Several times a year, over the past decade, I’ve made prayer/study retreats to Mount Angel Benedictine Abbey in Oregon where, in 2006, I also became a Benedictine Oblate. In September, Trina and I made a five-day prayer/study retreat to St. Hildegard Benedictine Abbey, located on a vineyard-clad hillside overlooking the Rhine River near Rudesheim, Germany. This abbey was built in 1900 near the site of a medieval abbey founded by St. Hildegard in 1165. We had visited this abbey in 2008, but we arrived then only in time for Compline, the final service of the day. Seven years later, in 2015, we arrived at the abbey in time for the Monday noon worship service called “Sext”. After we checked in and were shown to our rooms, we settled in for a quiet and peaceful five-day retreat.
What is life like at St. Hildegard Benedictine Abbey? Daily life is arranged according to The Rule of St. Benedict, a guidebook for Christian community life together, written by Benedict in 525. The day at St. Hildegard Abbey is marked by a rhythm of community worship, with five worship services per day, including: Lauds, 5:30am; Terce, 7:30am; Sext, Noon; Vespers, 5:30pm; and Compline/Matins, 7:30pm. Five minutes prior to each worship service, bells ring to announce the service. I awoke every morning at 5:25am with bells ringing in my ears. Those who come on retreat are not required or expected to attend worship services. These services last 15-30 minutes. Most of the services are singing of Scripture, especially the singing/praying of the Psalms. Twice a month, these Benedictine sisters (like most Benedictines around the world), pray every word of every Psalm from Scripture. After a few years of daily worship, most of the sisters have the Book of Psalms memorized. At St. Hildegard Abbey, the sisters sing in Latin. Why sing in Latin? Gregorian chant, the kind of music used for this worship, was originally written in Latin, and this ancient language was for a thousand years the universal language of the church, especially for worship. Booklets are set out for each service for guests to follow along, with Psalms and prayers written out in Latin and in German. I often brought my English Bible along to better pray each Psalm. The Benedictine sisters sit in a choir alcove to the left of the chancel. Their singing is beautifully pure, sung in unison, often with organ accompaniment, with a long, sustained, natural reverb from the architecture of the sanctuary. A sister told us that musical notes remain in the sanctuary for 7 seconds of reverb. Benedict understood this regular rhythm of daily worship as the opus Dei, the most important work of God. I found my soul settling into a quiet, peacefulness centered in Christ as a result of being with the sisters in daily times of worship.
Like all Benedictines, the sisters of St. Hildegard “receive all guests as Christ”, for when Christ returns, he will say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25, and The Rule of St. Benedict, 53:1). Thus, they provide a beautiful, simple Guesthouse with space for 50 guests, including 16 private bedrooms. The Guesthouse provides guests a library, tearoom, meditation/reading room, a garden, and meeting rooms for group retreats. The individual rooms include a bed, a sofa, a desk, a reading light, and a window. Our guestroom window opened out upon one the finest views I’ve seen from any hotel window, with views across the Rhine River valley, looking 10 miles or more, past vineyards of the Rheingau (see blogpost on this grape-growing, wine-making region of Germany), across the Rhine to Bingen and up the Rhine River all the way to Weisbaden and Mainz. Meals are in a guest dining room. During our retreat, there were about 10 other guests, including several from Germany, and three women from Taiwan. Daily, the Abbey receives many visitors who come on pilgrimage, for a worship service, a cup of coffee, a trip to the gift shop, or time to sit on a bench in the abbey flower garden and look out across the Rhine in the sunshine. During our five days, several buses of school children arrived for a half-day field trip to the Abbey.
The sisters of St. Hildegard Abbey support themselves through a variety of cottage industries, including grape-growing/wine-making, an extensive gift-shop, a coffee shop, a fine art studio, and a book-bindery. Besides daily hours of worship, the day is held in a beautiful balance of prayerful study of God’s Word (lectio divina), and manual labor. Everyday, the sisters spend several hours prayerfully reading the Bible, allowing the Word of God to speak into their lives. Each of the 52 sisters at St. Hildegard Abbey (who are from seven nations) has her own vocation of work. Some help in the Kitchen, some in the Laundry, some in the Guesthouse, some in the Gift Shop or Coffee Shop, some work in the Ceramic/Goldsmith Studio, some in the Vineyard. The Vineyard covers six hectares of vines, with 85% Riesling (a crisp white wine famous in this region) and 15% Spatburgunder (a red Pinot Noir). We walked through these vineyards, enjoying tasting the ripe, nearly harvest ready grapes.
Besides spending time in worship, prayer and study, we took several walking trips while on retreat; one across the Rheingau region of vineyards; and another across the Rhine by ferry to Bingen to visit the St. Hildegard Museum. We also met with Sister Lydia for spiritual direction. Sister Lydia is the Oblate Director for the Abbey, and also the organist for all the services. 15 years ago, she left a full-time career in public music education to become a Benedictine nun. On Monday evening, after vespers, she played a very difficult J. S. Bach organ piece that not only filled the sanctuary to overflowing, but lifted my soul closer to God with its fantastic energy and beauty. Sister Lydia encouraged me to “throw all my stress and anxieties on Jesus, he can handle them better than you can.” She also encouraged me to make more music as a way to relieve anxieties, and to spend less energies being concerned about what people think or trying to win people’s admiration. “At your age, you don’t need that anymore. Maybe in your 30s or 40s. But at your age, all you need is the rest in the love of Christ.” Good words, and soul refreshing time with the Benedictine sisters in Christ at St. Hildegard Abbey, Germany.