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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.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

O ignee Spiritus (Symphonia 27)

A Hymn to the Holy Spirit by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias II.4: Tower
of the Holy Spirit.

Rupertsberg MS,
fol. 60r.
1. O ignee Spiritus, laus tibi sit,
qui in timpanis et citharis
operaris.

2. Mentes hominum de te flagrant     
et tabernacula animarum eorum
vires ipsarum continent.

3. Inde voluntas ascendit
et gustum anime tribuit,
et eius lucerna est desiderium.

4. Intellectus te in dulcissimo sono
     advocat
ac edificia tibi
cum racionalitate parat,
que in aureis operibus sudat.

1. O fiery Spirit, praise to you,
who on the tympana and lyre
play!

2. By you the human mind is set ablaze,
the tabernacle of its soul
contains its strength.

3. So mounts the will
and grants the soul to taste—
desire is its lamp.

4. In sweetest sound the intellect
     upon you calls,
a dwelling-place prepares for you,
with reason sweating in
the golden labor.

5. Tu autem semper gladium
habes illud abscidere
quod noxiale pomum
per nigerrimum homicidium profert,

6. Quando nebula voluntatem
et desideria tegit,
in quibus anima volat
et undique circuit.

7. Sed mens est ligatura
voluntatis et desiderii.

8. Cum vero animus se ita erigit,
quod requirit pupillam mali videre
et maxillam nequicie,
tu eum citius in igne comburis
cum volueris.

9. Sed et cum racionalitas
se per mala opera
ad prona declinat,
tu eam, cum vis,
stringis et constringis et reducis
per infusionem experimentorum.

10. Quando autem malum
ad te gladium suum educit,
tu illud in cor illius refringis
sicut in primo perdito angelo fecisti,
ubi turrim superbie illius
in infernum deiecisti.

11. Et ibi aliam turrim
in publicanis et peccatoribus elevasti,
qui tibi peccata sua
cum operibus suis confitentur.

12. Unde omnes creature
que de te vivunt, te laudant,
quia tu preciosissimum ungentum es
fractis et fetidis vulneribus,
ubi ilia in preciosissimas gemmas convertis.     

13. Nunc dignare nos omnes
ad te colligere
et ad recta itinera dirigere.
Amen.
5. Yet in your hand you always hold
the sword, to cut away
the deadly apple offering
its blackened heart—a homicide,

6. when once that cloud reached out
to overshade the will and its desires,
in which the soul takes flight
and circles round about.

7. But of the will and of desire
the mind serves as the bond.

8. For when the spirit rears itself
to seek and see the eye of evil,
the gaping maw of wickedness,
then swiftly in your fire do you consume
it, when you will.

9. But when the reason strays
and, working evil things,
falls flat and low,
then as you will,
you bring it back, drawing and constraining
through floods of trials and ordeals.

10. When evil yet
its sword against you draws,
you break its blade into its heart—
the thrust against the fallen angel first
when you threw into Hell
his tower of pride.

11. Another tower you raised up in its place,
amongst the publicans and sinners—
to you their sins they do confess
by their own works and deeds.

12. So ev’ry creature, as it takes
its life from you, returns to you its praise,
for you are that most precious balm
for broken, fetid wounds,
transforming them into most precious gems.

13. Now deign to gather us,
to draw us all to you,
and to direct us on the righteous course.
Amen.


The taut themes and often sparse music make this hymn to the Holy Spirit one of Hildegard’s less characteristic, though no less poetic, compositions. Besides the first and last two stanzas, whose dynamic images of fire, music, balm, and gemstones are matched with the music’s only extensive melismas, it is a sparing and often abstract meditation on the Holy Spirit’s role in animating and then rescuing the human psyche.

The opening images of fire and music are drawn from the two key Scriptural images used to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost:

And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
     —Acts 2:2-4
Hildegard’s unique contribution in this hymn is to interpret the “sound…like the rush of a mighty wind” as music, the heavenly symphony whose harmony expresses the perfection of God’s creativity. As I have explained elsewhere, for Hildegard, the Word of God doesn’t just speak—he sings; and thus, when we express ourselves in music, we share almost sacramentally in the symphonic divine grace, whose musician here is the Holy Spirit.

As Hildegard described to the prelates at Mainz in a letter from the last year of her life, Adam sang with the voice of angels in paradise, but lost the “sweetness of all musical harmony” in the Fall.[2] That fallenness, and the Holy Spirit’s role in bringing us back from it, forms the subject matter of this hymn’s central verses. As Peter Dronke has noted, however, this meditation “on the nature and motivation of human evil” contains “certain overtones of the dominant opening images, fire and music”: both the lamplight of the will (verse 3) and the scorching refiner’s fire burning away the dross of evil (verse 8); and both the sweet music of the intellect’s call upon the Spirit (verse 4) and the Spirit’s swift movements to constrain the wandering soul, as drawing across the lyre’s strings and beating upon the tympanum’s drum (verse 9).[3]

The images of verses two, three, and four interrelate the three classical parts of the soul (will, desire, and mind or intellect) with the five senses: touch in the mind’s vires (v. 2), taste (v. 3), sight in the soul’s lamp (v. 3), hearing in the intellect’s sweet, musical sound (v. 4), and smell in the sweet perfume of reason’s golden labor (v. 4). All of these are bound together in the underlying image of the inspired soul as an edifice, taking its fiery foundations from the Spirit’s touch and mounting up as each sense and operation of the soul works to construct a hallowed dwelling-place for the Spirit.

The next seven verses follow the ups and downs of this once-inspired soul, tempted and pulled to wander away. The building-up of the Spirit within the soul is contrasted in verse eight with the soul’s selfish desire to build itself up—and because such a puffed-up pride is hollow and without foundation, it ultimately falls flat (v. 9).

Scivias I.2: The Fall.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 4r.
The imagery of the building itself returns with force in verses eleven and twelve, as Hildegard contrasts the prideful tower of the Devil, torn down by the Holy Spirit and cast into Hell, with the tower of contrition and virtue that the Spirit raises in its place amongst those who repent. The tower of pride is not the only image, however, that Hildegard uses here to illustrate the source of prideful temptation. In verses five and six, she draws on the imagery of her vision of the Fall in the first part of the Scivias (Vision 2): the nebula is the shadowy, misty cloud, the loathsome form the Devil took when he reached out from the smoky pit of Hell to enwrap and infect the candida nubes (bright white cloud) of Eve, the mother of the human race.

The mind that the Spirit set ablaze in the human soul in the second verse is supposed to restrain the will and desire from wandering off into this evil land of shadows and dust, as Hildegard tells us in verse seven. But the allure of sin proves too much, and so the Holy Spirit must provide the constraint, drawing the soul back to goodness through the ordeals of the human experience.

The penultimate verse introduces three new images in its final attempt to describe the transforming work of the Holy Spirit within fallen humanity: wounds, gems, and the ointment (ungentum) that transforms the first into the second. Peter Dronke indicates that the liminality of gem and wound has its roots in the Greek term sphragis, which can have both meanings, thus giving rise to common early Christian descriptions of Christ’s wounds as jewels.[4] Hildegard’s contribution is to connect the ungentum of the chrism, the anointing oil used in Confirmation, with the ungentum of a balm used to heal wounds. As she writes in the fourth vision of the second part of Scivias, concerning the gifts of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation:[5]

But whatever is weakened and confounded by the wounds of the Devil’s advice must be strengthened and adorned by the anointing of oil, that the gaping bloody wound of fleshly desire may be wiped clean.
     —Scivias II.4.7
Then, in explaining a portion of the vision text, Hildegard connects the anointing with oil to the adornment of gold with precious stones:
Some of them are adorned with gold color from their foreheads to their feet: for from their beginning in good works to their end in sanctity, they are adorned with the shining gifts of the Holy Spirit by their anointing with chrism in the true faith at the hand of the bishop. How? Just as gold is adorned by having precious stones set into it, so baptism is adorned with the chrism given to those baptized in faith by the hand of the bishop.
     —Scivias II.4.6
What starts as simile in the prose text of Scivias gives way to the unmediated mixture of metaphor in the poetry of this hymn. When the Holy Spirit transforms the faithful into the shining gems that adorn the City of God, it also directs them into the paths of righteousness. There, they journey together, built up in the tower of the Holy Spirit which serves to strengthen the Church—the tower that appears in both this hymn and in the aforementioned vision in Scivias, and is illustrated above. As with Hildegard’s first antiphon to the Holy Spirit, Spiritus Sanctus vivificans vita, this hymn unites a paradoxical set of images: the firm stability of the tower with the purposed movement of a journey towards righteousness. Fundamentally, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Christian is to grow strong, not relying on the empty foundations of pride, but strengthened and confirmed in the faith.

Notes
[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), pp. 142-6. 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] Letter 23, Hildegard to the prelates at Mainz. In The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Volume I, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 76-80. 
[3] Peter Dronke, Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: New Departures in Poetry, 1000-1150 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 155. 
[4] Dronke, pp. 155-6. 
[5] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990). 

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