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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, September 17, 2017

O Sibylla vera Rhenensis: A Chronogram for the Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard of Bingen recording her visions
in the Liber Divinorum Operum (I.1),
from Lucca, MS 1942, fol. 1.
o sIbyLLa Vera rhenensIs
VerbIs LVCIs VIVentIs CorVsCans,
VIrtVte tVa eXpLICa
qVare nos CarItate
qVasI tVnICa DIVInItatIs InDVtos
opVs IpsIVs
In ItInere aeqVo
perfICere oportet.

O true Sibyl of the Rhine,
shimmering with the words of the Living Light,
by your virtue set forth
how we, clothed with love
as with the tunic of Divinity,
are to achieve
its work
upon the even way.

(O Sibylla vera Rhenensis, verbis lucis viventis coruscans, virtute tua explica quare nos caritate quasi tunica divinitatis indutos opus ipsius in itinere aequo perficere oportet.)

For today’s Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church (d. September 17, 1179), I have composed this chronogram and prayer. It reflects several images and themes from Hildegard’s last major work, the Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works, LDO). The central one is Hildegard’s interpretation of what it means to be made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). For her, this image is the eternally predestined “tunic” (tunica) or “garment” (indumentum) of the Incarnate Christ—that is, when God created humankind, he did so with his eye fixed squarely on the fact that the Son would one day be clothed in human flesh.

We can also visually connect this garment to the gleaming robes of Divine Love, who appears to Hildegard three separate times in the LDO’s ten visions. In I.1, “she is clothed with a robe like the brilliance of the sun, and in her hands she holds a lamb, shining like the light of day.” In III.3, she is dressed in royal purple, “gleaming so brightly” that Hildegard could not completely look upon her. Finally, in III.5, she sits enthroned upon the wheel of eternity as it moves into time: “her face shines like the sun, while her tunic gleams like purple; she has a golden necklace set with precious stones around her neck, and she wears shoes that reflect her brightness like lightning.” (For illustrations of these visions from the thirteenth-century Lucca manuscript of the work, see this page at the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies.)

Third, this prayer invokes Hildegard’s idea that humankind is itself the Work of God (opus Dei). In being made in his image and likeness, we are granted his own rational capacity to create, and thus also his own rational mission to create and to love. When God rested on the seventh day of creation, it was because the potential for dynamic activity had shifted from God to his Work, from creating Word to incarnate Word: “as on the seventh day God rested from his every work and then established humankind to take up the work, so in the Virgin’s womb he made his Son to rest, and to him he committed his every work” (LDO III.4.3).

Finally, Hildegard perceives an inherent balance to all aspects of existence, stretching from the evenly matched spheres of black and bright fire that encircle the cosmos, down through the balance of the humors in the human body that keep it in health, to the essential virtue of discretion that keeps the moral life in equilibrium. For any part of existence—physical or spiritual—to get out of whack is for it to deviate from its created purpose, and thus also to deviate from its Creator. So, as we carry out the divine work entrusted to us by the God-who-became-Man, we must strive to keep it right, straight, and in balance.

Note: All quotes from the LDO come from my forthcoming translation of the book, which will appear from the Catholic University of America Press's “Fathers of the Church: Medieval Continuation” series next summer.

About the Chronogram

The chronogram is an epigrammatic form where, if you take all of the letters that are also Roman numerals (I, V[U], X, L, C, D, and M, which are capitalized in the prayer above) and add their values together, the result is the year you are commemorating. In this case, 2 D’s = 1000, + 7 C’s = 1700, + 4 L’s = 1900, + 1 X = 1910, + 17 V’s = 1995, + 22 I’s = 2017. I was inspired to write chronograms to honor Hildegard by those composed by Sr. Walburga Storch, O.S.B., a nun of the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Eibingen, Germany, which appeared in Festschriften for the Sibyl of the Rhine in 1979 and 1998.

Here are links to previous chronograms I have composed for St. Hildegard:

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