Sometimes, things touch you and move you more than you expect, and I didn’t expect being deeply moved. I stood on top of a mountain, at the entrance to a vast field of ruin, that is, a park that seemed, at first sight, to have gone wild. An immense complex of low crumbling walls were in danger of being devoured by low shrubs and vegetation, while the whole of it lay in a kind of darkness cast by high, old trees, their crowns so thick, only a rare ray of sunlight managed to steal through.
A profound silence lay over the place as I walked among the ruins that were once a cloister, a church, a monastery, a chapel, a basilica, a hermitage, hostels, a hospital.
Looking at the massive stones that once had made up the fabric of a vibrant, religious community, I became aware of the awesome, irreversible passage of time. I saw it. I felt it. I understood it for the first time in my life, because whatever and whoever was here before, was gone, and so was the work of their hands, the lives they had lived, the devotions they had shared with their companions, the pilgrims they had nourished, the sick they had cared for.
About 2000 years ago, the Celts and the Romans had used this mountain for either religious or strategic purposes. Sometime in 600, the Irish monk Disibod and his companions built a hermitage there to do missionary work within the surrounding, largely pagan, populations. Upon his death, a cloister and a church were built there to honor him and his remains, and to serve the Christian communities that had now sprung up at the foot of the mountain. The Normans sacked the holy place in late 800, and it did not see a revival until the late 900’s with the building of new monastery structures and a church, initiated by the Archbishop of Mainz. To make sure that the vibrant religious community of monks, clergy, and aristocrats seeking spiritual seclusion and guidance would thrive, it was supported by land grants, profitable farms, and other diverse incomes. In 1108, Abott Burchard began with the building of a grand, cross-shaped basilica, which must have been an immense and soaring structure indeed, if the expansive foundation, which is still visible today, and the massive stones that are strewn there, are any indication. Alone the altar, which remains, inspires awe.
Hildegard came to Disibodenberg in 1112 when she was fourteen. Her wealthy parents had entrusted her education and spiritual well-being into the hands of Jutta von Sponheim, a devout aristocrat, who was in charge of a small convent that had been built as part of the monastic complex expressly for her by her family. There she instructed Hildegard and other female charges in living a devout and spiritual life, away from the temptations of the world, and dedicated to God. Enough has been written about Hildegard von Bingen, the mystic, visionary, composer, writer, and holistic healer that I need not repeat it here (I have attached some links below), but as I walked among the ruins, I imagined her there as she walked these grounds in search of her healing herbs, tending to the pilgrims who found solace there, and nurturing the sick and wounded. No doubt, she received her inspiration for her writings, her music, and her plays there. And since she lived at Disibodenberg for thirty-six years, she was witness to the building and the completion of the Basilica, which must have soared to the heavens, and whose immense cross-shaped foundation I traced in my wanderings.
I knew little about Hildegard von Bingen or of the nuns or monks who lived and worked there before I came to this mountain. But as I walked the grounds, I felt their presence still. Maybe it was the silence. Maybe it was something more—a kind of spirit that they left behind in all that was now in ruin. Maybe the sense of something more lasting than what we see in a crumbling history of stone.
http://www.disibodenberg.de/ (This is in German, but for those who don’t speak the language, it will still give an insight about the place and its surroundings.)