The Soul is Symphonic: Reclaiming Sacred Music

Here is a hymn of praise, a beautiful and intimate piece meant to be sung.

Hail, O greenest branch,

sprung forth on the breeze of prayers.

. . . . a beautiful flower sprang from you

which gave all parched perfumes their aroma.

And they have flourished anew  in full abundance.

The heavens bestowed dew upon the meadows,

and the entire earth rejoiced,

because her flesh brought forth grain,

and because the birds of heaven built their nests in her.

Behold, a rich harvest for the people

and great rejoicing at the banquet.

O sweet Maiden,  no joy is lacking in you . . . .

Now again be praised in the highest.

When I posted this sacred text on my blog back in 2008, I asked my friends who come from a diverse range of spiritual backgrounds to guess the author and the divine figure to whom the text is addressed. Some thought it might be an ancient hymn to Persephone. In fact, it is one of Hildegard von Bingen’s ecstatic odes to the Virgin Mary. This song, O viridissima virga, can be found on a number of CDs of Hildegard’s music.

Born in the rich green hills of the German Rhineland, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) entered the religious life at the age of eight. A Benedictine abbess, she composed an entire body of sacred music, including seventy-seven songs and a musical morality play which can be regarded as our first surviving opera. A polymath well versed in science and the healing arts, she developed her own form of natural medicine that is still practiced in Germany today. During her own lifetime, she was most famous for her prophecies which earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Since earliest childhood, Hildegard experienced profound visions which directly influenced her music, theology, and healing practices. Her visions revealed the feminine face of the divine, which is mirrored in her music. Many of her songs are addressed to Mary or female saints, such as Ursula. Even the Godhead itself appeared to her in feminine form. In Scivias, her first book of visionary theology, she writes, “She is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them with inscrutable mercy.”

Hildegard’s sacred songs are filled with a deep sensuality and reverence for the natural world. In her hymn O viridissima virga, she transforms the Latin word virgo, or virgin, into virga, or branch, addressing Mary as the most verdant and lushly abundant branch on Jesse’s tree. Hildegard was Christian, yet her music and visions have profound resonance for people from all spiritual backgrounds. The more I study mystics and visionaries, the more I am convinced that they draw on the true heart of divinity. They tap into the ineffable.

Sacred music was the bedrock of Hildegard’s spirituality. For her, song was the highest form of prayer, sacred harmonies rising like incense in a perfect offering to heaven. Hildegard believed that the soul is symphonic. Such is the sweetness of music that it banishes human weakness and fear, and draws us back into our original state of grace, reuniting humans to their divine Source.

Benedictine monastic life was structured around the Divine Office: eight times a day, from the dawn office of Lauds to the night vigil of Matins, the choir nuns gathered to sing the Psalms of David and other sacred songs. Near the end of her long life, Hildegard and her nuns at Rupertsberg Abbey were subject to an interdict, or collective excommunication. A supposed apostate lay buried in their churchyard and they refused to allow the ecclesiastical authorities to exhume this man and desecrate his grave. As a result of the interdict, Hildegard and her nuns were denied the Mass and the sacraments—a very old woman, Hildegard herself might have died without the final sacraments or Christian burial. Yet what infuriated her most was that she and her sisters were forbidden to sing the Divine Office. Sacred song was absolutely central to her identity as a religious woman. The interdict was lifted only shortly before her death. I imagine her singing until her dying day.

What relevance does this have for us today? When I listen to recordings of Hildegard’s music, I am struck by its ethereal beauty. Nowadays, for people across the spiritual spectrum, there seems to be a dearth of good music. Much of what is sold as meditation music or inspirational music seems shallow and insipid to me. A regular church-going Catholic is more likely to experience the guitar mass than the mysterious beauty of Hildegard’s music.

As contemporary spiritual people, are we to live our lives severed from the kind of music that can truly feed our souls?

What can we do to reclaim the power of sacred song? Few of us are gifted composers. Many of us cringe to even hear ourselves sing. How do we integrate sacred music into our spiritual practice? Most of us lead busy lives and the stillness of a monastic lifestyle remains an impossible dream. Yet we might find sung devotions at morning and twilight to be deeply enriching. We might start by listening to recorded music that inspires us. From my own practice, I’ve discovered that Hildegard’s music definitely works as a backdrop to meditation and contemplation. It soothes the soul and draws the heart and mind to a higher place. Over time we might gain the courage and will to take the leap to sing for ourselves. It’s not necessary to play an instrument. The voice  God gave us is enough. The next logical step is creating our own new music.

If we can’t find the music to nourish our soul, we must create it. Hildegard took the established tradition of plainchant and wedded it to her own vision to create hymns of incomparable beauty that still move us today. Most of us aren’t visionaries like Hildegard, but we can write our own heartfelt lyrics in praise of the Divine as we see Her. We can write songs to celebrate the sacred cycles of the year and the days we hold sacred. We can take ancient sacred texts and find a melody to carry the words. Medieval plainchant is beautiful in its simplicity. Or perhaps a haunting old folk air will inspire you.

When you offer your songs as prayers, sing like you mean it. It’s not a performance to impress other humans but a pure act of devotion. Meet together with friends in an informal devotional gathering. Share your songs. Inspire each other. Our modern sacred music will inevitably keep evolving as people compose new songs and add to the canon. We each have the opportunity to be part of this evolution.

Mary Sharratt is the author of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen (Houghton Mifflin 2012, Mariner 2013), winner of the Nautilus Gold Award: Better Books for a Better World. Visit her website.


Sacred Music Discography:

Hildegard von Bingen:
11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula, Anonymous Four, Harmonia Mundi, USA.
The Dendermonde Codex, Dous Mal/Katelijne Van Laethem, Etcetera.
A Feather on the Breath of God, Gothic Voices, Hyperion.
Canticles of Ecstasy, Sequentia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.
Voice of the Blood, Sequentia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

Categories: Catholic Church, Christianity, Female Saints, Foremothers, Herstory, Mary, Music, Prayer, Spirituality, Women Mystics

29 replies

  1. Beautiful post and even more beautiful words from Hildegard.

    In terms of mysticism, I think there are 2 very different strands, one that I called nature mysticism which celebrates the connection of human beings to all living things. This obviously is the tradition in which Hildegard’s words that you quote stand. Barbara Newman argued that Hildegard and others like her worshipped the Goddess within a Christian framework.

    However, I would add that it is important not to forget that Christian mysticism has a world-denying, body-denying aspect inherited from Platonism in which the world is viewed as illusory (even evil) and only the transcendent One as real. This strand focuses on negating the world and torturing the body in order to move on up to the One.

    How do you view the relation of the two strands in Hildegard’s life and work?


    • This strand seems to surface in many areas, including Christian practice. It reminds me of a cancer that spreads it’s roots through a body. I’m not sure the answer/explanation is simple.

      As someone who has lived a kind of, sort of, maybe 70% monastic life for 55+ yrs (different than a mystic. My view: Monastic is a place and a way of life; mystic is an experience not confined to way of life.) 11 years in an established monastery, then as part of a small, less structured community of sisters, my training included the “discipline of self/body” I think Carol refers to. Such a practice is unhealthy imnsho. Fortunately, many influences have combined to make it a thing of the past except in those places where people think that Love depends on their efforts to be “worthy”. It is definitely a “strand” and not the whole ball of yarn. I think real mysticism heals that self hatred and develops into a sense of our one-ness with all of creation.


      • Thanks so much for sharing your experience both inside and outside of monastic life, Barbara. I definitely agree that mysticism is not confined to a monastic way of life (although perhaps in Hildegard’s time, those in monastic orders had more time to cultivate a spiritual life than ordinary householders, especially ordinary women who might not even learn to read?) and that true mysticism heals self hated and nurtures a sense our interconnected with all creation.


    • Dear Carol, as a fan of your writing since I was a girl in the 1970’s, I’m still reeling to have you read and reply to my blog posts and I have to get over my fan girl moment before I can reply . . . :)

      Re the two strands of mysticism. My understanding of mysticism is a direct communion or connection with Divinity and Source that transcends all middlemen (and they’re usually men standing between us and Divinity). There were female mystics and visionaries like Hildegard and Theresa of Avila in the West, but also similar mystic yoginis in India, such as Mirabai who left her husband to wander through the forest to serve her divine spouse, Krishna.

      As for the two strands you discuss (nature mysticism vs. world-denying renunciation), I don’t know if I perceive them as pertaining directly to mysticism or to religion in general. I think the two strands (immanent vs transcendent) are found in all religions and the immanent thread is closer to my personal understanding of mysticism. It also seems to be linked to the nondual wisdom traditions in Eastern religion, ie the Tantras, which, from my understanding, offer a place for women’s wisdom and lay people and householders as opposed being an exclusive reserve to monastic ascetics who reject all worldly ways.

      Didn’t these two strands also divide ancient Greek polytheistic religion, as well–ie the woman-centered, matristic beliefs vs. Platonism with its world-denying asceticism?

      As for Hildegard, her mentor and spiritual mother, Jutta von Sponheim, practiced an asceticism so world-denying that it was considered shocking even for her time. Her fasts were so extreme that her abbot begged her to eat and when she died, she was found with a spiked penitent’s chain wound three times around her body and sunk into her flesh. The Benedictine Order actually preaches healthy moderation rather than extreme mortification of the flesh. Hildegard completely rejected Jutta’s style of self-mortification and embraced a spirituality full of ecstatic love of nature, of the Divine as manifest in the natural world, and her theology even celebrates the Feminine Divine which was revealed to her directly in her visionary experience, according to her writings.


  2. I also meant to mention that there is a wide repertory of Goddess songs and chants which are being created and passed around in the women’s spirituality movement. Thus far these fall more into the category of folk songs than high culture. However, I live in a culture where folk traditions are still alive, and though I still love Bach, I also think music that is meant to be sung and danced to by the folk is an important aspect of embodiment and community. Just to listen to the experts play is not the same experience. And to be told that you are not “good enough” to participate in music because your voice is not good enough, for example, is in my “humble” opinion, criminal.


    • It’s so wonderful that in Greece, everyone is encouraged to sing and dance. I definitely agree with you here and believe that folk music–music of the people–is very, very important. And no one should ever be shamed for singing. I myself am one of those “vocally challenged” people.

      But Hildegard’s music can be accessible for amateurs, too. In October I spoke at a Hildegard themed event at Wisdom Ways Spirituality Center in St. Paul, MN, and we were fortunate enough to have a professional singer, Katy Taylor, leading us in call and response singing of Hildegard’s exquisite “Caritas abundat in omnia” (Divine love abounds in all things.) It was gorgeous and fun, kind of like Eastern style Kirtan for Westerners!

      Katy Taylor is part of the group Anima and their Hildegard CD is called Circle of Wisdom.


  3. Here’s an mp3 for the great Hildegard of Bingen:
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    The link provides a performance of “O Frondens Virga” (“O Leafy Branch”), sung by a group named simply, “The Sisters,” not at all famous, but an exceedingly fine women’s a capellla choral group, who generously shared the recording for anyone to listen to, and perhaps meet Hildegard for the first time. The music offers an enchanting and very beautiful celebration of life itself (the leafy branch), in all its depth and complexity.


  4. Thank you for the post, Mary. My sister Ruth Cunningham sings on Anonymous 4’s 11,000 Virgins. I believe the above link is to their recording.


  5. What made the church fathers reinstate Hildegaard?


    • Hildegaard appealed to higher authorities. She had an “in” with the Pope I think! Then there was her fame which effected the income of some clergy – fame brought pilgrims.


    • Hildegard wrote a very pointed letter to her archbishop saying that by denying her and her sisters the chance to sing God’s praise by performing the Divine Office, the archbishop himself risked ending up in an afterlife destination where there was no music! Hildegard’s phrase “the soul of symphonic” actually comes from this letter, as well as her description of sacred music as the highest form of prayer, forming a direct link with the Divine.

      Finally the archbishop lifted the interdict shortly before Hildegard’s death. Otherwise she would have died an excommunicant. Also, a witness was able to prove the supposed apostate buried in her abbey churchyard, which was the reason for the whole kerfuffle, had actually received absolution on his deathbed.


  6. Brava. I’ve heard some of Hildegard’s music, but right now I don’t remember where I heard it, and it is lovely and ethereal.I can’t help but wonder what kind of spiritual nourishment anyone can possibly get from rock music in any of its incarnations over the last 60-odd years. Not much. Is that partly what’s wrong with the world today?


  7. Thank you so much for this piece! My first experience with women’s sacred music was Hildegard’s. Since then I have sought out others but she will always be at the top of my list.

    I wanted to reply to Carol’s second comment about making our own music. I am a poet and a few years ago I began writing poetry about the various goddesses that have touched my life. One day I was reading over one of them and it began to be sung in my head. I took out my guitar(which I am an amateur at) and started singing it. From there I began to put all of the poems to music and started singing them on a daily basis. Then I decided to put them on a CD so I could share them with friends. I had made quite sure to tell everyone that this was not a professional recording by any means and simply my wish to share what I believed the goddess had given me with my closest friends. Well the review was mixed with most of them not having any comment but a couple of them nearly reprimanded me for doing such a thing when I was clearly not a musician. They had completely missed the point. So I for one appreciate your humble opinion, Carol. Only two out the ten people that received the recording praised me for it. It took me quite a while to even sing these songs for myself again. Now I can listen to the recording and realize that the songs are beautiful and my voice is good but the guitar is pretty bad as well as the quality of the recording, but that was never the point. Someday I may have better recording equipment and sing them to someone else’s guitar playing but till then I have songs I can sing to my goddesses that lift me up when I’m down and give me an outlet when my joy bubbles over. Thank you , Carol, for saying what you said.


    • Carrie, your story brings tears to my eyes. In Greece, everyone sings and everyone dances, this has been a great liberation for me!


    • Carrie, how brave and beautiful of you to make a CD of sacred songs to share and how awful to get such a response. I hope in future, you receive the adulation and support you deserve. We live in such snarky times. Very sad. But never stop singing.


  8. I love those four words – “The soul is symphonic”! Of course, no one has heard me chanting at 5 a.m. – but the One hears our heart. Carrie, I’m so sorry you were discouraged from enjoying your gift and hope you continue to reclaim it.

    Now I’m off to enjoy Sarah’s link! Singing all the way!


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