The ruins of the church at the Disibodenberg monastery in Odernheim am Glan, Germany in July 2022.
By: Ashlen Renner
A hush fell on the mountaintop like the breath before prayer. I entered a world where the fibers of time were thin as cheesecloth. Above me stood the monastery ruins, massive stone blocks towering over the canopy of ancient trees. Once, this was the entrance to the church, an arch made from solid oak doors that creaked and moaned like the monks’ yawning psalms. Stone towers circled upward with grand staircases where bronze bells sang, harking time toward the villages below. Tall pointed windows let in thick beams of sunlight into the church where the monks and nuns sang together during Vespers, their voices echoing through the vaulted air.
During the summer of 2022, I came to the Disibodenberg monastery in southwestern Germany to follow in the footsteps of a woman long dead—Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century abbess who was one of the most influential writers in the Middle Ages and the first woman to get approval from the Pope to publish a book. She spent most of her life at the Disibodenberg monastery. On All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1112, a 14-year-old Hildegard climbed this mountain to the newly constructed monastery where a brotherhood of monks waited for her. In the stone chapel, she and two other girls took the veil and were enclosed there, becoming the first convent of nuns on the mountaintop. For nearly 40 years, she lived in a squat stone building, barely big enough for anyone to stand fully upright, crimping her in a perpetual bow. It was here where Hildegard wrote the first pages of Scivias, a book of 26 visions revealed to her, believing they were direct messages from God.
A stone head carving hangs high up on the wall of the Disibodenberg monastery ruins July, 2022. According to local legend in Odernheim am Glan, Germany, the stone carving depicts the face of Hildegard of Bingen.
I’ve always been fascinated by the stories historical women tell about themselves, and when I discovered Hildegard’s writings in college, her story was what I latched onto. Hildegard began having visions at a young age, but she wouldn’t tell anyone about them until she was in her 40s. In the 12th century, women were not allowed to speak in church, and Hildegard knew she could be charged with heresy by revealing her visions, facing exile or even death. She had visions of the world’s beginning and its end, towers falling with people in them, and God enthroned on a mountaintop with a woman made of eyes watching over everyone on Earth. In a vision, God commanded Hildegard to speak up about her visions, and when she stayed silent, she fell ill and almost died. This was a sign, she believed, that she needed to write everything down, to share her visions with the world.
I walked through the ruins of Disibodenberg where stones peeked out of the grass where pillars used to stand. According to the map of the site, the nuns’ cloister was once on the edge of the mountain, but the location is not exact. The cloister is now part of the bramble where the trees and bushes have taken back their kingdom. From the edge of the mountain, I saw wind turbines spinning silently in the distance, pushing out of the wheat field like tall daisies. What did the first women on the mountain see? I sat under a tree on the edge of the mountain facing the remains of a wall that could have been Hildegard’s room. A single pink rose clung to the wall in a patch of sunlight. Seeing that lone flower made me believe that Hildegard once laid her head there amongst those stones. I imagine Hildegard reaching up to the loosely woven fibers of reality on that mountaintop and letting the mysteries of the universe absorb into her head. She was able to read its secrets.
When Hildegard published her book, more and more nuns came to Disibodenberg until the small monastery couldn’t hold them anymore. Around the year 1150, Hildegard and her followers left the mountaintop and traveled 30 miles north until they reached the Rhine River in Bingen where a new abbey was built, and Hildegard was enshrined in the fabric of history. I would travel there on a similar path, following her tracks to see what was left from her time. I wanted to see what had inspired Hildegard’s writing and what exactly inspired me to write about her. I’m not sure if I have the answers yet, but it has something to do with forging my own path as Hildegard did centuries ago.
Ashlen Renner is a fellow with the Cheuse International Writers Center working on a memoir on pilgrimages and the life of Hildegard of Bingen. Renner is a second-year MFA student studying nonfiction and traveled to southwestern Germany for two months during the summer of 2022 to walk the 85-mile Hildegard Pilgrimage Trail.
Ashlen Renner sits in front of a stone tablet depicting a 15th century knight in the Disibodenberg monastery ruins July 2022.