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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.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

O magne Pater (Symphonia 6)

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

Scivias III.12:
The New Heaven & New Earth.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 225v.
O magne Pater,
in magna necessitate sumus.     
Nunc igitur obsecramus,
obsecramus te
per Verbum tuum,
per quod nos constituisti
quibus indigemus.
Nunc placeat tibi, Pater,
quia te decet,
ut aspicias in nos
per adiutorium tuum,
ut non deficiamus,
et ne nomen tuum
     in nobis obscuretur,
et per ipsum nomen tuum   
dignare nos adiuvare.
O Father great,
in great necessity and need we are.
Thus we now beg,
we beg of you
according to your Word,
through whom you once
     established us
full of all that we now lack.
Now may it please you, Father,
for it behooves you,
to look upon us
with your kindly aid,
lest we should fail again
and, lost, forget
     your name.
By that your name we pray—
please kindly help and bring us aid!

In this antiphon, Hildegard continues to use the formal structure of the collect that we saw in yesterday’s “O pastor animarum,” but with an unusually high level of formality. Although at first glance, the generally traditional tone and (for her) restrained level of imagery may seem a bit stiff, several characteristically Hildegardian themes soon emerge.

The first half is an unadorned meditation on the state of neediness and lack in which we humans find ourselves. God made us through his Word with a fullness of being, of life and vitality, that we have managed to drain away, left by our own devices half-blind and lost, fumbling through the shadows in a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness gnawing at our hearts.

But crucially, this empty neediness and hollow echo chamber of sin need not be the end. The second half of the antiphon fills out the plea of lines 3-4 by calling upon God to act in accordance with his very nature, which is to fill all things with his overflowing being. The restoration of our nature to its fullness, predestined in Christ and now actualized in the Incarnation, is an act utterly befitting God (quia te decet). The needy “necessity” in which we have placed ourselves is balanced, then, with the necessary fullness of God’s gift of being itself.[2]

The petition, then, of this prayer is that God will kindly aid us so that we do not fall again into the hollow emptiness where the light of his presence—his name—is hidden and forgotten as our shallow attention turns away from him and towards the shimmering but ultimately hollow fancies of pride and disobedience. God’s name becomes both that which we are in danger of forgetting and that which pulls us back from the brink of oblivion: for God’s name, revealed to Moses from the burning bush, is being itself (Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”).

The “I AM” statement can often be found echoing in the speeches of virtues and other allegorical manifestations in Hildegard’s writing, as for instance in the speech of Caritas (Divine Love) in the first vision of the Liber Divinorum Operum: “I am the supreme and fiery force…. But I am also the fiery life of the essence of divinity… I am also rationality… For I am life, pure and whole.” (LDO I.1.2) And it is, of course, a frequent refrain of Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel, as when, on the night before he was betrayed, he told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

The Great I AM created us through his Son, the Word and Christ; and now that Word and Christ, made flesh, has died and risen from the dead, so that we might be restored by his Resurrection to the fullness to which we were predestined from before the foundation of the world.

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 104. 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] This “necessity” of God’s overflowing goodness and being entails a type of “necessity” of our redemption—but one that, critically, falls somewhere between what we today think of as the simple dichotomy between necessity and contingency. For medieval thinkers, and especially for Hildegard’s English counterpart a few centuries removed in time, Julian of Norwich, the story of salvation has its own type of logical convenience which is nether absolutely necessary nor completely accidental. Julian refers to this type of “just so” fittingness as “behovely”—thus my choice to render quia te decet as, “for it behooves you”. On Julian and the “behovely” narratival logic of salvation, see Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian (Yale University Press, 2011), esp. pp. 32-51. 

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