I look forward to seeing some of you at the Georgia Winter Institute next week.
These thoughts may not be ripe enough for picking for a post, but several encounters prompt this. Sunday I preached at St. Paul UCC in Barrington near Chicago during their lively monthly praise service. At the O’Hare Hilton that afternoon just before my flight home, I delightedly met two longtime friends who are gifted church musicians, Jan Graves and Mark Bowman, both of whom I worked alongside on the magazine Open Hands, and we talked about many things, including music in worship. I shared some of Hildegard of Bingen’s thoughts on the subject, which I had just read about on the flight to Chicago in preparation for a weekend course in February.
As many of you know, Hildegard was a visionary abbess of a Benedictine community of women in the 12th century who composed music and verse for worship. While I personally stumble on her visions, I am taken with her attitudes toward music.
Hildegard scholar and editor Barbara Newman writes, “For Hildegard, not only inspired canticles but all music was associated with prophecy and the nostalgia for Eden. That is why, she says, ‘a person often sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of the celestial harmony’” before human beings were, in Hildegard’s words from another context, “lured…away from the celestial harmony and the delights of paradise.”
Newman explains Hildegard’s view that “Music could not only express the prophetic spirit; it might even awaken that spirit,” offering the example of Elisha calling for a musician and, upon hearing the music, “the Spirit suddenly descended upon him and he prophesied” (2 Kings 3:15).
Newman observes that Augustine found the sensual nature of music problematic, but for Hildegard, “liturgical song was a medium that perfectly united soul and body.” Personally, I have thought of church music as an integration of word and sacrament, because it’s verbal as well as embodied. Thus how appropriate that my sermon about “Discerning the Body of Christ” in one another enjoyed the context of a praise service led by four outstanding female singers, one of whom is the pastor. Hildegard viewed Christ as a second Adam, weaving the broken body of humanity into the one body which God shaped “in the primal dawn / before all creation.”
What also strikes me as I study Hildegard is that her theology of music was developed during a period when she and her community were forbidden by the church hierarchy to sing, a punishment for their refusal to exhume an “unworthy” body from their churchyard. Newman summarizes Hildegard’s adamant defense to church leaders in this way: “To silence music in the Church is to create an artificial rift between earth and heaven, to put asunder that which God has joined together.” Want often makes us more keenly aware of the meaning of what we’re denied.
Those of us who have been denied by the church because of our own embodied praise—women, LGBT, racial minorities, those with disabilities, those with reasoning brains, and so on—have our own theologies that the church needs to hear. May we be as adamant as Hildegard opposing “an artificial rift between earth and heaven.”
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