Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard – first contact

Today was pretty incredible.

This morning I decided to go to the abbey for the first time, but I was still plagued by all sorts of doubts about it.  After missing two ferries, I came back to my apartment to get lunch, looked at the nuns’ reassuringly friendly faces on their website, and tried to work up the confidence to go back out and make contact.  At first, I skimmed over the word Heiligsprechung because it was unfamiliar and I assumed that it referred to some sort of preaching (literally ‘holy speech’).  But it kept popping up attached to a date, 10. Mai.  Curious as to what I missed last week, I read further.

In case you didn’t see my last post, (SAINT) HILDEGARD HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY CANONIZED.

Jubilation.  Triumph.  Bolstered by this incredible news, my fears fell to the wayside and I was off across the Rhein to Rüdesheim, Eibingen, and up the hill to the Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard.

Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard

This visit was mostly intended for me to get a feel for the convent and the layout of the abbey, to observe a bit as an outsider before leaping into philosophical conversations with its inhabitants.  Mission:  successful.  I got to see nuns at work in quite a broad spectrum of functions – as counselors/listeners/advisers, gardeners, historians, jewelers, ceramicists, authors, vintners, singers, and facilitators of religious service.  This abbey also has a manuscript restoration specialist, whom I look forward to perhaps meeting at a later date.  I was struck by how these women are all experts at one craft or another – or many – and use those skills to serve and perpetuate their convent.  They sell the wines and wares they create during the ‘work’ periods of the day designated by the Rule of St. Benedict, the proceeds feed back into the abbey, and the resulting community of people is as diverse and multi-talented as St. Hildegard herself.

They’re also all – from what I can tell – immensely friendly and welcoming.

Entrance to the Abbey church

Every Wednesday at 3 pm, the nuns hold a half-hour meditation on Hildegard’s messages at the Eibingen Wallfahrtskirche (or ‘pilgrim’s church’), where Hildegard’s remains are enshrined.  It didn’t occur to me that this church wouldn’t be on the abbey grounds.  Luckily, I had the sense to ask a nun instead of wandering about in search of it, and shortly thereafter took off careening down the hillside through the vineyards back to Eibingen.  I made it just as the facilitating sister was setting up her stereo, though I hardly noticed how amusing a sight that was – staring down the pews at me was the brilliant, golden, gemstone-encrusted reliquary containing Hildegard’s embalmed heart, tongue, skull, and bones seated on a marble pedestal underneath a giant mosaic of one of her illuminations.  Transfixed, I lit a votive candle with the horrible clang of coin into collection box and sat as unobtrusively as possible in the otherwise empty church.

It’s really hard to be invisible when you’re the only one sitting in a large space.  It’s also impossible to be silent sitting down into an old, wooden pew.  Thankfully, another woman diffused the awkwardness for me by appearing out of nowhere and sitting down in the front next to the nun.

All of the discomfort fell away when Hildegard’s music started to billow forth from the nun-stereo.  Most of the recordings that she played are the same ones that I have and listen to somewhat obsessively, but in the large and cavernous space they sounded oddly new.  Then the sister started to speak.  I could only understand about two-thirds of what she said, but from what I could tell it was a combination of Hildegard’s words, other established theologies, and her own thoughts – I’m sure that crafting at least 1/3 of the text in my own mind probably smoothed some things over, but there was something magical in the combination of words, music, relics, and general ethos of the space.

Afterwards, I came up to the sister.  The first words out of her mouth were “you’re new here, aren’t you?”  I managed to bumble out an introduction and a bit about my research, to which she simply nodded and told me to go up to the reliquary.  “Physical connection is good for the soul.”  With that, she picked up her stereo and disappeared out a side door.

She was right.

The reliquary also includes small relics of Sts. Giselbert, Rupert, and Wigbert.  The four plaques in the middle depict the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, prudence, and moderation.   This reliquary is processed through Eibingen to the abbey every 17th of September, Hildegard’s feast day.

By the time I left, it was only an hour until Vespers, so I trekked back up to the abbey and pondered about the grounds.  The inside of the abbey church is absolutely stunning, slightly Coptic in decorative style, and covered in paintings of Biblical stories, local (almost entirely female) saints, and images from Hildegard’s life.  There are some great pictures of the inside here on the abbey’s website.

The choir of nuns was positioned in a wing off to the left of the altar, invisible to the people in the pews, which made their singing seem to come forth out of nowhere.  I’m very intrigued by their musical choices – rhythmically, it was fairly even except for a tad of acceleration on downward scales and a very small bit of playing with the text’s internal rhythm.  Occasionally during a responsory the soloist would take a (very) little bit more liberty, but the tutti verses were always more reserved.  What was most intriguing for me, though, was their use of an organ accompaniment that seemed to be improvised.  The nun-choir was singing the traditional plainchant (none of Hildegard’s today, though), but the organist was supporting that monophony with triadic harmonies that sometimes made daring use of 7ths, 9ths, and unexpected dissonances.

Food for thought, and certainly for conversation later on.  Now that I’ve explored the abbey on my own terms, I’m ready to speak with the sisters about their patron saint and her music.

I crossed the Rhein again reinvigorated.

Hildegard statue outside the abbey church.


I look forward to the day I can sing Hildegard’s chants in front of her reliquary.

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