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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.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Laus Trinitati (Symphonia 26)

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

Scivias II.2: The Trinity.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 47r.
Laus Trinitati
que sonus et vita
ac creatrix omnium
in vita ipsorum est,
et que laus angelice turbe
et mirus splendor
que hominibus ignota sunt, est, 
et que in omnibus vita est.

Praise to the Trinity—
the sound and life
and creativity of all
within their life;
the praise of the angelic host
and wondrous, brilliant
     splendor hidden,
unknown to human minds, and yet
its mystery is life within all things.

In this antiphon, Hildegard grapples with the Trinity with her usual verve—but it remains insufficient to the task and its vitality becomes muddled. (This may perhaps account for the fact that it is one of only two pieces that appear in the earlier Dendermonde manuscript, but which were left out of the later Riesenkodex.)

Its opening image of the praise we owe to the Trinity is connected, in the middle of the antiphon, to the praise of the heavenly host, whose symphony attempts to reflect the Trinitarian mystery. The dominant theme, however, is life, first within the Trinity, and then in God’s every creation. Both the thrice-repeated vita and its musical treatment confirm this point: the cascade of descending notes on vita in line two is redoubled in its third appearance in the final line, which carries the longest melisma of any syllable in the piece and spans every note save one of the antiphon’s complete range.

The second and third lines introduce a trinity of images—sound, life, and creatrix, the feminine version of the noun creator; yet, Hildegard gives us no indication of how this triplex is to be applied to the persons of the triune God. We know from her vision of the Trinity in the Scivias (Part II, Vision 2) that she did not lack the creativity or nerve to employ innovative images. Indeed, that vision’s supple language is justly famous:[2]

Then I saw a bright, serene light (serenissima lux), and in this light a human figure the color of sapphire (sapphirini coloris species hominis), which was all blazing with a gentle, red-glowing fire (suavissimus rutilans ignis). And that bright light bathed the whole of the red-glowing fire, and the red-glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the red-glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.
Hildegard then offers three more analogies for Father, Son, and Spirit respectively:
  • a stone’s damp viridity (umida viriditas), solidity to the touch (palpabilis comprehensio), and red-sparking fire (rutilans ignis);
  • a flame’s brilliant light (splendida claritas), scarlet verdure (pupureus viror), and fiery heat (igneus ardor);
  • a word’s sound (sonus), force or meaning (virtus), and breath (flatus).
In that Scivias vision, the sound of a word signifies the Father; yet, Hildegard also uses sound to signify the Holy Spirit in the hymn, O ignee Spirtus; and in the Liber Divinorum Operum, sonus can often signify the sound of the divine Word, that is, the Son. She uses the imagery of life-giving life for the Holy Spirit in Spiritus Sanctus vivificans vita; yet, in today’s antiphon, the entire Trinity subsists within all life, making it difficult to identify the first appearance of vita with any specific divine person. Perhaps most puzzling is Hildegard’s choice to feminize the noun creator into creatrix, a term she uses nowhere else to describe the divinity.[3] If it is simply a case of matching the grammatical gender of Trinitas, then the masculine gender of sonus remains awkwardly out of joint.

Despite these polyvalencies, we might loosely conjecture an identification of Father with sound, Son with life, and Spirit with creatrix, based on the following conditions: first, the traditional order of the persons; second, the Scivias’ analogy of the word, in which sound corresponds to the Father; and third, the association of the Spirit with creativity in the two antiphons to the Spirit that directly precede Laus Trinitati in the Dendermonde manuscript. To make such a conjecture, however, is perhaps to miss the point of Hildegard’s poetical task. Her difficulties here recall another area in which Hildegard often fumbled for images and analogies: her attempts to describe her visionary experience of the Living Light itself. The Visionary Doctor’s most explicit description came in an extraordinary letter written towards the end of her life to the monk Guibert of Gembloux, who was first an admirer and then later her secretary and one of her biographers:[4]

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. But I have no knowledge of anything I do not see there, because I am unlearned. Thus the things I write are those that I see and hear in my vision, with no words of my own added. And these are expressed in unpolished Latin, for that is the way I hear them in my vision, since I am not taught in the vision to write the way philosophers do. Moreover, the words I see and hear in the vision are not like the words of human speech, but are like a blazing flame and a cloud that moves through clear air. I can by no means grasp the form of this light, any more than I can stare fully into the sun.

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.

As with many of her attempts to describe the Living Light, Hildegard here fumbles though several metaphors and half-formed images, trying to express in her “unpolished Latin” the practically inexpressible experience. Yet, it is this sometimes anxious search for words that makes Hildegard’s poetic language so vibrant. The humility formula of confessing her unlearned, “unpolished” Latin skills is only partially a formula, for Hildegard’s Latin really was a bit roughshod. It was not the elegant Latin learned by the schoolmen or the other, more celebrated Latin poets of her time, like Hildebert of Lavardin, Adam of St. Victor, Peter Abelard, or Bernard Silvestris. Rather, it was the almost auto-didactic language she acquired in her teens and twenties under the tutelage of Jutta and perhaps a few of the monks at the Disibodenberg—enough to sing and pray the liturgy and to read Scripture and the other writings available in the monastery library (which, judging from attempts to trace her allusions, must have been fairly extensive), but not much more.[5]

The consequence, however, is that Hildegard’s visionary and poetic language offers a raw and unadorned power, its images deeply resonant precisely because they remain unaffected. Without the learned tools of vocabulary and style available to a school master, she must make her rudiments carry staggering depths of meaning. Her own mastery, however, is to craft songs that rarely show the strain: far from fraying, cracking, or buckling beneath the symbolic weight they carry, they often seem to fly like Hildegard herself, feathers touched and borne aloft by the mighty breath of God.[6]

Scivias I.6: Choirs of Angels.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 28r.
Nevertheless, the second half of today’s antiphon for the Trinity constitutes Hildegard’s tacit admission that all of these analogies and images must remain only partially comprehensible, as the reality to which they point remains hidden from human knowledge. As the object of angelic praise, this Trinity recalls the unseen, unknowable void that Hildegard left in the center of the concentric circles that illustrate the nine ranks of the heavenly host in Scivias I.6. Yet, Hildegard cannot remain wholly silent about this, and her attempt to describe the indescribable in a cataphatic deluge of images recalls the words of one of the English-language’s great standard hymns:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Great Father of Glory, pure Father of Light
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render, O help us to see:
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee.
Through a fumbling attempt to describe the Trinity in images and an admission of such an attempt's epistemological impossibility, Hildegard returns in the end to the key word on which she can hang some type of certainty: vita, life. Whatever speculative failures might obtain in our attempts to joyously contemplate the Trinity, we can rest assured that the basic fact of life, of existence itself, is the most immediate revelation of the divine.

What does it mean, then, to say that life itself not only reflects but is, in a sense, the Trinity? Divine vitality is not merely one of individual simplicity, but also one of relational complexity. God lives because God lives in community, a sharing of life. The mystery of the Trinity is not merely a paradox around which we try—and repeatedly fail—to wrap our minds, to the amusement of theology’s critics. Rather, the Trinity is a vocation to move outside of ourselves, to share our life, our love, our music, and our creativity with others.

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), pp. 142. 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. 
[2] Latin text from the edition of Führkötter and Carlevaris, Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978); translations adapted from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990), pp.161-5. 
[3] Its only other appearance in the corpus of her works is in Liber Vitae Meritorum, III.63, where its grammatical gender matches the antecedent impietas to denote the false “creativity” that impiety uses to rearrange and pervert the divine order. 
[4] 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. 
[5] For both the rich heritage of Hildegard’s allusions and the inherent problems in cataloguing them, see Hans Liebeschütz, Das allegorische Weltbild der heiligen Hildegard von Bingen (Teubner, 1930); and Peter Dronke, “The Allegorical World– Picture of Hildegard of Bingen: Revaluations and New Problems,” pp. 1-16 in Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of her Thought and Art, ed. Charles Burnett and Peter Dronke (Warburg Institute, 1998). 
[6] This image, adapted into the title of the Grammy-winning 1985 Gothic Voices’ album of Hildegard’s music, anchored by the solos of Emma Kirkby, comes from one of Hildegard’s first letters, written to Pope Eugene III in 1148: Letter 2, in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. I, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 32-3. 

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