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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.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita (Symphonia 24)

For Pentecost, an Antiphon for the Holy Spirit by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias II.4:

Rupertsberg MS,
fol. 60r.
Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita
movens omnia,
et radix est in omni creatura
ac omnia de inmunditia
tergens crimina,
ac ungit vulnera,
et sic est fulgens ac laudabilis vita,     
suscitans et resuscitans
The Holy Spirit: living and life-giving,
all things moving,
the root of all created being:
of filth and muck it washes
     all things clean—
no guilty stains remaining,
its balm our wounds constraining—
and so its life with praise is shining,
rousing and reviving

Today, we bring the great fifty days of Easter to a close. Ten days it has been since we celebrated the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven, and now, on Pentecost, we feel the breath of the Holy Spirit’s fire, descending upon the Twelve to comfort them, strengthen them, and rouse them to spread the Gospel to all the world.

Our guide this particular Whitsuntide will be Hildegard of Bingen’s antiphons, hymn and sequence to the Holy Spirit. In this opening piece (eighth in the Riesenkodex, fifteenth in the Dendermonde, but either way, the first addressed to the Holy Spirit), Hildegard offers swift, fulsome movement to convey the Spirit’s place, both rooted and rousing, as the source and sustainer of all created life. It is useful, then, to take this piece alongside O virtus Sapientie, as the spiraling movement of Wisdom’s wings propels also this dance through the Holy Spirit’s life-giving action. The mention of the Spirit’s cleansing and wiping away of filth also brings us back to Symphonia’s opening antiphon, O vis eternitatis, whose movement from the fleshly garments of Adam to the Incarnation occupied our attention fifty days ago.

Although Newman has criticized the syntax of today’s antiphon for being “clumsy”,[2] the alternation of participles with finite verbs sustains the essential movement of the Spirit’s own dynamis. The participles keep the Spirit’s action continuously in motion, rather than static or discrete. I have tried to maintain that continuous rhythm with the numerous participles in the translation, which also serve to convey another striking feature of this piece: its enumeration of words ending with “a”. Many of these (e.g. omnia, crimina, and vulnera) are neuter plural nouns, while others are feminine singular (e.g. creatura and inmunditia; but they are all connected by their vocalic ending to the key word: vita, “life” (feminine singular).

The thought-movement of the piece takes us from the Holy Spirit as the source of life, paradoxically both moving and the root of all life, to the Spirit’s cleansing and healing action to restore to life that which has been stained and wounded. The repetition of the same musical motif on sanctus (“holy”, line 1) and movens (“moving”, line 2) connects the Spirit’s holiness with its movement in the world—another paradox that juxtaposes the holy as set apart with the holy as synthetic. After a central section meditating upon the Spirit’s succor to cleanse the fetid wounds of fallenness, the antiphon returns to a celebration of the Spirit as giver of life. Another musical repetition links the scrubbing away of guilt (tergens, line 5) with the Spirit’s shining splendor (fulgens, line 7), as newly-polished silver gleams in the sunlight. [3]

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection brought to the world a new beginning, a recreation from death into eternal life. But now, it is the movement of the Holy Spirit into and throughout the world that dynamically vivifies that salvific possibility. Caught up in the drama of the Incarnation, we can sometimes forget the powerful, active, and essential role that the Holy Spirit plays in the drama of salvation history. Just as the participles in this piece keep the Spirit’s action continuous rather than static, so the movement of the Gospel upon the tongues of the inspired must always be in motion. The failure of dynamism is, in fact, a failure of life itself: death is that which brings immoveable stagnation.

The image that accompanies this post is from the Rupertsberg manuscript of Hildegard’s Scivias, and it illustrates the fourth vision of Part II, which deals with the sacrament of confirmation, which in many congregations will be administered today. The great tower that appears, rising at the back of the golden figure of Ecclesia (the Church), “represents the flaming forth of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” As the voice from heaven explains to Hildegard:

The Father sent [the Holy Spirit] into the world for love of His Son, to enkindle the hearts of His disciples with fiery tongues and make them stronger in the name of the Holy and True Trinity. Before the coming upon them of the Holy Spirit in fire, they were sitting shut up in their house, protecting their bodies, for they were timid about speaking of God’s justice and feeble in facing their enemies’ persecutions. Because they had seen My Son in the flesh, their inner vision was unopened and they loved Him in the flesh, and thus did not see the bright teaching that afterward, when they were made strong in the Holy Spirit, they spread abroad in the world. But by Its coming they were so confirmed that they did not shrink from any penalty, but bravely endured it. And this is the strength of that tower, which strengthened [confirmed] the Church so much that the insane fury of the Devil can never overcome it.
     —Scivias II.4.1 [4]
The gift of the Holy Spirit this Whitsunday confirms and compels us to open the doors of the closed house, to go out into the streets and into the world, and to actively work for the Gospel. This is the true gift of life, growing dynamically in holiness and dancing with inspiration to the music of the celestial symphony.

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 140. 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. Although the Symphonia in Eastertide project stagnated because of the pressures of the end of the semester, this week's offerings pick up with Symphonia in Whitsuntide, and the series will continue throughout the summer in a soon-to-be Symphonia in Trinitytide
[2] Newman, p. 279. 
[3] As I have recently suggested, Hildegard made the intentional and costly choice to illustrate the Rupertsberg manuscript with extensive silver, precisely to symbolize the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. 
[4] Adapted from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990), p. 190. 

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