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
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,
The Dendermonde Codex, Dous Mal/Katelijne Van Laethem,
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.
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.