am happy to report that the afterglow of our pilgrimage through northern Europe lasted for some time. My dreams, as well as my waking experiences, resonated with echoes of Europe, and I hope I never forget the gifts and wonders of that trip. But I also hope that I have learned to be more open, less judgmental and less in control in my home territory where I am so comfortable with my habits of body and mind. For here, too, the world sparkles with the unbidden.

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On the Romantic Rhine

The Rhine River between Bingen and Koblenz is one of the most beautiful parts of Germany (photo by Romantic Rhine Tourism)

The Rhine River between Bingen and Koblenz is one of the most beautiful parts of Germany (photo by Romantic Rhine Tourism)

Today’s post begins with a literary mea culpa. I’ve written a number of travel articles in the past about the upper Mississippi River, which is not far from my home in Iowa. Almost all of them have included some variation of: “This part of the Mississippi is as beautiful as the Rhine River in Germany,” a region to which it’s often compared. I hereby confess the error of my ways. While the upper Mississippi is lovely, after having cruised the Rhine this past November I realize I could be convicted of journalistic malpractice.

For one thing, the Rhine has castles. Lots of them. And is there anything that can liven up a landscape like a castle? (Note to the Minnesota and Wisconsin Tourism Offices: invest in some medieval fortresses.) But there’s also the broad expanse of the river itself, bordered by high bluffs and slate cliffs, with steeply terraced vineyards clinging to the nearly vertical slopes and charming German villages on the narrow river banks. It’s all quite marvelously picturesque, causing Bob and me to dash from one side of the cruise boat to the other while snapping pictures.

There are nearly 40 castles overlooking the Rhine River in this region. (Bob Sessions photo)

There are nearly 40 castles overlooking the Rhine River in this region. (Bob Sessions photo)

Bob and I had flown into Dusseldorf (thank you, American Airlines, for assisting me through your media program) and then traveled south by train to the start of our cruise. Our final destination was Bingen, home to the 12th-century mystic and abbess St. Hildegard (more about her in later posts).

But while I was eager to get to Hildegard’s home, along the way I fell in love with the Romantic Rhine region. The 65-km stretch between Koblenz and Bingen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, honored both for its natural beauties and historical significance. In addition to our boat cruise, we stayed overnight in the picture-perfect village of Kamp-Bornhofen, hiked along the Rheinsteig (a trail that traverses the bluffs along the eastern side of the Rhine), and saw the Lorelei Rock, where legend says a bewitching siren tries to lure sailors to their doom.

Given my interests, you won’t find it surprising that I was also happy to visit two pilgrimage sites on the Rhine. I want to tell you about them in part because they illustrate two types of pilgrim journeys. Sometimes it’s good to make plans in advance for one’s arrival at a holy site, and sometimes there’s value in showing up unexpectedly. Both are perfectly fine ways to be a pilgrim, but they have somewhat different gifts to offer.

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St. Apollinaris Church in Remagen is known for its beautiful frescoes. (Bob Sessions photo)

Our first visit was to St. Apollinaris Church in the town of Remagen. The sanctuary is famous for having a relic from St. Apollinaris, a second-century bishop who was one of Christianity’s first martyrs. In Roman times this spot overlooking the Rhine was the site of a temple to Jupiter. I could see why people would want to construct an altar here, for its setting on a high promontory is spectacular, with a panoramic view of the Rhine River and surrounding bluffs.

While a church has stood on this site since at least the ninth century, the current building was constructed between 1839-43 in neo-Gothic style and is filled with richly colored frescoes illustrating the lives of Jesus, Mary and St. Apollinaris.  Downstairs, a crypt contains a 14th-century stone sarcophagus that holds the head of St. Apollinaris. Twice a year the head, which is encased in a silver reliquary, is taken out and used to bless pilgrims (it’s said to be particularly good for people with head-related health issues).

Sister Catharina gave us a warm welcome to St. Apollinaris Church. (Bob Sessions photo)

Sister Catharina gave us a warm welcome to St. Apollinaris Church. (Bob Sessions photo)

Our tour was conducted by Sister Catharina, a Dutch nun who belongs to a religious order known as the Community of the Crucified and Risen Love. She was a gracious and kind host, pointing out details in the church’s murals, taking us down into the crypt, and showing us the views from the terrace overlooking the river. As she spoke I was struck by the international character of the site. There we were in Germany, talking to a Dutch nun, in a church that holds the remains of a Roman-era saint and attracts pilgrims from around the world.

I also loved her story of the wandering relics of St. Apollinaris, whose skull went from here to there and back again before finally resting in peace in the sarcophagus (for the whole story see St. Apollinaris Church in Remagen). He’s certainly among the more well-traveled of all the saints I’ve encountered.

The next day we toured another sacred site along the Rhine, the Franciscan Abbey of Bornhofen in Kamp-Bornhofen. In contrast to our visit to St. Apollinaris, here I hadn’t let anyone know in advance that we were coming—which I realized might have been a mistake when we entered the church to find it empty and all of its informational brochures in German. Because I knew this is an important pilgrimage site, however, I was determined to find out more. Exiting the church, I knocked on an adjacent building and, when I got no answer, stepped inside. In the antechamber I found a doorbell that I pressed, and then for good measure pressed again (when the Holy Rover wants information, get out of her way).

And then a monk in a brown robe appeared from behind an inner door. While I knew rationally that he hadn’t suddenly appeared from the Middle Ages, he looked as if he might have. I tried to explain to him why we were there, but he spoke little English and my German is exceedingly rusty. But finally we learned that he is a Polish monk who is part of a Franciscan community at the abbey and that he could show us around.

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The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows of Bornhofen dates back to the 15th century. (Bob Sessions photo)

Despite the language difficulties, over the next hour we had a delightful visit with Father Kalikst. He told us that the church was founded in the 13th century and that its statue of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus is said to be miraculous and attracts many pilgrims (which explains the many “Maria hat geholfen!” plaques in the back of the church). We saw the famous statue, and then toured the pilgrim hall big enough to hold hundreds of people. Between my fractured German and Father Kalikst’s limited English, a lot of the details escaped me, but the most important communication was nonverbal. Father Kalikst welcomed us, strangers from a strange land, fulfilling the most fundamental of all monastic commandments: to greet everyone who comes to the door as Christ.

As we parted, there was much enthusiastic shaking of hands. We asked him if he would give us a blessing. “My English is no good,” he protested.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Give us a blessing in Polish.”

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Father Kalikst of the Franciscan Abbey of Bornhofen (Bob Sessions photo)

So there we stood on the steps of the church that has a miraculous statue of Mary that I still don’t know much about, and Father Kalikst put his hands on our heads and said a bunch of words that I didn’t understand. But it didn’t matter, because you don’t need to know the exact words of a blessing to feel its power. At the end he smiled and said in his Polish-accented English, “Go in peace.”

Which we did, grateful for the hospitality of monks and nuns who welcome strangers dropping into their lives from places far away, and thankful as well for how much can be communicated without words.

 

 

 

 

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A Christmas Greeting From the Holy Rover

The Virgin Mary who kept an eye on my son in Belgium (Carl Sessions photo)

The Virgin Mary who kept an eye on my son in Belgium (Carl Sessions photo)

Before our son Carl left for his study-abroad semester in Belgium, I played a trick on him. “Think of me every time you see an image of the Virgin Mary,” I said, to which he blithely agreed. Hah! I knew that given Belgium’s strong Catholic heritage, he was likely to see her all over.

But even I was surprised when I entered Carl’s rooming house on our visit in November and discovered that there was a large stained glass window of the Virgin Mary right above his front door, benevolently beaming at him every time he passed by below.

I take two things from this. One, God has a sense of humor. Two, God wants 21-year-old sons on their First Big Adventure in Europe to think multiple times every day about their mother.

All of this is a preface to a little video Bob and I have put together, a Christmas greeting to faithful readers of this blog. Be grateful that we did not include all the pictures we took of the Virgin Mary and Child on our European trip, as you likely have other things you hope to do today. But here is a selection of some of our favorites. I’ve combined it with a royalty-free clip of some Renaissance music from the Partners In Rhyme Blog. I don’t know the composer or musicians, unfortunately, but I like the mood it conveys. I hope the video might help you reflect on the deeper meanings of this holiday season.

The Holy Rover will be taking a couple of weeks off over the holidays, but I’ll be back in January with more European adventures. Merry Christmas to everyone!

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The Venice of the North

In Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

Carriages offer rides through the historic quarter of Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

Before leaving Belgium we need to make a brief visit to Bruges, one of the most picturesque cities I’ve ever visited. Remember how I told you that the Belgium city of Leuven is pronounced in two ways? Bruges is the same way. If you’re a French-speaking Belgian it’s Broozh; if you speak Flemish it’s Broo-gah. Whatever way you pronounce it, it’s gorgeous.

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Boat tours wind their way through the canals of Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

Alas, that’s part of the problem in Bruges, which reminds me of a celebrity who’s mobbed by paparazzi wherever she goes. Even in November, Bruges was full of tourists, and in the height of summer I’m sure it’s even more crowded. But don’t let that keep you away, for even surrounded by gawkers, she is one extraordinary beauty.

Bruges became a major trading port in the 13th century, growing wealthy from international trade. But by 1500 its connection to the North Sea had silted in, cutting it off from its most lucrative industry. Bruges settled into sleepy decline, its medieval buildings spared destruction because so few people were interested in living there.

In Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

The Beguine Museum preserves a typical home of the Beguine religious community in Bruges. (Bob Sessions photo)

It wasn’t until the late-nineteenth century that the outside world rediscovered Bruges, drawn by its time-capsule vibe. With its cobblestone streets, cozy brick cottages, grand public buildings, and clip-clopping carriages, the city is a delight for the eyes. Most charming are the canals that thread through the historic district, waterways that give Bruges the title of Venice of the North.

One of the most peaceful places in the city owes its existence to those indomitable Beguines that I told you about a couple of posts ago. Founded in 1245, the Bruges Begijnhof is now home to a group of Benedictine nuns who worship in the Church of the Beguinage. Next to the church is the Beguine Museum, located in a former Beguine house. Its spare interior gives a sense for the daily lives of these women who took vows of simplicity and service. Outside, the enclosed courtyard to the Begijnhof exudes tranquility, making its “silence” signs seem superfluous.

Statue of Mary and an angel in the Church of Our Lady in Brughes

Statue of Mary and an angel in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges (Bob Sessions photo)

From the Begijnhof we went exploring, fortified by some Belgian chocolates purchased from a quaint shop (hey, it’s research). Next stop was the Church of Our Lady, which is famous for having one of the few Michelangelo statues to have left Italy during his lifetime (those wealthy Bruges burghers had plenty of money to throw around). Unfortunately the church is under renovation and so we weren’t able to see its most important treasure, but I was quite taken by the more modern representation of Mary and an angel that you can see at right. It’s a curious statue in many ways: the angel is smaller than Mary, for one thing, and seems tentative in his approach to her. Her face and body are bisected by a line, perhaps indicating the two-fold nature of the child she carries.  I stood in front of it for a long time, pondering.

But an even grander church is located on the town’s central square. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a gilded wonder that houses a relic brought back from Jerusalem in 1150 from the Second Crusade: a vial said to contain some of Christ’s blood.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have an extremely high tolerance for unusual religious sites, so I was delighted to see the church and also the relic, which is displayed reverently on a pillow at certain times of the week (we got the chance to see it–it looks like a vial of dried blood). The upstairs chapel is exuberantly neo-Gothic in style, with an ornate altar and brilliantly colored stained glass windows. This is just the sort of thing that horrified my Protestant ancestors, but we don’t all have to worship in Quaker meetinghouses, do we? And if that vial helps someone have an experience of the holy, it doesn’t make any difference if it came from Jerusalem or a local blood bank.

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The Basilica of the Holy Blood’s neo-Gothic altar in Bruges, Belgium (Bob Sessions photo)

Let me close by telling you about my favorite part of our visit to Bruges. After being surrounded by crowds much of the day, my son Carl and Bob and I had a late dinner and emerged afterwards into nearly deserted streets. A light rain was falling, and we walked back to the train station past buildings lit with sparkling lights, their reflections shimmering in the waters of the canals. It was easy to imagine the people who had once taken this same path before us: medieval tradesmen, ship captains coming back from lengthy voyages, wealthy burghers and their wives dressed in silks, and Beguines in modest dress on their way to tend to the sick.

It was really quite magical and I mentally thanked all those people who had thoughtfully vacated the city so we could have it to ourselves.

Many popular destinations are like this, I think. You go to Rome or Paris and may well be disappointed to be surrounded by picture-snapping tourists (even though you’re one of them). But if you’re patient and lucky, you will get a brief respite when the crowds thin, the light shifts, and suddenly the city reveals its inner character to you.

We had such an experience in Bruges that night as we strolled along its canals, marveling at the beauty that surrounded us. I don’t know what to think about the authenticity of that relic in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, but I do know this: Bruges is authentically entrancing, especially on a misty night when the past doesn’t seem past at all.

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