In the year 1188 at a Cistercian monastery in Schonau, Germany, a lay brother (a novice) lay dying. On his deathbed, he told the story of his life to one of his brother monks. After the novice died, the body was prepared for burial, and the monks found - to their astonishment - that their novice brother was a woman!
Saint Hildegund had been born the daughter of a knight in the town of Neuss, on the Rhine River. After Hildegund 's mother died, her father decided to take her on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Travel in those days - especially travel to another continent - was extremely dangerous. So the knight dressed his twelve-year-old daughter Hildegund as a boy, and called her "Joseph."
Hildegund/Joseph and her father did make it all the way to the Holy Land, but on the return, the father died. Hildegund's father had asked a fellow traveler to take care of Hildegund. The traveler, however, robbed the newly-orphaned girl, and then deserted her at Tyre (in modern Lebanon).
Still in disguise as "Joseph," Hildegund made her way back to Europe (a small miracle in itself), and took a job as a servant of a canon in Cologne, Germany. The canon set out on a trip to visit the Pope, and Joseph accompanied him.
But on the way, Joseph was falsely accused of being a robber. Under the "trial by ordeal" procedure of the time, she was forced to carry a red-hot iron in her hands. The theory was that if the accused were innocent, God would intervene, and they would not feel the hot iron. And in fact, Joseph did carry the hot iron successfully.
Despite Joseph's miraculous success at the trial by ordeal, some of the real robbers' confederates ordered her to be hanged. Although the sentence was carried out, someone cut the rope before she died.
The still-young Joseph left Italy, and traveled back to Germany. There, an old woman recluse advised her to enter the Schonau monastery. She did so, and fooled everyone. In the monastery, she led a quiet, prayerful life.
She told the story of her adventures (but not about her disguise) to both the prior and to a monk who had been assigned to instruct her because of her ignorance; after her death, he wrote her biography.
Hildegund would certainly have been surprised to learn that she would become a saint; after all, she never even took holy orders at monastery. And she knew so little, and learned so slowly that she needed extra instruction. But once the story of her life became known, a cultus developed very quickly. Some people took solace from the story of an orphan who survived hard times against terrible odds. Others perhaps admired a strong woman who made her own way in a man's world.
Most important of all, as The One Year Book of Saints observes, was that "She had to go to God in a most unusual way, and God accepted her the way she was." She is celebrated on April 20.
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