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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.

Friday, September 17, 2021

O hortulana sapiens: A Chronogram for the Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen

A statue of St. Hildegard in a garden
A statue of St. Hildegard in a garden.
Source: The Abbey of the St. Hildegard.
o hortVLana sapIens,
VIsIones tVae Verba VtILIa
sICVt herbas bonas
nobIs proferVnt:
ora pro frVCtVosItate nostra,
Vt oDor VIrtVtVM
a spIrItV sanCto qVasI a faVo pVro effVsVs
In nobIs InVenIatVr.

O gifted gardener,
your visions bring forth
helpful words for us
like wholesome herbs:
pray for our fruitfulness,
that the aroma of the virtues,
poured forth by the Holy Spirit as from a crystal honeycomb,
might be found within us.

(O hortulana sapiens, visions tuae verba utilia sicut herbas bonas nobis proferunt: ora pro fructuositate nostra, ut odor virtutum a Spiritu Sancto quasi a favo puro effusus in nobis inveniatur.)

To commemorate the Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen this year, I was inspired by one of the Visionary Doctor’s favorite pastimes: gardening. The fragrant plants and herbs that she tended for much of her life in the monastic garden (and which she learned to use for the health and well-being of her sisters) became one of her frequent go-to images for verdant growth in the spiritual life. In particular, I’ve drawn on a metaphor that the Visionary Doctor used in a “meditation” that she composed very near the end of her life. The following passage comes right at the end of the text as we have it, and describes Christ’s calling of the apostles:

For just as an experienced gardener gathers herbs that are wholesome and perfect for everyone’s benefit, so the Son of God chose good and perfect persons who are like wholesome plants in fertile soil, for they listened to Him and willingly obeyed His precepts in faith and love.
     —Letter 389, trans. Baird and Ehrman, in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. 3, p. 191 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2004)

Filius namque Dei sicut bonus et sapiens hortulanus bonas et ad cuiusque utilitatem perfectas colligit herbas, bonos et perfectos homines, qui quasi bona herba in bona terra fuerunt, quoniam eum audierunt et sermons eius audientes preceptis ipsius libenter obtemperabant in fide et caritate.
     —Ep. 389, ed. Van Acker and Klaes-Hachmöller, in Hildegardis Bingensis, Epistolarium III, p. 163 (Brepols, 2001)
The spiritual garden of Hildegard’s writings also provides some of the other images in this prayer. When she is thinking about the spiritual life as a garden, meanwhile, Hildegard provides some of the other images in this prayer. When that life is in grace’s full bloom, the odor virtutum (the “aroma” or “fragrance” of the virtues) wafts forth, as in verse 2a of the sequence for the Holy Spirit, O ignis Spiritus Paracliti, or in The Book of Divine Works 1.4.39. The image of honey and the honeycomb, meanwhile, is one that Hildegard frequently uses to describe the virtuous action of the soul (the honey) within the body (the honeycomb), or the distilled drops of God’s grace inspiring such virtue, as in the responsory Favus distillans; or in The Book of Divine Works 3.4.11, where the Son of God “sprinkled heavenly grace upon his people with the dew of divinity like a drop of honey.”

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, 1 M = 1000, + 1 D = 1500, + 3 C’s = 1800, + 2 L’s = 1900, + 21 V(U)’s = 2005, + 16 I’s = 2021. 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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