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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 05, 2014

Cum erubuerint infelices (Symphonia 14)

For Ash Wednesday, an Antiphon for the Virgin by St. Hildegard of Bingen[1]

Scivias I.2: The Fall.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 4r.
Cum erubuerint infelices
in progenie sua,
procedentes in peregrinatione       
tunc tu clamas clara voce,
hoc modo homines elevans
de isto malicioso
While downcast parents blushed,
ashamed to see their offspring
wand’ring off into the fallen exile’s
you cry aloud with crystal voice,
to lift up humankind
from that malicious

Cum erubuerint by Sequentia on Grooveshark

This haunting yet hopeful antiphon launches us today on our pilgrimage in the wilderness of Lent, tracing an arc from our first parents and their unhappy fall, through our fallen exile, to the Virgin’s clarion call to lift us up with her Son. That happy return out of exile, out of the wilderness and into the promised land of the Heavenly Jerusalem, awaits us in the Resurrection. But between today and that day lies the pilgrimage of penance, when like our first parents looking mournfully upon the offspring they set into this vale of tears, we blush with the shame of our sins.

For Hildegard, as for most patristic and medieval theologians and exegetes, this shame is exemplified in the reactions that Adam and Eve had to their nakedness before and after the Fall. Before, it is written, “They were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25: Erat autem uterque nudus, et non erubescebant); but after they became aware of what they had done, of the paradise that they would lose because of their disobedience, they did take shame in that nakedness and moved to cover it up (Gen. 3:7). Sexuality, which was in Paradise God’s gift of procreation to the humans he made in his image and likeness, became tainted with that disobedience, with the pains of uncontrollable lust and the pangs of childbirth. Yet, sexuality was not the only area of human life infected by the hardships of sin.

All of creation was, indeed, overturned by that primal act of disobedience. Hildegard describes this literally earth-shattering consequence in her vision of the Fall in Scivias I.2.27:

And so all the elements of the world, which before had existed in great calm, were turned to the greatest agitation and displayed horrible terrors, because when humankind chose disobedience, rebelling against God and forsaking tranquility for disquiet, that Creation, which had been created for the service of humanity, turned against humans in great and various ways so that humankind, having lowered themselves, might be held in check by it. What does this mean? That humankind showed themselves rebels against God in the place of delights, and therefore that Creation, which had been subjected to them in service, now opposed itself to them.[2]

This overturning of the natural order is what set humankind on their exile in this world—a pilgrimage in a world in which they do not rightly belong and which they cannot truly call their home; for the home for which they were made—Paradise—has been lost, and we wander now in the wilderness, trying to find our way back home through the darkness. In the hands of St. Augustine, this wandering became the story of two cities, of two ways of life:

I classify the human race into two branches: the one consists of those who live by human standards, the other of those who live according to God’s will. I also call these two classes the two cities, speaking allegorically. By two cities [civitates] I mean two societies [societates] of human beings, one of which is predestined to reign with God for all eternity, the other doomed to undergo eternal punishment with the Devil. (…)

Now Cain was the first son born to those two parents of humankind, and he belonged to the human city; the later son, Abel, belonged to the City of God. (…) When those two cities started on their course through the succession of birth and death, the first to be born was a citizen of this world, and later appeared one who was a pilgrim and stranger in the world, belonging as he did to the City of God. He was predestined by grace, and chosen by grace, by grace a pilgrim below, and by grace a citizen above. (…) Scripture tells us that Cain founded a city (cf. Genesis 4:17), whereas Abel, as a pilgrim, did not found one. For the city of the saints is up above, although it produces citizens here below, and in their persons the city is on pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom comes. At that time it will assemble all those citizens as they rise again in their bodies; and then they will be given the promised kingdom, where with their Prince, “the king of ages” (1 Timothy 1:17), they will reign world without end.
     —City of God, XV.1[3]

In the story of Cain and Abel we see the paradoxes with which sin plagues our very way of looking at the world. After slaying his brother, Cain was himself cast out, an exile into other parts of the world. He tried to find a home, to found a city—but in vain! The pilgrimage of sin seeks a home within this world; the pilgrimage of grace remains in exile in this world, for that pilgrim sets her sight upon the city and the home that is to come.

In the darkened, fallen world in which irrational sin seems to make sense and holiness demands homelessness, as it were, it is the paradoxical weakness of the Virgin’s meek and quiet voice that allows it to carry over the din. In today’s antiphon, Hildegard reserves the longest melismas and the highest notes for just two words: clara (“crystal-clear,” line 4) and casu (“fall,” final line). The Fall receives double the number of notes—a long, final, perhaps even wearying meditation. But the Virgin’s crystal-clear voice receives the highest note—g, more than an octave above the D that begins the final phrase on casu. That voice pierces through the confusion, and delivers the startling news that lifts us up out of it—the felix culpa:

He Who created you in the first human foresaw all things; and that same most gentle Father sent His Only-Begotten to die for the people, to deliver humanity from the power of the Devil. And thus humankind, having been delivered, shines in God, and God in humankind; humankind, having community in God, has in Heaven more radiant brightness than they had before. This would not have been so if the Son of God had not put on flesh, for if humankind had remained in Paradise, the Son of God would not have suffered on the cross. But when humankind was deceived by the wily serpent, God was touched by true mercy and ordained that His Only-Begotten would become incarnate in the most pure Virgin. And thus, after the ruin of humankind, many shining virtues were lifted up in Heaven, like humility, the queen of the virtues, which flowered in the virgin birth, and other virtues, which lead God’s elect to the heavenly places. For when a field with great labor is cultivated, it brings forth much fruit; and the same is shown in the human race, for after humanity’s ruin many virtues arose to raise it up again. But you, O humans, oppressed by the heaviness of the flesh, do not see that great glory God’s full justice has prepared for you, without stain or unworthiness, so that no one can throw it down. For before the structure of the world was made, God in true justice had foreseen all these things.
     —Scivias I.2.30-31[4]

Mediating the center of that “eternal counsel” and its predestined Incarnation is this paradox of the Virgin Mother, offering in her simplicity, humility, and purity the balm to heal the wounds of sin. Moreover, as Barabara Newman notes, the syntax of today’s antiphon shifts startlingly from the perfect subjunctive of erubuerint—our parents’ blushes temporally consigned to the past—to the present tense of Mary’s clamas—for the Virgin’s voice calls out to us still, lifted out of the darkened constraints of mortal life and into the glories of eternity now streaming into time.[5]

What can we do, then, to answer this call? In Hildegard’s vision of the Fall, she chose three virtues particularly to commend: chastity, humility, and divine love (caritas). The fight against sin finds its greatest weapon for her in the paradoxical fecundity of chaste virginity—but it is a virtue that fights not just in our loins but in the full campaign against the lusts of the world:

But now I will turn to My most loving sheep who are securely placed in My heart, the seed of chastity. Virginity was made by Me, for My Son was born of a virgin. And therefore virginity is the most beautiful fruit of all the fruits of the valleys, and the greatest of all the persons in the palace of the unfailing King; for it was not subject to the precept of the law, since it brought My Only-Begotten into the world. Therefore, listen, all those who wish to follow My Son! (…) For My Son bore many pains in His body and underwent the death of the cross; therefore you also, in His love, will suffer much anguish when you conquer in yourselves what was sown in the lust of sin by the taste of the fruit. But though you will endure in your seed flowing rivulets from the conflagration of lust, since you cannot be so chaste as to prevent human weakness from appearing in you secretly, you should in that labor imitate the Passion of My Son and resist yourselves; that is, extinguish within yourselves the burning flame of lust and other things of this world, casting out anger, pride, wantonness and other vices of that sort and attaining this victory by a great struggle. These battles are to Me full of great beauty and much fruit, brighter than the sun and sweeter than the love of spices; for when you trample under foot the burning lust within you, you imitate My Only-Begotten in his pains. And when you persevere in this, you will attain much glory for it in the celestial kingdom.
     —Scivias I.2.24[6]

The two virtues that above all others orchestrate this paradoxical victory “of great beauty…brighter than the sun,” then, are humility and divine love (caritas, translated here as “charity”):

For humility caused the Son of God to be born of the Virgin, in whom was found humility, not eager embraces or beauty of flesh or earthly riches or gold ornaments or earthly honors. But the Son of God lay in a manger, because His Mother was a poor maiden. Humility always groans, weeps and destroys all offenses, for this is its work. So let anyone who wishes to conquer the Devil arm himself with humility, since Lucifer fervently flees it and hides in its presence like a snake in a hole; for wherever it finds him, it quickly snaps him like a fragile thread.

And charity [caritas] took the Only-Begotten of God, who was in the bosom of the Father in Heaven, and placed Him in the womb of a mother on earth, for it does not spurn sinners or publicans but seeks to save all. Therefore it often brings forth a fountain of tears from the eyes of the faithful, thus softening hardness of heart. (…) And therefore, O humans, for the glory of God and your salvation, pursue humilty and charity; armed with them, you shall not fear the Devil’s snares but shall have everlasting life.
     —Scivias I.2.33[7]

As we begin today our Lenten pilgrimage of penance and with shame confess our sins, let us arm ourselves with these virtues. Called by the grace of Our Lady’s crystal voice to our citizenship in heaven, let us embrace its duties with humility and love.

[1] Latin text adapted from Barbara Newman’s edition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia (Cornell University Press, 1988, 2nd ed. 1998), p. 118, in consultation with the musical transcriptions of Beverly Lomer; translation by Nathaniel Campbell. 
[2] Adapted from the trans. of Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 86; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978), p. 32. 
[3] St. Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (Penguin Books, 1972 / 2003), pp. 595-6. 
[41] Adapted from the trans. of Hart and Bishop, pp. 87-8; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43, pp. 33-4. 
[5] Newman, Symphonia, p. 274. 
[6] Adapted from the trans. of Hart and Bishop, p. 85; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43, pp. 30-1. 
[7] Adapted from the trans. of Hart and Bishop, pp. 89-90; Latin text ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, CCCM 43, pp. 37-8. 

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