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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.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

O mirum admirandum (Symphonia 41)

For the Feast of St. Disibod, an Antiphon by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

“The Ruins of the Disibodenberg
Monastery,” Lithograph, 1833.
From Gemeinfrei IGL-Bildarchiv.
O mirum admirandum quod   
absconsa forma precellit
in honesta statura,
ubi vivens altitudo
profert mistica.
Unde, o Disibode,
surges in fine,
succurrente flore
omnium ramorum
ut primum surrexisti.
O wonder, O how wondrous!
A hidden form, so hard, so high,
     so steep,
surpasses in its lofty honor—
where Living Height itself
reveals the mysteries.
And so, O Disibod,
you shall arise at th’ end of time
as first you rose—
the flow’r of all the branches
     of the world
comes to your aid.

This is one of several pieces that Hildegard composed in honor of St. Disibod, the patron of the Disibodenberg, the monastery where she was first enclosed and grew up. She first provided this antiphon, together with the responsory, O viriditas digiti Dei, and the sequence, O presul vere civitatis, as part of a visionary letter in answer to a request in the early 1150’s from the Disibodenberg’s abbot, Kuno, for any information revealed to her concerning the patron.[2] These three pieces appear with their music in the earlier Dendermonde manuscript (fols. 162r-163r); they are joined by two other, rather more generic antiphons (perhaps to fill out the office), in the Riesenkodex (fols. 470v-471r and 475v). Kuno’s letter (nr. 74) may have been an attempt to patch things up between his community and the nascent Rupertsberg, to which Hildegard had recently relocated her growing community of nuns from the Disibodenberg, as the move had been contentious—Kuno had initially refused Hildegard’s request for it, and even after he relented under the pressure of “the Living Light,” the two communities continued to argue bitterly for several years over the rights to the lands dowered to the Disibodenberg upon the entry of the women into the community before the move.

Though including the texts that would be used liturgically, Hildegard’s response was not, at first, warm:

O how foolish is the man who does not amend his own life, and yet delves into other people’s private affairs and, with a torrent of words like rushing waters, noises abroad all the vices that he finds hidden there. Let the man who does this hear the words of the Lord: “O man, once having tasted of good works, why are you deaf to their music, for they resound before God like a symphony? Why do you not examine your own heart and reject your unabashed lasciviousness? I am the One who brings the lost sheep back to the fold, the One to whom you should always turn, but you fail to do so, and thereby slap me in the face, rejecting my wounded hands and feet. And so you will answer to me concerning the house of your own heart and concerning the city I made and washed in the blood of the Lamb. Why are you not afraid to break the man that you did not create? You fail to anoint him and, therefore, neither cover nor protect him, but rather, you afflict him grievously with the heavy rod of correction. Now the period of your decline is at hand, but God, who created you, does not wish to lose you. Therefore, take these things to heart.”

These words of rebuke likely begin in censure of Kuno’s efforts to interfere with the financial administration of Hildegard’s community, but soon indicate that those “lascivious” efforts interfere in the spiritual life of the Disibodenberg, too. Hildegard showcases here her Benedictine spirituality, in that “the taste of good works” (gustus bonorum operum) are intuitively linked to the Opus Dei, the sung liturgies of the “Work of God,” enjoined by the Rule. The foolish, worldly concerns of Abbot Kuno have thus rendered those good deeds of liturgical service mute, and the consequences come in several Hildegardian images—ecclesiastical corruption “wounding” Christ anew, and alienation from the Heavenly City of Jerusalem that serves as the exemplar for the monastic community here on earth. Fundamentally, however, what Kuno and his brethren have done is to betray their patron and founder, blessed Disibod—their “heavy rod of correction” that has errantly fallen on Hildegard and her community turned back onto the bones at the most concrete center of the Disibodenberg’s community.

Her choice to respond to Kuno’s request for “any revelation of God” concerning Disibod with liturgical compositions, rather than the full-fledged hagiographical vita of the saint that she would compose two decades later, thus reflects the way in which the liturgical life of the community forms its heart—the symphony of God’s work connecting the monastics who chant it with its source in the heavenly symphony that resounds ubi vivens altitudo profert mistica—“where Living Height itself reveals the mysteries.” This first antiphon in the three hagiographical pieces that follow Hildegard’s admonition sets the stage for the themes that will dominate, “the pervasive dichotomies of hiddenness, humility, and exile, and height, honor, and liturgical community.”[3] These abstract pairs of ideas, however, are rooted in the concrete placement of the Disibodenberg high atop a mountain, and yet St. Disibod’s choice even after founding the community to remain but a lowly hermit clinging to the steep hillside.

The antiphon is situated both within and outside of time, as St. Disibod’s “form” governed the monastery, first while “hidden” within that hermitage, and now while “hidden” within the celestial glory of the heavenly city. Moreover, Hildegard plays on the concept of “rising up” (surges and surrexisti) to mirror Disibod’s initial climbing of the mountaintop with his resurrection at the end of time. Thus, she intentionally seeks to connect the current community to their founder through this communion of sanctity, both looking back to its founding and forward to its eschatological consummation. Finally, crossing all of these temporalities at once, Hildegard uses the present participle succurente (“aiding”) to invoke the help of Christ, “the flow’r of all the branches of the world,” in the divine work of the Disibodenberg’s community.

As we look at the other pieces that Hildegard wrote to commemorate St. Disibod over the next few weeks, we will explore in more detail the saintly life of blessed Disibod, as Hildegard would come to write it around 1170, and in the process return to this fundamental connection of community, mission, and liturgy.

[1] Latin text from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 180; 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. 
[2] Kuno’s request is Letter 74, and Hildegard’s response Letter 74r, in Epistolarium I, ed. L. Van Acker, CCCM 91 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), pp. 160-2; The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. 1, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 158-62. 
[3] Tova Leigh-Choate, William T. Flynn, and Margot E. Fassler, “Hildegard as Musical Hagiographer: Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek MS. 103 and Her Songs for Saints Disibod and Ursula,” in A Companion to Hildegard of Bingen, ed. Beverly Mayne Kienzle et al. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), pp. 193-220, esp. p. 202. 

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