The Physician Luke, the Virgin Mary and the Poet Sappho by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photoSince my last contribution to Feminism and Religion my interest in Sappho and her influence has led me to a detailed analysis of Luke 1:27-45 (hereafter, the “Conception Story”).  I want to share two observations from that analysis that I think will be of interest to readers of this blog.  Both relate to the generally agreed upon fact that Luke was a physician and in particular to knowledge he can be assumed to have had of female anatomy based on evidence from approximately contemporaneous sources.

My first observation relates to the fact that Luke lived during a time when the existence of ovaries in women had only recently been discovered and their function correctly understood.  While this had obvious implications for Greek medical theory, it would appear to have affected how Luke himself interpreted the source material he had for the Conception Story and hence how he told that story.  My second observation, based on what is known of Greek gynecology, is that Luke would have correctly understood that although as a medical term ‘virginity’ does refer to the physical fact that sexual intercourse has not occurred, it does not necessarily or even often have an anatomical meaning.  That observation leads directly to investigating whether ‘virgin’ as used by Luke may have a primarily metaphysical rather than physical meaning.

Though in general the ‘glory days’ of Classical Greece belonged to the centuries well before Luke’s time, that is not true of Greek medicine.  Notwithstanding promising origins in a sexual egalitarianism that was in principle consistent with modern medicine, Greek medicine regressed substantially with Aristotle, who introduced the notion that the male’s contribution to reproduction was the active one and the female’s merely the passive provision of the material for its success.  Not only did Aristotle not know of ovaries, even after their discovery it is far from clear when exactly their function was fully understood (the best evidence is about a half century after Luke).  Once that happened, however, Greek medicine moved back towards the sexual egalitarianism of its origins (the ‘two seed theory’ of reproduction), repudiating Aristotle’s theory (the ‘single seed theory’ of reproduction). Continue reading “The Physician Luke, the Virgin Mary and the Poet Sappho by Stuart Dean”

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.

Who is the Church? by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadThe headlines blared, “Who am I to judge?” News outlet after news outlet led with the pope’s conciliatory stance toward gays, expressed during an interview aboard the pope-plane as he returned from Brazil. Among the several headers from Fox News (I encourage not clicking!), we find discussions of the pope’s “reaching out” to gays and even one that combines this development with his “urging” of a “greater role” for women. The New York Times story introduced the pope’s comments as follows: “For generations, homosexuality has largely been a taboo topic for the Vatican, ignored altogether or treated as ‘an intrinsic moral evil,’ in the words of the previous pope.” Ignoring the astonishing comment that this has been the case “for generations,” as though homosexuality has historically been the kind of issue for the church it has become in the wake of radical queer movements – see Mark Jordan’s several books on this for the most helpful treatments – the story went on to say that the pope’s comments “resonated throughout the church.” Although the NYT article did a better job than some contextualizing and nuancing the pope’s comments, they were still termed “revolutionary” in an assessment better suited to an opinion page than to a news report. Better-informed commentators, such as James Martin, offered a measured response. Martin said that although the pope’s remarks didn’t really signal a significant change in policy, “in the church, style often proves substantial,” implying that the “pastoral” tone might have effects in the implementation of policy. More significantly, Martin praised the pope’s adherence to Jesus’ injunction not to judge as an instance, first and foremost, of the pope’s commitment to mercy as the hallmark of his pontificate.

My Facebook feed, predictably, lit up with links to and discussions of these comments. While most were thrilled, a few posts noted that, even if Pope Francis is in fact (which is not proven) walking back Benedict XVI’s language of “intrinsically disordered,” the church’s policy has not and will not change in any significant way. What was missing in all but a few instances was attention to the pope’s comments in the same interview on women, and the deep theological problems with the assumptions contained in those comments. And while I, as a queer theologian, would never wish to downplay the struggles of LGBTQI people in the Roman Catholic church, there are rather more women than queers in that church (as elsewhere!). What’s more, it is arguable that it is the sexism and heterosexism of what Marcella Althaus-Reid memorably termed “T-Theology” that underlies condemnation of homosexuality in Roman Catholic theology. Continue reading “Who is the Church? by Linn Marie Tonstad”

The Flesh Made Word: Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary” on stage and in print By Joyce Zonana

Colm Toibin Fiona Shaw Testament of Mary Ephesus Artemis House of the VirginBefore the play begins, the audience is invited on stage; we walk around, not quite knowing what to do, gazing at the props, uncertain.  A few chairs, scattered jars of honey, jugs of water beside a free-standing waist-high faucet, a tall ladder, a long table, a stripped tree trunk with a wooden wheel at the top suspended from the rafters, a menacing roll of barbed wire, and a live turkey vulture occasionally spreading wide its iridescent blue-black wings: such is the set for Deborah Warner’s searing production of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, a one-woman show currently in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York.  In a large open-sided box, stage left, the actress Fiona Shaw, draped in blue from head to toe, arranges herself, then sits perfectly still, holding a lily and an apple.  We know this woman.  The Virgin Mary.  The Icon.  Incarnate.

Fiona Shaw rehearses for her role as the Virgin Mary in The Testament of Mary. Irish novelist Colm Toibin's one-woman play opens April 22 at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theater.
Shaw in rehearsal. Photo by Hugo Glendinning

But when we are all back in our seats, Mary casts off her robe to stand before us in a simple black shift, flowing easily over narrow brown pants. Her hair is cropped, her face haunted; wearing short leather boots, she fumbles as she searches for a hand-rolled cigarette to steady herself.   “I remember everything.  Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.”  No longer an icon, hardly a virgin, this Mary addresses us with the piercing directness of the passion she has suffered: to have seen her only son crucified despite her efforts to save him. Now, interrogated by two unnamed apostles (John and Luke?) who want to fix the story of her son’s life and death and resurrection, Mary insists on reporting only what she knows:  “I was there.  I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it.  It was not worth it.”

Continue reading “The Flesh Made Word: Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary” on stage and in print By Joyce Zonana”

Miracles Of The Great Mother by Jassy Watson

Jassy under the Holy Myrtle tree Paliani conventjassy Panagia in tree

I was brought up in a household where attitudes to God and church were quite negative. My Nanna, however, was deeply religious, and I can still remember sitting in her dining room as a very young child staring up in awe at a painting of  ‘The Last Supper.’ I was completely mesmerised, there was something haunting about that painting that left a lifelong impression. Art became a passion very early on in life, and whenever I came into contact with images of a religious nature emotions stirred. I was spellbound by divine mystery. The most profound feelings were engendered when I met with images of Mother Mary and the infant Jesus. Continue reading “Miracles Of The Great Mother by Jassy Watson”

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