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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. 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.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

O quam mirabilis (Symphonia 3)

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

Humanity as Microcosm.
Liber Divinorum Operum I.2
(Lucca MS 1942)
O quam mirabilis est
prescientia divini pectoris
que prescivit omnem
Nam cum Deus inspexit
faciem hominis quem formavit,  
omnia opera sua

in eadem forma hominis
integra aspexit.
O quam mirabilis est inspiratio
que hominem sic suscitavit.

How wonderful it is,
that the foreknowing heart divine
has first known everything
For when God looked upon
the human face that he had formed,
he gazed upon
     his ev’ry work and deed,
reflected pure
in that humanity.
How wondrous is that breath
with which he inspires humanity,
    rousing us to life!

We saw already on Sunday, in “O vis eternitatis”, the opening piece in the Symphonia, that Hildegard was fascinated with the notion of the eternal predestination of Christ. In today’s antiphon, she turns towards a major manifestation of that predestination: the potential of all creation reflected in the first human being.

As depicted in the famous illustration above, from the second vision of the Liber Divinorum Operum in the early thirteenth-century Lucca manuscript—so often compared to DaVinci’s “Vitruvian Man”—Hildegard conceived of humanity as the summit of all creation, astride the world and participating in it as a microcosm of the universal macrocosm. As with previous antiphons, this image is rooted in Hildegard’s neoplatonic cosmology: all being has its timeless, infinite source in God, the One, whose foreknowledge thereof overflows like the successive basins of a fountain in creating each successive level of being bound by finitude and temporality.

Theophany of Caritas, Humilitas,
and Pax in the fountain.
Liber Divinorum Operum III.3
(From the Lucca MS 1942)

Yet, humanity holds a special place in this process of emanation, for we contain within ourselves a connection to every single level of being, from the most finite all the way to back to the rim of our Eternal Source. Hildegard often invokes the image of divine being and foreknowledge as a fountain, both overflowing (and thus overshadowing) and reflecting like a mirror all reality, all being, and all history—as, for example, in the image of Caritas, Humilitas, and Pax (Divine Love, Humility, and Peace) rooted in the fountain, from Liber Divinorum Operum III.3.

Because of the intensity of her visionary experiences and the fundamental role they played in the construction of her self-identity, Hildegard often intuitively identified the Creator’s loving gaze upon the entire order of Creation, held foreknown, reflected and refracted, within his heart, with her own visions of the Living Light and its shadow or reflection. She described this manifestation in an extraordinary letter written towards the end of her life to the monk of Guibert of Gembloux, who was first an admirer and then later her secretary and one of her biographers:

The light that I see is not local and confined. It is far brighter than a lucent cloud through which the sun shines. And I can discern neither its height nor its length nor its breadth. This light I have named “the shadow [or reflection] of the Living Light,” and just as the sun and moon and stars are reflected in water, so too are writings, words, virtues, and human deeds reflected back to me from it. Whatever I see or learn in this vision I retain for a long period of time, and store it away in my memory. And my seeing, hearing, and knowing are simultaneous, so that I learn and know at the same instant. (…) And sometimes, though not often, I see another light in that light, and this I have called “the Living Light”. But I am even less able to explain how I see this light than I am the other one. Suffice it to say that when I do see it, all my sorrow and pain vanish from my memory and I become more like a young girl than an old woman.[2]

Just as God holds from eternity the plan for all creation within his heart—knowledge and being simultaneous and eternal—so Hildegard, in her visionary gift, is lifted up in the dance of light and song into the reflection of that Living Light’s foreknowledge. God gazes upon creation—“his ev’ry work and deed”—reflected in humanity, and so, in enacting that “Work of God” within creation, we gaze back upon God. Our joy this week is that which Hildegard felt when the Living Light touched her in its fullest transcendence: freed from the sorrow and pain of sin, we have been remade, renewed to the youth whose overflowing potential God contemplated in his heart and at the start declared, “It is good.”

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 100. 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 quam mirabilis” can be found at Br. Francis Therese Krautter’s Symphonia blog
[2] Letter 103r, in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. II, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 21-25, esp. 23. 

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