Reclaiming Sacred Music by Mary Sharratt


Women Singing Earth by Mary Southard

Here is a hymn of praise, a beautiful and intimate piece meant to be sung. Reader, I invite you to guess the author of this text and the sacred figure to whom this work is addressed.

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.

Unlike most hymns in our patriarchal culture, this song celebrates female-centered spiritual experience and the immanent grace of the divine as manifest in the natural world. When I posted this sacred text on my blog back in 2008, my readers guessed 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 as Mother. In Scivias, her first book of visionary theology, Hildegard 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, and 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. Across cultures and faith traditions, mystics and visionaries tap into the ineffable, the ecstatic. Sometimes it’s only the outer label that distinguishes the nun from the priestess.

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—already 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 Hildegard singing until her dying day.

What relevance does this have for us? 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 sacred music. Much of what is sold as spiritual music or meditation music seems shallow and insipid to me. The Catholic Church has to a large extent abandoned its centuries-long history of sacred music and polyphony for the dreaded guitar mass.

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 in our own lives? 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. 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 Mother 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 exquisite 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 Goddess as we see Her. We can write songs to celebrate the wheel of the year, the waxing and waning moon. We can also take ancient sacred texts, such as the Homeric Hymns, 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 bardic circle or a call and response Kirtan. Share your songs. Inspire each other. 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.

 

Sacred Music Discography:

Hildegard von Bingen:

11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula, Anonymous Four,
Harmonia Mundi.

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.

 

Contemporary Artists:

Ruth Barrett, a Fore-mother of the Women’s Spirituality Movement, has recorded some very beautiful, inspiring albums, which can be ordered here.

Jennifer Berezan. Don’t miss her exquisite song, She Carries Me, her ecstatic hymn to Bodhisattva Quan Yin.

Karuna Mandala, Perfect Love in an imperfect world. My good friend Joanne Graham and her partner Tony sing sacred chants to Krishna. All proceeds from their CD sales to support the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation, the Karuna Bhavan Eco Farm and projects to help the homeless.

Sequentia, Edda, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.
Old Icelandic sacred texts from the Poetic Edda performed by three vocalists, accompanied by medieval fiddles and lyres. Starkly haunting.

 

 

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her most recent novel Ecstasy is about the composer Alma Schindler Mahler. Visit her website.

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Categories: Divine Feminine, Dreams and Dreaming, Earth-based spirituality, Female Saints, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, hildegard of bingen, Music

Tags: , , , ,

28 replies

  1. It is so sad that so many of us have been told we can’t or shouldn’t sing because we don’t hold a pitch or carry a tune perfectly. Singing (and dancing) are expressions of community and the joy of life. There is no one who can’t or shouldn’t do either.

    I wrote Diving Deep and Surfacing while playing Moon Circles by Kay Gardner to inspire and quiet my fears.

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    • I love Kay Gardner! And you bring up a good point. Too many of us are discouraged from singing, but it’s such a joyous, community-building experience.

      Like

    • I completely agree with you Mary, and with you, Carol. I always thought I couldn’t sing, but then I joined a group founded by Kay Gardner called Women With Wings. It is such a joy to sing! I delight in singing in the circle with the other women, but I also enjoy singing as I go about my day. I sing when I feed the wildlife and the squirrels and birds come when they hear me sing because they know I bring food. :)

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  2. Mary, thank you for this inspiring post! I did not have to guess the provenance of the lyric or the composer. Not only have I read your wonderful novel Illuminations, (which I recommend to all FAR readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure), my sister Ruth Cunningham is one of the four voices you hear on 11,000 Virgins recorded by Anonymous 4.

    My sister and I began singing in choirs as children. Anonymous 4, has now retired, but the group recorded and performed for decades and has an impressive discography. Hildegard von Bingen remains one of my sister’s favorite composers and mystics. Ruth continues to sing professionally and to compose. You can find her website under her name dot com (I’ve had trouble posting links in the comment section or I would).

    Though I am not a professional musician, I also love to sing. For 18 years I helped facilitate open-to-all rituals at the former Center at High Valley. There are a wealth of chants to the goddess and the earth, often passed person to person, circle to circle in song swaps. The beauty of these is that they are easily learned, and anyone can sing them, or drum and rattle. They are simple, but invite harmony, improvisation, and can become an ecstatic group experience. These chants can be literally enchanting. For those who want more complex chants and rounds, I recommend the recordings of the women’s group Libana.

    Over the years we learned dozens of chants and began to create our own. I composed to for Brigid’s day, one text came from Patricia Monaghan’s collection The Goddess Companion, hymns, poems, and praise songs from all over the world that she collected and set. Here’s the text we used.

    Brigid, gold, red woman
    Brigid flame and honeycomb
    You are my bright precious freedom
    Brigid lead me home.

    Here’s another adapted from Carmina Gadelica

    I am under the shielding of Brigid each day
    I am under the shielding of Brigid each night (repeated by one part of the group)

    (counterpart)
    Brigid is my comrade woman
    Brigid is my maker of song
    Brigid is my helping woman
    My choicest of women, my guide.

    And here is the first verse of my own hymn to the “Ma of Ephesus, found in Bright Dark Madonna and on MaevenSong.

    I sing to the mother of all
    she whose heart is honeycomb
    who follows the spiral flight of bees.

    Sing on, write on, compose on, everyone. Thanks for this call to song, Mary!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks, Mary Sharratt, wonderful post, and so important where you say, “If we can’t find the music to nourish our soul, we must create it.”

    And just then, so wonderfully, I heard the wind rattle my window, and I could see how strong that wind was, bending the trees outside. And I remembered a quote by Hildegard where she says: “there is the music of heaven in all things.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Singing with others has often been a spiritual experience for me. I would also recommend Layne Redmond and her Mob of Angels, who created spiritual music through drumming. Absolutely mesmerizing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I guessed right! It’s Hildegard, who wrote so much much beautiful music. And, yes, I loved your novel, Illuminations. (I knew Layne Redmond and drummed with her several times.) It’s raining (again) here in SoCal as I read your post. I suddenly wonder if Mother Nature is singing the drought away. Is that too imaginative??

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So beautiful. Thank you. I read your book a few years ago and was (and still am) extremely inspired by it. I will check out the CDs.

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  7. I sang Gregorian chant at Holy Mass starting at age type nine in the choir. At that time, it seems type kind of music was what heavenly music must sound like. That “mystical” style of music could transport one to a state of contemplative bliss.
    I saw the Roman Catholic music in the USA changed after the second Vatican counsel. The Latin Mass was gone & guitar & “folk” music became popular. During that time, so many left because the Mass lost its sacredness.
    After a decade or so of this, Catholic music rediscovered its musical heritage. You can choose what Mass helps you be in touch with the Divine. Sacred chant & Latin masses are back in most dioceses.
    St. Hildegard wrote sublime lyrics & lofty music for the Catholic church. Her music is for everyone who wishes to be transported to the heights, even while being on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful post…. as a child/adolescent some of my happiest moments were spent singing sacred music that, of course, was christian… I miss this celebration of natural divinity… because this is how it felt to me as I sang… but as I grew into myself I was forced to abandon beloved sacred music because I KNEW who and what was being honored and I simply couldn’t handle it – this remains true today.

      And there is a hole in me as a result.

      Hildegard was an amazing mystic and when I read these words I immediately thought of her… because she called god Mother and celebrated nature as divine…

      I think I will try one of her CDs… Thank you for this post.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Sara! A lot of people I’ve spoken to miss the experience of singing in church even though their beliefs are no longer aligned with what that church is teaching. That’s why we all need to find the music that’s sacred to us and speaks to our deepest truths.

        Like

    • Beautiful! Thank you for sharing. There is something so soul-opening about Gregorian chant.

      Like

  8. Thank you for your post Mary – you write about a topic dear to my heart. I have long been a fan of Hildegard’s music and also really appreciate what you have to say about integrating the listening of spirit-based music into a daily practice. I’d like to share a bit of my own musical journey when it comes to this topic you have raised. I come from a music background and was trained as a composer within the academy, so the music I have written comes from the contemporary concert-music tradition and is more experimental in nature. For many years I worked to incorporate all that I was learning about the goddess traditions into my compositional work and am currently writing a book that tells this story. When I studied voice-based soundhealing, I understood more deeply how the power of vibrational sound can impact consciousness and be a conduit for soul expression and have incorporated that awareness into many of my more recent pieces. One of these projects began with recording my own vocal improvisations at ancient goddess sites in Crete and Malta and then with these improvisations I composed a series of pieces. Six of these can be heard online at http://www.wendalyn.ca. This is the online site for my CD “Sound Dreaming: Oracle Songs from Ancient Ritual Spaces” and may be of interest to some readers of this blog to incorporate into their meditation or spiritual practices. In particular I would suggest two pieces (tracks 3 & 6) that were created with vocalizations I made in the amazing Hypogeum temple in Malta. Its acoustics have a very powerful affect on both the body and mind. I appreciate this forum for this important conversation about spirituality and music.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for sharing your music and CD with us. You raise a very important point about how music impacts our vibrational field. Once at a yoga seminar, we all were lying on our yoga mats and received a “gong bath” as people played gongs and Tibetan singing bowls at different frequencies for nearly an hour. At the end I felt like I was floating above the earth. And I love how your music aims to capture the resonance of sacred spaces you visited.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this post and for sharing the resources. I will be looking these up.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It has just started snowing here – and I swear each white flake is dancing on piano keys.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for this post. I checked your other posts too. You pen articles close to your heart and have a beautiful way of putting it down.
    I have followed your blog.
    Sending love from another feminist website , https://snehaexpression.com

    Liked by 1 person

  12. My life has been devoted to composing sacred music and poetry for the Divine Mother. I recently gave a performance of my songs for soprano and small instrumental ensemble, called “Feminine Faces of God.” Videos of each song from our concert, at a large Episcopal church here in Black Mountain NC, are at my Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/AnnelindeMetzner?feature=mhee
    In 2012 I composed a songbook of 21 songs for the Goddesses of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, entitled “Lady of Ten Thousand Names.” Copies of my songbooks, CD’s and DVD’s are available at my blog, where I also publish poetry frequently: http://annelindesworld.blogspot.com/
    Your support, as women (and men) yearning for music of the Goddess, means everything to me.
    Annelinde Metzner, composer and poet.

    Liked by 1 person

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