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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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

O vos imitatores (Symphonia 39)

For the Feast of Pope St. Gregory the Great, a Responsory for Confessors
by St. Hildegard of Bingen [1]

Scivias II.6: Eucharist.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 86v.
V. O vos imitatores
     excelse persone
in preciosissima
et gloriosissima significatione,     
o quam magnus est
     vester ornatus,
ubi homo procedit,
solvens et stringens in Deo
pigros et peregrinos,

R. etiam ornans
     candidos et nigros
et magna onera
V. O actors, you who play
     the Highest Role
within that precious drama,
that glorious sacrament!
How great and beautiful
     your vested costume,
as steps forth such a man
to loose and bind in God
the slacker and sojourner,

R. the shining and the squalid
     both to beautify
and all their heavy burdens
to remit.

V. Nam et angelici ordinis officia habetis,     
et fortissima fundamenta prescitis,
ubicumque constituenda sunt,
unde magnus est vester honor:

R. etiam ornans candidos et nigros
et magna onera
V. For both you hold the office of the angels
and foreknow where’er the firm foundations
of the Church are to be laid—
this twofold duty marks your honor grand:

R. the shining and the squalid both to beautify
and all their heavy burdens
to remit.

O vos imitatores excelse by Jeremy Summerly on Grooveshark

In this responsory, adapted from one of the two verses sung in praise of the choir of confessors in the heavenly symphony of Scivias III.13, Hildegard uses the language of drama to explain the office of the Church’s principal clergy in their roles as “imitators” (imitatores) of the person of Christ, confecting the Eucharist and hearing confessions under the apostolic power of “binding and loosing,” to remit the burden of the penitent’s sins. Moreover, they also participate in the “duties of the angelic order” (angelici ordinis officia)—the offering of praise in song to the Lord—and, guided by the Holy Spirit, receive the special knowledge of where to found new churches and monasteries.[2]

Mass of St. Gregory with Sts. Catherine,
Thomas Aquinas, & Vincent Ferrer

by Master of the Augustine Altar,
ca. 1490; Nuremberg, Germanisches
Nationalmuseum (From Univ. of Münster)

It is especially appropriate to offer today’s responsory for the Feast of Pope St. Gregory the Great. In addition to his masterful guidance of not just the Church but the city of Rome itself in the tumultuous and chaotic years at the end of the sixth century, St. Gregory was celebrated in the later Middle Ages for his eucharistic piety and devotion, especially in the so-called “Mass of St. Gregory,” in which the pontiff beholds the crucified Man of Sorrows within the mystery of the Eucharist. As Caroline Walker Bynum has noted, the immense popularity of the Gregorymass in visual art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (the University of Münster’s database of images of the Mass of St. Gregory totals more than 500) drew upon the desire of pious laypeople to find “access to a God kept distant through clerical control or through their own unworthiness—that is, a way to find the presence in the absence.” Thus, it became “a major element in constituting, containing, and channeling an encounter that is seeing beyond.”[3]

Scivias II.6: Crucifixion
and Eucharist.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 86r

Indeed, despite the fact that visual depictions of the Gregorymass only became popular in the fifteenth century, Hildegard’s vision of the link between Crucifixion and Eucharist participates in the same conceptual framework. In that vision, during the Canon of the Mass, “there suddenly appeared before [Hildegard’s] eyes as if in a mirror the symbols of the Nativity, Passion and burial, Resurrection and Ascension of our Savior, God’s Only-Begotten, as they happened to the Son of God while He was on the earth” (Scivias, II.6, Vision).[4] In the first illustration that accompanies this vision in the Rupertsberg manuscript, these four events have been depicted in four roundels above the altar as the figure of Ecclesia—the Church—celebrates her dowry, the Eucharist; here, Ecclesia holds the place that St. Gregory will later take in depictions of his vision. As Ann Astell has noted, Hildegard’s vision of the Eucharist is itself an act of remembrance, as her recollection of the visionary experience itself fulfills the Church’s memorialization of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.[5]

The desire of making visible the invisible and of constituting an experience within the memory of an incomprehensible eternity from which unworthiness closes us off permeates Hildegard’s Eucharistic vision, in which the two priestly offices of performing the Eucharist and offering absolution to the confessed penitent are intimately intertwined. Thus, in her treatment of the Church and her sacraments in Part II of Scivias, these two sacraments are joined together in Vision Six, in which she sees first the endowment of the Church with Christ’s Body and Blood crucified and raised; and then the effects of receiving the Eucharist upon various spiritual dispositions. The key linking Eucharist and Confession is that both regenerate the faithful person into the life of the Resurrected, by lifting them up out of the sin they inherited from Adam and into the glory they receive from Christ, the New Adam. Moreover, each sacrament revolves around actions of memory: in the Eucharist, both God and we the Church remember Christ’s sacrifice, while in Confession, each sinner turns away from the deceit that keeps their sin unremembered, “concealed in their secret heart,” and instead makes “manifest their sins, that they may have a witness to their penitence” (Scivias II.6.87).

In this Eucharistic vision, Christ’s initial establishment of that ritual of memory becomes the script that the Church follows in each subsequent performance of the drama. But this play is unlike any other, because “in its most precious and glorious signification” (in preciosissima et gloriosissima significatione), God acts together with the priest, beholding the same memories, repeating the same lines—and through them, recreating the world (words in italics are from Hildegard’s description of the vision; the voice speaking is that from heaven):

When a priest clad in sacred vestments approaches that altar to celebrate the divine mysteries, you see that a great calm light is brought to it from Heaven by angels. For when he who has the charge of souls is girded with the sacred cincture and approaches the life-giving table to immolate the innocent Lamb, at once the great light of the heavenly inheritance drives away the darkness, shining with the help of celestial spirits from the secret places of Heaven. And it completely illumines the plan of sanctification, for here is the food of the soul by which believers are saved. How? Because the Church in the voice of the priest seeks her dowry, which is the body and the poured-out blood of My Son, in order to be fit for blessed childbearing in saving souls; for when that precious blood was poured out she was increased by a great multitude of peoples. And so then I, Who am the unfailing Light, illumine the place of that consecration with My holiness, to the honor of the body and blood of My Only-Begotten.

Mass of St. Gregory by Gert van Lon,
ca. 1520; Altar retabel, Pfarrkirche
St. Nicolai, Lippstadt.
(From Univ. of Münster)
For when the priest begins to invoke Me on the sanctified altar, and I consider that My Son offered Me bread and wine at the supper of death just before leaving the world; then I see that My Son did this in the hour of His death, as he was about to perish on the wood of the cross, so that when the blessed offering of the holy sacrifice is offered to Me by a priest I might always have His Passion in My sight, never blotting it from My sharp vision. For He too offered Me bread and wine in the outpouring of His blood, when He cast down death and raised up humanity.
And you see that the calm light shines around the altar until the sacred rite is ended and the priest has withdrawn from it. For that light is an eternal sight, and shows itself by miracle with great brightness until the mysteries of this hallowed office are finished and the dispenser of the sacred rites, having completed them, withdraws from the holy spot. Why is this? Because it is fitting that the Divine Majesty manifest Its power most fully in these blessed rites, and because as long as the person who remains within these things that belong to God, God’s help will never leave him.

And when the Gospel of peace has been recited and the offering to be consecrated has been placed upon the altar, and the priest sings the praise of Almighty God, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts,” which begins the mystery of the sacred rites, Heaven is suddenly opened and a fiery and inestimable brilliance descends over that offering. For when the fresh and living breath of the royal kiss has been given, and the fruit of noble life, which is be sanctified and purified, has been put as a stone into God’s wall, and the messenger of truth utters the sweet sound of the threefold invocation of the Lord of Hosts in praise of the Creator of all and thus begins the mystery of the shining dawn, the Incarnation of the Son of God in the Virgin; then suddenly the glorious tabernacle opens on the mystery of the sacrament, and an inconceivably calm and lofty brilliance shines down. And it irradiates [the offering] completely with light, as the sun illumines anything its rays shine through; in the power of the Father the holy heat so strikes the sparkling circle of that oblation that the radiant splendor wholly enters into the thing it falls upon. What does this mean?

The Bride of My Son offers the gift of bread and wine on My altar with a most devoted purpose. How? To remind me in faithful memory by the hand of the priest that in this same oblation I delivered up the body and blood of My Son. How? Because the sufferings of My Only-Begotten are seen perpetually in the secret places of Heaven; and thus that oblation is united to My Son in My ardent heat in a profoundly miraculous way and becomes most truly His body and blood. And thence the Church is quickened with blessed strength.
     —Scivias II.6.6-11

As we have seen before, Hildegard’s symbolic alignment of the two Virgin Mothers, Mary and the Church, plays a crucial role in her elaboration of the Eucharist as a medicine to heal our wounds of sin. In our discussion of the responsory O clarissima mater, we saw that the Virgin Mother’s example of humble devotion in bringing her Son’s body into the world becomes the model for the priest (Scivias II.6.15). We can visualize this parallel if we turn to one of the prolific genres of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century depictions of the Mass of St. Gregory, private prayer books. Here, we can see one of the most common images from such Books of Hours—the Virgin and Child—juxtaposed with the Gregorymass in two pages from the prayer book of Sibyl of Cleve:

Virgin and Child (L) and Mass of St. Gregory (R), in the Prayer Book of Sibylla of Cleve
by Johannes Wilberg, ca. 1527; München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 84 (from Univ. of Münster)

Hildegard later returns to this theme to explain why the Eucharistic bread should be unleavened: “As she bore Him in her virginity to be pure and stainless, now the bread that is truly consecrated as His flesh and is pure in its integrity should be received by the faithful in purity of and without any element of contradiction” (Scivias II.6.26). This connection of the Virgin’s womb to the unleavened bread leads Hildegard’s symbolist mind to the roots of imitative ritual in the construction and devotion of memory, as found in God’s first liberation of his people and the Passover that prefigured the sacrifice of his own Son as the paschal Lamb:

“Remember this day in which you came forth out of Egypt, and out of the house of bondage; with a strong hand the Lord brought you forth out of this place, so look that you eat no leavened bread” [Exodus 13:3]. What does this mean?

You who wish to be imitators [imitatores] of My Son, turn your eyes from death to life and keep in mind the salvation of that Day which is My Son, Who trampled death and gave life, so that you went forth from the wretched exile of perdition; you threw off the thick darkness of infidelity and tore yourselves away from the house of the Devil, to whom Adam’s transgression had given you. Turn your eyes from earthly to heavenly actions, for by divine power I the Lord have led you out of evil; I Who rule all with such strength that no obstacle can stand against My might, but I sharply penetrate all things. So through My Son I have snatched you from the place where you shamefully lay in your wickedness, serving death by your infidelity instead of doing good works.

And now that you are freed in My Only-Begotten from that oppression, go from strength to strength and take care not to admit into your consciences the infidelity, which does not strengthen but bitterly weighs down your heart. What does this mean? Do not follow the arts of the Devil or the other fictions people devise for themselves (…), but imitate My Son as a mirror of faith, Who delivered you from the prison of Hell when He gave Himself for you to the suffering of the cross. And, that you may more carefully follow in His footsteps, strengthen your hearts with the celestial bread, and so with faithful devotion receive His body. For He came from Heaven and was born of the sweet and pure Virgin, and, by suffering for you on the cross, gave you His very self; so that now you may receive the sweet and pure bread, which is His body, consecrated on the altar by divine invocation, without any bitterness but with sincere affection, and thus escape from humanity’s inner hunger and attain to the banquet of eternal beatitude.
     —Scivias II.6.27

The “thick darkness of infidelity” that the light of this glorious sacrament dispels, and the “inner hunger” that it fulfills with its “sweet and pure bread”—these are the shadows and lusts of sin that, in enflaming a person with their dark fire, make a person “eat and drink unworthily” of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:29). It is in her exegesis of St. Paul’s description of the Eucharist that Hildegard pivots to the failure of memory and the concealment of the truth with sin:

Truly I say to you, anyone who, being unworthy and foul with sin, eats the bread of life or receives the cup of salvation, which is the sacrament of Him Who is the Lord of Heaven and Earth, shall feel himself at fault for it. How? Because he receives the body and blood of the Lord, the Savior of the world, snarling and dying; inclined to evil and polluted with uncleanness, he forgets the fear of the Lord and approaches the palace of healing redemption in a state of contamination. And so he commits murder there. How? By treating the sacrament presumptuously, concealing his crimes without cleansing or washing them by penance; and so with many wounds he tears himself to pieces.
     —Scivias II.6.58

But there is a remedy for this state of corrupted memory and intentional forgetting:

But if anyone labors under too great a number of these tendencies and is not able to resist them by themselves, let them with devoted purpose seek Me and humbly uncover to Me the wounds of their heart. How? Let them lay bare these wounds by making a humble confession to a priest. And why is this? Because true confession is a second resurrection. How? The human race was slain by the fall of the old Adam; the new Adam by His death raised it up. And so the resurrection of souls arose in the death of the new Adam. And so a person should confess their sins, as the old Adam did not; for he concealed his transgression instead of confessing. How? He did not confess it by repenting, but concealed it by accusing the woman. Hence confession was instituted, to raise people up after they fall. And so anyone who confesses their sins to a priest for love of Me rises again from death to life; as the woman who purged herself from her impurity with tears at the banquet in the presence of My Son was snatched away from uncleanness (cf. Luke 7:36-50).
Faithful people should seek the help of My Son, because when they repeat the ancient crime of Adam after baptism they cannot rise from their fall by themselves. And therefore they should seek counsel as it were from the patriarchs and prophets, and derive instruction as if from the high priests and the ordinary priests, and accept help as if from the apostles, laying bare their wounds and displaying their sins truly and purely. How?

They should confess their sins to the priest, who is the minister of My Son, with devoted heart and mouth. And then the priest will give them a remedy of penance and bury their sins in the death of My Only-Begotten. And then they will rise again to life and glorify the Resurrection of My Son.
     —Scivias II.6.82-83

Hildegard then turns her attention to the office of those priests, with dire warnings against priests who abuse it, whether by failing “to teach true doctrine to the people” by not exhorting them to penance, or by their own crimes “in perverse filth and adulterous wickedness” (Scivias II.6.94-95). Throughout her works, the Visionary Doctor consistently castigated the clergy for their failures and sins, for she holds them to the higher standard of responsibility and integrity owed the honor of their office:

You, rather than others, have received in My Son the keys of Heaven; which are righteous decisions of just judgment made in knowledge of the Scriptures, as long as you consider rightly what you should bind. What does this mean?

When people stubbornly oppose themselves to My Law, you must inspire them with fear of My judgment. And if they do not then correct themselves, extend over them your power of binding. How? You will bind these rebels in My words with a clear voice, and show them the power of the binding; for their stubbornness they are bound in My sight, as My Son showed to the Church’s first pastor, saying:

“I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever you shall bind on earth, it will be bound also in Heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, it will be loosed also in Heaven” [Matthew 16:19]. What does this mean? I, Who have all power in Heaven and earth, by My grace give to you, My devout imitators [imitatores], those judgments that touch the dignity of the Kingdom of Heaven. As you see people sin on earth, you will bind the wicked deed on earth with just judgment, and it will be entangled in its wickedness and bound in Heaven; it will be separated and driven out from Heaven, for in the heavenly mansions there is no freedom and no place for iniquity. But after I withdraw a person’s soul from their body, you will not extend your judgment over them, for that judgment is Mine. Likewise, if a transgressor is penitent, you will loose on earth the chain you fastened on him in rebellion, and it will be loosed in the secret places of Heaven, for God does not reject the groans of a devout heart. But after the person’s death you will pray for their soul, but you cannot absolve it from being bound.
This is the purpose of that binding: that one who perversely refuses to obey Me or the precepts of their superiors may be separated by My word from celestial things. Thus Adam, when he disobeyed Me, was by My command cast out of Paradise. And until such a person repents and obeys, they will not be received into the company of the faithful; as the human race was recalled to the celestial country by the martyrdom of My obedient Son.
     —Scivias II.6.96-97 and 99
Scivias II.6: Eucharist,
detail of recipients.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 86v.

Finally, we turn to Hildegard’s description of the effects of this sacrament of penance, “the shining and the squalid both to beautify” (etiam ornans candidos et nigros). This recalls her vision of the various states of grace and iniquity in which people might approach to receive the Eucharist, as illustrated below the priest at the altar in the second illustration for Scivias II.6 in the Rupertsberg manuscript (shown here in detail):

And as other people approached the priest to receive the sacrament, I notice five modes of being in them. For some were bright of body and fiery of soul, and others seemed pale of body and shadowed of soul; some were hairy of body and seemed dirty in soul, because it was pervaded with unclean human pollution; others were surrounded in body by sharp thorns and leprous of soul; and others appeared bloody of body and foul as a decayed corpse in soul. And all these received the same sacraments; and as they did, some were bathed in fiery brilliance [igneo splendore], but the others were overshadowed by a dark cloud [obscura nube obtenebrabantur].
     —Scivias II.6, Vision
In chs. 51-57, Hildegard offers an elaboration of these states of soul. Only the first (“bright of body and fiery of soul”) approach the altar “clear in faith about the sacrament, (…) and because they are sanctified by this mystery they will appear in this same body in Heaven after the resurrection of the dead; and their souls are transformed and enkindled by the fiery gift of the Holy Spirit, so that, flooded with enlightenment, they reject earthly things and long for the heavenly ones” (Scivias II.6.52). Each of the other four states of soul are mired in ever graver levels of sin—yet to each, Hildegard’s exposition holds out the offer of redemption: “the fountain of salvation will still flow for them if they take care to wash themselves from this wickedness of theirs by worthy penitence” (Scivias II.6.56).

Let us end today with the recapitulation of this “precious drama” that closes Hildegard’s vision of Christ’s Incarnation and Sacrifice, once upon the cross and continually remembered and reenacted in the Eucharist, offered as wedding ring to the Church, his Bride:

For when humanity was lying in a great darkness of infidelity and could not raise itself, I sent My Son for its salvation, miraculously incarnate of the Virgin, true God and true human. What does this mean? That His Divinity truly came forth from Me, the Father, and His Humanity truly took flesh from the Virgin Mother. What does this mean? O human, you are soft and delicate of body, but hard and inflexible in your incredulity. For a stone can be smoothed for a building, but you are unwilling to be soothed by the faith. Yet listen. As a person who has a beautiful jewel in a box puts it in a metal setting to show it to people, so I, Who had My Son in My heart, willed him to be incarnate of the Virgin to save the lives of those who believe. But if I had given Him a physical father, who would He be then? Not My Son, but my servant; and that could not be. He, born of the Virgin, ate, drank, lay down to sleep and experienced bodily miseries, but He never felt the taste of sin in His flesh, for He had assumed flesh not through a lie but through truth. What does this mean? Other people, because of Adam and Eve’s transgression, are born from the taste of delight, which is to say through a lie and not the truth. But My Son did not originate so, but was born in sanctity from the most chaste Virgin to redeem humanity. For like cannot loose like from a chain; a greater one must come who can save him. What does this mean? That no person born in sin could deliver sinful humanity from the perdition of death. Therefore My Son came, without sin; He conquered death and mercifully delivered humanity therefrom.
     —Scivias II.6.102

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 174, in consultation with the musical edition of Hildegard’s Lieder, ed. Pudentiana Barth and M. Immacula Ritscher (Salzburg: Otto Müller Verlag, 1969); translation by Nathaniel Campbell. Although today’s responsory appears first in the Riesdenkodex’s ordering of the Symphonia (on fol. 470rb), it follows the antiphon for confessors (O successores) in Scivias III.13.6. 
[2] I will look more closely at the connections between the offices of the angels and the confessors in relation to Hildegard’s antiphon for confessors, O successores. Newman notes: “In the verse [Hildegard] calls to mind two additional privileges of these saints: they share in the angelic office, the singing of God’s praise, and they found churches on sites that have been providentially revealed to them. The abbess may have been remembering her own vision of the Rupertsberg as a site for her new monastery.” (In Symphonia, p. 289) 
[3] See Caroline Walker Bynum, “Seeing and Seeing Beyond: The Mass of St. Gregory in the Fifteenth Century,” in The Mind’s Eye: Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Anne-Marie Bouché (Princeton Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 208-40, esp. p. 231. 
[4] All quotes from Scivias II.6 adapted from the trans. of Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 237-89; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), pp. 229-306. 
[5] Anne W. Astell, “‘Memoriam Fecit’: The Eucharist, Memory, Reform, and Regeneration in Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias and Nicholas of Cusa’s Sermons,” in Reassessing Reform: A Historical Investigation into Church Renewal, ed. Christopher M. Bellitto and David Zachariah Flanagin (Catholic University of America Press, 2012), pp. 190-213. 

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