HILDEGARD OF BINGEN
(1098 – 1179)
[For her refusal to disinter from their cemetery the body of a man who had once been excommunicated, Hildegard’s monastery had been placed under interdict by the prelates of Mainz. This was an exquisitely painful punishment for Hildegard because she and her nuns were now forbidden to sing the divine office, for which she had composed her sublime music (which is still played today). In this, the most famous of her letters, she elaborates for the prelates her theology of music. Sadly, it fell on deaf ears. She was about 80 years of age at this time, and died six months later.]
By a vision, which was implanted in my soul by God the Great Artisan before I was born, I have been compelled to write these things because of the interdict…. We have not presumed to remove the body of the deceased inasmuch as he had confessed his sins, had received extreme unction and communion, and had been buried without objection. Furthermore we have not yielded to those who advised or even commanded this course of action…. But so that we may not be totally disobedient we have, in accordance with the injunction, ceased from singing the divine praises and from participation in Mass, as had been our regular monthly custom.
As a result, my sisters and I have been greatly distressed and saddened. Weighed down by this burden, therefore, I heard these words in a vision: It is improper for you to obey human words ordering you to abandon the sacraments of the Garment of the Word of God, who, born virginally of the Virgin Mary, is your salvation…. For ever since Adam was driven from the bright region of paradise into the exile of this world on account of his disobedience, the conception of all people is justly tainted by that first transgression. Therefore, in accordance with God’s inscrutable plan, it was necessary for one free from all pollution to be born in human flesh, through whom all who are predestined to life might be cleansed from corruption and might be sanctified by the communion of his body so that he might remain in them and they in him for their fortification….
I saw in my vision also that by obeying you we have been celebrating the divine office incorrectly, for from the time of your restriction up to the present, we have ceased to sing the divine office, merely reading it instead. And I heard a voice coming from the Living Light concerning the various kinds of praises, about which David speaks in the psalm: “Praise Him with sound of trumpet: praise Him with timbrel and harp,” and so forth up to this point: “Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord” (Ps 150)…. When we consider these things carefully, we recall that humankind needed the voice of the living Spirit, but Adam lost this divine voice through disobedience. For while he was still innocent, before his transgression, his voice blended fully with the voices of the angels in their praise of God…. But Adam lost that angelic voice which he had in paradise, for he fell asleep to that knowledge which he possessed before his sin, just as a person on waking up only dimly remembers what he had seen in his dreams…. God, however, restores the souls of the elect to that pristine blessedness by infusing them with the light of truth…. And so the holy prophets, inspired by the Spirit which they had received, were called for this purpose: not only to compose psalms and canticles… but also to construct various kinds of musical instruments to enhance these songs of praise with melodic strains…. Thereby, both through the form and quality of the instruments, as well as through the meaning of the words which accompany them, those who hear might be taught about inward things…. In such a way, these holy prophets go beyond the music of this exile and recall to mind that divine melody of praise which Adam, in company with the angels, enjoyed in God before his fall.
Zealous people…have accompanied their singing with instruments played with the flexing of the fingers, recalling Adam, who was formed by God’s finger, which is the Holy Spirit. For, before he sinned, his voice had the sweetness of all musical harmony.
But when the devil, the great deceiver, learned that humankind had begun to sing through God’s inspiration and, therefore, was being transformed to bring back the sweetness of the songs of heaven, our homeland, he was… greatly tormented. Therefore, he devotes himself continually to thinking up and working out all kinds of wicked contrivances. Thus he never ceases from confounding praise and the sweet beauty of both divine worship and spiritual hymns, eradicating them through wicked suggestions, impure thoughts, or various distractions from the heart of humanity and even from the mouth of the Church itself, through dissention, scandal, or unjust oppression.
Therefore, you and all prelates must exercise the greatest vigilance to clear the air by full and thorough discussion of the justification for such actions before your verdict closes the mouth of any church singing praises to God or suspends it from handling or receiving the divine sacraments. And you must be especially certain that you are drawn to this action out of zeal for God’s justice, rather than out of indignation, unjust emotions, or a desire for revenge, and you must always be on your guard not to be circumvented in your decisions by Satan, who drove humanity from celestial harmony and the delights of paradise.
Consider, too, that just as the body of Jesus Christ was born of the purity of the Virgin Mary through the operation of the Holy Spirit so, too, the canticle of praise, reflecting celestial harmony, is rooted in the Church through the Holy Spirit. The body is the vestment of the spirit, which has a living voice, and so it is proper for the body, in harmony with the soul, to use its voice to sing praises to God….
Therefore, those who without just cause impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth unjustly despoiled God of honour and glory will lose their place among the chorus of angels, unless they have amended their lives through true penitence and humble restitution....
And I heard a voice saying thus: Who created heaven? God. Who opens heaven to the faithful? God. Who is like God? No one. And so, O men of faith, let none of you resist Him or oppose Him, lest He fall on you in His might and you have no helper to protect you from His judgment. This time is a womanish time, because the dispensation of God’s justice is weak. But the strength of God’s justice is exerting itself, a female warrior battling against injustice, so that it might be defeated.