Hildegard’s Abbey

Charity abounds in all things, from the depths to high above the highest stars, and is most loving to all things; for to the high king it has given the kiss of peace.
— Hildegard of Bingen, “caritas abundat”

On the vineyard-covered hills above Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany, sits the Abbey of St. Hildegard of Bingen, where Benedictine nuns with heavenly voices still chant Hildegard’s ancient music. Hildegard of Bingen—writer, composer, and mystic born in 1098—founded the abbey that would eventually become what is now in Eibingen, above Rüdesheim.

Seven times a day the nuns gather to pray, in accordance with Benedictine rule (taken from Psalm 119:164). As Benedictines they also exemplify gracious hospitality, opening their doors to guests of all kinds. For a weekend in late March 2002, I was one of those guests.

It was Palm Sunday weekend, the time when Christians prepare for Easter by first marking Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem before his crucifixion death. The worship included a procession outside the chapel with palms and incense.

Palm Sunday procession
Palm Sunday procession

At the time I was only 21 and seven months into a full year study abroad at the university in Tübingen; the retreat into simplicity and quiet was much needed for my body and soul. The sisters radiated charity-love and gracious hospitality through their smiles and good words. Inside the chapel, a post-resurrection Jesus is painted on the apse, robed in white with arms outstretched as if to say, “come.” I sat for all but the early morning prayers in awe of their chants echoing through the chapel.

Inside the private garden
Inside the private garden

For an afternoon of help with peeling potatoes in the kitchen and weeding in the garden, they let me walk through their private grounds behind the abbey. Another guest, a retired German woman, accompanied me on the walk. After revealing that I was a Protestant considering ministry, she asked me if I could ever become a nun. After some thought, I told her that I couldn’t do it. I honored the nuns for their prayerful life, but as for me, I needed to be out in the world—and I sensed in myself a call to love my neighbor, and for me that meant working directly with people.

But no matter where else I go, I’ll still remember the few days of peace I spent among the sisters of Hildegard’s Abbey.

The gallery below contains scanned images selected from my original photographs. The stay at the Abbey was in 2002, before digital cameras and smartphones became ubiquitous, so enjoy the bit of grainy quality.

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