About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Friday, April 05, 2013

O eterne Deus (Symphonia 7)

An Antiphon for God the Father by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Theophany of Caritas
(Divine Love)
Liber Divinorum Operum
I.1 (Lucca MS 1942)
O eterne Deus,
nunc tibi placeat
ut in amore illo ardeas
ut membra illa simus
que fecisti in eodem amore,
cum Filium tuum genuisti
in prima aurora
ante omnem creaturam,
et inspice necessitatem hanc
que super nos cadit,
et abstrahe eam a nobis
propter Filium tuum,
et perduc nos in leticiam salutis.      

O eternal God,
may you be pleased
to blaze once more in love
and to reforge us as the limbs
you fashioned in that love,
when first you bore your Son
upon the primal dawn
before all things created.
Look upon this need
that over us has fallen,
draw it off from us
according to your Son,
and lead us back into salvation’s
   wholesome happiness.

In both its initial vocative and in its petition to be loosed from the need (necessitatem) that has fallen upon us, this antiphon initially strikes similarities with yesterday’s “O magne Pater”. However, it quickly starts to burn with greater intensity, both in its images and in its language—rather than the stately subjunctive request, ut aspicias in nos (line 10 from “O magne Pater”), Hildegard here uses more direct vocative commands: inspice… abstrahe… perduc (“Look upon… draw off… lead back”).

The imagery, too, is more Hildegardian: rather than simply “establishing us by the Word” (per quod nos constituisti, line 6 from “O magne Pater”), in this antiphon, God made us “in love…when first you bore your Son upon the primal dawn”. The dawn is one of Hildegard’s favorite images for the irruption of divinity into time, both in the beginning and then at the Incarnation (that is, at the two In principio’s of Scripture: Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1); and as we shall see later this year as we move into the Marian pieces in the Symphonia, it also becomes a favorite image for the Virgin’s God-bearing womb.

The movement from Genesis 1:1 to John 1:1 also brings us to one of the central experiences of Hildegard’s later life, which, I believe, should inform our understanding of this antiphon. At some point in the early 1160’s, Hildegard experienced a rapturous encounter with the Living Light—one of the few times in her life when her visionary experience did, in fact, verge into ecstasy—in which she started her meditative journey through the Prologue to John’s Gospel. This insight marked the genesis of her final and greatest work, the Liber Divinorum Operum, as she described in one of the autobiographical passages later included in The Life of St. Hildegard (II.16, emphasis added):

For it was the Word, which before all created things had no beginning, and after them shall have no end, which summoned all created things into being. He brought his work into being like a smith causing his work to shower sparks (sicut faber opus suum fulminare facit). In this way, what was predestined by him before ever the world was, appeared in visible form. Therefore man is the work of God along with every creature. But man is also said to be the worker of the Divinity and a shadow of his mysteries, and should in all things reveal the Holy Trinity, for “God made him in his image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26). (…) And thus the vision mentioned above taught me and allowed me to expound the words of this Gospel and everything it speaks of, which from the beginning is the Work of God.[2]

It is this image—of God the blacksmith forging together humanity in the fire of his love, found also in the vision of creation in Scivias II.1—that I have allowed to inform my translation of the fourth line of this antiphon, which literally means, “that we may be [or become] the limbs…”. This connection to the Liber Divinorum Operum is likewise why I have chosen to accompany this post with the opening image from the Lucca manuscript of that work, showing Caritas (Divine Love) in her theophanic glory.

Interestingly, Hildegard chooses here to use, not caritas, but amor as the term for God’s creative and redemptive love. It may simply be stylistic—to alliterate with the verb ardere, “to burn”—or it may indicate an even more intense fire, an evocation not only of God’s caring and paternal / maternal love, but also of the passionate desire that animates the spousal imagery of the Song of Songs, whose popularity in monastic circles (especially the Cistercians and their own Mellifluous Doctor, St. Bernard of Clairvaux) surged in the twelfth century. Hildegard herself employed this imagery in “O dulcissime amator”, her Symphonia Virginum, (“Symphony of Virgins”, no. 57 in Newman’s edition), which, together with “O Pater omnium” (no. 58, “Symphony of Widows”), is unique in Hildegard’s music corpus, as their titles (“Symphonies”) are not liturgical. Newman suggests that they might have been intended “for choral performances by the two categories of nuns in her care.”[3]

For more insight into Hildegard’s use of love in this antiphon, we can turn to the music. As Prof. Beverly Lomer (of Florida Atlantic University) has recently admonished me, one must pay careful attention to the way in which the musical rhetoric acts as its own theological discourse, interacting with and refracting the meaning of the text set to it. As we listen to the piece and follow along in a transcription of the music, we see that Hildegard uses the same musical phrase, containing the highest note reached in the entire piece, twice: first with the second instance of the word, amore (in line 5 of the text), and then again on necessitatem (in line 9 of the text). The music’s language, then, connects the neediness that has overtaken us with the love with which we were first created. In yesterday’s antiphon (“O magne Pater”), the emptiness we felt was our self-imposed absence from the fullness of being, signified by God’s name. In today’s antiphon, the emptiness that we yearn to be rescued from is our self-imposed absence from God’s passionate love.

This antiphon blazes with the intensity of that love as it creates us and then comes into the world to redeem us, to lift us out of the neediness into which we have fallen, to restore our membership in the mystical body of Christ, and lead us into the eternal happiness of salvation.

[1] Standard Latin orthography would render the first line of the antiphon as, “O aeterne Deus”. Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 106. Translation by Nathaniel Campbell; throughout this project, I will be working to strike a balance between poetics and literal accuracy, offering, as it were, a middle ground between the two translations that Barbara Newman offers for each piece—an ultra-literal one and one whose poetry often takes flight beyond the bounds of the original. A transcription of the music (in chant notation) of “O magne Pater” can be found at Br. Francis Therese Krautter’s Symphonia blog. 
[2] From “The Life of Hildegard”, p. 179, in Jutta & Hildegard: The Biographical Sources, trans. Anna Silvas (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1999); Latin from Monika Klaes’ edition and translation, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis: Leben der heiligen Hildegard (Fontes Christiani 29; Herder, 1998), p. 172. 
[3] Newman, Symphonia, p. 305. 

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