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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

hildegard immersion

Immersion. Two years ago I landed in a holy place, fully unintentionally. I hadn’t set out on a religious experience; wasn’t looking to eat, pray and love my way around the world. Although the eating part I have down now – Germans really know their bread. I have also perfected the art of praying - ‘Dear God, what am I doing here?’ But, trying to love, beginning with myself, is proving to be more challenging.

The convent, built like a fortress, rose on uneven cliffs high above the point where the Nahe river bumps into the mighty Rhine. The rocks morphed into rolling wine hills overlooking a river valley so spectacular tourists began flocking here, like geese flying north, even back then.

It was called Rupertsberg in honour of St. Rupertus who, along with his mother, Berta, was laid to rest in the dark crypt below the high altar of the church. The three-naved sanctuary was 30 metres long, with the main nave 7 metres wide and each side nave 4.35 metres. The choir faced the river and possessed a half-rounded apse with a crowned pediment. Two imposing towers flanked the naves like lighthouses protecting a ship.

Built in 1150, the curtained stone walls of the convent enveloped the gardens, a vineyard, servants’ quarters, a school, and the dormitory. Behind the farm buildings inside the wall was an arched gate leading to the town of Weiler. From the south nave down stone steps lay the sunken cloistered courtyard. And, nestled within the deep wall, accessible from both sides, was the Nikolaus chapel. This was a convent for the daughters of nobility.

When people hear my story, the first question from old friends is usually, “Where have you been?” and from new friends, “Why did you leave beautiful Canada to move here?” In response, words are tossed back at me like ‘brave’, ‘fearless’, ‘adventurous’, although I honestly feel none of those things. I am searching…hobbit-like (and if I continue the metaphor with a golden ring, the cheesiness will be too much) for meaning; for roots. Possibly, in the earth that Hildegard planted, I will find it all.

Hildegard von Bingen. Sage. Prophet. Naturalist. Healer. Composer. Pharmacist. Author. Witch. She has had many titles, the newest one: Saint. Hildegard was searching too. Her quest, though, was directed quite literally by God himself. She had the advantage of having heard His voice as clear as a bell, beginning when she was just three years old sitting on her mother’s lap. If only I had a Charlie-like speaker telling me what to do and where to go.

After achieving notoriety in 1147, when the pope read from her latest book; attention like Oprah reading from her newest favourite thing, Hildegard received another vision. She called her visions ‘living light’ and this time it told her to build a convent on the banks of the Nahe and Rhine rivers. So, against the wishes of the monks, together with twenty other nuns, she headed north (a seven hour walk according to google maps) and built up Kloster Rupertsberg above the castle and cathedral dotted town of Bingen. It is at this exact point where I now live.

Hildegard wrote about natural history, medicine, spirituality. She wrote the biographies of saints and composed music. She was involved in politics; becoming a trusted advisor of Kaiser Friedrich I Barbarossa. So unconventional for a woman, her opinions were sought out by clergy, emperors, princes; along with farmers, priests and the normal folk. But what she spent most of her time and energy on was building up her herb gardens and developing medicines to heal not only the body, but soul and spirit. After hearing a voice telling her to “write all that you see and hear!” she did that. Hildegard von Bingen has left behind tomes and treasures; directions for listening to God =  a healthy spirit, recipes for soups and salads = a healthy body, and herbal remedies = a healthy life. All to be found outside your front door. Or, to be exact, mine.

It all looks different now. That was almost 900 years ago. The cliffs are cut short now, chopped off, with a naked face but for the abundance of ivy hanging like much too-long bangs. Through various wars with Sweden, France, and who knows who else (Europe has quite the rocky history), the convent had become a shell of ruins and rubble. Unapologetically, and with only slight deference to history, the national railway bombed away the entire cliffside in 1857. What remains of the convent are six pillars now inside of an office building; and a portion of the crypt  excavated into a long, arched chapel open to visitors.

And where the imposing Rupertsberg once stood atop craggy cliffs, now a three storey stone house with gabled roof sits beside the riverbank; water in the front yard, railway and cliff wall in the backyard. Built in 1860 it had been home for rail workers and their families. Now other families fill it with laughter and the smells of apfelstrudel baking in the oven.

I like to think that the grasses, herbs, weeds and plants are still the same though. Possibly the same seeds nestling in the same dirt, waiting to inspire and nurture again. So, I tend. I cut. I search. I look. I write. I eat. With bread.

(a submission for my creative non-fiction class)

Hirscher, P. Heilen und Kochen mit Hildegard von Bingen. 2011. TRIAS. Stuttgart
Know the Ways-Scivias Hildegard of Bingen. Rheinland-Pfalz Ministry for Education,
            Research, Youth and Culture. Bingen, Abtei St. Hildegard

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